Articles Index  
  Patron Saints
of Education
  USA Directory  

Reflections On Education
By Dr. John Senior


  The crisis in education is not the result of a defect in teaching methods alone, granted that some are better than others and that arguments about them are serious, necessary, and productive. The crisis in education is really the result of a general cultural depletion, and nothing short of a genuine restoration will work any real improvement. And that is no matter for methodology; it is a deeply philosophical, historical, religious, and personal matter, going down into the roots of our civilization and ourselves.


Education is a relation of student and subject. It must be ordered to the complete and slippery exigencies of both. From the point of view of the student, we should teach what is easiest first; but from the point of view of the subject, this is often impossible. For example, it is commonly acknowledged that logic is a difficult subject. Yet, since it is prerequisite to all other courses in philosophy, willy-nilly it comes first in the sequence and cannot be "skipped." Nor can we propose a radical change in curriculum without carefully considering the development of the student himself as a person. We too often consider him as an abstraction, as a mass in relation to whatever forces might accelerate him.


  There are virtues appropriate to childhood. Girls and boys are not little women and little men; and there are subjects and subject matters appropriate to childhood, others appropriate to youth and to maturity. It is more difficult for an adult to learn the names and dates of history, the continents and capitals in geography, or Latin paradigms, than for a child. If a child skips his geography, in order to discuss the political and military problems in Asia, he may never learn where Asia is; and he will suffer a consequent disorder, a disorientation, increasingly common, that forever warps his later political views. The English professor is painfully aware of the "advanced" poetic genius who never learned grammar, as professors of art must be of cubists and abstract impressionists who never learned to draw. Conversely, since politics presupposes ethics, and since ethics cannot be grasped without experience in the world, what are the children to say of Vietnam or Tashkent in the first place? Any pushing up of even the brightest of the immature results in a smart aleck who often dazzles by a display of memorized resemblances —using the virtue proper to the immature, he does well at giving back what he had read and heard. A twelve-year old might well deserve an "A" in a college course even in so mature a matter as politics because he is able to repeat formulas. He will pass the test, but this is no sign at all of his having grasped the material, or, what is more important, of the discipline having grasped him.

  English professors are familiar with the child who has jumped from Snow White to Lolita without the intermediate stages: no Rover Boys, no Scott, Mark Twain, or Dickens. A reading list devised at a midwest university recommends what is essentially a college syllabus for high school students. …You do not advance a child intellectually or morally by force-feeding him mature and, in these cases, decadent "adult" fare. You do not improve or advance a high school curriculum by running trial heats of college courses over it. High school teachers filch the college reading lists in the hope of preparing their students for college courses when the right preparation is to cover prerequisite material. In an age so concerned with civil rights, we should not overlook the rights of childhood.


  It is true that there are high school courses taught in college that should be moved back. But the meaning of "advanced placement" must not be stretched to cover what is really a problem in curriculum. We have grades —steps —necessary to the development of the student and to the structure of the subject. If you want to study philosophy, you must begin with logic; and if you want to make a young man into a philosopher, you must get him into the habit of being logical by drill in its disciplines. Some will go faster than others and that is why we have that other kind of "grade" from "A" to "F". But logic cannot be skipped nor can any test be substituted for it. Again, a smart boy can bone up on the rules of logic, but he will not have assimilated the terms or acquired the permanent disposition. A Chinese once criticized American education by saying, "You are always pulling on the flower to make it grow faster." We need rather, in the words of T. S. Eliot, a "life of significant soil." If a student has a greater capacity to learn, all the more reason for him to complete the full four years of his high school life and the full four years of his college life so that he actually realizes his potential. Slow him down. At Princeton, under Dean Root, the students in the four-year college normally took five courses per year; the exceptionally bright ones were permitted to take four, on the grounds that for them it was really worthwhile to go slow. An education is not an annoying impediment to research or business, but a good in itself, indispensable to the development of the qualified person.


  There is a well-known distinction, often cited and seldom really seen, between the horizontal extension of knowledge and the vertical ascent to higher planes. For example, it is obvious that a knowledge of carpentry can be extended horizontally in the practice of the craft —a man can learn more and more simply by doing a certain thing again and again, like laying a floor; and his knowledge can also be extended by the application of this skill to different things —from floors to staircases, windows, roofs. He will have learned by practice and application more and more about the same operations.


  But consider the knowledge of the architect, which includes carpentry —not the practice of carpentry, but its reasons. The architect, in considering the principles of building as a whole, must know the reason why. Not how, but why. All the knowledge of all carpenters, indefinitely extended, will never add up to that of the least of architects, and the least of architects, though he has not the skill to do it, understands the reasons for the best of carpentry beyond the carpenter himself. The architect, from a higher prospect, sees the reasons for what carpenters, masons, tillers, glaziers do. He sees the reasons for those things and integrates them. He does not simply coordinate, that is, order disparate lines of activity the way a foreman does; he integrates them, he sees them as parts of an integer or whole. Floor, staircase, window, roof are not coordinates, but parts that together make up the house. They are constitutive elements of the thing, the one, whole, integrated thing. But suppose all knowledge is an integer!


  There is a famous picture coming down to us in different versions from the Middle Ages, illustrating education. It depicts a several-storied tower into which the schoolboy with his satchel and his tablet enters on the ground floor, greeted by the stern magister, who has merry eyes, a big stick called a baculum, and a book called the Donatus from its author, the fourth-century grammarian. Next, through the window of the second story, we see the boy progress to Aristotle’s Logic, and at the third window up to Cicero’s Rhetoric.


  Rhetoric is the liberal art of intellectual nourishment, as cooking is the servile art of physical nourishment. Rhetoric makes the truth effective. It is not simply more and more grammar or more and more logic, any more than cooking is more and more vegetables. Rhetoric is rather making something out of the sentences and the arguments that grammar and logic have supplied. Rhetoric is grammar and logic. Any piece of rhetoric is made up of grammar and logic; they are its constitutive parts. From the points of view of the higher prospect of rhetoric, one looks down on grammar and logic and sees the reasons for their operations.


  These liberal arts differ from one another vertically. You rise from one to the other, not by a horizontal extension, but a vertical ascent to a different level of understanding that includes the lower ones, analogous to the relation of part to whole.


  In the picture, the boy, grown up to adolescence, climbs from the fourth to the seventh window, entering the higher stories of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy; beyond which the young man climbs higher still, up to philosophy, comprising physics, biology, psychology, ethics, economics, politics; to metaphysics and the highest peak, theology, the study of the mind of God Who knows and made all things —in Whom, therefore, the universe and all knowledge is integral.


  The brave young man at the top of the stairs must now descend to wherever in the scale of work his talents lie, learning how to do one thing in the daily practice of an art or craft, but having had a vision of its place in the universal scheme of things in which architects cannot be arrogant or carpenters envious, because they both are parts of something greater than themselves. That is the difference between a technical school and a university —the university is supposed to rise to the universal. It integrates the horizontal in the vertical. It is a place where "young men see visions and old men dream dreams."


  Teaching, Plato says, is a species of friendship, whose highest degree is love, in which persons see each other as integral parts of something greater than themselves a marriage, a family, a college, a nation, a faith. In the pursuit of happiness, in marriage or friendship, in vocations, recreation, politics, and just plain jobs in the long run we have to ask what the whole thing is: What are all those activities and commitments parts of? What is the integer? If as student forgets everything he learned at school or college, he had best remember this one question. It will be on the very final examination that his own conscience will make at the last hour of his life: In the pursuit of horizons of horizontal things have you failed to raise your eyes and mind and heart up to the stars, to the reason for things, and beyond, as Dante says at the top of the tower of his poem:


To the love which moves the sun
And all the other stars?


  Of course we are all in favor of advanced placement in the ordinary sense. If a freshman at college already had two years of high school Latin, he should not begin again with amo, amas, amat. He should be placed in the third year course. If that is what is meant, we should all be for it. If a student has had plane geometry in high school, let him go on to solid in college. It is difficult to adjust these matters. There are differences from school to school, and overlaps from school to college; so the placement test is called upon. Certainly a student should not be forced to take the same course twice, nor should he be given college credit for a course for which he got high school credit this would be to receive payment twice for the same work done. But once the placement test comes into use there a strong temptation for the teacher in the senior year of high school to give up the subject in favor of a year’s intense drill in how to get high scores. Even worse, some universities and famous ones are granting college credit to students passing these tests without the genuine experience of a course. This is like trafficking in indulgences; it is selling a credit in the absence of merit and is a kind of fraud. A smart boy can run four years of college tests and call himself a Bachelor of Arts, when in fact he will be a neurotic with a talent for running tests. Do we detect an adulteration of learning in the name of economy? Credit without courses which means without teachers, classrooms, electric lights, and heat?


  A test is not the equivalent of a course. What we test is only that aspect of the experience which is testable. In some disciplines that aspect includes greater amounts of the reality than in others; in none does it include the whole and in many especially the humanities it includes very little. If a student cannot respond to the testable aspect of a discipline to which he had submitted for the required length of time, we infer that he has not sufficiently responded to the whole. But this does not work the other way around: If a student bones up on the testable aspects of a subject not having submitted to the discipline the grade he gets on a test in no way implies a corresponding response to the whole. He has not had the whole, so how could he respond? That some students are fast and some slow has no logical relation whatsoever to the selling of indulgenced tests.


  Structuring downward from the graduate school to the college has resulted in the sad fact that colleges with fine old names have become marketplaces for a series of tests, with quickie courses in how to pass them taught by graduate assistants whose minds are on their PhDs. Liberal education has all but been eliminated. The high prestige these places still obtain is from their graduate schools and from their past. Advanced placement has ruined the college by advancing the graduate school downward into it: the high school has been ruined by advancing the college downward into it. One can dream nightmares not far from waking life in which nuclear fission is taught in the nursery. It may be done; but there will be thumb-sucking at Los Alamos.


  It follows, then, that we should certainly place students in the courses they have had prerequisites to, that we eliminate duplications in high school and college curricula, and that schools, libraries, theaters, publications should work together to enrich the life of significant soil and foster a genuine growth of the intellectual life of every community. Mark Van Doren called college "a vacation from the commonplace. It is a time," he said "when we are not merely expected to change, but required to." It is that change, that growth of the person both in intellect and will, that transformation of his deepest life, which is the untestable by no means detestable reality of education. It cannot be speeded up or skipped or rearranged to suit the economy or the race with Russia or the latest machine. Education is a very great good in itself and not a mere instrument of success. The end of education is the perfection of each person and our special care is to prevent the emergence of the irrational aesthete and the brutal scientist. In the most serious, not the merely snobbish, sense of the word, we should have in mind the cultivation of "gentlemen."


  And teachers must start with themselves. It is the same with teaching as with any calling, good or bad it is a person who does it. No one ever learned from a method any more than he was ever killed by a gun or a knife. We learn and are killed by persons who may or may not use various instruments. The first rule for a teacher, then, as for any person, is to be somebody worthy of his calling, having an appropriate "dignity," whose Latin root means: "worthiness," which by no means implies that he should act like an undertaker. There is a dignity appropriate to taking us under and another to taking young people up. I mean the right worth for the job, and for the teacher of English or the classics this means a high seriousness about language and literature in the presence of which slovenliness and disrespect do not occur, simply as a matter of courtesy. This cliché happens to be true; if you want to teach something, you must have that something yourself. If poetry is not a part of your life, no method in the classroom will create ex nibilo the love of poetry in your students. Recall the famous dictum of St. Augustine; Love God and do what you will. It is open to a grave misuse, but the essential truth of it stands. The same maxim applies to what we call "English": Love literature and do what you will.


  Why are students coming down from high schools and colleges even after four years and a bachelor’s degree so appallingly deficient they cannot read a normal paragraph in Mathew Arnold, a popular writer of less than one hundred years ago? It is because, as Ezra Pound said, "they ain’t got no kulchur."  If there were music, poetry, and art at home, they would have learned despite bad teaching teaching has always been mostly bad. Do you suppose Shelley’s schoolmasters were much good, laying about with the cane? Yet he wrote very well at the age of eighteen. Our boys have simply not had the nourishment. Their cultural life has been exhausted. Teachers have sown the seeds of poetry and prose according to the directions on the package, and have tried different varieties of seed; but the soil is gone. To see these shriveled persons coming up to college year after year now is to ask who in their lives has loved literature. Where could they have found the spiritual environment absolutely essential to the germination of the seed? I am not speaking of sentimental gush about books by someone who himself watches TV or at best reads the latest novels. This is the danger in St. Augustine’s phrase. Love presupposes knowledge. Love without knowledge is sentimentality, an indirect form of hatred that adds deception to contempt, so that one actively loves what is not really there something worse than no love at all. Remember the word dignity a worthiness. A person who is to be worthy of his job must have a love that is genuine.


  The first quiet but definite step in the genuine reformation of education is that parents and teachers should read. Beginning with themselves, wherever they are and in whatever stage in their own depletion they must read. Not the one hundred greatest books, or any of those they think they ought to read, but whatever good book is at hand; and beginning with it, come not just to like it, but to know it and to love it and then rightly read another and another. I vividly remember standing before a fine teacher at college who had done a lot to promote the hundred greatest books and saying to him, "But I just can’t read all those books."  In the middle of the Critique of Pure Reason I had despaired. "Of course you can’t," Mark Van Doren said, "Nobody can read a hundred books but here is one read that." He took a volume from his desk haphazardly and handed it to me it happened to be a collection of Plato’s Dialogues that helped to change my life. Of course, I never finished them; I am still reading Plato because I have not yet finished my life.


  Ideology is the enemy. He has a nasty brother named Enthusiasm. The enthusiastic teacher is the one who rushes into a subject fervently but in ignorance on the grounds that action is virtue and that keeping the class awake for fifty minutes is the real business at hand. The enthusiast not only makes a fool of himself in front of those narrow-eyed and shrewd youths who see right through him, but worse, he often makes fools of those less shrewd, open-eyed, and best because trusting students whom he really teaches, but teaches to be shallow. He turns out those smart literary types who talk about Kant, Kafka, and the Tropic of Capricorn but have never experienced the copulative relation between a subject and a predicate. John Ruskin wrote:

  Do not talk but of what you know; do not think but of what you have materials to think justly upon; and do not look for things only that you like, when there are others to be seen: This is the lesson to be taught to our youth, and inbred in them: and that mainly by our own example and contriteness. Never teach a child anything of which you are not sure yourself; and, above all, if you feel anxious to force anything into its mind in tender years, that the virtue of youth and early association may fasten it there, be sure it is no lie which you thus sanctify. There is always more to be taught of absolute, incontrovertible knowledge, open to its capacity, than any child can learn, there is no need to teach it anything doubtful. Better that it should be ignorant of a thousand truths, than have consecrated in its heart a single lie.


  Stick to a few incontrovertibly good books and to a few real principles of grammar and rhetoric, and stay away from itchy reading lists and above all stay away from those interminably arid stupid discussions of current events that have almost displaced the serious study of history and literature. It is appalling to see little boys and girls ….. discussing foreign policy on Cuba when they do not know the formal beauty in the statement that Cuba is an island bounded by the Atlantic Ocean, the Straits of Florida, and the Caribbean Sea. There is an incontrovertible truth, while the rest is material they have no grounds "for thinking justly on," whatever their opinions might be; and the result of an education of that kind is the youth who has opinions about everything and the truth of nothing, even to the point of coming to that sorry disposition of the mind so common at college in which truth is denied altogether. "What is truth?" they say, failing to note that Pontius Pilate asked the same question before sending an innocent Man to the cross.

  The letter of the Times correspondent referred to contained an account of one of the most singular cases of depravity ever brought before a criminal court; but it is unnecessary to bring any of its details under the reader’s attention, for nearly every other number of our journals has of late contained some instances of atrocities before unthought of, and, it might have seemed, impossible to humanity. The connection of these with the modern love of excitement in the sensation novel and drama may not be generally understood, but it is direct and constant; all furious pursuit of pleasure ending in actual desire of horror and delight in death.


  That is, again, from Ruskin, written almost one hundred years ago and relevant right now: schools have direct responsibility in this shocking fact or perhaps it is no longer shocking, and that is far worse that a child or woman cannot safely walk the streets of any city in the United States after ten o’clock at night, not even the streets of mine, a university town, isolated, without the usual sociological excuses. Anyone even slightly acquainted with history knows that we should be alarmed, not only for our wives ands children, but alarmed at the ultimate barbarism of which this is an early, unmistakable symptom. We should add to Ruskin’s paragraph, the increased power in methodology that has broadened the sensation novel to include the movie and the television show.


  We must work very hard to restore first in ourselves and then, by influence in others, opposed to that "furious pursuit of pleasure ending in actual desire of horror and delight in death," the pursuit of truth, ending in actual desire of beauty and delight in life.