I finally got around to reading Volume 1: The Great Conversation, The Substance of a Liberal Education by Robert M Hutchins. His thesis is that the Western liberal education consists of understanding the ongoing debate between great writers, that this was originally intended for those with leisure who would govern, and that in our wealthy and nominally self-governing society this is an appropriate education for citizens; especially for continuing education for adults.
A man must use his mind; he must feel that he is doing something that will develop his highest powers and contribute to the development of his fellow men, or he will cease to be a man.
Here we encounter the melancholy fact that most of the important things that human beings ought to understand cannot be comprehended in youth. … I have never known a child of any age who had much that was useful to say about the organization of human society or the ends of human life.
In fact my observation leads me to the horrid suspicion that these books are easier for people who have had no formal education than they are for those who have acquired that combination of misinformation, unphilosophy, and slipshod habits that is the usual result of the most elaborate and expensive institutional education in America.
(That was in 1952. I hate to think of what he’d make of the offerings today.) The last line of the book is:
The aim of education is wisdom, and each must have the chance to become as wise as he can.
That last line is key. Perhaps I read too carelessly, but I recall very little mention of wisdom in the book before that last line.
That makes a rather odd contrast with Proverbs, which the Wednesday Bible study is going through right now. It hammers away at the need for wisdom. Hebrew parallelism or semi-parallelism mates wisdom and understanding in many verses; they aren’t quite the same, and neither is the same as knowledge.
A for-example about understanding vs knowledge: When I arrived at U of Illinois I showed up at the department and found to my surprise that I could have a free-shot at the qualifier exam; typically you got two chances and if you failed both you were out on your tail. The exam was the next day, so I had virtually no study time. I didn’t have anything to lose. If I passed I was in and if I didn’t it wouldn’t count against me, so I showed up with a weary head full of leases and U-Haul. One of the oral questions was to write Gauss’ law on the board. My memory took the opportunity to step out for a walk, but I remembered the basic symmetry involved and re-derived it. The examiners looked at each other and went on with other questions. I was a little short on ready knowledge, but I had enough understanding of the subject to make up for it. Almost. (I didn’t pass that time.) On the other hand, in statistical mechanics everything seemed quite clear and logical until the quiz and its “The atomic number of copper is 29. Calculate its specific heat.”
But wisdom seems to be something different in kind from understanding; more like an applied understanding of the principles of living. I can understand that lotteries are a bad deal and that steady earning is better for long term financial security than the moral hazards that come with windfalls, but if that understanding doesn’t keep me from impulsively buying tickets it hasn’t translated into wisdom. If I don’t understand statistics but have the humility to take advice from someone who does, and refrain from buying tickets, I’m acting wisely even though I lack the understanding of the reasons.
What’s education supposed to provide, then?
Basic knowledge: reading/writing, some math, some facts about the physical world, some facts about human society, some history, some skills. Some analysis as far as the student’s abilities take them: how things are connected in a field. Some what-ifs and whys: what the various possibilities were and what were their upsides and downsides in designing a political system. Good literature that provides a common language and a sampling of the different ways of thinking about things. (The “dead white males” have only that in common—I can’t imagine Bentham and Plato seeing eye to eye on pretty much anything.) Beautiful things and how to make them—art, music, literature.
Opportunities to exercise wisdom and virtue: We can’t compel courage or justice, but can we try to encourage them? I’m pretty sure these don’t fit very well into a K-12 curriculum sequence; real virtues need real circumstances to exercise them, not just workbook exercises. The copybook headings can remind the children of what we expect, but that’s about all. Schools try to teach approved attitudes, but these bear little resemblance to the cardinal virtues.
Our kids were all over the map as far as who was ready to understand what at which age, and for how long at a shot they could ingest information in some field.
I guess that most kids fit OK into a one-size-fits most curriculum that includes lots of review of earlier year’s work (a la Saxon math?). There’s not a lot of discussion of the great ideas, but perhaps, as Hutchins suggests, that’s not something you can expect out of most youngsters. I still think some intro to philosophy would be beneficial, but maybe only for the oldest.
I’m certain the K-12 sequence isn’t efficient for most of our children. In Wisconsin even home schoolers have to respect it, though—you must be able to document at least 875 hours of instruction. But if you can catch the child at the opportune moment they can learn a lot in a short time.
What’s missing from the formal curriculum?
- Work—starting with chores and growing to real-world work for outsiders. That gives training in service, self-discipline, and probably fortitude and temperance as well.
- Learning how to interact with people—most kids pick that up automatically, but not all. Not all.
- Practicing living your place in the world—that sounds kind of vague, but most of us have some notion of where we will eventually wind up in the grand scheme of the world, even if we have great ambitions to the contrary. Are we ready to live the non-rock-star life we’ll probably have? Temperance, prudence, justice… humility
I’m just creeping around the big questions here. For adults I think Hutchins is more or less right about a liberal education—grab some of the books and read for yourself. If possible, find somebody with whom to argue about them, otherwise argue with the authors. (You’ll probably win most of the time when the authors are dead.)
For kids—everybody wants credentials that prove you’re not a dunce and have mastered the basics. OK, we can do that with tests. But for the real education (“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” Twain), who does what, and when?