On my commutes to work these past few months I’ve been listening to various audio books. Having just finished a biography of Alexander Hamilton, I’ve now started into one on John Adams. I haven’t had any American history since, oh, about 7th or 8th grade – 20 something years ago – so it’s been very interesting to me to hear the stories of the lives of our Founding Fathers.
One of the most amazing things about Hamilton and Adams is the immense level of education they had. Until his college years, Hamilton was largely self-educated, having read many classics, especially Plutarch’s Lives, on his own initiative as a young boy. His studies only got more intense in college in his mid teens (!). He went on to be one of the principal architects of post-Revolutionary American government, following up the magnificent Federalist Papers with detailed and learned plans for an entire economic system, the first American manufacturing city, and all manner of jurisprudential counsels. John Adams, also, was a voracious and broad reader, and as a mere lad of 20 was disciplining himself every day to read (along with the Bible) classics in both Latin and Greek, often writing in his diary that he was sticking with the really difficult works in order to “make myself the master of them.”
These points make it supremely ironic that last night, while standing in line at the grocery store, I skimmed a Newsweek article on the deplorable state of public education in Washington, D.C. (only 21% of the students there read at grade level). The new chancellor of the D.C. public schools has all these brand new brilliant ideas for “programs” to raise the quality of the education, but the interesting thing about her complaint against the system is that it makes American kids lag far behind Europe in science and math. Science and math. Yes, that’s right – science and math.
Why do I belabor that? Well, it goes to show the inexpressible difference between public education 220 years ago and public education now. 220 years ago a publicly educated person went to college at 15, and learned both Latin and Greek competently enough to read sources in those languages, translate freely between them, and use the lessons gained to write masterworks like the Federalist Papers, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution. Today, a publicly educated person is likely to graduate 12th grade only being able to read English at an 8th or 9th grade level, and with his head stuffed full of scientific equations and mathematical formulae that have very little relevance to anything other than making sure he approaches life as a mechanism to be manipulated by techniques, neatly distributed out on spreadsheets, and quantified into discrete packets of “information” that never truly communicate with each other.
High school graduates today, steeped in that attitude that science and math are the most important subjects to master, and fed a woefully inadequate diet on the side of literature excerpts (in English, not the original languages) are most unlikely to be able to even understand the Federalist Papers, let alone to write something even close to them. No wonder they go into the world and get constantly taken advantage of by the incessant advertising mania. No wonder they think public and private lives are separate, and that it doesn’t matter what a politician does in his bedroom so long as he keeps the economy running smoothly. No wonder they think “the good life” is to have a 52″ HDTV on their wall playing Blu-Ray movies in full immersion surround sound, with remote in hand to switch over to the Playstation 3 if the movie gets “boring.” No wonder they think it’s “weird” for someone to suggest that businesses ought to have some concept of the common good, not just their own self-absorbed bottom line “making money” idea of the good.
Public education 200 years ago turned out philosophers, theologians, and statesmen who could found and guide a new country based on the best of the wisdom of the past brought forward and creatively reshaped to meet the needs of the present. Public education today turns out mindless dupes of whatever the TV presents as the flashiest and most superficially gratifying; turns out like so many widgets on an assembly line. Sometimes I get critical of myself thinking that I am too much of a curmudgeon about “Modern culture,” but then something like this happens and I think that maybe I’m not curmudgeon enough.
The problem is not that our educational system doesn’t have enough money to do its job. The money they do have is spent on “programs” invented by bureaucrats who are steeped in math and science – the sorts of math and science that bizarrely think human wisdom can even be plotted on a graph in the first place, and that said graph will tell you something really important about human life. The problem simply is not that our education system doesn’t train kids sufficiently in science and math. Science and math, while goods in themselves, have gotten too big for their britches in our day, and have so obscured the humanities – the study of the human things – that kids who go through today’s educational system can’t even comprehend, let alone begin to answer, questions like “What is science?” and “What is the true place of math in one’s intellectual life?” The problem is that our educational system doesn’t turn out warm-hearted, high-souled, human beings, but unthinking drones who subserviently take their programming and run, lemming like, right off the cliff of cultural decay.
But hey, let’s just throw more money at the problem, institute some more programs, put some more computers in the class rooms, pander to spoiled children who think learning ought to be “fun,” stuff kids’ heads full of more “facts” without ever teaching them to ponder what a “fact” even is. Let’s just keep teaching them that education is for the purpose of “getting a job,” and that they have to do their algebra and trig and calculus well so they can “make lots of money.” Let’s keep lamenting that they don’t even know who Alexander Hamilton and John Adams were, but let’s not try to recover the educational methods that men like that grew up with. Science and math, science and math, science and math. Just need more science and math, more money, and more programs. If you’ve read your Plutarch and your Homer and your Herodotus and your Virgil and your Bede and your Shakespeare and your Milton, it just makes you want to weep. Which is, of course, as our modern Solons of education have it, a very “arrogant” and “prejudiced” thing to say. How dare someone flaunt allegedly superior knowledge in someone else’s face, thereby making that other feel bad.