The Modern educational experiment has run its course. It does not seem to be working.

Illiteracy is at an all-time high. High school completion continues to lower, especially in areas such as the inner city of L.A., where completion rates regularly dip below 30%. Violent crime is on the rise, and “higher-brow” crimes of financial, sexual, or interpersonal immorality of all kinds seem to become the openly-admitted rule rather than the shameful exception. The manipulative propaganda of increasingly bold advertisers easily compels the unthinking and sub-rational motivations of millions of consumers, who simply do not have the attention span to analyze, comprehend, and evaluate the message of a 90-second commercial.

The universities have fallen and we are amusing ourselves to death.

It behooves us to reconsider our strategy, to repent, to consider the older model. The truly traditional model is the pre-Deweyan format of small group discussion. In this model, people are seen as gardens to be husbanded rather than computers to be programmed. In this model, interpersonal relationship is not a a non-science to be ignored (or pseudo-science to be studied like any other ‘hard science’) but the organic context and natural setting in which human beings engage in scientific inquiry together.
In this model, therefore, the teacher-student relationship remains a proper part of the material of education, on equal footing with the particular material being taught within the context of that relationship. “Physics” becomes “How to live well, and Physics;” “Biology” becomes “How to love other sentient life, and Biology.” “Math” becomes “How to relate to your elders, and math.” If you think this overambitious, or the conflation of educational loci, then consider the alternative: “How to treat others like animals, and Biology?” “How to be socially inept, and Math”? This is what is currently being taught. It is simply a fact that a teacher’s example, as much as his verbal instruction, is a major influence upon the students. We can do it well or poorly; we cannot avoid it.

Since the advent of neo-darwinian educational models, options for moral and scientific education have become scarce, in some places simply unheard of.

However, we appear to be at the darkness before the dawn.

Not only are “classical academies” springing up by the dozens at the middle-school and high school levels, but, for those of us past high school but desirous of a traditional education, for ourselves or our children, options are becoming available.

Here is a list of approximately thirty classical higher education institutions in the United States and Canada where a real educational efort is taking place. These are institutions wherein students are not considered talkative monkeys, but human beings, and where education is not considered cultural programming, but, in Lewis’ gentle patrimonial phrase, “old birds teaching young birds to fly.”

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Posted by Keith E. Buhler

18 Comments

  1. How does the 90-second Coca-Cola ad fit in with this argument? Unless I’m missing something it seems to have gotten a pretty good response.

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  2. TO THE RIGHT HONOURABLE
    Keith Buhler (Enthusiasmos)

    The tenor of that obnoxiously normative word ‘behoove’ grated on me and I felt compelled to comment.

    I agree that the classics are important but education also needs to be adaptive, responding to the realities of today’s world, not the one of centuries past.

    I appreciate your discussion of the dimension that the example of the teachers adds to education but exemplary teachers have the same effect in the current system.

    I kept my sentences short to accommodate those to whom you condescend. Oh, but the products of the modern educational system would not be reading this blog.

    Or at all.

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  3. Dthompson,

    The question I have about that fascinating and delightful commercial is, in a word, what in God’s name does it have to do with Coca Cola classic?

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  4. The best I can come up with is this: “The commercial answers the question, where does a Coke bottle come from when you buy one at the vending machine? (Now, the literal answer of course is: from a cool-storage rack above the output bin, or more distantly, from the Coke delivery truck.) However, it takes the opportunity to answer this (literal) question by answering the (figurative) question ‘Where does Coke come from?’ This it answers with a fanciful world wherein the Coke bottle is the pride and product of the labor of an entire world. In this world, Coke is the beloved child, the star performer, the center-stage act. Coke descends from the sky, commemorated by fireworks of cannonball people. Where does Coke come from? In short, it comes from a world of magic.”

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  5. If this is anywhere close (feel free to provide your own interprative analysis of the film), then it proves my point. The message of the commercial relies entirely on image, sound, association, suggestion, perhaps even auto-suggestion, innuendo, and implication. It’s point is to “sell a product,” which it only does indirectly through fantasy, emotional association, and (frankly, silly) implication. Why can’t they sell their product on the basis of fact? Because people do not respond well to fact and argument; they respond well to suggestion.

    Don’t get me wrong, I like the taste of Coke, I drink it, I will continue to do so. But I drink it because it tastes good and I like sparkly soda, not because it comes from a world of magic. Coke is not magical, it is carbonated water with high degrees of high-fructose corn syrup in it, and plenty of caffeine.

    I know, I know, my argument sounds ridiculous when I put into words. “It’s just a fanciful commercial. It’s fun, it’s pretty, get off it.” OK OK, but my point is simply that marketing departments are (increasingly) able to “say” or imply incredibly ridiculous things, as long as they encode them in image, not word. Are they invincible? Are they irreproachable? When is a commercial simply shameful?

    And we consumers, when we are not able to de-code the message of image and sound, we are subject, to some degree, to the advertisers’ will.

    (And when we do de-code them, we are subject to ridicule for ‘missing the point’ and ‘overanalyzing’.)

    I think the solution is literacy, and education, and prayer.

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  6. Prufrock,

    Thanks for calling me on that arcane and archaic word. I forget that I should expunge it from my vocabulary. But then again I trust in the objectivity of moral values. And like Shakespearean English.

    I don’t understand how studying the classics is not already adaptive. Can you explain?

    What are the “realities” of today’s world that were not realities, say, in the 10th-12th centuries? I can think of two: electric lights and penicillin. But the important realities, death, the pursuit of lasting happiness, curiosity, friendship, remain unchanged. Am I missing something?

    Examplary teachers do exist in the current system. They are well prized by faculty and well beloved by students, as they should be. But it is only vaguely understood by these faculties and these students that such exemplars are not “bonuses”, but indinspensable. Education cannot go forward without a morally outstanding teacher. Again, consider the alternative. We put young people in a room with a vice-ridden, immoderate, anger-prone person and expect him or her to “program” students with the correct information, without also modelling a licentious way of life?

    This is the way the world ends, right honorable J. Alfred
    This is the way the world ends

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  7. This is a lovely and important post.

    It seems to me that the fundamental difference between the educational system at large in America and the one many of us want to work towards, the “real educational effort” you speak of, is the motivation behind why we educate. Great teachers can and do exist in the current system, but are not given the tools or curriculum they need to train their students in virtue and love of truth because that is not their job according to the government.

    Sometimes I wonder if true education can happen as long as the state is involved, but that is a different blog post altogether.

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  8. I’m not quite sure what your alternative of selling the Cola based on “fact” would entail.

    Facts about Coke:
    1. It tastes good.
    2. It’s refreshing.
    3. Your father and his father drank it.

    First, Coke is consistently one of the top ten most recognized brand names in the world and unlike Sony or Ford (also on the list) what they sell has essentially not changed for over 100 years… neither have the facts listed above.

    An advertising company doesn’t need to “tell” you the facts about the product, your parents or older brother already did by the time you were old enough to drink it. The advertising company’s job in Coke’s case is to *show* you the facts about the product, so they’ve created a visual metaphor (a mini-myth) about it’s creation.

    1. It tastes good: every bottle is worthy of a parade.
    2. It’s refreshing: dusted with fanned out snow-men.
    3. It’s classic appeal: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6rtfUdwrdpM

    Image has always been the primary mode of the communication for the masses. No, it doesn’t tackle big ideas well. I can’t articulate Aquinas’ arguments about God with it or John Locke’s thoughts about government. But, it isn’t a sign of the decay of the western world that a capitalist venture would use images to communicate the appeal of their product.

    There are shameful ways of advertising (Paris Hilton for Carl’s Jr. comes to mind) but I disagree with you that Coke’s fanciful, artful ads fall in that category.

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  9. Not with a bang but a whimper.

    Eliot was big on the classics.

    You are right that the enduring realities of life have not changed. It seems that the emphasis placed on reason in classical education would enable one who develops their faculties of reason to untangle the logical contortions required of the religious believer. A Christian classical education [sic] precludes the exercise of the rational and skeptical mind that a true classical education inculcates.

    And the virtue of Aristotle should not be confused with Christian virtue, despite the parallels.

    When I first commented, I did not have a very clear understanding of what a classical education entailed and I would now characterize my understanding as slightly less murky. A classical education would have been great and I am sure that the rich kids who receive one now will be successful. I cannot help but bring class into it.

    And, misscate, would you prefer that only those who could afford it be educated, as in the times when this mode of education was dominant?

    State-sponsored education as it stands may not produce ideal outcomes but, if people were willing to invest more in education and advocate for better curricula and teacher education, it could by much improved. I still have the somewhat naive idea that education is the great leveler but there are problems that need to be addressed.

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  10. No, prufrock, I would never wish for that. I think it is telling though that you mention how great it will be for the “rich kids” to receive a classical education, and yet still maintain that education is the great leveler. State sponsored education seems to be failing from within, and those who can are pulling their children out of public schools in greater numbers than ever.

    I am more inclined to believe that the failure is due to the fact that the educational system and ideology of the state schools are fundamentally flawed, not that we just need more money thrown in. I wish very much that I knew the universal solution, but I will settle for supporting whatever it is that gets soul enriching, life affirming education to more children. For now, I think this means that good education will need a religious basis, and so that means we need to figure out how to get more children out of public school.

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  11. Education cannot be the great leveler if the public is not willing to evaluate the status quo and come up with a solution that will serve the common good. When “those who can” take their children out of public schools, they diminish the collective interest that we all should have in improving education.

    My comment about the rich kids alluded to the fact that those who have the resources to remove their children from public school most likely opt to place them in expensive private schools where classical curricula is more likely to be encountered. That’s all.

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  12. Dthompson,

    Thanks for the provocative thoughts. My response, in parts:

    Regarding your facts about Coke. 1. It tastes good, I will agree with, with qualification, since anything with 40g of sugar per 12oz has appeal only for certain age-groups or certain palettes. But let’s grant it.

    2. By “refreshing,” I cannot tell what you mean. You must not mean “hydrating,” since the caffiene cancels out a good portion of its would-be benefit.

    You can’t mean “able to refresh quickly,” since the carbonation of Coke or any soda impairs drinking large amounts in single draught. Perhaps you simply mean, “It’s cold and sweet” which, I would point out, is true of any other refrigerated high-fructose beverage.

    3. I am not aware that my father ever drinks, or drank, Coke. Except when he was a child.

    This analysis leaves me with only one solid fact about Coke: It tastes good.

    The rest of the tripe about ‘refreshment’ and ‘classic appeal’ that marketers are always trying to push (with Coke, and Sprite, and Pepsi, or whatever the kids’ drink may be) seem to me to be the accretions of human fantasy that have slowly accumulated around a single, simple, non-remarkable product. I hate such fantastic falsehood.

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  13. Let me add another fact about Coke, one that they do not wish to include in their advertising: Coke has 40 grams of sugar per can. This promotes obesity , hyper-activity (followed by a crash), aging, and general ill-health.

    This brings us to another sickness that almost all marketing deparments court and cultivate: special pleading. If they’re not lying outright (“Low Prices!”), they’re telling part of the truth and carefully avoiding the rest. If you have to lie or not state things about your product, are you so sure you should be selling it in the first place?

    Now, the obvious response to this will be, “What, should Coke just shut down their doors and go home because they are selling high-sugar, high-caffiene beverages? That’s ridiculous!” I am not saying that. Let me step back and say, “Simply asking the question, ‘Is this product good or bad? Is it harmful or beneficial to our customers?’ is an ethical, a just, a human question.”

    Why are Marketers suddenly excempt from doing as they would be done by when it comes to selling product? Why are they exempt from questions calling them to task for wicked images, motives, messages, or products? Is nothing off limits? Is selling a certain product, Marlboro cigarettes, Monster energy drink, ever simply immoral?

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  14. I don’t mind using image to communicate.

    I do mind using imagination and fantasy (read: gradual mental delusion) to hypnotize and enchant the intellectually less capable — the mental child… into believing or feeling something, especially when all this superhuman effort and all these dehumanizing effects are for nothing nobler than a dollar.

    Credit card companies and their “marketing strategies” are often more obviously wicked.

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  15. It seems that the emphasis placed on reason in classical education would enable one who develops their faculties of reason to untangle the logical contortions required of the religious believer. A Christian classical education [sic] precludes the exercise of the rational and skeptical mind that a true classical education inculcates.

    This is just too delicious. Before I essay a response, you simply must elaborate. Especially, please, say more about your provocative linking of “rational and skeptical,” as if they are inseparable sisters, and the tantalizing phrase “logical contortions” as applied to the “requirements of the religious believer.”  I feel inadequate to respond without knowing clearly what it is I am responding to.

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  16. Classical education is surprisingly inexpensive. A few bucks at Borders, a few hours a day, and a willing, attentive guide, and practically anyone can begin the journey deep into the wisdom and beauty of Western civilization, into their own corner of the Great Conversation.

    (To pre-empt another objection, let me say that the ‘guide’ need not be any more experienced than the ‘student,’ as long as both are willing to submit to the yoke of the likes of Plato, Cicero, Dionysius, and Augustine. Mortimer Adler can provide you the list of great books, and provide you some conceptual tools to get started, and you’re off on a life-long journey of the joy of learning. The parents of the students I teach are amazingly courageous. They read along with their students, and learn along with them, start conversations at home, around the dinner table, in the car, and effect real and lasting change in themselves as well as their children. Classical education, most broadly, is a human endeavor, no more for young humans than middle-aged ones. Socrates was literally learning on his death bed.)

     I dare venture that the reason why so many families opt for an alternative classical education is not because “they’re rich and they can,” but simply because the current, state-funded option is not classical, and in many cases, not very good. If all public schools were classical to some degree, then almost all classical schools would be inexpensive. How is that a problem?

    This is precisely why I advocate, will support, and God willing will help initiate any reforms as appear needful.

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  17. Sure, some children who intend to enter the work force upon graduation can and should be allowed to do so by age fourteen. They should not be forced to get a farce “12th grade education,” but should be allowed to learn to read, to write, to know a few basics, and then be sent off to trade-school to be apprenticed in their field.

    I worked construction during 2005 and 2006. I worked with a young man named Tom who was just this sort of person. He went to school but, after a point, learned almost nothing due to lack of motivation, poor social influences, and a strong desire to work for a living rather than sit in a classroom. He should have been permitted by the state, in my opinion, to go to school until he was 14, and then to begin an apprenticeship with an electrician or a general contractor, as he actually ended up doing, but only after spending a few years getting C’s and smoking marijuana.

    Such a “six-year’s of school” option would be a thousand percent more actual education than the current twelve-years of faux-education, plus the students would be out of their school — which due to their lack of motivation becomes merely a social environment — and into their chosen field by Junior High, when the social environment becomes nasty and when good work habits are most needful.

    Such students, it seems to me, would start adult life with infinitely higher advantages, with self-motivation, a personal income, self-responsibility, and self-knowledge.

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  18. The two are linked in my mind–perhaps idiosyncratically–because the probing, rational mind is forced to realize that the knowledge one acquires cannot be completely certain. Relating to classical education and Christianity, there is a strong current of skeptical thought that one would encounter in the course of a classical education and rational thought about it would be inimical to religious belief.

    As for the logical contortions required for religious belief, I meant that the criteria for validity of demonstration are relaxed when it comes to arguing for the existence of God and the inferences involved are not supported by adequate evidence. That does not however, preclude logical soundness because the foregone conclusion is miraculously supported by its premises.

    The straw man awaits.

    Since some of the meaning of the words I have expressed is supplied by you, the reader, your interpretation is salient to the intended meaning of my statements but thanks for the clarification questions.

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