Mark at Pseudo-Polymath is dreaming about what he would do if he were king. His first item of business? Education.
However beyond that (with one exception below) the only thing We would require of our primary education system is that it teaches its students how to be good students, i.e., how to learn well. In order to learn well a student needs four “canonical” education skills: Memorization, Reasoning, Dilligence and Perseverance. If your students remember what you say, connect the dots, are careful, and work hard they will excel. If they improve at those things, no matter what they are learning now to practice those skills, when they arrive at their place of secondary education if they are not prepared a the particular class, they will be a quick study in catching up.
There is an exception to my granting a complete freedom of curriculum. The one exception is drawn from history. The Ancient Greeks all read Homer, in Greek no less :). An educated Englishman of the 15th-17th century all were read Euclid, the Bible, and a number of other common texts. A common “canon” of texts given to our students to give them a shared set of national symbols to facilitate communications would be a really good thing. I think it would be wonderful if we could come up with 3-8 texts we all have studied carefully and learned well. However, I don’t have any good suggestions for what those texts should be. Deciding that small number of texts which should all be engaging as well as deep enough to provide material for life’s lessons should be an amusing and lively discussion.
Now, Mere-O is largely in favor of serious education reforms. Our preferred type of learning is what might be called the classical educational model. Rather than narrowing the canon to 3-8 texts to give students a “shared set of national symbols,” we would advocate a much larger number of texts designed to give the student an understanding of “western thought.”*** Progress is only progress if you don’t repeat someone who has gone before. Furthermore, we would be suspicious of a “complete freedom of curriculum.” It seems to presume that all books or ideas are equally important, which I find indefensible.
Furthermore, Olson neglected perhaps the most important aspect of any education: Truth. Olson wants to develop “skills” in students, but it’s not clear what those skills are beneficial for other than the discovery or acknowledgment of true statements about the world. “Skills” such as thinking, memorization, etc. are not ends-in-themselves, but only means to-an-end, an end which needs no justification. After all, what exactly are you “learning” if you aren’t coming to understand true statements about the world?
Incidentally, some of our readers might notice that the above complaint could also be applied to Sayer’s essay Lost Tools of Learning. They would be correct.
I am looking forward to hearing about more reforms from Mark. It’s a great series!
***The astute reader will point out that what we call “western thought” may have had serious influences from the “east.” This is quite likely true. However, it seems plausible to label “western” those books which shaped “western culture,” even if they are influenced by the east.