Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Higher Education: What it is; What it is not; What it's For

         Education is not job training; it is not even schooling.  Education is knowing what things are for, not simply how they work.  The truly educated person understands the proper uses to which such things as bodies, brains, governments, art, and sport are put, not merely how to eat, how to manipulate difficult mathematical formulae, how to win an election, how to paint a still life, or how to hit a curveball.
         The difference between these two conditions of mind is the difference between wisdom and information, between knowledge and data, between knowing and knowing about.  Those who acquire the former are genuinely educated; those who gain only the latter are mere technological functionaries, replaceable by the next generation of machines.
         But no machine can replace Socrates, or anyone like him.  Socrates and his ilk can do what no machine ever shall -- love, worship, exult, grieve, repent -- in short, understand.  Authentic understanding and the suitable responses it engenders within us are not the product of mere job training or of technical expertise.  Here’s what I mean:
         When asked who was the wisest of men, the Delphic oracle replied that it was Socrates himself.  Socrates was shocked to hear it.  "Who, me?" he wondered.  "I don't know anything."  But as he contemplated the oracle's answer, Socrates realized the oracle was right.  Socrates indeed was wiser than other men.  At least he knew he was ignorant; the others were ignorant and didn't know it.  As long as they were ignorant of their ignorance, they could never change it.
         Such true but humbling lessons about ourselves we do not learn from those who could or would train us only to program (or even to design) a VCR.  That is because a teacher can take no student any further than the teacher has gone, and the technicians and self-esteem peddlers of our day cannot and do not teach students the truth about themselves or about the human situation.  Rather, they teach those students that to feel good is at least as important as to do good, and that to get a job and make money is the central purpose of an education and the chief means to happiness.
         Because such views are truncated and foolish, and because foolishness is purchased at the highest possible price, Socrates insisted that a teacher's proper task is not to raise the student's self-esteem.  The teacher's first task is to reveal to the student the student's own ignorance, in the hope that such self-knowledge might spur that student to action, that is, to mental and spiritual life.
         Socrates was no lackey of the self-esteem mongers of his day.  He understood that real self-knowledge was often a painful and deflating thing, not something that made you feel especially good about yourself.  When people discover the truth about themselves, they frequently discover something they fervently hope others will never find out.  Socrates knew that real self-knowledge feels a great deal like mental root canal.  But that painful fact did not persuade him that his students must be protected from such discovery.  He knew that the truth often hurts because the truth about human beings is often unflattering.  Unflattering or not, Socrates knew that it was an absolutely necessary component of education.  Without it no one can truly be called learned.
         Socrates understood that we enter this world in complete, total, and seamless ignorance, and that precious few of us ever penetrate that darkness with even the faintest flicker of wisdom or insight.  He understood that, given our naturally benighted condition, undue self-esteem is the fountain of intellectual apathy and the death of learning.  Feel-goodism is to the mental life of the uneducated what abortion is to the unborn.    
         In Christian terms, we are a fallen and sinful race.  We ourselves are the reason the world has gone haywire.  We are both the crown of creation and the scum of the earth.  As the sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve, we human beings are the best things God ever made.  But as the sinners we have become, we are the woeful products of the evil thoughts and actions to which we have addicted ourselves.  Those twin facts, our high birth and our low descent, said C.S. Lewis, are reason enough to raise the head of the lowest beggar and to lower the head of the highest king. 
         But such things no mere technician could ever teach, and about ourselves the charlatans of self-esteem deceive us.  Repentance and hard work are what we require, not premature or undeserved congratulations, not heavy doses of vapid feel-goodism.  Martin Luther's torments of conscience, his soul-wrenching bouts with anfechtung, not Norman Vincent Peale's positive thinking, are more likely to cure what ails us.  That’s another of saying that the job well done precedes the feelings of satisfaction; it does not follow them.  As in so many other things, the modern technicians of schooling have set the cart before the horse.  They bow in abject servitude to the tyrannous and impotent dictates of the so-called affective domain when they ought to banish it forever from the classroom.
         If you desire simply to train yourself, then learn to read, to write, and to compute; learn history and science as well.  But do not confuse the acquisition of these skills and of this information for education; they are not.  These things are the necessary means of acquiring an education; they are not education itself.
         But if you desire to become educated rather than remain merely trained, then you must remember that the educated person can give careful and insightful answers to the fundamental, or diagnostic, questions of life, questions like:
         "What is a good life, and what good is life?"
         "What is a good death, and what good is death?"
         "What is a good love, and what good is love?"
         "What is a human being?"
         But not only do most college students not know how to answer these questions, they have never even learned to raise them.  Because they and most of their teachers live without the benefits that come only from a classical liberal arts education pursued under the lordship of Christ, those students have never learned what Aristotle knew:  "He who would succeed must ask the right preliminary questions."
         Such preliminary questions do not include the questions professors most often hear from students, questions that seem naturally to arise from the indoctrination those students receive from the technicians and job trainers of our day -- questions like
"Will this be on the test?" 
"Will this help me get a job?"
"Will this make me feel good?"


Rachel Greb said...

Posting a link to this on the Oakdale Academy FB page and sending to all parents. Thank you.

Alex Graham said...

Thank you for this lesson and reminder.

It is for this weighty reason among others that I am transferring to Hillsdale. See you there this very spring.


Dr. Michael Bauman said...

Thanks, Alex. I look forward to it. Best wishes.