Wednesday, May 7, 2014



“All men by nature desire to know.” – Aristotle (Metaphysics Book I)

               Aristotle’s remark points to the fact that it is in the nature of mankind that we desire knowledge. Our culture struggles with education due to the postmodern influence of relativism. On the one hand, the ‘enlightened’ say that there is nothing true or good and thus every immoral behavior is justified under the banner of tolerance. On the other hand, many in this same group increasingly recognize the importance of education. One problem they have yet to confront within their own worldview is that if there is no truth than education is meaningless (as opposite positions are equal). Even so, all people say education is important. Ancient slogans revolving around the subject of knowledge and education are known to many. We can find the truth in each one of these: “Knowledge is power.” “Only the educated are free.” “If you think education is expensive try ignorance.” 

               Some people disagree with Aristotle. My recollection is vivid about a conversation I had with a co-worker about this subject. She insisted that she really didn’t desire to know, had no real interest in learning, and disputed my contention. The question I asked was if there was anything that really fascinated her. She said she really enjoyed watching surgeries and how physicians did them. This person showed that even if she didn’t recognize it, her desire to learn came about in other ways outside of what may be considered to be ‘formal’ means of learning. For some, they may feed this desire by simply wanting to know the latest gossip. For others, they feel addicted to the news feed or what is happening on Facebook.

               So given that our desire to know is irrepressible, what is the best approach to satiate this appetite? The popular approach exemplified in most schools is failing in many ways. It is easy to make some generalizations simply because of the way the system is set up even if there are individual instances to the contrary. There will still be great teachers and great students no matter what system they are in (so the individual cases to the contrary don’t disprove the general criticisms). Here are some of the pitfalls that people on all sides recognize:

1.      It has a tendency to suppress the questioning inherent in human nature that should be part of the learning process due to a lack of flexibility about the questions students may ask. If students ask too many question there will be no time to cover the material required to do well on the standardized tests. Not only this, but many times questions are seen as threatening and disrespectful. Thus, questioning is suppressed and student must simply assimilate the required material. Education crosses over into indoctrination in this context pretty easily. 

2.      More advanced students are bored as the material provided caters to only the most elementary learners. 

3.      Most students never know in an educational context genuine greatness and achievement because of the lowering of the bar.  

4.      The students that can quickly memorize and regurgitate information are those that ‘succeed’ in this environment while others fail. 

5.      There is little emphasis given to comprehension of the material. 

6.      More time is devoted to ‘socialization’ than education.

7.      Great teachers and students are punished. Teachers in this setting are often not rewarded for finding creative ways for students to grasp the material. Students are not set free to fully develop and explore quality resources.

8.      Each subject is artificially divided. This keeps the student unaware of the relationships and influences that exist in reality between each subject.

Although more can be said, there is another approach that has reemerged in order to try to reverse these deficiencies. 

The rewards that are found in the classical, the great texts, and the great books approaches are innumerable. In this different pedagogy, students are trained how to think, ask questions, comprehend the material, parse out what is true and false in each reading and discussion, explore the implications of and relationships between different views, and synthesize what is learned with other areas. This approach also has the advantage of making students into life-long learners and they delve into research outside the classroom unlike their counterparts. Stronger students can deeply explore the greatest works ever written, and weaker students can elevate their minds with material far beyond the substandard texts that are commonly used. This is a tremendously valuable approach for everyone involved (parents, teachers, and students).

There are two common questions about this method of education. Who is it that gets to say which texts are great and which are not? Why assume that a ‘Eurocentric’ or ‘Western’ list of readings is superior to any other?  

The characteristic of a text that allows it to earn the designation of being called ‘great’ may seem ephemeral at first glance. Notwithstanding what seems to be the case, great texts are those that have come to lend mankind insight into the nature of reality and how to answer the most important existential questions with which we grapple. The main questions that plague mankind are: Who are we? What is our destiny? What is the meaning of life? What is our origin? What is good? Is anything transcendent? Consider the veritable words of the Church Father Lactantius: “There is no body of philosophers however wrong, no individual however stupid, who has not had at least a glimpse of the truth.” Sifting through the great works together and gleaning whatever truths about our questions we can find lends coherence to our search- revealing what is really real in the answers.  

With this in mind, an individual need not worry that there is an extremely biased small committee that sits down and votes which texts are great and which are not. It is simply the case that those texts that are not so great have not stood the test of time. People can recognize that by reading different works one can judge which are good and which are not. But, inevitably, those that are superior come to be recognized as such due to stylistic elements (perhaps they are very clear in how the truth is expressed) and what is revealed to us about reality. 

                What of those that complain that the majority of those considered ‘great’ in the curriculum originate from the west? This complaint misses the point in a couple ways. First, insofar as the truths in the great texts are true, they are also universal. The truths apply everywhere and to everyone in the universe (universal means it even includes the east!). Second, it is actually undeniable that the principles found in these texts apply everywhere. I remember a friend in graduate school spoke as if there were one set of truths that operated in the east that differed from the west. However, he revealed what he really knew to be the case when he looked both ways before crossing the street. He could wax eloquently in the classroom about contradictions, but in reality he couldn’t live as if contradictions didn’t matter. In other words, if contradictions are both equal, then there really is no difference between two opposite things- like living and dying, eating or not eating, saying something is or is not the case. As soon as a person opens his mouth he assumes you know the difference between what he is saying and what he is not saying. As previously suggested, if this weren’t true then not only would education be meaningless, so would communication! Third, the complaint about the origin of the work actually commits an error of reason called the genetic fallacy. This fallacy simply points to the source of something as solely determining whether or not it is true. Fourth, as many of the other points indicate, there is not one reality that is true in the east and another that is true in the west. Reality, along with the principles that govern our reasoning about it, is everywhere the same. It is incumbent upon every human to make a quest to discover what is true about reality and how best to live with what we’ve found. 

               In 1941 there was a debate about the different approaches to education. On one side the proponent (the famous philosopher Bertrand Russell) denied there were universal principles of education. On the other side was the philosopher Mortimer Adler. He argued that there were these universal principles upon which education should be founded. Dr. Adler’s approach, detailed in his work The Paideia Proposal: An Educational Manifesto, explained how to alter a curriculum to motivate and inspire students as well as the great social benefits that would come from these changes. The great texts avoid subpar standards which have led to the destruction of many youth. Adler seems prophetic in regards to the consequences of a system that spurned the classics (compare what he writes with the condition which we find schools in today). In a visionary way he states, “The absence of intellectual stimulation and the failure to challenge students by expecting the most of them leads to boredom, delinquency, lawless violence, drug dependence, alcoholism, and other forms of undesirable conduct.”[i] Those that are committed to the superiority of a great texts or classical approach which recognizes universal principles of education have a distinct advantage.

There are basic and universal principles that education should be founded upon which are inherent in a classical great texts approach. These include studying the answers to the great questions, the virtues, logic, and the rules of grammar. The opposing position is unaffirmable as it must borrow principles from an approach that assumes universals to make its point, thus implicitly conceding our point (that some truths are universal and should be studied by all)! The following argument borrows and slightly revises Adler’s opening salvo from that famous debate on education. Any critic that denies universal truths presupposes that it is better to think as they do. This person must say that people should agree with them because there is some flaw in my reasoning. Yet, there remains the following assumptions in their argument that can only be the case if the universal principles a great text approach promotes:

1. It is better for people to develop their thinking in order to identify fallacies and attain intellectual virtue.

2. There is a universal human need to learn to think logically (unless they refuse to use reason, logic, rules of grammar, and deny the law of non-contradiction to refute my argument).

3. Short of saying nothing (which is no argument), the critic must utilize reason and logic to argue against training the students to use reason and logic.

All these point to the universal truths that we can build our educational foundation upon. At the very least critics must agree that men have the universal need to think rightly.[ii]


We can all recognize the value of the words of Solomon which echo through the ages: “Get wisdom! Get understanding!” May all people seek to find the source of knowledge and virtue together, while strengthening our ability to discern good and evil.



[i] Mortimer Adler, The Paideia Proposal: An Educational Manifesto, (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1982): 36.
[ii] Mortimer J. Adler, “Are there Absolute and Universal Principles,” in Reforming Education: The Opening of the American Mind, (New York: Collier Books, 1988): 64-65.