The Civilization that had to Teach Itself with its own Books

I was talking with a couple of fellow teachers at an end of school party recently. One of them, a student at a local seminary, told me about a Greek professor at another prominent protestant seminary, the author of a widely used Greek textbook, who had gotten in a car accident and lost part of his memory. Among the various things this professor could no longer remember, ironically, was Greek. So, continued my friend, the man had gone back to try to relearn the language—using his own textbook.

What a fitting metaphor, I thought, for the plight we face in education today. As a civilization, we are the authors of a great and glorious educational tradition, one which took centuries, even millennia, to achieve. Yet here we sit, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, having forgotten what we knew, and having to relearn it from our own books. We have created a famine, to quote the Bard, “where abundance lies.”

Unlike the Greek professor who forgot Greek, however, our memory loss is self-inflicted. Our education establishment here in the United States spent the better part of the twentieth century throwing its heritage overboard in a mad rush to load up on the latest educational fads and gimmicks. And most of these innovations have themselves been discarded in their turn, only to give way to new ones equally transient.

No wonder the education reform ship never seems to get underway.

We can now look back on a long chronicle of failed attempts at “school reform,” very few of which have even attempted to take a prudent look at our cultural heritage for instruction and insight. We have attempted instead to “build bridges” to future centuries, only to find out, once there, that we had been going down the wrong road in the first place.

Wide is the gate and broad is the way that lead to educational destruction, and there are many who go in by it. But we don’t need to be looking for a bridge to a future century; in fact, we might learn more by taking a look back at past centuries to see what our educational institutions were doing right.

“Progress,” said C. S. Lewis, “means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.”

And one benefit we could gain from going back and getting on the right road, is the simple lesson of how much can be learned when on the right road. To put it another way, not only do we need to look to our past to find out the best way to educate children, but, in looking to our past, we will find out that looking to our past is the best way to educate children.

In going back to classical education, a system of education that reigned in Europe and America until the early twentieth century, but we will also not only realize that classical education is the best philosophy of education, we will realize that it is a system of education that values the past.

Russell Kirk famously said, “We stand on the shoulders of giants.” How, then, can we ignore them?

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