Over the last several years, I have planted a number of trees in my yard. I notice that when I plant a tree, it takes a year or two in order for its root system to become established. Only when this happens does it start growing in earnest.
A plant has to grow down before it can grow up.
Thinking and writing about education for many years—as well as having spent a great deal of time in the classroom—has taught me the same lesson about education: Only when our students intellectually grow down can they grow up.
This is the point that many modern progressive educators seem to miss. I often hear teachers and education reformers express disdain for the hard and repetitive work involved in learning the basic skills and factual content of traditional education.
They think that if a child doesn’t immediately appreciate what he or she is learning, then something’s wrong. That to spend all of that time in the early grades memorizing letter-sound correspondence in phonics or arithmetic operations in math is to take time away from the more enjoyable classroom work that helps children learn to love learning.
This is like saying that a tree would be better off if it simply concentrated its efforts on producing leaves and branches rather than on growing its root system.
That is impossible, of course. And it is why so much of modern education has been a failure. Modern education thinks it can grow smarter students by avoiding the more grueling basic work involved in learning to read competently, spell words correctly, hold their pencils properly, and master the basic content of the disciplines we think they should study later.
This is why projects and field trips and fun hands-on activities appear in modern classrooms like aphids on my apple trees—and with the same effect: they take energy away from the real work of growing.
In one of his essays, C. S. Lewis invokes the figure of a “grim old classical scholar” bemoaning the poor quality of papers from entering students. “[T]he trouble with these boys,” he says, “is that the masters have been talking to them about the Parthenon when they should have been talking to them about the Optative.” The Optative is the most difficult grammatical mood in the study of Greek grammar.
Lewis uses these two images—one of the greatest and most beautiful buildings of ancient times and the grammatical mood of a dead language—to contrast two kinds of learning: “The one begins with hard, dry things like grammar, and dates, and prosody; and it has at least the chance of ending in a real appreciation which is equally hard and firm though not equally dry. The other begins in appreciation and ends in gush.”
This latter kind of learning, he points out, “fails most disastrously when it most succeeds.” It produces students who think they know, but don’t. Students who know what they know (which may be very little), but don’t know what they don’t know (which may be a lot).
An education in the Parthenon seems to begin in what appears to be enjoyment, but ends in an inability to experience real joy because the students’ faculties never develop properly. An education in the Optative seems to some people to begin in drudgery, but ends in the deep joy that is only possible through the preparation and hard work involved in developing the mind, the character, and the affections.
Originally published in The Classical Teacher Summer 2016 edition.