Two Educational Fallacies


There are two ways to go wrong when it comes to education. The first is to emphasize the intellect over the affections; the second is to emphasize the affections over the intellect. The first we might call the “Rationalistic Fallacy”; the second we might call the “Romantic Fallacy.” These two fallacies plague all modern intellectual endeavors, but they are most pronounced in the world of professional educators.

The First Fallacy

The first of these fallacies is illustrated by Thomas Gradgrind, the stern schoolmaster in Charles Dickens’ Hard Times:

“Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!”

The Rationalistic Fallacy is first of all scientistic. Gradgrind is concerned exclusively with the scientific and experiential:

With a rule and a pair of scales, and the multiplication table always in his pocket, sir, ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature, and tell you exactly what it comes to. It is a mere question of figures, a case of simple arithmetic.

The hallmark of this modernist method of education is analysis—the process by which we take whole things apart until we have divided them into their most basic meaningless components (Gradgrind’s “facts”), murdering, or as Wordsworth once said, to dissect.

This fallacy is evidenced in the penchant among modern educators to believe that the learning of students can be adequately quantified through tests.

Educators have always believed that students should be assessed, and some kind of measurement is necessary in order for parents to know whether their children are progressing. But the idea that knowledge or understanding could be fully captured in a number is of very recent historical vintage.

Neil Postman has pointed out in his book Technopoly that it was only in 1893 that any educator even thought of giving a numerical grade to a student paper.

The Rationalistic Fallacy is utilitarian, a characteristic seen in its emphasis on vocationalism. Students are seen as mere vehicles for out-of-context information conveyed with the aim of promoting industrial production and intended to increase the Gross Domestic Product.

In Dickens’ story, one of the greatest illustrations of the rationalistic fallacy in action, the purpose of education is to provide workers for Coketown, a sort of industrial utopia—“a town,” he says, “of machinery and tall chimneys …”:

It contained several large streets all very like one another, and many small streets still more like one another, inhabited by people equally like one another, who all went in and out at the same hours, with the same sound upon the same pavements, to do the same work, and to whom every day was the same as yesterday and tomorrow, and every year the counterpart of the last and the next.

The Coketowns of late 19th century England have been replaced by the Simi Valleys of today, but the philosophy of the rationalists is the same: You go to school to get a job so you can take your place as a cog in the modern economy.

There is “Workforce Development Training” and “STEM” (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). Millions of dollars of taxpayer money are expended every year to promote vocational initiatives.


The Second Fallacy

The second fallacy—the Romantic Fallacy—is best illustrated in C. S. Lewis’ fictional “Experiment House,” where, as described in Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Eustace Clarence Scrubb is sent by his “tee-totalling, non-smoking, vegetarian” parents.

At Experiment House, students are encouraged to “do as they like,” subjects are taught differently, and children who bully others are not “bad,” but simply “interesting psychological cases.”

Experiment House was Lewis’ satire of places like Summerhill, an English school which became the model progressive school in the early and mid-20th century. Summerhill helped give the progressive movement of the 1920s its characteristic emphasis and its lexicon.

Summerhill was (and is) a place where children “have freedom to be themselves”; where “success is not defined by academic achievement but by the child’s own definition of success”; where issues are dealt with “democratically”; and where students can “play all day if they want to.”

Today’s American schools have become, to a greater or lesser extent, versions of Experiment House. The rhetoric characteristic of Summerhill can now be heard daily in any teacher’s college.

Education is now to be “child-centered” as opposed to “subject-centered”; teachers are to be non-directive facilitators rather than directive teachers; and classrooms are to be restructured to provide for “learning centers” so that children get to choose what they study.

Projects, unit studies, and hands-on activities are to replace the old classroom, which, with its desks and academically focused activities, was designed for teaching students the mathematical and verbal skills necessary to thrive as thinking human beings.

The progressive, child-centered emphasis would seem to be very much in conflict with the rationalist’s idea of creating “workers for the 21st century.” And indeed it is. In fact, one of the ironies of modern education is that it talks a lot about training students for jobs, but, in fact, its progressive emphasis on the psyche of the student does anything but that.

Modern education uses progressive means to achieve a rationalist end—which is one reason why it never seems to achieve its goals.

Classical education resists these two extremes by engaging in something more fundamental. Through a solid grounding in the fundamental intellectual skills of the liberal arts, it gives students the ability to think—a skill they can use whether they go on to further academic study or get a job. And through teaching students their own cultural heritage through reading classic literature and Western history, they are given the knowledge and ability to make wise judgments as they pursue life as citizens and voters in a Republic.

Classical education avoids both the Scylla of vocational training that narrows the minds of students and the Charybdis of methods that forsake a real understanding of the world and their fellow men in favor of a false sense of self-esteem.

We need to avoid both Mr. Gradgrind and Summerhill

Originally published in The Classical Teacher Late Summer 2013 edition.

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