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Editor's 1-Minute Essay:
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The following represents a distillation of Dr. Adler's Syntopicon Essay plus my own thoughts:
The great teachers of the Western tradition, strangely, have little to say about education per se. Not one of the writings in the Great Books directly speaks to this topic, with the exception of Montaigne's essay, Of the Education of Children.
Rather than a single subject to which the great thinkers at times expressed themselves, education seems to have been all-pervasive, almost ever-present, to their minds, a motif in which they lived. This is so because, as exemplified by their lives, education, a life-long pursuit, seeks as its final goal the prize of wisdom.
Education, as Adler asserts, "is a problem which carries discussion into and across a great many subject matters -- the liberal arts of grammar, rhetoric, and logic; psychology, medicine, metaphysics, and theology; ethics, politics, and economics. It is a problem which draws into focus many of the great ideas -- virtue and truth, knowledge and opinion, art and science; desire, will, sense, memory, mind, habit; change and progress; family and state; man, nature, and God."
Often playing the handmaid to other forces, education has meant different things to different people.
Rousseau, one denying the supremacy of individual rights in favor of the state, sees education as a tool by the latter to achieve its ends: citizens, through public education, must be "early accustomed to regard their individuality only in its relation to the body of the state, and to be aware, so to speak, of their own existence merely as a part of that of the state."
If the purpose of mortal life is viewed primarily as preparation to enter heaven, then, education, if controlled by the church, will be used to direct the minds of the faithful to otherworldly aspirations - a fine sentiment in itself but not, in tacit pronouncement, as a defeatist declaration that little can be accomplished in this world but to suffer, pay, and pray.
In a world driven by materialistic pursuit, it will not be surprising to find that "education" has devolved into a flim-flam intellectual pursuit after whatever college program offers the biggest bucks on pay-day.
Education, in all of these examples, becomes, more or less, either a tool of oppression or an anaesthetizing drug to silence the inner-person; both types are efforts to minimize, perversely channel, or otherwise censor the full-strength floodlights of knowledge and personal growth.
If some men, according to Aristotle, by nature are fitted for slavery, then "education" is reduced, for this class of unfortunates, to mere training; they are offered instruction to perform various tasks -- not for their own sakes, not for their own development -- but for the pleasure of either another or something of lesser value.
Commenting on this tragedy, Adam Smith laments that one "without the proper use of the intellectual faculties of a man, is, if possible, more contemptible than even a coward, and seems to be mutilated and deformed in a still more essential part of the character of human nature." Further, according to Smith, "the torpor of his mind renders him, not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life."
What is "liberal education"?
It is the education of a free man or woman. Slaves in ancient times were treated as chattel, as things, belonging to a master. Instruction for a slave was limited to training, the acquiring of skills in relation to tasks to be performed for the benefit of a master. However, the education of this latter was very much different in kind; his was the education of a free man and, as such, was "liberal" (that is, pertaining to freedom) and centered upon developing the mind -- for its own sake, as an end in itself, and not as a means to something else. Most views of education down through the centuries have not been "liberal" in any meaningful sense but were crafted in service of a master, a government, a church - but not for the individual.
Liberal education takes us on the right path. It acknowledges the high dignity of what it means to be a person, what Shakespeare called, "the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals" - a being with such exalted capacity as to envision, as per Father Benson, "no discoverable upper limit."
Teaching takes its life from the glory of what it means to be a person. Socrates compared the art of teaching to the cooperative work of a midwife in relation to a mother-to-be: the pregnant woman alone must give birth to the child, and the student alone must choose to learn. Teachers might efficiently direct students to important issues, but the fact remains, perverse and wasteful as it is, that the unwilling and uncooperative student will frustrate the efforts of even the best teacher 100% of the time.
Wisdom is the combination of the practical, the moral, the intellectual, a skillfulness at the business of life. The ancients, along with many moderns, agree that wisdom is the true aim of education.
Wisdom requires more than book learning but also years of thoughtful questioning and diligent searching; if achieved at all, it will likely not be won by the young; as such, education must be a life-long process with our years of formal schooling seen as preparation for education's fullest expression, the pursuit of wisdom. This effort will shift into high-gear in the afterlife with our then-receipt of greatly augmented intellectual ability.
The word "education" literally means "to draw out," speaking to an ancient precept asserting that the most important elements of truth, life, and reality lie deep within the hidden person, the true self.