Why (almost) Nobody Can Read

In a comment somewhere, I opined that if we consider literacy to mean not the mere mechanics of reading, but both actually reading and understanding what you have read, the percentage of people who are literate in America has got to be under 10%. I’m thinking probably well under. If you can’t read, in the sense of rendering those symbols on the page or screen into English, then of course you’re classically illiterate (and so of course aren’t reading this). But even if you can read in that sense, if you don’t read, it clearly makes no difference. The label ‘functionally illiterate’ should apply to people who don’t read as as much as those who can’t read.

Image result for readingThe bigger issue is understanding what you read. Recent reading and discussion, for example, show an almost complete misunderstanding of what the Constitution *is*.  That men wrote a document in order to establish and limit a national government seems almost entirely missed, as is the understanding that an unlimited government is by definition a tyranny.  Even the Bill of Rights is seen as somehow magically granting gifts to the People, rather than stating areas where the government shall not tread.

Recently tried to explain the Electoral College to a coworker, how it protects minorities – those who live in less populous states – from getting bullied by the majority, and how the Constitution very probably would not have gotten state approval without it – and he simply refused to understand, but continued to relish his anger at having the majority denied their will. I even added that revolts tend to come from the provinces, that the Founders knew this, and instituted the Electoral College as a way to mitigate this risk. Nope.

This accusatory finger here is pointed squarely at the mirror: hardly a day goes by when I don’t read something and realize I lack the context to understand it. What I do have, in addition to curiosity, is a liberal education – Great Books, some math and music, a little science and art and history. What that gives me is a skeleton like the girders that hold up a skyscraper that can be filled in, here and there, with more detail. That no man, let alone a poser like me, could ever fill it all in is beside the point. At least I have some context for the context, as it were.

Perhaps the most important part of a liberal education is a profound appreciation of how ignorant we all are. There is an effectively infinite set of things it would be good to know, and we most definitely have a finite amount of time and capacity. Further, no one with a functioning mind could come away from an encounter with Plato or Aristotle (or a host of others!) and still believe we moderns are way smarter than those stupid ancient people. No one (1) could look at the works of art – architecture, sculpting, painting, literature, music – and imagine we moderns are just way more sophisticated and smart than those old geezers. In fact, the feeling we’ve fallen far is hard to shake, that we couldn’t hold a candle next to truly great minds. Now, objectively, I believe there are any number of truly brilliant people around today in a thousand fields, as brilliant as anyone ever, but the image that springs to mind is of Dawkins and Musk with their hubris and gadgets trying to talk with, oh, Charlamagne and St. Thomas or Plato and Archimedes or even Jefferson and Newton. Always worth a giggle.

A liberally educated man will therefore be at least a little timid about his conclusions no matter how vigorous in his principles – and know the difference. The typical miseducated college grad is vigorous in his conclusions and vague about his principles – or would be, if he could tell the difference.

When I’m being careful and honest with myself (I try, but I’m only human), I’m somewhere between suspicious to pretty confident about what I’ve deduced from reading education history. I’m very confident about much of the framework items, such as Fichte’s role, the role of the Prussian models of universal and university education, and how compulsory graded classroom schooling spread in America – mostly because no one I’ve come across, critic or supporter, seriously disputes it. I’m a little uncomfortable with the contention that the Irish immigrants were the proximate cause of Mann getting Prussian style schooling approved in Massachusetts. I’ve seen this in 2 or 3 sources, and the timing matches, and the attitudes of Americans about the Irish certainly support it, but it’s not clear these sources aren’t really one source passed through time.

And so on, down to my complete lack of sources for the when and why the graded classroom model became the Catholic schooling model. It happened, that’s for sure, but I’d like some names, dates and arguments.

This is just an example, a place in the framework where I’ve managed to fill in some of the detail. I’m painfully aware of the effectively infinite number of empty spaces for every space I’ve filled in even a little. I’m aware I could be wrong. But I’m also aware that the enemies of truth and reason don’t feel (can’t say ‘think’) the same way about their positions, and don’t care. Can’t let legitimate minor doubts silence you in the face of irrational hatred.

In conclusion: I flatter myself imagining I read with some context and care. I fear, and unfortunately, the world seems hellbent to confirm it, that the number of people who can claim even this much is as a drop in a bucket. I hope I’m wrong.

  1. No one except Hegel. But boy, was he committed to getting the square peg of Reality into the round hole of his Theory.

More (or perhaps Moore) on Education

Any even half serious reading into education turns up a few themes over and over again. One of these is that not only is self-education the best education, it is the only education.

This truth is obscured somewhat by the occasional accident of education taking place at a school or university. Because there is often somebody lecturing and testing us, and it is possible (if unlikely) that we will learn something in the processes of taking notes and preparing for tests, we tend to associate what we may be said to have learned in a class with the mechanics of the class, rather than in our having applied ourselves to the the ideas presented in the books and by the teacher on our own initiative. We are trained to see learning as a result of having taken the notes and passed the test, rather than seeing the notes and tests as, at best, starting points for thought. Tests and notes might be helpful in some other context, where taking the notes is not merely a means to passing the tests and therefore the class. But in the context of a modern school or university, passing the classes and getting the Document of Approval is the goal – a goal which can demonstrably be achieved without any learning at all.

Image result for churchill
Churchill, for example:

My education was interrupted only by my schooling.

Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing had happened.

I began my education at a very early age; in fact, right after I left college.


The text we call Aristotle’s Physics has long been supposed to be some student’s notes to some of Aristotle’s lectures. If so, these are the kinds of lecture notes that can educate, because it’s work to think about them – they are meaningless without thought. A lot of thought. Working through the Physics or indeed any of Aristotle’s works exercises the mind – educates us, in other words – more than getting a PhD’s worth of passed tests and classes under our hat bands. The point here is that you might find yourself working your way through the Physics in the course of getting a PhD, even a PhD in Philosophy – but it is hardly necessary. If you had the typical Analytic Philosopher infesting academia these days as your thesis advisor, thinking hard about the Physics would probably be a career limiting move.

But you’d learn something. If your newfound knowledge included disdain for Analytic Philosophers, all the better.

Sometimes, the importance of self education is emphasized through disparaging of classroom education. Sometimes, the writer will retain the (vain) hope that the classroom could, if properly managed, impart some education, but despairs of what it is used for today.

Image result for c.s. lewis
C. S. Lewis, from That Hideous Strength, on the effects of “education”:

Why you fool, it’s the educated reader who can be gulled. All our difficulty comes with the others. When did you meet a workman who believes the papers? He takes it for granted that they’re all propaganda and skips the leading articles….He’s our problem. We have to recondition him. But the educated public, the people who read the high-brow weeklies, don’t need reconditioning. They’re all right already. They’ll believe anything.

The Greeks believed that true education was a form of and a result of true friendship. A friend, out of love, could educate his friend one on one. This individual encouragement is meant to inspire and aid the efforts of the student in self-education. (1) In other words, as in a platonic dialogue, the elder friend/teacher acted as a Socratic midwife to the younger friend/student, not as a lecturer in a classroom or even as a tutor of this or that subject. He would show the younger student what it was that the student needed to know, and guide and correct him – but as a friend. The younger student, out of love and gratitude (and ambition!) would study. That’s how you get a small town like Athens (less than half the size of the California suburb I live in) producing dozens of geniuses, building timeless monuments, writing hundreds of classic plays, poems, works of mathematics and philosophy, achieving a greatness seldom matched in human history, all over the course of a couple centuries. These United States have been around that long, have 500 times as many people, have vast technological advantages – have we done as well, proportionally? (2)

G.K. Chesterton
Chesterton, a self-educated man, takes a dim view of modern schools and their standardized outputs.

When learned men begin to use their reason, then I generally discover that they haven’t got any.

The purpose of Compulsory Education is to deprive the common people of their commonsense.

There is something to be said for teaching everything to somebody, as compared with the modern notion of teaching nothing, and the same sort of nothing, to everybody.


Catholics believe that each child is created in the image of God and is infinitely valuable in and of himself. This has tempered to some degree the evils inherent in classifying and controlling students through classroom schooling. The friendship model of education is much closer to the nature of the Catholic teacher/child relationship than graded classrooms, which defeat friendship and indeed personal relationships at every turn.

David Warren – and you should read him if you don’t already – yesterday made some comments that bear on this topic, so we’ll end with those:

I think of beloved old J. M. Cameron, who took me up as friend, mentoree, and “unregistered student” at Saint Michael’s College, back in those days. I once asked him directly, after he had been driven out by mandatory retirement, if there was anything all his best students had in common. He answered directly, “They were all self-taught.” In subsequent conversation I received a few mould-juicy anecdotes about how unwelcome they were in the universities, and how quickly most dropped out.

I think the reason our universities were so easily captured by the Leftist filth, was that they had already become institutes of planning; as opposed to education, which is risky and hard and in the fullest Platonic sense, personal.

  1. That this older successful men educate the younger promising men thing got competitive, where older men would vie to be the friend of the most beautiful (in the complete Greek sense of beauty) younger men and that these relationships sometimes became sexual was possible only because the Greeks believed such education based on friendship was essential to men becoming ‘excellent’ in the classic Greek sense. The whole sexual thing is probably overblown, and at least cannot be correctly understood within Freud’s insane and fraudulent schema.
  2. The Founders, who as a group are at least comparable to a generation of Peak Athenians, were also educated in what would today be considered a slapdash manner: little school here, some tutoring there, a whole lot of reading, and a huge dose of practical experience. Hey – let’s do that!

Science and ‘Scientific’ Education

When I’m cruising through my giant pile of education history books, the pernicious phrases  ‘scientific’ education and ‘scientific’ schooling keep popping up.

That word you keep using – I don’t think it means what you think it means.

Brief recap of the use of the word science: The ancient use of words ‘science’ and ‘scientific’ referred to the systematic and logical exploration of a topic. Only later did the ‘scientific’ method arise. Science in the original sense was developed from fragmentary origins by Aristotle into the method of inquiry he used, for example, in the Physics.

Aristotle’s standard formulation of his approach: we start with what is most knowable to us and move toward what is most knowable by nature. As with much Aristotle, this is stating an obvious, simple thing: if you want to know about, say, horses, you start with the actual horses at hand – most knowable to us – and move toward the generalized knowledge of horses as a genus – more truly knowledge. Aristotle will use examples like ‘four-legged’ to describe the sort of thing we’d learn from the horses at hand. We’d conclude that having four legs is natural to horses in general. Stuff about horses in general is more knowable by nature as follows: a particular horse may be brown and unusually skinny and short, but once you know enough individual horses, by the miracle of the human mind, you can understand something about horses in general. Horses can be many colors and sizes (but not all colors and sizes!) but all of them have 4 legs and eat grass.

Image result for weird horseWhen applied in this manner to natural objects, Aristotle’s ‘scientific’ approach is not much different in nature than what modern hard (read: real) scientists do, including the part about where all conclusions are conditional: given the horses we have looked at are really representative of horses in general, and that we’ve perceived what we think we’ve seen correctly, then horses are of such and such nature. Aristotle would have never asserted that what he knew about horses rose to the level of certain knowledge, such as can be achieved in mathematics and logic. But it was interesting, and not unworthy. Aristotle didn’t care much that it was also useful – the tamer of horses better know what horses are like! And the city-state needed horses! – that came later with the likes of Francis Bacon. To Aristotle, the satisfaction of knowing something was the short term reward; the goodness of cultivating one’s mind and the excellence that results from such cultivation were the long term benefits. Making a buck, not so much.

To get from Aristotle’s approach to modern science, three things were missing: experimentation(1) – the idea that one could tease out knowledge from nature by making it jump through carefully controlled hoops; math – the idea that many of the relationships so teased out could best be expressed through numbers and formulas; and motivation – that whole ‘conquer and subject Nature to Man’s will’ thing. The Franciscan friar and scholar Roger Bacon is often credited with adding experimentation in the 13th century, although this is disputed (historians love to view the ancients through modern biases – see? Bacon was advanced – like us!). Be that as it may, Bacon’s writings pointed in the direction of  the increased importance of careful observation of the natural world as a way to knowledge. (His contemporary Albertus Magnus, a Dominican friar and scholar, whiled away some of his time making careful observations and drawings of plants – much like Darwin 650 years later – so the successful ideas again prove to have many fathers.)

Once experimentation and math got added to the mix over the next couple centuries, and people like Francis Bacon (the bring-home-the-bacon Bacon, as it were) promulgated the dogma that the purpose of science is to be useful (2), we’d reached both what we’d recognize as the the modern scientific method – and a great divide.

Without the math and especially experimentation, and, for really modern science, without the need for discoveries to prove themselves useful and profitable in the real world, science could trundle along including any number of subjects and approaches. Many things might be thought of a science, loosely speaking, in the old sense of something thought about rationally and systematically, that are not at all science in the current sense.

On one side of the divide, then, we have science in the full modern sense of the term – a body of knowledge that was teased out by careful experimentation, generally expressed at least in part through mathematics, and which has proven useful in some sense. This usefulness may merely be as an aid to further understanding (such as astronomy or even Darwinian evolutionary theory) but most often it means cold hard cash. Maxwell’s equations are used to make sure the lights go on when you throw the switch; Einstein’s discoveries are used to give you your correct location when you use the GPS function on your phone. And people have made a lot of money making use of that science, and we are all better off for it.

Sorry (slightly. Very slightly) if I’m bursting any bubbles here: Systematic, mathematic and profitable. That’s the science to which we owe allegiance. Pure knowledge for knowledge’s sake is lovely stuff, I am a fan, but the crass truth is that we’re never as sure about the claims of science as we are when somebody puts it into practice – and nothing motivates that like cold, hard cash.

On the other hand, there is a form of envy? Ambition? Greed? that compels some people to put on the sacred lab coat of science and claim that their pet ideas are science, even if there’s no systematic, replicable experimentation behind it and no one has challenged or is even allowed to challenge their ‘discoveries’. They then claim their ‘science’ is owed the same allegiance we pay to the science behind all the wonderful tech and gadgets that have given us, among other things, cars and phones, clean water, lots of food and long lives. Some – Freud, for an egregious example – wanted to be famous SO BAD that they just make stuff up and call any who object bad names. Others – their name is Legion – infest our colleges and schools so that they can inflict their ‘insights’ unchallenged on callow children. No systematic, repeatable experimentation? No solid math?  Nobody making the world better by applying these discoveries? No science, no allegiance owed.

Phrenology springs to mind as an historical example – serious people worked up what they took to be a serious scientific theory about how different areas of the brain created or controlled ‘propensities’, higher and lower ‘sentiments’ and so on. Phrenologists had theories about how the physical configuration of the skull could tell us about the mental condition of the brain inside it. They had all sorts of case studies, after a fashion, which proved their theories to their satisfaction.

The idea that you’d need careful definitions and double-blind, controlled studies preferably conducted by non-believers didn’t really seem to occur to fans. As is so often the case with complicated ideas about human behaviors, it would be difficult if not impossible to concoct an experiment that illuminates phrenology’s claims. How does one define a propensity, say, such that anyone could do a double-blind a study  to shed light on what sort of correlation, if any, exists between skull shape (or brain configuration – there were different flavors of phrenology) and such a propensity, as compared to some other propensity? One can imagine an ‘instrument’ of some sort by means of which one person could gather information about subjects and some other person could judge from that information to what degree any particular subject had this or that propensity, and then other people could survey their craniums (inside or out or both, I suppose) and someone else could attempt to correlate skull/brain topography to various propensities – but nothing remotely like this was ever done, as far as I can discover with the minimum amount of research I’m willing to do for a blog post. Way too much work, I imagine, for the armchair pseudo-scientist.

All the foregoing is to simply show that the term ‘science’ in the modern world is used equivocally. There’s the science that’s *hard* in at least 2 senses of that word, the science that leads to the tech that leads to better living (or at least works!). Then there’s the ‘science’ that is a combination of wishful thinking and browbeating and child abuse (telling self-serving lies to 18 year old under pain of expulsion from at least the cool kids club and maybe college itself isn’t abuse?).

Which brings us to today’s point:  There is no science behind ‘scientific’ schooling. No careful studies were ever done showing that grouping children by age and feeding them all the same instruction at the same time regardless of what those kids already knew for hours and months and years on end is better than any other approach or even works at all. (3) No studies were ever done showing that this approach succeeds better than any other approach or even no approach at all. There’s no evidence to show compulsory graded schooling yields better results than 1-room aged mixed schooling, homeschooling, or unschooling or any other approach, for that matter.

There is NO science behind the modern schools. None. Nada. It’s ‘science’ in the same way Freud’s ad hominem harranges and phrenologists’s pretty diagrams are science. In other words, not science at all.

Modern schooling does demonstrably work considered as a tool for the destruction of the families and communities that might oppose the total state. There’s some science behind that idea, although not generally expressed in those terms.

  1. I’m saying experiment for the sake of brevity. Please include ‘careful, replicable observation’ under ‘experiment’ in this sloppy blog post. Yes, astronomy can be a modern science.
  2. Through the expedient of making scientists like Bacon rich and famous. Or maybe I’m seeing things through my modern biases?
  3. For example: control for parents: if a child has successful, happily married parents, does modern school contribute anything to the likelihood of that child’s future success? Similarly, if a child has a single drug-addicted parent and lives in squalor and neglect, does school help? Intervention might help – but is school the best or even a workable form for such intervention? Inquiring scientific minds would like to know.

Catholic Schools Week p. 5: History Wrap Up

In previous posts, here, here and here, we quickly ran through some high points and low points in the history of Catholic Schooling in America. Picking up where we left off:

The Supreme Court decision in the 1930s case of the blatant anti-Catholic Oregon laws outlawing Catholic and other private schools and mandating government schools left the Church free to continue its program. The ruling basically said that, yes, parents have the right and duty to educate their kids BUT the state also has a duty to see to it that its citizens get educated. This seems on the surface a reasonable and workable position. Catholics get to run their own schools, yes, but the state gets to decide whether or not they’re doing a good job, and, at least implicitly, could step in with whatever amount of management, rules, laws, and curriculum it saw fit to ensure the schools were ‘educating’ Catholic school students to the state’s satisfaction.

Two points here: First, the potential for state interference in Catholic schools may seem like fear mongering, as the state has not – so far – intervened too often or too egregiously. For now, I merely want to point out that the Supreme Court’s ruling doesn’t actually preclude on the surface any amount of state interference. Just as the state has found the ideal expression of the Prussian model unworkable – they have not yet simply seized our kids and barred the family from any role in education – they have so far found it unnecessary to, say, have state monitors in every Catholic classroom. It would be hard to argue, philosophically and legally, that the state couldn’t do if they wanted to. They just haven’t so far.

The second point is our need to recognize WHY the state has let Catholic schools slide. First of all, the state education departments generally get a passive acceptance if not a downright enthusiastic response to their ideas from Catholic educators. See, for example, how Common Core got adopted by most diocesan Catholic school systems without much discussion until after the fact. There are many reasons for what might seem to be a shocking degree of acquiescence to the state’s education programs, given that the parochial schools were founded precisely to Catholic kids out of state schools. But that popular Catholic fervor has, like, sadly, all distinctly Catholic fervor, all but died. It was pretty much dead by the time Kennedy became President, crushed at least partially under weight of the immigrant’s need to fit in that the Kennedy’s embodied. A concession here, a compromise there, and – hey! We’re real Americans, too! In the phrase American Catholic, the ‘American’ part comes first.

Further, National Catholic Education Association has been, from its founding, dedicated to the idea of teacher professionalism and, from that same founding, at odds with the bishops. Under the NCEA, the teachers’ core belief is that THEY are the PROFESSIONALS, and the bishops should take direction from them. This was evident from Day 1, and is yet another sign of what people will do to be part of the cool kids club. NCEA members are JUST AS GOOD as any other teachers, especially the public school teachers. They’re ideally certified by the state and everything! Frankly, that’s the problem.

Just as the state achieves the goal of separation of child from family by simply mandating longer and longer school years and hours and piling on the homework and extra-curricular activities, it can achieve its goals without overt steps if the Catholic school commit themselves to simply becoming better versions of state schools, with a tiny and decreasing bit of that God-person thrown in. Once the graded classroom model was adopted by Catholic schools, the state has been getting 90% of what it wants anyway. Here’s the oft-quoted line from William Torry Harris with which readers of this blog are no doubt familiar:

“Ninety-nine [students] out of a hundred are automata, careful to walk in prescribed paths, careful to follow the prescribed custom. This is not an accident but the result of substantial education, which, scientifically defined, is the subsumption of the individual.”

Harris was the US Commissioner of Education from 1889 to 1906. He was involved in the rapid spread of ‘scientific’ ‘consolidated’ schools and the war waged against one-room schools. (One topic of research for the book I hope to write is Harris’ approach to Catholic schooling. His fell hand can be seen in the escalating attacks of the state education departments on the established, successful and beloved one room schools set up, funded and run by local parents. Can’t imagine he didn’t get into the anti-Catholic school show. But research required.) The NCEA was founded in 1904, during the time when Harris’ attitudes represented the most modern, progressive thinking on education. Harris was a leader in the cool kids club that NCEA members wanted, more or less consciously, to be a part of.

(Aside: Harris says a number of other equally insane things about schooling, this is just my favorite. It is of course hidden in a bunch of bland truism and vague Hegelian blather. Freire follows a slightly different template: it’s only after reading a couple hundred pages on the plight of the poor that he cuts to the chase of how the oppressors – anyone who opposes him, by definition – will of course need to have their stuff seized, be locked up and, well, maybe killed – for their own and and everybody else’s good. Context and thorough reading are needed to find the nasty needles in the pablum piles of education writing.)

State and University Education departments were founded and are run by people who, if they think at all, thing like Harris, who thinks like Mann, Fichte and von Humboldt. You got nowhere with state or university education departments if you opposed these ideas. That’s the case to this day – there was never a vigorous academic or political debate of various educational philosophies, they were not allowed. That’s how, 150 years later, most people can’t even imagine school as anything but the little butts in seats micromanaged by ‘experts’ model.

Here are some source materials. The key points shared by these thinkers summed up:

  • Education is totally managed by experts, with no parental input desired or even tolerated.
  • Schooling recognizes no bounds. If it proves desirable to forcibly remove children and separate them from their families and communities for years on end, that would be OK.
  • The goals of the state are completely coextensive with any legitimate goals of the children and families. If the child or the family object, they are not just wrong, but immoral and traitorous. No, really – it is that clear.
  • The only value an individual has is as part of the state. T
  • Finally, unstated but always present: the children of the leaders don’t attend these schools. The educational needs of the powerful are not the same as those of the weak.

Of course, this isn’t packaged exactly this blatantly. Fichte, for example, saves the good stuff for towards the end of his Addresses to the German People and just sort of tosses them in; Harris writes in dry journals rarely read by anyone besides his coreligionists and sycophants, the kind of things PhD students would research. For the peons – and classroom teachers are definitely among the people Woodrow Wilson (he was president of Princeton for a while) wanted to spare from the extravagance of a liberal education – are to be fitted for the jobs their betters want them to do, in the manner Harris describes.

Think outside the box? What box?

My fear is that I might in my researches turn up some poor soul who convinced himself that those goals above were perfectly OK, so long as the tools were in the hands of  our *Catholic* betters. That would be tragic. I hope instead that the basic human need to fit in, to be part of the tribe, overpowered the good sense of Catholic educators and put us on this educational slippery slope without much conscious though. Because, boy, if they actively chose this… Visions of millstones.

Overt anti-Catholic bigotry largely went underground around the time of JFK (no worries – it’s making a comeback! Your hopes of martyrdom are not total fantasy!). Well before that time, most Catholics, including the people running Catholic schools, seem to have made peace with the idea of state schooling: while parochial schooling was certainly still promoted within the Church, it’s not like many Catholics couldn’t sleep at night if their kids went to the convenient – and free! – public schools. After all, Catholic schools by then would be almost indistinguishable from public schools if it weren’t for the uniforms, crucifixes, occasional nun and proximity to a church building.  Add a little dollop af CCD Faith Formation, and there’s nothing left to argue about. And then you gradually forget even that smidge of Catholic training – heck, the Catholic schools largely do!

By now, for most Catholics and the many non-Catholics who send their kids to Catholic schools, such schools really are nothing more than better versions of public schools. Such parents might hope their kids will be spared the overt violence and apathy so apparent in so many public schools and maybe learn a few things they’ll need to get into a good college.  Few if any seem to hope their kids will get a heavy dose of Catholicism – if they can imagine what that would look like.

We can only start considering a truly Catholic education once we’ve rejects the graded classroom model and embrace a Catholicism that makes us Catholic Americans and not the other way around. As long as that model persists, the state is getting what it wants – obedient, mindless drones. That they are nominally Catholic drones doesn’t matter to the state, so long as they can be counted on to do as they are told – like so many of our ‘Catholic’ congressdroids. That’s the goal, That’s what the model was built 200 years ago to produce. And it works.


What is Schooling For? Part 1: Ephebia

What is schooling for? Trickier question than it seems on the surface.

When the Greeks set up schools for their young men coming of age, they were addressing the need to train them so that they would be ready to fight if there were a war. The Greeks knew that a key part of being a good soldier is wanting to fight. A man can have all the training in arms and all the physical conditioning in the world, but it will mean little unless he also is willing to kill and risk death for his city-state. Therefore, a major part of the training received at an ephebia was in Greek culture, why it was something to be loved and a thing worth dying for. In this sense, Pericles’s famous funeral oration as related by Thucydides is the epitome and completion of the training of the ephebes – the young men – as it is meant to show that those who died did not do so in vain, and that the city would show its gratitude by caring for the families left behind.

Such schools, called ‘ephebia’ were part of a cultural whole – the ephebia, the army, the city – all were intertwined and supported each other. Pericles was performing an ancient duty when he gave his speech, something leaders of Athens had performed after battles for centuries. He was reinforcing what had been taught to generations of Athenians: that they should be proud to be Greeks, and proud of their sons who gave their lives in the service of their city.

Alexander, student of Aristotle, believed being Greek was a matter of culture, not of blood. Therefore, when he conquered, he both put worthy locals in charge and established ephebia that would accept as students not just the sons of the Greeks but the sons of the conquered as well. By these means, Alexander managed to build an empire without having to leave large garrisons in all conquered territories. More impressive still, he managed to instill a culture across vast areas from Macedonia to Egypt and east  to India that survived the collapse of his military empire.

Koine Greek became the language of commerce and eventually of everyday life in most of that empire. If you learned Greek, you could communicate with millions of people across thousands of square miles – the Greek world was a much larger world for all the conquered peoples. Jewish scholars in Alexandria had even translated the Hebrew scriptures into Greek within a century of Alexander’s conquest. This, despite the Jews resistance to Greekification, as recounted in Maccabees.

Alexander created and spread a culture that spoke a common language, valued personal merit above mere blood, held beauty and truth to be loved and excellence to be striven for. The Apostles traveled this world, able to communicate with Jews and pagans alike, and able to quote the Septuagint to make their points.

The ephebia began as military schools, and seemed to have always retained some of that character in most places. Around age 17, young men (1) would attend a year or two of  intense training, including physical training. This included all the usual Greek competitive sports – wrestling, running, javelin, and so on.(2) Yet passing on a culture not as a specimen to be studied, but as a set of shared passions to be lived, was always an indispensable part of these schools, so much so that, over time, as the military aspects waned, the cultural schooling if anything increased.

Ephebia date back probably to at least 500 B.C., and continued on in various forms for a thousand years. They existed for centuries before anyone bothered to write down much about how Greeks educated their sons before sending them off to boot camp. One comment by Plato via the mouth of Socrates expresses one attitude: Anyone who charges money to teach children what any competent adult knows is committing fraud. By Socrates’s time, it seems, people had set themselves up as teachers of children – and this seems to be some sort of departure from tradition.

Ephebia were often funded by a prominent citizen as an honor. A rich man could do nothing more patriotic than supporting the training of the youth. The headmaster was most often the gym teacher – physical training of future soldiers was a key aspect of this schooling. Even in later centuries, when the military aspect had shrunk, the headmaster retained his gym teacher title.

How Greeks taught their younger children reading and writing is less well understood, since, at least in the earlier days, no one thought it worth writing about. But that they could read and write seems to have been a given. A hint or datapoint may be found in  St. Jerome’s advise to Laeta on how best to teach her daughter to read. He was advising a literate mother on how to best pass that literacy on to her own child. There was no discussion of sending the child to school. Disintermediation, as it were.

Jerome lived very much toward the end, perhaps past the end, of the ancient Greek tradition of ephebia, although the spirit of that tradition does seem to have lived on into the Eastern Empire for a few centuries at least.

At least early on, the ancient Greeks devoted little ink to describing how one would get their younger children ready for future schooling in the ephebia. They expected a small body of experts to train their teenage sons in military discipline and patriotism in one or two years – and these expectations were met. Alexander spread this concept to his conquered territories, and extended it to include the sons of the worthier barbarians. Thus, Greek language and culture were spread all through the conquered territories, so much so that even Jews, highly and passionately protective of their own culture, learned to speak Greek and translated their Scriptures into it.

Eventually, the Greek-speaking culture extended from Rome to India and the Black Sea down to North Africa, even though the conquests that had started this change happened centuries earlier, and the empire they created had long since been conquered itself or dissolved or both. This spread of course depended on the military conquests, but was unlikely to spread and stick the way it did without a formal method of passing it on open to many of the conquered. And we should never forget the power and beauty of the Greek culture itself, which, excepting the Jews, seems to have impressed and attracted many of the conquered.

Ephebia were designed to create soldiers and pass on culture to ensure the city had a competent, patriotic military. Greek genius recognized that you could not separate the physical from the cultural training if you wanted young men who were willing to risk death to defend their city. Some level of literacy and probably numeracy was assumed in the young men attending these schools. At least, there is no evidence that the three Rs made up any of the curriculum.


A History of Education in Antiquity by Henri Marrou. Source of most of the information.

Also, various biographies of Alexander the Great that are sitting on the shelves at home, 1 Maccabees, background on the Septuagint that I googled – obviously need to tighten up the scholarship around here.

  1. Similar schooling for young women was indeed present, just not always as widely or consistently as for young men. Women also needed to understand their culture to be good Greek daughters, wives and mothers. As far as I can figure, the position of women in Greek culture varied widely over time and space. Sometimes, women and girls were treated as property, but it seems more often that free women, at least, held positions of some honor and respect. It does seem true that it is hard to develop a very admirable culture in any broad sense that doesn’t honor women.
  2. As recounted in 1 Maccabees, Greek sports, done in the nude, were one thing that pushed the Jews over the edge: “14 They built in Jerusalem a stadium like those in the Greek cities. 15 They had surgery performed to hide their circumcision, abandoned the holy covenant, started associating with Gentiles, and did all sorts of other evil things.”

In Today’s Education News

Via Twitter:

First Things has a little piece on the always interesting Camille Paglia – she’s not down with special snowflakes, and thinks kids need to learn some history:

 “‘Presentism’ is a major affliction—an over-absorption in the present or near past, which produces a distortion of perspective and a sky-is-falling Chicken Little hysteria.”


[students have not had a] “realistic introduction to the barbarities of human history . . . . Ancient history must be taught . . . . I believe in introducing young people to the disasters of history.”

This only reinforces my bad habit of asking people sympathetic to Marx and Communism if they’ve read or even heard of Gramsci or the Fabian Society. I’ve yet to find one who had even heard of them, let alone was familiar with what they did. (Not hanging out in the faculty lounge these days, I must admit. I’m not entirely sure it would matter.)

And then there’s this, where I back Dr. Paglia by noting that the abundant good times we live in perversely enough seem to get in the way of our recognizing that we live in abundant good times.

Is better education the solution? Can virtue be taught? Whatever else are we supposed to try? A good many saints seemed to have died in something of despair – of this world, not of the next. Still, we’re not allowed to give up – on people, that is. All institutions are as grass, all we think so compelling in this world today withers tomorrow.

And how do we learn this? How teach it?


Some Links & Thoughts

A. Here is a collection of quotes from writers about their education. Some are better than others.  Here are a couple I like:

“Schools and schoolmasters, as we have them today, are not popular as places of education and teachers, but rather prisons and turnkeys in which children are kept to prevent then disturbing and chaperoning their parents.”  –George Bernard Shaw


“Let none say that I am scoffing at uneducated people; it is not their uneducation but their education that I scoff at. Let none mistake this for a sneer at the half-educated; what I dislike is the educated half. But I dislike it, not because I dislike education, but because, given the modern philosophy or absence of philosophy, education is turned against itself, destroying that very sense of variety and proportion which it is the object of education to give. No man who worships education has got the best out of education; no man who sacrifices everything to education is even educated. . . . What is wrong is a neglect of principle; and the principle is that, without a gentle contempt for education, no gentleman’s education is complete.”  –G.K. Chesterson in The Illustrated London News, 1930


“You can’t learn to write in college. It’s a very bad place for writers because the teachers always think they know more than you do—and they don’t. They have prejudices. They may like Henry James, but what if you don’t want to write like Henry James? They may like John Irving, for instance, who’s the bore of all time. A lot of the people whose work they’ve taught in the schools for the last thirty years, I can’t understand why people read them and why they are taught. The library, on the other hand, has no biases. The information is all there for you to interpret. You don’t have someone telling you what to think. You discover it for yourself.”  –Ray Bradbury, in an interview with Sam Weller

Bradbury was my favorite writer in grade school and into high school; Chesterton is probably my favorite writer now.

It’s interesting to note that paeans to one-room schools exist in some numbers, as mentioned by Wayne E. Fuller in this book. (1) Country kids often remembered their non-age-segregated, highly personalized and relevant schooling, schooling most often managed by an amatuer over many fewer hours than now, with great fondness. Does anyone in the last, say, 50 years write about how wonderful were his experiences at PS Whatever? Praising a particular teacher or coach, sure, but the experience as a whole? Maybe kids away from the big urban centers?

B. I’m getting a little bit of a jilted lover thing over SciAm’s enthusiastic backing of gender theory, which is somewhat less scientific than phrenology and astrology and much more virulent & harmful. SciAm – I used to love you! Why? WHY? But mostly, I have a sort of bitter admiration of the ability of the anti-science Marxists – but I repeat myself – to take over a venerable magazine with just the right name from a propaganda perspective and turn it so deftly. It’s akin to my dark admiration for Rahm Emanuel, LBJ and J. Edgar Hoover – vile men, all, but remarkably good at what they did and do. What they did and do will most likely end up with them rotting in Hell, but, boy, are they good at it.

The argument fails at every point – is the subject matter amenable to study using the scientific method? No. Or, to put it another way, are the conclusions something that could even in theory be produced using science? No. Handwavium all the way down.

But millions will  be swayed and have their feelings on the subject validated. In a better world, people committing this sort of abuse of the word ‘science’  would be locked up as enemies of the Republic and peace. They are enemies of truth.

C. Quoting William Tory Harris & myself from a few months back, but this just needs to be harped on:

Ninety-nine [students] out of a hundred are automata, careful to walk in prescribed paths, careful to follow the prescribed custom. This is not an accident but the result of substantial education, which, scientifically defined, is the subsumption of the individual.

This wisdom comes from William Torey Harris, the fourth United States Commissioner of Education, from 1889 – 1906. Note the phrase “subsumption of the individual” – Harris was an enthusiastic Hegelian, and subsumption is a term of art.  In a dialectic, the thesis and antithesis contradict each other, and the contradiction is not logically resolved but rather ‘subsumed’ in a dialectical synthesis – they remain in contradiction, but, in the synthesis they exist in a new creative tension that is revealed in concrete History to be true in some greater sense, the law of  noncontradiction be damned (explicitly – see Hegel’s Logic).

In this case, the contradiction to be subsumed is between the idea that people, including children, have rights, among which is the right to pursue happiness however they see fit, and the idea that, in the words of Trotsky, the individual is nothing, only the goal – conforming to the successive unfoldings of the Spirit for Hegelians, the Worker’s Paradise for Marxists – gives any meaning to any individual’s life.

Harris, and all Hegelians and Marxists, needs to have the concept of individual rights eliminated – subsumed, in their usual dishonest and evasive language – in order to achieve the great future History they have been so privileged and enlightened to see. They thank their gods they are not like other men!

And this need to destroy the individual is alive and well TODAY. There was never a reform of the reform, where Harris and his evil ideas were rejected. Woodrow Wilson, an elitist, racist pig if ever there were one,  was down with this, as was Dewey, a ‘can’t make an omelet’ apologist for the slaughters of the Russian Revolution, as were and are all the major gatekeepers to power in the education system. Gender theory is just a flavor of Critical Theory, which is just applied Marxism. As mentioned in an earlier post, Freire’s application of critical theory to education is required reading in all the prestigious schools of education. After the usual fluff, wherein Freire tries to gain our sympathy and tells us how much suffering will be alleviated if only we follow his plan, he gets around to mentioning that, of course, there are no such things as innate human rights, that people who reject and oppose Marxism have by that fact alone no rights, but that people who accept Marxism gain rights in proportion to the degree of their enlightenment. Thus, with perhaps a mitigating tear in our eyes, we can do anything we want deem necessary to our opponents in order to further the revolution – take their stuff goes without saying, but locking them away or murdering them are options completely on the table.

You want to be a teacher today? Chances are you’ll be required to study Freire by enthusiastic acolytes, and it’s a given that you superiors will either actually believe this or, at best, be exactly the kind of useful idiots such a system requires.

The thing missed today is that IT WORKS! We peons are not of the 1%, but are of the 99%! WE are the automata, “careful to walk in prescribed paths, careful to follow the prescribed custom”. Sure, many of us have our doubts and even rebel on some level, but it’s pretty depressing to see how much we all – most definitely including me! – fall in line. With alarming frequency, we identify as members of a political party; we don’t talk about things we know we’re not supposed to talk about, and remain silent in the face of things that should call us to arms, at least figuratively. We accept random things as Gospel – both Chesterton and Lewis point out that it’s the assumptions of schooling that we absorb and make foundational more so than anything actively taught.

We send our kids to school.

D. Finally, all this has me thinking of 1984. Two things: Winston Smith is made to say that 2+2=5, not because his torturers believe it, but to make sure he will agree with anything they say. That’s the level of control sought – total control.

Finally, Orwell, though a socialist himself, was not blind: he names the government under Big Brother Ingsol – short for English Socialism. I’ve long thought and said that it’s a tragedy that we paint all Nazis as monsters – sure, plenty of monsters at the top and even among the rank and file. But the vast majority were not materially different, morally, than you and me. But if we somehow absorb the idea that because the person in front of us does not appear to be a monster, he simply cannot be promoting or supporting evil, we become ripe for supporting evil ourselves. A bunch of perfectly nice people – your dentist or college professor was as likely as not a Nazi if you were a German in 1935 – enabled the Holocaust. That’s the real lesson to be learned.

So Orwell makes Big Brother the end game of what he saw among the people – English Socialists – that he most likely knew best! It’s not going to be skinheads or even Antifa that enable the evil – it will be college professors and doctors and (understandably) frustrated Bernie supporters who open the door for growing evil.

Man, I need to take a walk!

  1. The blurb from One-Room Schools of the Middle West: An Illustrated History: “The Midwest’s one-room schools were, Fuller observes, the most democratic in the nation. Located in small, independent school districts, these schools virtually wiped out illiteracy, promoted democratic values, and opened up new vistas beyond the borders of their students’ lives. Entire communities, Fuller shows, revolved around these schools. At various times they were used as churches, polling places, sites of political caucuses, and meeting halls for local organizations. But as America urbanized and the movement to consolidate took hold in rural counties, these little centers of learning were left at the margins of the educational system. Some were torn down, some left to weather away, some sold at auction, and still others transformed into museums. Despite its demise, Fuller argues, here was a school system that worked. His book offers a timely reminder of what schools can accomplish when communities work closely together to educate their children.” Yep.