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Why Modern Schools Fail

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This is a reprint of a popular article published in 2009.

When I say “modern education”, you will probably think you know what I’m talking about–but I bet you don’t.  As I’ll show in this article, schools of every sort, from public schools to Christian home schools are guilty of being “modern” in the philosophical sense.  Though many think they’re doing something different, it’s essentially the same.  They have misidentified the source of the problem and, as a result, take pride in their re-packaged error.

The Nature of Man and Education

Christianity has always and will always teach that man is the noblest of all God’s creatures.  This greatness is owed to man’s being made in God’s likeness, i.e., in being given a soul.  As the catechism plainly teaches, man is unique in that he consists of body and soul, the greater of which is the soul:

3 Q. What is man?
A. Man is a creature composed of a body and soul, and made to the image and likeness of God.

7 Q. Of which must we take more care, our soul or our body?
A. We must take more care of our soul than of our body.

8 Q. Why must we take more care of our soul than of our body?
A. We must take more care of our soul than of our body, because in losing our soul we lose God and everlasting happiness.

The Catechism (Book 4) explains the advantages the soul has over the body.  Of these advantages the faculty of Reason is greatest.  It was God’s will that man would follow the eye of his soul rather than the eye of his body through life and seek God above all else.

“My soul hath thirsted after the strong living God;
when shall I come and appear before the face of God?.”
Psalm 41

As such, when we discuss human education, our challenge must be to cultivate this faculty of reason as the ultimate guide to our ultimate end.  A look back into history sees that wise men did just this–whether pagan or Christian–through a system known as the classical liberal arts.

Classical Educational Philosophy

Plato, the great Greek philosopher, understood the true goal of education, though not necessarily in Christian terms.  He discovered the truth by reason, just as God intended.  In his most famous work, The Republic, he used an allegory to clarify the challenge of true education.  Take a minute and look carefully at the illustration below.  (The red numbers and circles are mine.)

Plato says children are born in a cave where they are chained (1) and allowed only to look forward at shadows (A) of carved images held behind him (B).  By the first step of education, the child is freed to turn around and see (2) the objects behind him, rather than their shadows.  As he continues, he is able to stare (3) into the fire (C) that illumines the cave as his sight adapts to the brightness.  Next, he is brought out from the cave  (4) to see the “real” objects from which the carved images inside were patterned.  He is able to look upon the sun itself only in dim reflections (e.g., in water), but finally, he is able to gaze into the sun itself–the first cause of all the light that he has seen. 

What does Plato mean by this allegory?  Plato explains the allegory himself later in the same book.  The inside of the cave is the physical world.  Outside the cave is the spiritual world.  The inside of the cave is observed and studied by the senses.  The outside of the cave is the “real world”, the world of being and not becoming, which is examined not by the eyes of the body, but by Reason, which is the eye of the soul.  The sun outside, being the brightest and best of lights on earth is God, the brightest and best of all that is.

Plato, therefore, understood that the goal of education was to lead students (of any age) “out of the cave”, and he called this ‘conversion’.  To be led out of the cave children must be (a) freed from the chains of material desires and (b) trained to “see” the invisible world by the right use of reason (i.e., reflection).  Plato knew that man had in him the power to seek the highest and best, but that power was suppressed by false beliefs, bodily lusts and sin.  The role of education was to bring about this “turning around” to see the light, and to follow that light to its source, by allowing the soul to become the guide to ultimate truth, ultimate goodness and ultimate beauty.

True Christian Education

Considering the obstacles Plato had to overcome as a pagan relying on reason to guide him, his conclusions were right on the money–an amazing testimony to the power of the soul to discover truth.  St. Augustine acknowledged this when he advised Christians:

“if those who are called philosophers, and especially the Platonists, have said anything that is true and in harmony with our faith, we are not only not to shrink from it, but to claim it for our own use.”      

When we look at the teaching of Scripture on the subject, we find the same message, only in different terms.  We see them not as the conclusion of human philosophy, but often as divine revelation.

Simply enough, consider how God educates his own creatures.  He does not bring them into heaven to see, hear, taste, touch and smell the Truth, for that isn’t necessary.  Nor does he normally answer the questions of men directly, for that isn’t necessary.  Having endowed us with reason, He gives us signs upon which that reason may efficiently work.  The Old Testament tabernacle and its instruments were all designed as ladders and bridges by which man, by reflection, was to ascend to Truth.  The writer of Hebrews clarifies this:

“Jesus is not entered into the Holies made with hands, the patterns of the true: but into Heaven itself, that he may appear now in the presence of God for us.”  

Further, consider our Lord’s teaching style, which is certainly a model for us to imitate.  His goal is to achieve what Plato described as “conversion”, to turn us around that we may see with the eyes of our souls, rather than the eyes of our bodies.  How does he do this?  By helping us to look beyond what is visible and reflect upon the invisible. 

“Behold the birds of the air, for they neither sow, nor do they reap, nor gather into barns: and your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are not you of much more value than they? …And if the grass of the field, which is to day, and to morrow is cast into the oven, God doth so clothe: how much more you, O ye of little faith?”

Our Lord turns our attention away from this world, or rather through this world, to see what is real.  He, in essence, teaches us to lean more upon the eye of our soul, and less upon that of our body (i.e., the physical senses).  Plato approaches very nearly to the truth, only from a different angle.  What is most significant is that in both the pagan tradition, and in the example of our Lord Himself, we see the same role for education:  the cultivation of reason and reflection.

After our Lord, St. Paul continues to turn men to reason. Consider his words in the following verses:

“The invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made. His eternal power also and divinity: so that they are inexcusable.”    Romans 1

“While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporal: but the things which are not seen, are eternal.”   2 Cor. 4

How can men clearly see invisible things ?  How exactly do we “look at things which are not seen”?  Not with the eyes of the body, of course, but with the “eye of the soul”, which is reason.   There is no question whether the same notion of true education was employed by the apostles in their ministry.

Later in the Church, St. Augustine, one deeply influenced by and respectful towards Platonic philosophy, teaches that the truth is to be taught through the faculty of Reason.

“Although we are not able to show unto human sight those divine things which we believe, yet do we show unto human minds that even those things which are not seen are to be believed.”

And finally, today, the Catholic Church still speaks of this “divine pedagogy of salvation” in the Catechism (CCC, 1145-7):

“As being at once body and spirit, man expresses and perceives spiritual realities through physical signs and symbols.

God speaks to man through the visible creation.   The material cosmos is so presented to man’s intelligence that he can read there the traces of the Creator.”

Thus, from beginning to end, Christianity has been taught and has taught in a specific manner, according to a specific philosophy of what man is and how man approaches truth.  It is the same philosophy taught by Plato, who taught nearly all of the pagan world.  This and this alone may be called true “Classical” and/or true “Christian” education.

What is most important about this true education is that it focuses on a process and never on content.  The ultimate benefit is the use of a faculty, not the mastery of a body of information.  True education teaches human beings to seek truth, goodness and beauty by the use of faith-enlightened reason.

No other education may be called classical or Christian that does not have this as its defining characteristic.

The Classical Liberal Arts

Having shown you the real essence of classical and Christian education, it is necessary to explain how this leads to the Classical Liberal Arts curriculum.

While the classical Greek philosophers, Our Lord and the apostles all knew and practiced the art of true education, they did not distinguish and systematize it.  However, over the course of time, wise men did categorize the studies that accomplished the goals of this true education of man.  This system was known, for thousands of years, as the seven liberal arts.

Don’t get this confused with the term as it’s used today to define colleges as “liberal arts colleges”.  The liberal arts were seven specific subjects that led a student through the conversion process described by the ancients. 

This course began with Grammar, which focused on speaking and writing well.  Next was Rhetoric, which taught the art of effective communication.  Then was Logic, the art of using Reason effectively. Fourth came Arithmetic which led students to reflect upon absolute quantities.  Next came Geometry, which taught the measurement of “size at rest”.  Lastly came Music and Astronomy, which respectively taught relative quantity and “size in motion”.  These arts were the steps that converted the student and prepared them for Philosophy, and ultimately Theology.  It is clear to see how these seven steps fulfill Plato’s allegory of the cave, and they imitate Jesus’ instruction, though more mechanically.

The seven liberal arts formed the educational system used in Greece, Rome and throughout Christendom for over 2000 years.  As you look through history, you must realize that just about every famous thinker and writer before 1900 received this education.  This was Christian education.

The Return to the Cave

Novum Organum (The New Method) was presented by Francis Bacon in 1620 as the new way to learning and knowledge.  He argues in his book that the method of the past (i.e., the Socratic method) must be abandoned since scientific experimentation is the only way to true knowledge.  His argument assumes that the ideas of the past are wrong and that scientific experimentation will prove his assumptions. 

“The art of Logic…has tended more to confirm errors than to disclose truth.”
-Preface to Novum Organum

It was this new method that inspired schools to replace the classical curriculum with the modern, science-based and encyclopedic curriculum.  In the modern curriculum, “seeing is believing”.  Proof is accomplished not by reflection or by trusting in divine revelation (e.g., the Bible or the Church) but in showing that something is true by means of a scientific experiment.   This philosophy argues that if something can’t be proven to the senses, it cannot be said to be “true”. 

As the Scientific Revolution launched, the definition of “reality” was changed from that which is unseen to that which must be seen.  The method of learning was changed from reflection to experimentation.  Logic was removed from the curriculum and replaced by Lab.  The eye of the soul was expelled from school, and the eye of the body made headmaster.

Worse, fundamental self-evident philosophical principles (axioms), were cast off since they could not be “proven”.  For example, all Christian thought begins with the rule: “God created all things from nothing.”  However, since this rule cannot be proven in a manner that satisfies the modernists, it is rejected as one of the errors of the past and worthy of no more attention than if one were to say “A chicken made the world.” 

Thus, after 2,000 years, humanity was led back into the cave.  The assumption was that man was moving into new frontiers, on the verge of unlocking the secrets of the universe by looking at it with the eyes open, rather than reflecting upon it with the eyes closed.  Instead, man has run full-speed down the path God has urged us not to take.  As an example, consider God’s response after Solomon makes Wisdom the one request of his life:

“Because this choice hath pleased thy heart, and thou hast not asked riches, and wealth, and glory…nor many days of life: but hast asked wisdom and knowledge…wisdom and knowledge are granted to thee.”

What exactly is it that modern schools seek through the education of children?  Is it not the list of things Solomon despised when he opted for wisdom instead?  We simply get what we ask for.

The Results

Many will object to any negative treatment of the modern age by pointing to advances made in medicine, healthcare, communication, housing, transportation and so on, but do you see a troubling pattern with this?  Remember that all of these serve the cares of the body, rather than the soul.

Does Christianity not teach us that the soul is that part of our nature that is to receive our greatest care?  Why, then do we boast of the improvements made for the bodies of men–unless the improvements made for the soul have been even greater?  

They have not been. 

The result is what we see in the North Carolina Public School curriculum.  Compare the following to the educational philosophy of Plato, Jesus and Christian history:

The challenge of education is to prepare students for a rapidly changing world. Students in modern society must be prepared to:

  • compete in a global economy;
  • understand and operate complex communication and information systems;
  • apply higher level thinking skills to make decisions and solve problems. American businesses seek students with the knowledge and skills to succeed in the international marketplace of today’s information-based society.

Is this not tragic?  The creature God designed in His image to share in His eternal happiness is reduced to a movable part in the global marketplace.  Are we educating souls for eternal life or finishing cattle for the auction?  To see the evil of this philosophy, replace “students” above with the names of your children.  Is that your vision for your children’s education?

The most telling sign of the errors of this modern philosophy is built right into the state’s definition of education:  the phrase “rapidly changing world”.  It is this very characteristic of the world that led the ancients to despise its charms–not chase after them with greater vigor as the modernists do! 

Christians do not seek to answer the constant change in the world by upgrading our technology and adding new programs.  We overcome the change by fixing our eyes on God, who is always the same.  As we pray,

“Lord God, you reward each one according to his works.  Hear us as we pour out our hearts to you, seeking your grace and secure protection.  We look to you for our stable hope in a constantly changing world.”               LOTH, Vol. I, p. 868

Unfortunately, it’s not only secular public schools that are guilty of this error.  Every form of education that neglects the classical liberal arts has abandoned the way to true human education.  That’s a bold statement, but we are persuaded that it’s true.  Most inexcusable are the Christians who have denied the essence of their faith and embraced the new philosophy without stopping to think about it. (Of course, that’s not surprising since reflection and self-examination are fruits of classical liberal arts education, not modern Christian education.)  Despite the danger signs on every side (which include complete ignorance of and abandonment of the faith among teens), they have found 1,001 ways to hide the wolf with sheep’s clothing–and make a lot of money doing so…home school publishers included.

Conclusion

How, in all of this, some may point to success stories, that despite every 9 tragedies there is a comedy here or there, or that the results are “better” than public schools.  This is (no surprise) bad reasoning.  First of all, we should care less what public school results look like since they include the work of society’s worst families and students.  Any school that needs to compare its product to that of public schools is desperate for legitimacy.  Second, if pointing to isolated success stories made any sense, we would do well to encourage a child’s sexual immorality because St Augustine was an immoral boy who became a holy man. 

What makes education classical and Christian, is the intention of the curriculum to lead students from the in-human obsession with earthly things to the reason-oriented love of eternal and unchanging things.  The neglect of this true spiritual “conversion” is the fundamental philosophical reason why modern schools fail.

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