Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Forever in the Wings

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So, it’s Sunday, and as usual on Sunday I am pretending to take things slowly.  In a minute or two I’m going to go off and listen to Frescobaldi.  Maybe.  I’ve got tea, anyway.

I’ve been thinking, though, that all the talk about education is a little odd.  I know it doesn’t seem odd, because these days we tend to put a lot of our aspirations and our fears into “educating” people, presumably children, but also young adults and sometimes even older people.

What’s odd is the enormous percentage of life this thing called “school” has become in the United States at least, but I tend to think also in other industrial countries.

I was brought to that thought by my living room book.  I don’t know if you have living room books.  I usually don’t, because I like to start a book and finish it before going on to something else.  Unlike some of you, I don’t usually do that thing where I have three or four books going, one for home, one for bed, one for taking to work and reading at lunch.

Living room books are books that are too large and unwieldy for me to carry around comfortably.  A while back–hell, might have been a year ago–I was reading a book on Renaissance Italian art that was sized like a coffee table volume, so that just getting it out of the house and into the car became a problem.  Carting it around to classes with four heavy textbooks and a stack of student folders was impossible. 

When I have living room books, I read them when I’m home, and have something else–usually something light–for taking with me when I go.  The living room book at the moment is called The Great Tradition: Classic Readings on What It Means To Be an Educated Human Being. It’s edited by Richard M. Gamble, who holds a chair in History and Political Science at Hillsdale College in Michigan.

For those of you who don’t know Hillsdale College, you can go here:


It’s self-consciously conservative, self-consciously Christian, and has one of the stronger core curricula in the liberal arts of colleges that are not actually Great Books programs.  Its great drawback is, yet again, the squidiness on evolution, caused almost entirely by a reaction to the strident insistence that Darwin proves that God does not exist–sometimes I think Dawkins has a lot to answer for.   Squidiness or not, it has a nationally recognized biology program and graduates who  major in biology at Hillsdale go on to good graduate and medical schools.

It is also one of about five colleges in the country whose students cannot get Pell Grants or federally guaranteed student loans, in spite of being fully accredited.  That’s because it refuses to install affirmative action programs of any kind or to open its admissions processes to anybody.

The book in question is not a book about the Great Tradition.  It’s a collection of readings from many authors over time, starting with Plato and going through Xenophan, Isocrates, Seneca, Clement of Alexandria, Gregory the Great–right down to Michael Oakeshot and Dorothy L. Sayers.

That makes it better than usual for a living room book, because it means I can pick it up, read through one of the selections and finish it, then read my carry around book without that nagging feeling that I left something half done somewhere else.

And the book has been interesting in a number of ways, not the least of which has been in introducing me to work by Xenophon (especially) and other classical Greek authors that I knew nothing of.   Like most people who have not had a “major” in classics, the only Xenophon I knew was the text of a book about a war that is the standard for first translations in Introductory Greek classes.  I never knew that he wrote about education, or that he was a student of Socrates’s and wrote about that, too.

But what really has kept striking me over the course of this book is this:  through most of history, “education” has been something you got before you were, say, 16.  After that, you had a life.

In other words, school was a very small part of anybody’s life.  It was certainly not the defining environment of childhood and adolescence, and it surely did not extend into ones twenties.

Some of you are probably jumping around out there going: yes, but back then there was a lot less to learn.

And, in one way, this is true.  The Greeks had nothing like the mountains of technical knowledge about things like medicine, engineering, or even plumbing that we do.  Even history has more in it than existed for Isocrates. 

But vocational training programs are not quite the same as school–or at least don’t need to be.

And the Greeks, the Romans, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, actually taught the students they did teach more about history, philosophy, and art than we do now, except for a small minority at specialized private schools.

But it’s not just what we do or don’t do that bothers me about this, it’s the assumption we make–that school should take up huge swaths of a child’s or adolescent’s time, that school is somehow “naturally” the place where such people will spend most of their time, and that school should make up the second-largest (if not the largest) experience over the course of a single life.

This is, I think, quite frankly crazy.

Somebody once posted to the comments here the idea that most people had made up their minds about their philosophy of life and the general tenor of their politics by the time they were 21, and I objected that I did not think that was true of me and that I didn’t think it was a good idea.

I’ll stick by that.  I think that everyone should be testing and searching ideas continuously through a life.

But doing that on your own with books and discussions is not the same thing as going to school.  It’s not education in the same way that taking a course is, or earning a degree.

One of the hallmarks of that kind of education is submitting oneself to a system with very specific characteristics:  It is a system where the student is always in a position of subordination to the teacher, and where rewards and punishments are determined by that teacher, often on no set or clearly construed criteria.

One of the advantages the Greeks had over us in the matter of education was that there was very little relying on the fact of it alone.  A Greek boy sent to be educated by Socrates who refused to study anything and made a nuissance of himself might get beaten by his father when he got home, but it wouldn’t have anything to do with the work he did to make his living afterwards.  Socrates insisted that education should be first and foremost education in what was useful, but that wasn’t the kind of useful he meant.

Robert Nozick thought that an exclusive (or near-exclusive) habituation to the culture of schools was  what made intellectuals, who were successful there, so consistently left-wing.  It wasn’t that they were indoctrinate in left-wing ideas.  It was that they came to long for a world that always operated on the same principles as a school.

The article is here


if you want to check it out.  I did post the link a couple of years ago, so you might already have seen it.

I wonder if there isn’t something else going on, if the enormous amount of time we now require nearly all our young people to spend in schools isn’t driving real kinds of arrested development.  What, after all, is the whole Jersey Shore/Bad Girls Club/Flavor of Love phenomenon but a gigantic cultural return to high school, complete with gossip, drama over trivialities and in and out crowds?

Maybe the reason I sometimes feel as if this entire culture has become nothing but one big high school–who’s got the most expensive bag?  who’s breaking up with who? Paris! Paris!–is that I’m looking at the generation that never really left, and maybe never will leave, because they spent so long in that one place.

Okay, this is a little heavy for Sunday, but you see what I mean.

Written by janeh

September 11th, 2011 at 10:07 am

Posted in Uncategorized

8 Responses to 'Forever in the Wings'

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  1. Well, we’ve got a large powerful lobby which needs students the way cattle need grass, and lots of smaller lobbies which use a credentials requirement to reduce competition. The result is about what you’d expect–and being a professional student isn’t a bad gig for those who don’t want to enter into a responsible life. For those of us who regard high school as the low point of our lives, things are a little different.

    The identity “student” conceals things, too. I didn’t get out of graduate school until I turned 26–but I was working outside the home for wages since the year I turned 15, enlisted at 19, living on my own and supporting myself at 22 and married at 24. My son was a student even longer, but was paying his own rent younger.

    Not all those 17th Century London apprentices were kids, either. The guilds could and did refuse to make them journeymen so they’d have to work for a guild member–much like being a graduate student today. They were getting on with their lives. They just weren’t doing as well as they would have been if they hadn’t been helped as much.

    Odd how our greatest progress in recent years has come in things like computer programming which have NO legal barriers to entry, while our credentialized elementary and secondary education system is a disgrace.

    We know the practical cures: decide what the citizenry must learn, and teach it to them by 16 or 18. For everything else, let there be an examination rather than a diploma, and restrict mandatory certification to those fields like medicine and civil engineering where the incompetent places innocents at risk. This could be decided upon in a year, and fully implemented within five. I do not expect to see anyting like it implemented in the United States within my lifetime.

    As for the celebity gossip culture, if you look at old film magazines and “society” sections of newspapers, you’ll find it well predates our educational difficulties. Some people are just like that. But I find that one of the major advantages of the Internet Era is that I can make it go almost completely away–rather like sports. But if I try to dial out politics, it keeps coming back and poking me in the ribs. There are serious drawbacks in a political class which wants attention more than it wants to solve problems.


    11 Sep 11 at 2:08 pm

  2. I couldn’t wait to get out of school; some people don’t want to leave it although I seem to know few of these. That seems to be more common in the younger generation, or so I’m told.

    When our local school system switched from ending with Grade 11 to ending with Grade 12 like everyone else but Quebec, all kinds of reasons for the change were put forward, from making it easier for graduates to have their graduation recognized in out-of-province universities, to making transfers when moving easier to finally, the big one, an extra year to allow a flexible, semester-based program that would provide a broader education (although they admitted, when pressed, depth might be a problem and no one really worked out how this was going to benefit the vast majority of high schools, which were too small to manage much flexibility in scheduling. Oh, and it was supposed to ensure that the students were more mature when they graduated, but my observation was that they were less mature than my generation had been at the same age, with a year out in the big world under our belts.

    Gossip on the street had it that the provincial government needed to reduce the unemployment rate, and taking all those new workers out of the statistics for a while could only help.

    My own conviction, as I’ve said here before, is that putting unnecessary educational qualifications down as requirements for employment reduces the numbers of applicants one must consider, and can (if used judiciously) provide a lawsuit-proof reason for not hiring someone.

    And these requirements are often unnecessary in the sense that you don’t need a post-secondary degree at all to, say, do a lot of fairly routine or even moderately complex office work. You need to be literate, organized and quick to pick up computer software if the employer happens to use something you haven’t used before. But that’s not as easy to measure as whether or not someone has a degree.

    As for the gossip, I think that’s been going on forever. People have always gossiped, and they tend to gossip more about the people who stand out in their group – that is, the celebrities. It can get not merely trivial but nasty too, and has been criticized by moralists and philosophers forever too. Nowadays no one but a few bloggers seems to even blink at celebrity-worship, much less suggest a better kind of life to lead.


    11 Sep 11 at 3:05 pm

  3. I forgot. The Nozick business. Does no one shave with Fra Guilliam’s razor these days? Academics are not spared the usual faults of men, and a successful academic isn’t content with good wages, students who will do anything for an “A” and calling three courses a full semester’s load–which he can then drop on his graduate student while he attends conferences. He wants to be immune from criticism, be told all this is his by right and–important!–ensure that no one else ever gets more or better than he does.

    So with discouraging unanimity, they agree that in a just world this would be so. Rewards for life’s activities “ought” to be decided by people like themselves, in meetings of the sort they love. Argument and opinion should be everything, and stubborn inconvenient fact nothing. The surprising thing is not that they hold such beliefs, but that anyone should take them seriously.

    There are many in academia who cry out for justice. They should be careful lest they get some.


    11 Sep 11 at 5:14 pm

  4. “Education” has always been primarily a tool of class distinction; learning is a secondary function. Learning occurs throughout life and at the option of the individual, for whom it has value. Education, in order to serve its function of class differentiation, needs to occur early in life, and may not be welcomed by the student, who may not understand or value its function.

    Naturally, most learning occurs outside of schools. If anything, schools are an obstruction to learning – school not only consumes enormous time, but helps maintain class privileges that reduce the importance of actual knowledge and skill.


    11 Sep 11 at 5:22 pm

  5. The state school teachers called a one day strike last week. The main media coverage was along the lines of “What are parents going to do with their kids?” Are schools supposed to be educating or baby sitting?

    Hillsdale College looks quite interesting. Their Physics curriculum looks first rate on paper but they only have 4 men in their Physics Department.

    I’m not competent to judge any of their other departments.


    11 Sep 11 at 8:41 pm

  6. Schools do perform a baby-sitting function, and it’s not surprising that this is the function that comes to the fore when a school suddenly stops operating, and both parents, whose nearest non-working adult relatives are hundreds or thousands of kilometers away, are working full-time and can’t take time off without risking the loss of necessary income. And the ‘necessary income’ might pay for really basic necessities, not supersized houses and brand-name clothing.

    Education often is both a social class marker and a method through which one establishes social class, but it also has other functions of which learning is truly core. Sure, people learn all kinds of things in all kinds of ways, but I’ve found that the most efficient way to learn something new is to take a class in it. Moreover, if your culture (or the culture you want to live in) values reading and everything that goes with it – access to a wide range of ideas, work skills, improve communications etc – and also some version of equality, you need to have a universal and compulsory way to ensure that basic literacy is available to all. People like me, who learned to read without the intervention of a school, can still learn from the extra reading materials available there, and people who don’t learn on their own or at home, do get a chance to make up the deficiency.



    12 Sep 11 at 7:19 am

  7. Reading Susan Heuck Allen’s FINDING THE WALLS OF TROY. At one point, she describes the educational program for the sons of British expatriates in the eastern Med c. 1850: mathematics, navigation, cartography, Italian, English, history, geography, Latin and Greek. “This five-year course was designed to prepare students for the moderately-priced university in Malta, which conferred degrees in divinity, law and medicine.” Those not pursuing those three careers–or the armed services, which had their own academies–were done at 16.


    12 Sep 11 at 5:44 pm

  8. I would disagree that learning is a core function of education. IMO its purposes are (in order of precedence):

    1. Class differentiation – and to a large extent, the generational preservation of class membership.

    2. Socialization/Indoctrination/Propaganda/Conformity. Or, to be more direct: brainwashing.

    3. Babysitting, so that mothers can work full time (see below).

    4. “Learning” in general. Things like history and Latin and literature are useless to the 99% of the population who don’t care about them, but at least they realize that there is a world beyond their semi-literate perspective. Maybe. At least they learn to appreciate class distinctions, and to accept that the doctor deserves to make ten times as much as them because he’s “smart”.

    5. Keeping children off the job market. This is a historical holdover from the days when absolute poverty for the working class was not actually considered a /desirable/ thing. These days, with plenty of working mothers and illegal aliens to draw on, it’s more a matter of keeping the kids busy enough so that vandalism stays at manageable levels.

    6. Teaching useful skills. It does happen, but it isn’t a priority and if a student obtains a PhD without learning anything useful (or even anything useless) the educational system is deemed to have been a success.

    I have an engineering degree from a reputable college. I did learn some things in my four mandatory years, but almost none of it is applicable in modern engineering. I could have learned enough in a three-week intersession course to function just as well. In fact, I could have got by quite well with an eighth grade education (and some of my fellow engineers /have/, for practical purposes). I’ve learned more (occupationally) useful things in the two years since graduation than I learned in school, and none of it could have been acquired in any class available.

    For non-engineering subjects (those notorious gen-eds), school was nothing but an interruption. I no longer had the free time to read history or philosophy. Nor did I need the free A’s to boost my GPA.

    Concerning the growing length of modern periods of education: this has nothing to do with the increasing body of knowledge to be learned, because no one learns it in school anyway. The underlying cause is (1) class differentiation. The more people finish high school, the more people have to go to college to maintain their class position. Same for college vs. grad school. A post-doc is the new high school, or union card, or journeyman rating.


    12 Sep 11 at 7:18 pm

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