Last month I complained about formal expertise. Although often very useful, I said, it can be blind to obvious realities.
The problem is that it wants its authority to seem indisputably objective and reliable. For that reason, it models itself on the modern natural sciences and emphasizes institutional consensus. So it ignores sources of knowledge—intuition, tradition, informal pattern recognition, personal insight and experience—that are often indispensable, and its conclusions are often affected by institutional bias.
Such at least are common tendencies. The result is that certified experts are often wrong, even obviously wrong, especially when they deal with human affairs. Last month I provided examples regarding education and responses to COVID-19.
Even so, many people seem to believe that institutionally accredited experts should run the world, because the kind of knowledge they possess is the only reliable way to know anything. Ordinary people are thus expected to ignore their own observations and common sense—now considered ignorance and prejudice—and simply accept what they are told. Today many people treat that as the very definition of rationality.
But such complaints about overblown claims don’t say much about the importance of actual knowledge. We need knowledge to deal with the world and place ourselves within it, so it’s obviously basic to our lives. We normally pick up most of our knowledge from experience and the people around us, in a sort of informal apprenticeship in living in the world. But organized effort is also necessary. Some things are better learned that way, and some aspects of life are subtle and complicated and require specialized study.
Schools and universities are therefore, in principle, very good things. But what knowledge should they teach, and how should they go about teaching it? That leads us into the most basic questions about formal education: what are its goals, and how are those goals to be achieved?
The basic goal of education, it seems to me, is to incline people to act well in the world and make them more able to do so. To the extent possible—some things are difficult to inculcate reliably in an organized way—it should also help them in their pursuit of ultimate goods.
But how can these things be done? Providing technical knowledge is certainly part of it. We need people to study medicine, engineering, the natural sciences, and so on. Beyond that, all serious pursuits have technical aspects: literature involves grammar and literary form, history methods of developing and evaluating evidence, philosophy the ability to understand exact definitions and follow detailed arguments. It is all to the good for there to be specialists, and for non-specialists to understand something about the basic principles they follow.
But however important technical matters are, they are secondary because they have to do with means. Overall, education should concentrate on helping young people connect to the human world and orient themselves within it, and through it to the basic purposes of life. For that reason topics such as history, literature, philosophy, and religion should be basic to the education most people receive, and especially to the advanced education intended for future leaders.
These subjects should be taught in a way that points students toward reality and our good, including our highest good. So they should be studied less from an academic or specifically practical standpoint than for the insight into man, God, the world, and our own society they can give us. Without that orientation they won’t have an integrating purpose that makes sense of them.
They should also be studied for their position within the tradition into which the students are being educated. Education needs to be education into a tradition: a tested structure of habits, attitudes, and recognitions that joins us together and orders our lives. Otherwise it becomes either indoctrination or a jumble of disjointed facts and injunctions.
Even scientific and technical education is education into a tradition, the tradition of the particular field of inquiry and practice, and of science and technology as a whole. That is why it is important who a young scientist has studied under—whether his supervisor had learned how to do science well and was able to pass that knowledge on to his students.
What is needed for good education?
First, a coherent tradition that is adequate to the world in which students will live and work. There is no point educating students into something that won’t serve them well. That is the biggest problem with American education today. In an age of commercialism, bureaucracy, propaganda, and multiculturalism, as well as social media that separate us from each other by connecting us equally to everyone everywhere, our tradition as Americans is rapidly disintegrating. What its remnants offer is not a life worth choosing.
To make matters worse, powerful institutions and currents of thought support that trend. Governing elites are unified by an outlook that combines technocracy and hedonistic utilitarianism with desire for stability and ever-more-comprehensive control of social life. They advance these goals by weakening people’s non-market and non-bureaucratic connections, and thus their ability to think and act independently.
Our rulers refer to that process as “educating for change” and “ensuring that everyone participates fully in contemporary society.” Others might call it “technocratic imperialism” and “converting human beings into human resources.” Either way, the question we should ask is whether the life it offers us—one composed of career, consumption, optional hobbies and lifestyle choices, and acceptance of whatever experts tell us—is the best we can realistically hope for.
It seems doubtful a serious Catholic will say it is. He is more likely to see it as practical atheism and worship of self and the social machine. For him the question thus becomes what sort of life and education is best for escaping the hole our society is falling into, and with it its educational system.
There has been much discussion recently regarding recovery of Christian tradition and community. On the educational side of that question a great deal of work has been done to promote a rebirth of humane and Catholic education. Someone who has not been deeply involved can’t give a full account of these activities. Even so, a relative outsider like myself should be capable of recognizing things that work and people who are worth listening to. Otherwise, reliance on superior knowledge would be a matter of blind irrational faith.
And what is notable is that education that works seems most often—as general principle suggests—to be education that emphasizes history, cultural tradition, and engagement with man’s highest goals. The growing movement toward Catholic classical education provides an example. It turns out that the Faith, together with the Western tradition it formed and within which it developed, can still be the basis for an education that is far better and more sustaining that what is generally on offer.
There have also been outstandingly successful university programs that study the great books of the West within a Catholic setting. The Pearson Integrated Humanities Program at the University of Kansas, and the Saint Ignatius Institute at the University of San Francisco, while it retained its independence, provide outstanding examples. The existence of such programs is often precarious, especially when associated with mainstream institutions. That may be because their goals are at odds with today’s world, or it could be a clash of personalities: the leaders of such efforts have often been outstanding teachers, and the academic world has a reputation for jealousy.
However that may be, what has been done can be done again. For years new or rather restored ideals of education have been emerging, taking concrete form, and gathering adherents. The homeschooling movement provides multiple additional examples. And the worse “mainstream” schools become, the better the outlook for true reform. But man proposes and God disposes. Time will tell, and while we wait we can only do our best.
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