Saturday, July 7, 2012

Revolutionary Changes in the Focus and Philosophy of Education

From The Christendom Review:
For over two thousand years Great Books were the basis of education in the West. In antiquity Jewish youth studied Old Testament literature and commentaries on scripture; Greek students read Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, while Roman scholars studied Virgil’s Aeneid. At the beginning of the Christian era, classical and Christian books together formed the basis of education in Christendom. Through the Middle Ages and Renaissance, up until around the beginning of the twentieth century, the staple of higher education was great literature or the classics. The grammar school lad, the young scholar, and the collegian spent much of their time reading Great Books, memorizing and declaiming selected passages, and imitating in their own compositions passages noted for eloquence in style or potency in theme. These books gave them a way to see beauty and goodness, to come to terms with such concepts as love and liberty, and to understand historical, economic, and political events. They gave the student an intelligible picture of the world.

But revolutionary changes in the focus and philosophy of education have altered the curriculum. The elective system has vastly increased the number of specialized, usually pragmatic, instrumental, and utilitarian courses in the curriculum. The old core of the liberal arts college (humane studies in theology, ethics, literature, philosophy, and the fine arts—largely the study of Great Books in these disciplines) shrank as students elected to take specialized courses in specific disciplines, usually those that have practical ramifications in terms of career and cash. With the elective system (or the cafeteria-style curriculum), the student is not exposed to the best that has been thought, said, and made (to adapt Matthew Arnold’s phrase) but elects to take what interests him from a host of marketable degrees.

T. S. Eliot, writing in the 1930s, tells us of the consequences of the elective system. When students no longer study the same subjects and read the same books, they have no sense of “continuity and coherence in literature and the arts,” they have no shared “body of knowledge.” Consequently, “the idea of wisdom disappears, and you get sporadic and unrelated experimentation” (Christianity and Culture 32-33). William Butler Yeats describes a similar effect of the loss of cultural cohesion in “The Second Coming” (1919). As the old European order of Christendom disintegrates, “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”
Some sort of center is required for information to rise to knowledge, and for knowledge to rise to wisdom. Great Books, especially the Bible, used to supply this center, this orientation: a moral compass, a sense of the common good, an understanding of what it means to be human. more >>

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