The problem of the problem of education

A large part of the current problem of education is that education is currently treated as a problem, as opposed to having a problem.

That education stands in need of practical solution is true—but the solution lies not so much in a practical strategy of repair or recalibration, as though it were a broken engine, but rather in a fundamental re-visioning of its problematic state in which the young are not only failing to learn, but also forming a calloused resistance to learning. It is a problem, make no mistake, in a general sense, but its reversal lies in recognizing that education is not something that can be solved like any ordinary problem. Put simply, education is not a problem; it is a solution and should be treated as such.

Education is an art, not a science, and therefore it does not find its essence in strict processes or automations, but rather in leisure and virtuosity. Schools are not research institutions. They are not data mills. They are conservatories of culture. They are friends in conversation. In the current anti-cultural climate, however, how can teachers—Catholic teachers especially—ensure that students learn the rudiments of culture, let alone the rudiments of faith?

The answer, like so many of the profoundest truths may not be simple, but it is straightforward: Stop reducing education to a pragmatic course of problem-solving and start returning education to the conversations about the things that do not change.

The prevalent admission of the failure of education has not created a prevalent realization that education has simply ceased to take place. Instead it has fostered a reactionary belief that the crisis is a matter of rearranging raw educational materials so that they will work again.

These approaches are often nothing more than slapping the side of the fuzzy television or kicking the fender of the sputtering car. They fail to get at the heart of the matter by making a fuss over exteriors. For instance, the problem-solving strategists argue that schools should teach something like the classics, but not the classics. Students should read something like the great novels, but not the great novels. The inevitable conclusion is a concise, inclusive, politically correct textbook reinforced with power points, lesson plans, smart boards, and worksheets—a thing too sterilized and stultified to spark the imagination or intellect.

Catholic educators, too, fall into such errors in trying to solve the problem of the failure of catechesis as though it were a mechanical problem, with their own prepackaged curricula and teacher scripts. They fall into a similar mode of argument positing that Catholics should learn something like the catechism, but not the catechism.

Again, the problem perpetuates itself for the catechism is not a problem to be solved. It is a truth to be learned, lived, and loved, and the same is true for all subjects of any authentic education. Teachers, whether Catholic or otherwise, if they are to teach truly—that is to teach the truth honestly and compellingly—must resist such perfunctory, utilitarian, approaches and focus more on the ends rather than on the means.

Unadulterated education—real education which really draws out the humanity from any human being—commands that we go to the source; and that source is not a glossary of information or index of instruction manuals that are learned only to be forgotten because they are lifeless. It is the wellspring of reason and faith that flows from every person if the floodgates are only opened wide enough. Meanwhile, narrow mainstream strategies continue to drown school systems in seas of red tape and regulations that masquerade as solutions. Failings are assessed, objectives are set, diagrams are created, processes are approved, and the problems remain.

The truths that change people’s lives cannot be approached in a direct way as life’s problems can, for that makes a problem out of something that is not a problem.

Young people will not learn if they are reduced to cogs in a remedial equation or statistical study. They will not learn if they are just part of a problem. They will only learn when education returns to the consideration and contemplation of those matters that transcend mere problems.

The necessary inclusion of religion in education becomes clear when considering this transcendental, spiritual approach that does not shy away from encounters with the divine, creating the difficult yet necessary balance of logic and love. Education has problems that need solving, but it is not itself a problem to be solved. It is a solution to be perfected.

SEAN FITZPATRICK is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and serves as the headmaster of Gregory the Great Academy in Elmhurst, Pa. He also serves on the Advisory Council for Sophia Institute for Teachers. His writings on education, literature and culture have appeared in Crisis Magazine, The Imaginative Conservative, and Catholic Exchange.

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