Question we never ask about education

The first question to ask about education is the question we never ask: What is it? G.K. Chesterton says it isn’t anything. Strange that I would bring up Chesterton this early. Usually I wait till the end and let him finish things off. I suppose I could just end here now that I’ve invoked him, but there are readers who might argue that I haven’t really concluded anything yet. To say that education isn’t anything might strike some as requiring a bit more explanation.

Okay, let’s explain. Education is not theology or geology. Theology exists. Geology exists. Even though it might be hard to believe, malacology exists. (The study of mollusks, of course.) But education is not a word like theology or geology or even malacology. Education, says Chesterton, is a word like transmission or inheritance.

“It is not an object, but a method. It must mean the conveying of certain facts, views or qualities, to the last baby born. They might be the most trivial facts or the most preposterous views or the most offensive qualities; but if they are handed on from one generation to another they are education.”

Chesterton goes on to state the case simply: Education is only truth in the state of transmission; it is the act of passing the truth from one generation to the next.

But we have taken education, which is the means of conveying theology or geology, and made it into an end in itself. We have made education into a thing, or at least we think we have, because we cannot or will not say what it is.

The unexamined word is not worth saying. Except in the case of the word education, which, it turns out, is a very profitable word to say. When a politician or an official says it, people start throwing money. After all, who can be against education? They say the word education because it is uncontroversial. It is uncontroversial because it doesn’t mean anything. What they do not want to say is what is actually being taught, or what is not being taught, or what is supposed to be taught, which is the whole issue. But that is the question no one bothers asking. And more pointedly, no one asks: Are we teaching the truth? If we are not passing the truth from one generation to the next, we are not teaching anything.

One of the problems plaguing the education industry is that it is an industry. It is focused so much on theories of education, rather than on what is taught, that it has lost sight of its purpose. Thus, we have top-heavy school administrations, layers of government bureaucracy, political posturing, and millions of children who don’t know how to read or write or speak or think. There is no continuity because there is no consensus on truth. The emphasis on technique over substance, or even the ignoring of substance altogether in favor of technique, is largely responsible for the chaos in the classroom. As Chesterton says, children today are subjected to educational theories that are younger than they are. He said this over 100 years ago. If it was bad then, it’s worse now.

The good news is that there is a solution. And even better, it is not a new solution to a new problem; it is the same solution to the same problem. If education is truth in the state of transmission, then we just have to tell the truth. Even though this is always good advice, it is especially important when we teach.

“The object of telling the truth,” says Chesterton, “is that you may be believed afterwards. The object of telling a lie is that you may be believed now.” If we teach just fads and fashions and not the time-tested traditions, we may be “believed now,” but we are leading students astray in doing so, because we have given them nothing permanent to carry with them their whole lives. They will realize we gave them dust as soon as it blows away. But by teaching the truth, we give them something from which they will always benefit, something that they will return to, something that will indeed “be believed afterwards,” because they will continually learn that it is true.

This is not to say that every fad is a falsehood. Chesterton says a fad is like a heresy. It is “the exaltation of something which, even if true, is secondary or temporary in its nature against those things which are essential and eternal, those things which always prove themselves true in the long run. In short, it is the setting up of the mood against the mind.”

Modern education, along with the whole modern world, is much more concerned with the mood than the mind. It is one of the reasons we have been driven to distraction by movements based on anger, envy, lust, and other moods inspired by sin. We never know when or how the next trend will veer.

Chesterton avoids the term the “modern mind” because it keeps changing its mind. The point is that none of these things have been thought out very well. We substitute catchwords for actual thinking. You’ve heard them, so I’m not going to repeat them. Except for one. It’s time to recognize that one of the most formless and frustrating catchwords is “education.”

DALE AHLQUIST is President of the American Chesterton Society, editor of Gilbert!, host of the EWTN series The Apostle of Common Sense, and chairman of the Chesterton Schools Network.

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