The Traditional Calculus

In a trend largely predicated on the notion that (1) starting earlier and working harder will yield better testing outcomes and that (2) achieving better test scores will prepare children for a more productive and successful life, many American elementary schools are now offering programs for younger children such as K3 and K4. This is a grand social experiment predicated on the popular notion that more is better. But is it?

To begin with, I’m not so sure that focusing so narrowly on cognitive development is healthy or productive in the long run, especially at such a young age and especially at the expense of other equally important and valuable non-cognitive developmental needs like character building. Some might argue that the process of becoming successful testers teaches character, but I must say that from my experience I learned more about life outside of the classroom than I ever did inside of it.

To my mind one of the greatest challenges we face in educating the next generation is to find the way to overcome the lethargy of having been raised in a time of relative plenty that has been practically devoid of adversity. Sure the economic uncertainties of late have been dramatic, but how much has really changed? We’ve had much harder times on earth and when measured against those, what we’ve experienced of late is little more than a blip, a moment of mild discomfort.

While I don’t believe that true grit is only developed under times of pressure, uncertainty, adversity or scarcity, such restrictive circumstances do tend to force the issue. In the absence of these factors, what can be done? Plenty! For starters, we have to be willing to take our hands off the process and let our children experience difficulty and yes, even failure on a controlled basis.

Small challenges and little failures are like dumbbells to the weightlifter. They build muscle and prepare you for larger trials and tribulations. Such knowledge and experience cannot be gained by means of traditional cognitive development. It comes from practical, personal contact. If we shield children overly from that personal struggle, we deprive them of that opportunity.

There is, of course, a balance. Such experiences must, as much as possible, be on a controlled basis. And that is the responsibility of parents, teachers, mentors and the like. In summary, I believe that test scores are an important indicator of cognitive development, but if we rely on that as the primary means of shaping the minds and hearts of those into whose hands we’ll be placing the reins of humanity in the days to come, we’re missing the point!

The Ideal Citizen

“Democracy is a device that insures we shall be governed no better than we deserve.” – George Bernard Shaw

Of all the enemies who have ever menaced the United States of America, her biggest threat at all times is an insufficient number of citizens who are disposed to virtue and brimming with moral character. The preeminent threat to American security is found within her borders, and the most efficient way to neutralize this threat is found in the quality of the educational system.

Competent teachers in excellent schools produce dynamic citizens. The ideal citizen is one who assumes personal moral responsibility and who discharges his civic duties while contributing positively to the society in which he is privileged to function. The ideal citizen is at once humble, dignified, magnanimous and prolific. The ideal citizen is as willing to assume responsibility as he is to make good use of privilege.

“Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it.” – George Bernard Shaw

Training for Service

There are no vicious horses, just spoiled ones. Likewise, there are no evil people, just damaged ones. In many if not most cases, the injuries can be repaired and the gaps can be filled through a steady diet of empathetic attention and thoughtful intervention.

The ideal, of course, is to create a world wherein as little damage is done in the maturing process. Until that happens, however, there is the need for those who are eager to accept the responsibility of serving others. Willingness, of course, rarely guarantees capability, so there is the need for training.

How do you get this type of training nowadays? Families, schools, civic and religious organizations take various approaches, but the division of this particular labor, which has splintered a formerly cohesive system of training and preparation, makes it difficult to translate the compulsion to service into a practical vision for living.

As I mentioned yesterday, the Greek aristocrats had unifying or overarching societal goals like the notion of arete and as we touched on months ago, the Italian nobles sought to achieve sprezzatura in all areas of living. These notions of a holistic pattern of excellence compelled a constant refinement of physical capability, mental acuity and self-control and served as the flag around which those responsible for educating the youth in their respective eras rallied.

To what end do we educated our children in our era? Teacher and school effectiveness is largely measured by test scores, but what do they really tell you about the quality of education the children are receiving? Very little in my estimation. Surely we can do better.

The Spirit of the Method

The old and familiar maxim: “Knowledge is Power” shapes the way we look at education, marketing, politics, religion and many other areas of human activity. The idea that knowledge begets power is based on the limited view that humanity is meant to dominate his environment, rather than have dominion over it.

Domination is established through strength and power. It is the product of forced compliance and it is unsustainable because of its disconnection from the larger creative context of which it is a part. Dominion, on the other hand, manifests through agility and suppleness. It inspires a willing submission and compels agreement because of its synchronicity with the unifying pattern of truth.

Whereas domination divides, dominion divides but also connects. Domination coerces control by introducing an arbitrary and inflexible restraint on true creative expression, while dominion extends control in lockstep with the wheels within wheels of creation. A horse, for example, can be held artificially in a desirable frame or he can be brought progressively into a state of fitness and understanding which allows him to hold that frame willingly and even proudly, if that can be said.

Likewise, a child can be educated in one of two ways. The first, and most prevalent is based on the notion that knowledge is power. To that aim, facts and figures are pasted on from the outside, typically with complete disregard to the inner wisdom of the child. The second, yet more desirable sees knowledge as the means of unlocking the true creative expression already resident in the child. Knowledge in the former is an end and in the latter is a means to an end.

Knowledge is not power, but the agility and suppleness that attend a well-organized system of knowledge do allow for a safe and contained increase in the expression of power. Loosely arranged or poorly organized knowledge is dangerous in that it does not provide a safe container for power. Power inevitably leaks through holes in understanding.

I have found this distinction to be an important one in every field of human activity I’ve explored. While there are many examples that could be given in support of it, I am privileged to share an example that comes from the field of classical equitation. General Decarpentry, a distinguished scholar of artistic equitation who served in the venerable Cadre Noir from 1904 to 1913 and again from 1925 to 1931 as the school’s second-in-command, provided a useful explanation of how dominion can be established in the field of equitation in his book Academic Equitation, A training system based on the methods of D’Aure, Baucher and L’Hotte:

The methods employed in Academic Equitation are in no way different from the ones used ever since the beginning of training, and they are in fact the only means man disposes of to train any kind of animal.

They consist of progressively developing applications of the principle of submission, by substituting for the means primitively employed to obtain it, other more convenient means that give scope for wider and more subtle applications.

The conventional language which has been thus gradually established between rider and mount becomes enriched with new signs. The understanding of the horse develops. The combined use of the signs, the isolated meaning of which has been established separately, allows the rider to enlarge the scope of his teaching, which always proceeds from the known to the unknown.

This is the spirit of the method. It uses conventional language to apply to the body of the horse the gymnastic progression of a series of movements intended to develop his agility rather than his strength, and his suppleness rather than his power.

Thoughts on Education

Fabulous cheese. Elegant and complicated watches. Excellent engineering. Unflappable punctuality. Discreet banking. Nobel Prize winning scientists and engineers. These are just a few of the things that the tiny country of Switzerland is recognized for around the world. I am compelled this morning to ask what produces excellence in so many fields?

The educational system in a country has a lot to do with its output. My recent consideration of the system of education we have in the United States prompted me to look further afield, and I must say that the system of education in Switzerland was not what I expected. I am delighted this morning to share what little I know on the topic (gleaned from a conversation with my Swiss cousin who lives in central Switzerland and who is of Bernese descent).

If you are unfamiliar with Switzerland, it is an unusual blend of languages and local dialects, customs and primary influences. There are four official languages: German, French, Italian and Romanish. The German spoken in Switzerland is mostly a group of Alemannic dialects collectively known as Swiss German, though most written communication is in Hochdeutsch or Standard German. Interestingly, the dialects typically do not exist in written form, but are passed down orally.

As for the educational system, the Swiss system is quite diverse as authority for the schools rests mainly with the Cantons (the equivalent of our states). Primary school begins at the age of six in all but one canton (the Obwalden, where my cousin lives) and ends at the age of 12 or so typically. Unlike in the USA, only roughly 20% of the population of students continue on to Gymnasium or as it is called in the USA “high school”, a track that culminates at the age of 18-19 with a final exam called Matura, which then opens the door to a university education.

The remaining 80% of students typically enter a trade or vocational track, which requires 3 more years of schooling followed by vocational education and training, where the student continues with school 1-2 days per week and works in a private enterprise 3-4 days per week, where they gain practical and technical skills.

This system may not seem compatible with the notions of equal opportunity and the right to the pursuit of happiness, but in my estimation it does provide for its students in ways that our one-size-fits-all approach to education in the USA does not. It seems that it gives students a chance to choose, based on their personal inclination, an approach that best suits their educational goals and career interests. And it provides them with an honorable approach to following through on the choice they make.

The Ever-Threatening Slide

The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” – Winston Churchill

I fear for the future of our great nation. We’ve gone a long way on the momentum generated by our forefathers, but we’ve made two mistakes in the field of education that I feel compromise our ability to maintain the liberty that was generously bequeathed to us.

The first mistake came when we moved away from the two millennia old system of classical education based on the Greco-Roman model in the early part of the 19th century. The world had moved on, it was argued, and the old focus on the seven pillars of a liberal arts education – grammar, dialectic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy – were abandoned in favor of a newer, ostensibly better approach.

The second mistake was the shift in the way outcomes were measured. This change was more subtle, but no less dramatic. Today’s can no longer focus on cultivating a lusty passion for the truth, instead, they are constrained by the need to hit certain marks in standardized tests.

This well-intentioned double-whammy effectively took the pedals off of the bicycle. The rest of the equipment is there, but without the pedals it is very difficult to do much of anything easily. The ultimate risk, of course, would be that we would unintentionally produce an entire generation (or several of them) whose foundation was insufficient to arrest the ever-threatening slide from democracy to tyranny.

Modern Problems, Ancient Solutions

The ancient Greeks and Romans had solutions for many of the problems that plague our country today. They recognized that human nature is a double-edged sword and that steps can be taken to mitigate the expression of its lesser qualities while magnifying its finer ones. They understood as well that liberty is not a given, rather, it is a delicate state that must be carefully protected from the foibles of the dark side of human nature.

One of the great challenges to any generation concerned with forward movement is to embrace change without diluting the foundational elements which contributed to the successes of previous generations. The Romans provide an excellent historical example of just how hard it is to navigate these waters. They sought to preserve the more successful elements of the ancient Greek culture, but ended up mimicking more than grokking, which means that the classical ideals were present in appearance, but not in fact. The Roman Republic gave way to the Roman Empire and liberty was lost in the transition.

The great minds of the Renaissance, some 1,500 years later, observed a decline in the arts and the humanities as well as a corruption of the classical educational system developed in classical antiquity. In an effort to stem this tide, they dedicated themselves to a passionate study of the classical period. The Italian author Niccolò Machiavelli, for instance, described his pursuit of this quarry in visceral terms:

At the door I take off my muddy everyday clothes. I dress myself as though I were about to appear before a royal court as a Florentine envoy. Then decently attired I enter the antique courts of the great men of antiquity. They receive me with friendship; from them I derive the nourishment which alone is mine and for which I was born. Without false shame I talk with them and ask them the causes of the actions; and their humanity is so great they answer me. For four long and happy hours I lose myself in them. I forget all my troubles; I am not afraid of poverty or death. I transform myself entirely in their likeness.

Nearly 500 years later we are faced once again with the erosion of liberty. The same arguments made by the authors of the Renaissance are being made daily by people of every station in our country. Virtues are waning, our educational system is organized around a misleading goal and while everyone seems to talk about it, nobody is willing to take off their “muddy everyday clothes” and “dress [themselves] as though [they] were about to appear before a Royal Court (Florentine for ‘think outside of the box’).”