The World of our Fathers is no More

T. S. Eliot in a brief, 1932 essay, Modern Education and the Classics, had this to say about education:

“Questions of education are frequently discussed as if they bore no relation to the social system in which and for which the education is carried on. This is one of the commonest reasons for the unsatisfactoriness of the answers. It is only within a particular social system that a system of education has any meaning. If education today seems to deteriorate, if it seems to become more and more chaotic and meaningless, it is primarily because we have no settled and satisfactory arrangement of society, and because we have  both vague and diverse opinions about the kind of society we want. Education is a subject which cannot be discussed in a void: our questions raise other questions, social, economic, financial, political. And the bearings are on more ultimate problems even than these: to know what we want in general, we must derive our theory of education from our philosophy of life….”

Educators are still of Eliot’s, I believe, mistaken persuasion, that it is only within a particular social system that a system of education has any meaning, and that questions of education need to be discussed in relation to that social system. For Eliot in 1932 Christianity was losing its hold on the West and as a result education was losing its heart and center.

Perhaps because the fathers’ world does become the world of the sons, the educators assume that the sons should be taught the fathers’ world. And that the son’s school should be like that of the father, as it has in fact been for some 100 years or more.

There may have been times in history that this was indeed the case, when it was enough that the children learned what their fathers knew.

Think of hunter-gatherers (tens of thousands of years during which fathers hunted and mothers gathered), the Zhou Dynasty in China (800 years and 37 emperors), the Roman Empire and the subsequent Christian Europe (some 1500 years preceding the modern era), although this latter period probably had much of the chaos of our own times.

In these earlier civilizations education may have been nothing more than the passing on of the same knowledge and skills through hundreds of generations, much like successive generations of salmon “learning” to return upstream to spawn and die, doing this over and over again, with nary a thought as to what they were doing, for millions of years.

Eliot probably would have liked to bring his children (the children of his time, anyway, of whom I was one) into a Christian civilization, to teach them the tenets of that civilization in school, but that was not possible in 1932, nor is it possible today. That’s no longer the way things are.

Eliot is probably right in that when there is no widely accepted social system there can be no widely accepted system of education. For how then does one answer the question, —education for what— when the what is evolving and changing? One can’t.

But should there ever be, among us, one widely accepted social system, or widely accepted system of education?

The best we’ve come up with in recent times may have been one derived in good part from the tenets of liberal democracy. That the fathers pass on the ideas of Thomas Jefferson, the other founding fathers, John Locke, the Declaration of Independence and all that, to their sons.

But even these men and ideas are aggressively opposed by large numbers of peoples throughout the world. And the sons know this and can no longer blindly accept the word, let alone the world of their fathers.

We need rather to accept that there can be no single system of education, just as there can be no single religion or social system. Our world is of multiple persuasions, is constantly changing, now more than ever, and right before our eyes.

We need to accept the very chaos of our world, the chaos that Eliot rejects. For things, in chaos, if you want to call it that, are evolving too rapidly for fathers to know enough to teach their sons.

And in fact fathers may even learn as much from their sons, as their sons from them. For with their eyes open fathers will see their sons realizing their own and different, and up until then unknown potential, and they will experience the new along with their sons.

What we can say about education is that it should be thoroughly open ended, and that it has to allow space for individual children to grow and develop their own different and particular talents. The social system can no longer be just one. Children are too different for that.

This is not new, but our realization of this may be new.

Education should never again be in the business of subjecting the new and promising talents of the young to the stifling and closed world of the old, as was the case, perhaps of necessity, with the hunter gatherers, the Zhou dynasty, Eliot’s own beloved Christian Middle Ages, and now even the world of our own fathers and mothers.

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