An Overview of Education

Education: Both a Means and an End


First Things First

". . . the cultivation of the person is the root of everything else. It cannot be that, when the root is neglected, what springs from it will be well ordered."

The Great Learning, a chapter of the Li chi, which is one of the Five Classics of Confucianism

The topic of education is an exceptionally important one here at Everything Progressive, as we advocate for a renewed commitment to the ideals that gave rise to both the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Famously, a Renaissance ideal of human character was that of the "Renaissance man"; and the Enlightenment gave us Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, not to mention Kant, Condorcet, and Gibbon, exemplars to varying degrees of that ideal. The path to the development of greater numbers of individuals such as this leads directly through a more effective and better-oriented system of education. And, while most of us will never be Franklins or Jeffersons, we all do need to develop both a good understanding of the world and good judgment so that, in a moment of crisis, we don't find ourselves uttering dangerous and foolish recommendations about ingesting disinfectants. Apart from such practical matters, becoming well-educated is, of itself, among the most important elements of a rich life well-lived.

Our two mentors in all things educational are American philosophers Brand Blanshard and Mortimer Adler. Blanshard possessed the keenest mind of anyone the editor of this publication has ever encountered; and Adler was almost certainly the best-educated man who has ever lived. Both men were greatly interested in the question of what an education is for and how it is best attained; and there is very considerable convergence in their thinking concerning an optimal program of education.

We commend Blanshard's book The Uses of a Liberal Education as the most canonical ever written on the topic. For his part, Adler was the initiator of the "Paideia Program" which culminated in the founding of Paideia schools across the US. These continue to function to this day (see this link for an exciting introduction.) Commendably, educators currently involved in Paideia schools have begun incorporating elements of the "Maker" movement in their curricula.

To make the case for Paideia schools, Adler authored The Paideia Proposal, An Educational Manifesto, as well as The Paideia Program, An Educational Syllabus, and Paideia Problems and Possibilities, all of which we strongly commend to readers. Homeschoolers and principals will find, in The Paideia Program, An Educational Syllabus, recommended reading for a core school or home library, as well as numerous practical suggestions for teaching core subjects.

The need for Paideia schools of the type Adler describes has never been more urgent than it is now.

History has put forward several competing visions of the relationship of the individual to society. In the feudal (and corporate) conception, the individual exists for no purpose other than to support a life of leisure for a tiny gentry. Today, this vision is promulgated by "neoliberals" in the form of charter schools.

Nominally, though not in reality, a diametrically opposed vision is that of cowboy "rugged individualism": proud, sometimes heavily armed persons go it alone against steep odds, possibly helping others occasionally as a matter of noblesse oblige; but, as personal liberty trumps every other virtue, help is never offered as a matter of reciprocity between members of a community, while accepting help is regarded as a matter of crushing humiliation and catastrophic loss of self-respect. (Note how nicely this complements the feudal conception - the "cowboys" must never challenge the existence and perogatives of the "gentry", and above all they must never ask anything of them, or of the nominally "small" yet always militarily well-endowed government that they manipulate from behind the scenes.)

Both of these absurd visions are rich in dismal consequences. The feudal model leads directly to the sort of nightmare society pictured by George Orwell in 1984 (nightmarish for everyone except, of course, the would-be lordlings — or "Atlases", or CEOs, or bankers — who are the only ones who can ever be found advocating for it, and who, well aware of this lack of appeal, can be found constantly sneaking about in elitist cliques, plotting world domination like the villains of some exceptionally bad Bond movie). The latter leads directly to the condition so vividly described by the British philosopher Hobbes: a life "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." (But, ah! The dust, the odors of fresh cattle-droppings and unwashed bodies!)

Differing from both of these dreary, unjust, and impractical, extremes are the assorted visions of a commonwealth, one classic version of which is described in the Li chi (quoted above). In that work can be found the essence of the Confucian social order grounded in ethics. ". . . the Li chi, shows society not as an adversarial system based on contractual relationships but as a community of trust with emphasis on communication. Society organized by the four functional occupations—the scholar, farmer, artisan, and merchant—is, in the true sense of the word, a cooperation. As a contributing member of the cooperation each person is obligated to recognize the existence of others and to serve the public good." (The Encyclopedia Brittanica)

Experience has shown that here, too, can be found many elements of romanticism: trust is only too readily abused, reciprocity often breaks down in the face of selfishness, and service on behalf of the public good tends to be much grumbled about and to degenerate into naked self-interest. Still, as Churchill famously remarked, the democratic commonwealth is easily the "least worst" of the forms of government tried to date. Moreover, it is the only system for which the consent of the governed can truly be claimed (however weakly), and hence it is the only morally legitimate system of governance. Consequently, instead of unending nightmares, in a democratic commonwealth we tend to encounter instead episodic bad dreams and sordid runs of corruption.

And, in the Confucian version of a commonwealth, at least, there lies an additional advantage: the means of terminating the never-ending class wars that have blighted nearly all of human history. The means lies in the search for justice for everyone. This search may prove elusive, certainly it will prove difficult, and in most cases no one will be completely satisfied; but as the cliche has it: no justice, no peace; know justice, know peace.

Education and the Democratic Commonwealth

For all their idealism, the Confucian scholars were anything but hopeless dreamers. They recognized the impossibility of ever achieving a state of perfect equality. While all men and women should certainly be equal before the law, they will never be equal in either ability or ambition. The Confucian solution to this very real and eternal dilemma was both demanding and difficult of attainment, but it was the only one that seems at all possible, even today: somewhat greater material rewards can be merited by, and awarded to, some, they thought; but this is only ever appropriate when greater rewards are conjoined with better moral character. That is, a real meritocracy is one comprised of individuals of both greater ability and greater morality. To allocate greater rewards to individuals of ability who are, however, of below average character is to court that form of social disaster we know as the class war, since wealth readily translates into political power.

Throughout history, class wars won by individuals lacking a strong sense of justice (or, worse still, motivated by a perverse delight in injustice) have culminated in dictatorships. Hence, the Confucians held that the gateway to greater material success should lead through mastery of both an education in character, and an education in some more pragmatic specialty.

How does all of this pertain to the educational system we propose here?

Education for a Democratic Commonwealth

The least valuable conception of education (the businessman's feudal, or "back to basics", view) lies in the imparting of a narrow body of a few specific vocational skills, and a smattering of other knowledge. Basic reading, and perhaps some mathematics, though not necessarily anything beyond arithmetic, would comprise the core curriculum. (School sports teams are never at risk, and arts programs always are.) Obviously, the feudal model is a poor substitute for a real education, by intent. On the other hand, this sort of education does provide such skills as are needed to be a greeter at Wal-Mart (the largest private employer in the US).

The "rugged individualist", whose closest approach to a cattle-drive in the real world will be his career burger wrangling at McDonald's, wouldn't have much time or need for education anyway; and, faced with the daunting task of paying for such an education entirely out of his own forever empty pocket, wouldn't be able to afford one anyway. (Accordingly, there's not really much of a body of educational theory around "rugged individualism" — or "rugged burger wrangling", if that phrase seems more descriptive - and accurate.)

On the Confucian view, an education is both the most important avenue to self-cultivation and to preparation for life in a genuine society. On this view persons have intrinsic value, and not merely the instrumental value of an employee under the medieval corporatist and "rugged individualist" schemes.

China has never been a democracy, and most of the failures of the Confucian educational system can be attributed to its embedding in the feudal society that was already long in place, which (like all conservative/authoritarian forms of government) was prone to corruption, stagnation, and endless social turmoil. Accordingly, there isn't any aspect of traditional Confucian education that corresponded to the participation of a citizen in a democracy. However, if we update the Confucian model to include life a democracy (comprised, on the economic side, primarily of small, employee-owned businesses or co-ops), it would serve emminently well. At the same time, the construction of a genuine democracy would clear away the primary obstacles to the success of this model. That's largely already been accomplished in Finland.

More Advanced Topics

There are numerous issues here that need further consideration. For example, the role of citizen requires advanced critical thinking skills, which at present receive almost no attention in contemporary American schools. (This is not, of course, accidental.) There is also the thorny issue of how to achieve an education in character in a secular society, in which any sort of ethical teaching is apt to be regarded with suspicion by all concerned. And, as currently taught, some subjects, such as history, completely omit key issues in history, such as the nature of class warfare. (This is an especially important educational issue now, as the US rapidly descends into a corporate-fascist feudal society.)

We'll be having a closer look at these, and other issues in future pages of Everything Progressive.


The most developed resources concerning education at EP at present will be found here.


The Editor / Everything Progressive