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Compulsory Miseducation: Education's Sine Qua Non


Our public (and much of our private) education system suffers from the same disease as brought about the collapse of the Soviet Union: "the best lack all conviction". That may not prevent them from imparting information and technique, but they have nothing to profess, and therefore cannot educate. My paper enlarges upon this diagnosis.

[ A revised version of this paper will soon be published by the NEW OXFORD REVIEW. ]


Graeme Hunter

 Author Notes

Professor, Department of Philosophy, University of Ottawa

 Essay - 4/20/1997

Miseducation is the norm in the entire public system. The best thing about it is that it ceases to be compulsory at age 16. Here are three questions that need to be considered: 1) What is the cause of miseducation? 2) Why can't the public system heal itself? 3) Is it possible to get an education today? I will deal mainly with the upper end of the education system, which I know best, but most of my remarks will apply across the board.

1) What Is The Cause Of Miseducation?

Miseducation is not obvious to everyone. Many of our fellow Canadians seem unaware of it. Why so? At least three factors help to explain their blind spot. 1) There is still plenty of natural talent. We know from our own friends and from our children that the stream of natural aptitude and even genius flows as copiously as ever. 2) We daily interact with people of diverse and impressive skills. Our society rests on a technological foundation of awesome complexity and therefore there must exist people capable of running it. 3) We know that some people still do graduate from our public institutions equipped for life in our complex society, though we may wish that it happened more frequently.

To the casual observer these factors project an appearance of at least moderate educational success, making credible the voice of interested parties like schools of education or teachers unions who, while conceding that the public system could be improved, deny vehemently that it is irreparably broken. Nevertheless they are wrong. It is irreparably broken.

When we look more closely at our schools we see that while they can still teach certain skills they rarely or never impart the thing for which schools and universities were originally desired - education. The first universities grew up beside technical schools and competed with them. Like their modern counterparts, medieval students with well-defined career ambitions would avoid university, or go there only as a second choice, for the very reason that it did not encourage the direct acquisition of skills. It tried instead to impart not a narrow training, but a theoretical understanding that placed technique in a wider field of human engagements. Universities hoped to assign to the various sciences their place in a total picture relating each to all the rest. The reason universities today do not educate is that they no longer have the ambition of distinguishing themselves by these means from technical schools. This is also why reflective observers of education, like the late Canadian philosopher George Grant, began to call them 'multiversities', because they stood not for one picture of life, but many. Not that multiversities had suddenly grown broadminded or "inclusive", as they liked to pretend. Instead they had undergone a crisis of belief. It was not that they now believed many different things to be true, though that is what they wanted outsiders to think; it was rather that they had no firm convictions about anything. No longer could they gather the atomic disciplines into one body of knowledge. Instead the multiversities permitted the disciplines to fall through the uncomprehending void, like the atoms of Democritus.

Long before the 1960s the university's core subjects, the liberal arts and the learned professions, had entered into a marriage of convenience with practical matters like engineering and dentistry. This being a merely formal marriage, without intimacy, however, it permitted both parties to pursue their separate lives as before. But since the 1960s, through the door these new practicalities left ajar, has come a flood of interlopers neither liberal nor practical: "Leisure studies" (the science of remaining in bed), "Human kinetics" (the science of getting up) and Queer Studies (a bit of both). 'Multiversity' is too affirmative a word for this imbroglio. We now have 'omniversities' where anything goes.

What is appalling is not merely the unwholesome concoction of science and flatulence taught in the omniversity. It is that there is no agreement on whether real method or subject-matter are desirable things. Fundamental questions of the utmost importance are casually dismissed as relics of phallo-centric, logocentric, eurocentric ... well, I'm sure you know the mantra - while ephemeral things take centre stage.

Each omniversity is geographically one thing, a rural or urban campus. But it is not conceptually unified. It is a volatile mixture of unrelated, often mutually hostile, pursuits. If our children are lucky, single-minded and disciplined they can still get career training there. But it will not give them that sense of priorities that we call common sense. At omniversity, they cannot acquire a comprehensive picture of our history that shows them where they fit, encourages noble conduct and disciplines their minds. They cannot become familiar with their place in the world, its moral demands and its spiritual rewards. They cannot learn to tell the better from the worse, the transitory from the abiding. In a word, though they may acquire a bizarre mixture of inchoate experience from the omniversity, they will not get an education there.

The omniversity celebrates the egalitarian rejection of all distinctions of high and low, better and worse, right and wrong. It regards them one and all as invidious discrimination. The home of such therapeutic wonders as womens' studies, black studies, native studies, queer studies, leisure studies, etc. resembles an egalitarian daycare centre for adult dysfunctionals where the nice refinements at which education aims are out of place. The omniversity is thus non-educational not by accident, but by design. And if education is not encouraged in the omniversity, it will be absent altogether in schools, because omniversities teach teachers.

2) Why Can't the System Repair Itself?

Despite a decade or more of affirmative action and general dumbing down there are still many talented and intelligent people in the omniversities. A significant, though dwindling, number of them continue to believe that something can be done. They turn to scapegoats to explain the omniversity's dereliction. Time-serving, unprincipled administrators are responsible. Or it is tenured radicals, or worthless courses, or grade inflation. If abuses like these could be eliminated, they argue, then higher education would recover. But I believe this too to be wrong.

All these abuses do exist. They are indeed great evils. But they do not cause the decay. The decay causes them. There is one thing needful, but lacking in the omniversity; there is one central privation from which other evils flow. It is spiritual in nature. We lack belief in the kind of grand narrative that alone can lend coherence to our studies and our lives. Only such a comprehensive story could answer the very questions raised by the omniversity's critics: If administrators are not to be time-servers, what or whom should they serve? If our tenured radicals are taking us down foolish paths, where does the path of wisdom lie? If much of what is studied is worthless, to what pattern must things conform in order to be worthwhile? According to whose measure of moral insight can one discover that honesty about one's students' grades and abilities is preferable to helping them claw their way up?

The current omniversity not only supplies no answers, it forbids the questions. It rejects grand narratives, adopting a stance the jargon calls 'postmodern'. This condition is incurable because it mistakes for deadly poison the one thing necessary to its recovery.

3) Can One Get an Education Today?

Not through the public system of course, but that unfortunately does not imply that education is readily available at private expense. No doubt it is possible to pay for excellent vocational training, but private institutions are no less subject to postmodern corrosion than public ones. Only private educators with their belief-systems sufficiently intact to relate training to the big story can still provide genuine education. That is why so many people with young children are turning to home-schooling, rather than private schooling. The cost is comparable to private schooling while the effort is significantly greater. But people do it because they see no other way of fitting the skills their children will acquire into a large and coherent framework of belief, a map of life. That is also why small private universities are being founded, like Augustine College in Ottawa, places which will educate in the light of the grand narrative of western culture.

What is that narrative to which I keep alluding? How strange that it is not obvious; stranger still that to identify it nowadays is to be controversial. The comprehensive story behind our culture, the story that causes us to divide history into B.C. and A.D., the story that made William Blake call the Bible 'the great code of art' is of course Christianity. It is both our glory and our misfortune. Glory, because it has made us the envied culture that we are, misfortune, because it makes demands of us to which we no longer feel equal. If such proclamations frighten you, take comfort in the fact that there will be no shattering defence of my thesis and no altar call. Just a couple of closing remarks.

The west has recently decided that it no longer officially believes in its own story. That is why it cannot teach it in its schools. Such honesty is admirable, but has its price. Unbelief makes education impossible. Education only happens among those who, in addition to their competence as instructors, can weave their learning into the larger tapestry of history, art and faith. A brilliant technological future may await us outside our cultural story, but authentic education and the self-knowledge on which it depends will continue to elude us. And the new masters of technology may well prove to be tyrannous barbarians.

You may very well think my thesis wrong, but I shall be disappointed if you dismiss it as sectarian. Let me close by quoting a similar suggestion from the now classic discussion of education in Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind. Bloom, you will remember, was a secular Jew (p. 60):

"I am not saying anything so trite as that life is fuller when people have myths to live by. I mean rather that a life based on the Book is closer to the truth, that it provides the material for deeper research in and access to the real nature of things. Without the great revelations, epics and philosophies as part of our natural vision, there is nothing to see out there, and eventually little left inside."

Graeme Hunter

University of Ottawa

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