Why the West is No Longer Educated

thinkerEducation seems universally—and almost self-evidently—supported as a Good Thing. Few would argue that a liberal democracy could do without literate citizens. Fewer still that a modern economy could do without a skilled workforce. Accordingly, spending on education is higher than ever. But what does it mean to be educated?

At present, education seems understood primarily as coursework in vocational topics, and “useful” natural and social sciences. There is a lot to be said for such education, as individuals need to be prepared to make a living. But there is also reason for concern. It is not obvious how well the “useful” courses prepare students for the world of work. Moreover, knowledge of the foundations of our culture, prerequisites of liberal democracy and fundamental assumptions in science is transmitted haphazardly or not at all. Individuals are hence increasingly clueless about our civilisation and their responsibilities. It is also unlikely for university graduates to have even basic familiarity with the history and philosophy of their disciplines, leaving many without critical distance from the fashionable views of the day. This sits ill with democratic citizenship, innovation and a dynamic, entrepreneurial economy.

Much as in China’s stifling scholarly tradition, to be a good student has become tantamount to conformity to a maze of institutionalised dogma, rendering the rise of university “safe spaces” and formal and informal speech codes sadly unsurprising. In effect, students are socialised for bureaucracies, both governmental and corporate. Thus diplomas, more than proving good judgment, function as tokens in a signalling game for the job market. Paradoxically, as the increased number of degrees has deflated their worth, proxies for competence (accent, dress, social circle and manners) have gained renewed importance.

Taken together, these developments represent a break with the traditional understanding of education, aimed at good judgment. For most people, the practice of apprenticeships, acquiring practical skills, fulfilled exactly this purpose. They also attended church, where they might receive moral instruction.

The academically gifted followed a different path. In a logical sequence, first they were trained to think, and then they absorbed both fundamental and more specialised knowledge. This encouraged development of independent judgment, inviting an examined renewal of our civilisation. Ideally, any vocational training (such as in law, engineering or medicine) would take place after such a liberal education.

Today apprenticeships have become unpopular, especially outside Germany and Switzerland. Liberal learning tends to survive in name only, as broad introductory classes to a largely random range of subjects. Rarely do these classes prepare students for making moral, aesthetic and empirical distinctions (a tulip is not a cactus and what is true regarding a tulip is not necessarily so for a cactus). Often they have the opposite effect, emphasising how things are the same. Differences (such as between men and women) are increasingly taught to be “socially constructed” rather than natural, with the implied—but false—suggestion that this makes them arbitrary. To illustrate: the difference between Turks and Greeks is socially constructed, for example, but not random or insignificant, as their history of conflict shows. Pretending otherwise may flatter the egalitarian prejudices of our age, but it also stifles critical thinking. For if you cease to recognise the distinctiveness of anything, you accept the truth of everything. Judgment consists in discriminating.

This essay appeared in a recent edition of Quadrant.
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Western learning, then, has grown confused. It is has ceased to educate for good judgment, but the human condition requires us constantly to judge, in the interest of right action. Indeed, the whole point of learning, with or without formal instruction, is to improve our judgment. Such improvement is possible because judgment is a practice with a history, generating knowledge. Not coincidentally, good education consists in the examined “handing over” of past judgments.

Taking the measure of a practice—such as education—is to ask for an understanding of its good practice and to apply this benchmark. This, in turn, presupposes an understanding of the practice. What, then, do we mean when we speak of education? Here ordinary language points to acquiring skills, receiving insights, and character formation—three related but distinct notions.

Education in the first sense—acquiring skills—is frequently called training: we train to be a lawyer, physician or carpenter, for example. We also say that someone who has acquired the skills to apply the scientific method has trained to be a scientist.

Education in the second sense—gaining insights—is about furthering understanding. For example: What does it mean for water to freeze? When such questions concern not the natural but the human world—When might anger be appropriate?—they may overlap with education as formation of character.

Finally, education as character formation concerns moral development. This does not have to include formal instruction. It is also how great literature (including traditional narrative history) used to be read and written. Indeed, life itself, the “school of hard knocks”, has frequently been called the best such education. In this sense we are always educated into something. Formal places of learning, such as schools, colleges and universities, are merely the most obvious institutions doing so, exposing us to ideas or providing training in skills. Other institutions, both governmental and of civil society (voluntary associations and the family) shape us by example, opening or closing opportunities, and rewards and punishments.

Each of these types of education shares the characteristic of being aimed at something. Like all human action, in other words, education cannot exist without purpose. But what is this purpose? At first sight there does not appear to be a uniform answer. A ballet school, for example, aims at producing good ballet dancers, whereas the Royal Agricultural University aims at producing good farmers. These are particular purposes, in their particularity appearing far apart.

Looked at more carefully, however, in each case we find the aim to be developing good judgment (a type of excellence). Such judgment concerns not only or even primarily matters of ethics (as judgment is frequently understood today), but the recognition of distinctions in all areas of life. Ballet is not hockey; agriculture is not gardening. In each case, also, such judgment (be it theoretical, technical or purely practical) is shaped with the interest of “right action” in mind—although, obviously, its concrete understanding differs by field. To be a good ballet dancer does not make you a good farmer. Finally, in each case, implicitly or explicitly, judgment is part of a tradition of thought by which it frames and comes to understand the structure of what is examined. This means that judging, in each field, is part of a practice with a history, carried out by an individual. Each of us acts within a mental horizon largely not of his own making.

If the world is always mediated through our judgment in this way, to be successful we should be self-aware, which is to say: aware and in judgment of our judging. A good judgment is hence a considered judgment—a judgment containing reflection on the tradition that gave rise to the horizon which enabled it, thus revisiting and revising both.

Three implications seem to follow. First, formation of considered judgment must include recognition of proper authority. After all, by ourselves we cannot constructively question everything. If we tried, we would not be able to get out of bed in the morning. Thus we must ask such questions as: What, up to our time, has been the considered judgment of the most thoughtful people? What have language, argument and creative thought—the timeless tools of learning—taught us so far?

Second, academic disciplines are shown to be interdependent. More precisely: the modern sciences (both natural and social) turn out to be dependent on the humanities, or at least on philosophy. This is because modern sciences explain things in terms of matter in motion, using mathematical and quantitative models. And, powerful though they are, such models are silent about the non-mathematical assumptions supporting them.

Moreover, because “matter in motion” denies natural purposes, modern sciences deny purposes natural to themselves, making it impossible for them to justify or explain themselves. Biology and medicine, which understand organs and organisms in terms of their functioning, are only partial exceptions to this.

It is true, of course, that by their nature materialist explanations and mathematical modelling are fit to be used for some things and not others (compare the use of a hammer). But recognition of these limits depends on deliberation, not on the tool (a hammer does not stop you from trying to slice a cake with it). Nor does it point to a specific purpose.

Third, all knowledge is united in our inquiry, rendering philosophy queen of the arts and sciences. Fundamental leaps of imagination, first expressed in great books and pioneering experiments, are the sources of academic disciplines—not their products—and subsequently become imperfectly reflected in everyday thoughts and arguments. Understanding this, reading forward in history, is hence a delicate balance between revision and unreasonable doubt. New paradigms may prove partial improvements only; old ideas may give life to new hypotheses. Scientific and social improvement is not necessarily linear.

Upon reflection, therefore, learning is about the matrix of our understanding. It is to recognise problems, formulate theses and develop arguments, thus to gain awareness of the whole that is each field and, indirectly, the ultimate whole of which each field is but a part. This invites us to engage the minds which have discussed the most significant questions in the most significant ways. It also requires joint exploration of our own tradition, which has shaped our horizon, and traditions foreign to us. For to see is to compare and contrast.

Doing so demands mastery of language, argument and creative thought—the timeless tools of learning. Properly understood, such mastery includes awareness of their limits. As Aristotle famously put it, “It is the mark of an educated mind to expect that amount of exactness in each class of things which the nature of the subject admits.” Because: “It is equally unreasonable to accept merely probable conclusions from a mathematician and to demand strict demonstration from a rhetorician.”

Pascal, similarly, distinguished between l’esprit de géométrie and l’esprit de finesse. The former is an axiomatic, exact way of thinking, applied most fruitfully to things that can be quantified, whereas the latter is an inexact, non-axiomatic way of thinking, appropriate to things refusing quantification. The former deals primarily with the realm of matter and goes beyond common sense, whereas the latter primarily, but not exclusively, deals with human action (what German thinkers call the Lebenswelt) and is a development of common sense. The former involves recognition of causes (in German: erklären) and coincides strongly with empirical description and breaking things into component parts (seeing the trees rather than the forest). The latter mostly coincides with interpretation and inter-subjective understanding, involving what is perhaps best translated as “comprehension” (verstehen) of situational wholes, by recognising reasons and reasoning, but also for example intuitively or through empathy (seeing the forest rather than the trees). The former tends to suit simple phenomena (such as planetary movement), whereas the latter better fits complex phenomena (such as an economy or ecosystem).

Both l’esprit de géométrie and l’esprit de finesse require judgment if they are to be used well. Indeed, judging whether or to what extent a problem requires l’ésprit de géométrie or l’ésprit de finesse, or erklären or verstehen, is itself perhaps the most important and basic judgment; here misjudgment may lead to disaster. Think, for example, of blaming a tree for one of its branches hitting you, or using mathematics to gauge whether your spouse loves you. Think, also, of important questions about the purpose of institutions (such as banks) or of activities (such as banking). Here mathematics cannot provide any answers, but deliberation may help us pose and approach such problems.

What is more, these distinctions bear on our judgment of the academic disciplines. Physics and chemistry seem to have discovered strictly deterministic, empirical regularities organising the world of matter. For reasons we do not understand, these regularities (the laws of nature) are mathematical, making mastery of mathematics crucial to studying nature.

In contrast, as we are unable to reduce human action to organic chemistry (much as we have been unable to reduce chemistry to physics), it appears that the study of man and society has to centre on human action—the “stuff” causing and constituting social phenomena. The main challenge in understanding social phenomena is hence to account for the objectivity of human subjectivity. Humans have contingent reasons, feelings and purposes; particles do not. Humans are able to reflect on their situation, take into account new information and to change course; particles are not. Humans experience choice (or the illusion thereof); particles do not. As a result, for actors and observers alike, making sense of human action involves a type and degree of uncertainty, interpretation and causal density that is very different from making sense of particle movement. Not even biology, so much more complex than physics or chemistry, can compare.

This makes it hard to see how we could reasonably describe social phenomena in a way modelled on the natural sciences—as if individuals were akin to particles or as fully open to materialist explanation as they would have been if they had been but the sum of particles. Yet that is what the first social scientists (notably Comte and Condorcet) tried to do, back in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The crudeness of these attempts led to their failure and abandonment, but much current social science appears to be a more sophisticated version of the same mistake. To illustrate, it would be one thing for economists to mathematically model preferences and draw insights (although Austrian economists reject even this limited use of mathematics in describing human action); it is something else altogether to use such models for strict prediction, as happens frequently.

Of course, if a physics, chemistry or even biology of society were possible, there would be no choices to be made! There would hence also be no need for good judgment and hence no need for education to improve our judgment. Still, our experience of choice remains limited, as it is shaped by situations. Good judgment therefore depends on recognising the manmade and natural constraints that create situations. For example, the decision whether to buy a particular house depends at least in part on the quality of the house, given the market price. The market price is the product of human action (notably, of the supply of housing given the demand); the quality of the house  is dependent on human action (say, whether the house has been well maintained) and on nature (corrosion by wind and rain and so on).

Thus the logic of good judgment hence points to understanding situations as constituted by layers of constraints. Some constraints we can decide on (the realm of action); other constraints we can aim only to describe and perhaps manipulate, but not change (the realm of nature). This broadly matches Aristotle’s distinction between practical sciences (aimed at understanding action), technical sciences (understanding the subset of action organised by rules for production), and theoretical sciences (understanding things beyond human action).

In this division, ethics (aimed at understanding right action) and politics (aimed at understanding government) are purely practical sciences. Engineering and medicine are examples of technical sciences. What I have called “theoretical sciences” coincide with orthodox views of natural science and metaphysics. The label “theoretical sciences” can be somewhat confusing, however, as practical and technical sciences are themselves examples of theory.

Theoretical sciences are the backdrop to both practical and technical sciences. They study permanent constraints on our actions. At the same time, because all judgment (including theoretical judgment) is a type of action, practical sciences are intertwined with theoretical and technical sciences. For example, we never understand “biology” as such, but always an aspect of biology (chosen by us), and we always do so in a particular social setting (which is how taboos may come to frustrate science). Similarly, rules for making things (technical sciences) always have to be applied in unique circumstances. We never simply build a bridge, we always build a particular bridge at a particular time and place.

In preparing for good judgment practical sciences hence take centre stage. Properly understood, their focus is on the impossibilities and tendencies inherent to instances of contingent situational logic and their unintended aggregate consequences. To illustrate: Tocqueville, the great nineteenth-century philosopher of liberal democracy, notes that equal rights imply the impossibility of a privileged class and the tendency for shallow development, creating a society characterised by Walmarts rather than cathedrals. In this situation almost all people have to work for a living, rendering it difficult for individuals or groups to develop themselves deeply. But this logic does not prevent democracies from encouraging deeper development in ways not dependent on a leisured class; it merely indicates this would require separate action (for example, by founding universities).

The massive causal density involved in creating any situation (especially including the role of ideas) and the impossibility of controlled experiments ensure that practical sciences have an interpretive rather than an experimental character. Being in a situation is hence more like playing a game, or playing a character in a novel or film, than being a particle in an accelerator. The humanities, and sports or other games, may therefore have important roles to play in training our judgment. By providing insight into situations they allow for the imaginative anticipation of possibilities and thus for better decision-making, without the twin illusions of strict prediction and control. Consider the global financial crisis. Most economists, using mathematical models, were taken by surprise, but Trollope’s The Way We Live Now was proved relevant beyond his time, sensitive to recurring problems within global finance.

If this is true, much of what is understood as social science appears confused. Indeed, economics—the most prestigious social science—seems sometimes understood as knowledge of wealth creation (making it a technical science) and sometimes as the study of human action regarding exchange or money or scarcity (making it a practical science). Furthermore, whereas the logic of good judgment shows proper study of social phenomena—as practical sciences—to be close to the traditional understanding of the humanities, modern social sciences have been modelled on the natural sciences. Finally, as the natural sciences are naively thought to present a “view from nowhere”, the social sciences are frequently similarly presented as value-free. In practice, however, they cannot avoid the footprint of an implicit ethics (the ultimate practical science), as they inevitably use normative language (are we facing “refugees” or “illegal migrants”?) and—like the natural sciences—necessarily focus on one thing rather than another.

On and off, for a long time something like this logic of good judgment was well understood. Arguably, the main components of our tradition—Classical and Renaissance thought, Christianity, and the Enlightenment—all thought of man as characterised by reasonability. Human dignity hence came to be seen as at least partially dependent on development of our judgment of the true, beautiful and good. Education for good judgment, preparing for freedom (understood as independence) and citizenship, became known as humane, humanistic or liberal.

In this context ancient Greece pioneered the idea of paideia, the development of excellence in all aspects of human life. Subsequently the Middle Ages and the Renaissance transformed this idea into a curriculum of seven liberal arts and sciences, consisting of the trivium (grammar, logic and rhetoric) and quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy). Finally, by broadening the range of academic subjects (expanding the quadrivium), the Enlightenment and its aftermath changed liberal learning yet further, adding first the new experimental and mathematical study of nature, and later history, European literature and modern languages.

In its prime, the practice of the liberal arts and sciences followed a clear order, with the trivium preceding the quadrivium. The point of the trivium was to train the student’s capacity for independent judgment. He would study Latin and Ancient Greek not “scientifically” or as “subjects” or branches of knowledge, but to develop taste and learn how to think. The tripartite sequence of grammar, logic and rhetoric corresponded to training in language, argument and creative thought—the timeless tools of learning. By first acquiring the facts, then recognising necessary relations between the facts, and finally developing one’s own synthesis, the tripartite structure prepared the student for the quadrivium, ready to master any subject. Only in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries did the argument gain ground that an explicit trivium could be abandoned and that an expanded quadrivium alone would also be able to teach students how to judge. In an irony of history, this left Latin and Ancient Greek increasingly “trivial”—now mere subjects, their purpose confused.

For those who had the means and the talent, the liberal arts and sciences jointly taught moral and empirical knowledge, yielding understanding of the different areas of inquiry and how they were related. They also united the development of skills, the acquisition of insights and character formation. Indeed, the core assumption of liberal education—that all knowledge is united in our action—managed to survive until well into the twentieth century. In some places, such as a few Great Books colleges, it survives even today.

Seven developments in particular seem to have corroded this practice. First, the scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries introduced a strictly deterministic, materialist understanding of nature, replacing Aristotle’s purpose-oriented explanation of change. The natural world was now understood in terms of particles in motion, best described mathematically; Hobbes suggested that man and society could be explained in the same way. This created doubt as to the existence and role of free will as traditionally understood, in turn questioning the relevance, let alone prominence, of the humanities. The humanities were suspected of providing nothing but prejudice, or at best merely subjective views, rather than situational insight and training for judgment. Increasingly, many considered it only a matter of time before we would also arrive at exact, mathematical social sciences. Traditional moral or practical sciences, which had claimed to be true only “for the most part”, thus accounting for causal density, were expected to become obsolete, seemingly fatally associated with Aristotle’s teleological thinking.

Second, with the success of the new natural sciences came growing specialisation, prompting the birth of the research university, further undermining the unity of knowledge, both as an ideal and as a way of organising a curriculum. For teachers and students alike it became difficult to see what might be the relation between, say, physics and philosophy, or biology and literature.

Third, the humanities, traditionally organised around the transmission of classic texts, increasingly focused on research, imitating the new natural sciences.

Fourth, schools and universities came to be structured according to the model of classroom teaching, primarily provided by the state, based on age cohorts. With origins in Prussian designs to prepare for the army and the factory, this fared poorly with individual needs, strengths and weaknesses, and made it easier to uproot tradition.

Fifth, during the twentieth century it was shown that Bildung (formation of judgment) had not prevented Germany’s Bürgertum (educated middle classes) from descending into barbarism. Worse: the Holocaust, two world wars and the unprecedented brutality of modernity’s totalitarian tyrannies (both national socialist and communist) could not have taken place without rational organisation and science and technology—quintessential products of Western thought. This created ambivalence about the Western heritage, encouraging interpretations of our tradition that cast it as inherently oppressive of particular races, classes and sexual identities.

Sixth, the democratic notion of equal liberty came to be interpreted in ever more egalitarian, relativistic ways. A concern for equal flourishing turned into equal rights; equal rights turned into equal expression of autonomy; equal expression of autonomy turned into authenticity and the reign of meandering feelings. This sat ill with the disciplined study of the liberal arts and sciences.

Finally, at present about a third of the population is enrolled in higher education—a historic peak. But only a minority of those enrolled seems capable of academic study. Standards have hence frequently become too low for the academically gifted, whilst those with other talents are forced to engage in pointless simulacra of higher learning. Anecdotally, it seems no longer widely expected that students write grammatically, spell properly, defend an argument, follow logic or reference sources. The humanities and social sciences are hence broadly perceived as “easier” than the exact sciences or mathematics. But it would be better to say that the exact sciences have not abandoned their basic standards.

Many of these developments should not surprise us. Tocqueville explained that in a modern democracy no permanent group or class could afford the “luxury” of “merely” cultivating the liberal arts and sciences—that is, without getting paid for it (see On Democracy in America). In democratic societies the equal status of each citizen renders each in need of a trade, making it both natural and largely beneficial to be practical and to identify preparation for the job market as the main purpose of education. Most people should hence focus on acquiring technical judgment by developing vocational skills, be they those of an engineer, a lawyer or a cook. They should also acquire practical judgment by exercising self-government in the widest sense, from making decisions in their private sphere to participating in civil society and local and national public life. Book learning could contribute to this, but never substitute for experience. Indeed, absent the habit of self-government abstract ideas would remain without a reality check; this is how writers played a harmful role in the run-up to the French Revolution.

But Tocqueville also had worries. It may be true, he warned, that theoretical and applied science “can be cultivated apart” in the short run, but “reason and experience make it known” that “when absolutely separated” they cannot “prosper for long”. Thus the disinterested study of theory is important to liberal democracies, especially from the partisan perspective of those societies themselves. In this Tocqueville saw a resemblance with the duties of citizenship and participation in civil society. Their benefits are crucial, but not immediate.

During the 1960s C.P. Snow sounded a similar alarm. He warned that attempts to focus on applied science at the cost of pure science would backfire, since the line between them is difficult to draw. In addition, increased specialisation had created a detrimental and increasingly wide division into “two cultures”—the one scientific, the other literary. Between them, little or no communication or comprehension existed, “leading us to interpret the past wrongly [and] to misjudge the present”, and making it “difficult or impossible for us to take good action”. Thus, far from undermining liberal education, the rise of modern science had increased its importance.

If these considerations are right, a narrowly technical, instrumental focus in education is incoherent and self-defeating. Just as you cannot run before you can walk, you cannot innovate (for example with an eye to new technology) if you lack the basics, and existing knowledge has not been transmitted to you. In other words, you cannot constructively criticise (which is what it means to innovate), if you do not know what there is to criticise (or if you delude yourself that you are starting with a blank slate). This is as true in our personal and professional lives as it is in public life. No polity can function, let alone remain free, if its citizens lose the ability and appetite to think for themselves, to judge matters directly affecting them.

In free societies each child should take something like Judging 101. This would have to transmit proficiency in reading, writing and arithmetic, as well as foster familiarity with the natural world of which we are a part, and the forces of events and ideas that have shaped our culture. Vocational or academic specialisation might follow, depending on interest and ability. In most cases an extended elementary school would suffice, alongside a focus on job training and apprenticeships (supervised in situ training of skills, which are examples of instrumental judgment) during one’s teens. The purpose of education is not to hide the unemployment rate.

But for the other 5 to 10 per cent of the population, expected to take up positions of leadership (and therefore in greater need than most to learn to judge well), a traditional liberal education must again be understood to be indispensable. It should offer a map of what we believe to be true, our reasons for thinking so, and training in the tools for critically examining those reasons. That implies studying conceptions of man’s place in the whole, appreciation of distinctions between areas of inquiry, and familiarity with the appropriate ways of examining them. It implies, in short, a renewed trivium and quadrivium. Such a renewal could take varied forms and does not mean the blind adoption of a curriculum from hundreds of years ago. The crucial thing is once again to explicitly combine learning to think (the point of the trivium) and transmission of fundamental knowledge (the point of the quadrivium), thus educating for good judgment.

One way of doing so might be to teach a renewed trivium and quadrivium jointly and on an equal footing, using the same fundamental sources, rather than sequentially. To fulfil its purpose such a curriculum should be tailored to individual needs and abilities and would not have to include Latin and Ancient Greek. Still, with its precision and focus on the true, the beautiful and the good, the classical culture of reasoning is at the core of our tradition and—as Tocqueville notes—a “useful” corrective to democracy’s tendency for haste and superficiality. In restoring education for good judgment, it is deserving of renewed attention.

Melvin Schut is an Anglo-Dutch writer and academic currently teaching in the Netherlands. His main research interests are Tocqueville and Tocqueville-related questions. He contributed “What Britain Might Learn from the Colonies” in the July-August 2015 issue.


16 thoughts on “Why the West is No Longer Educated

  • Warty says:

    I was brought up in quite different times to those of today. My mother donned an elegant hat and wore gloves, my father a three piece suit, when they went into town. There was no question as to who was the head of the family and mother cared for the house, children, ensuring it was sanctuary of sorts, when my father came back from work. A woman’s role in the home was considered complimentary to that of the man who went out to work.
    There were problems ‘down the road’ but in those crucial formative years, home represented stability, security and my mother was the most beautiful woman in the world and my father the wisest and strongest. The fifties seemed to be a period of optimism and energy, and no one would have anticipated the unravelling to come.
    Melvin Schut has quite rightly questioned so many of the assumptions of modern education and the traditions that have been rudely abandoned, but there were hints of this even back in the 1950s, long before Melvin was born. So much of what we learned in primary school was by rote. We learned our twelve times tables off by heart, and questions were fired at us in arithmetic class and the answers were expected to be fired back . . . intimidating stuff, but goodness did it hone the mind. We learned our Latin declensions by rote too and the vocabulary was written down on individual crib cards, Latin on one side and English on the other. One would have ten or more of these in one’s pocket at any one time, to be pulled out, studied and eventually committed to mind. Wonderful stuff and good for the mind, but there was also that destructive phrase that had begun to circulate: ‘Latin is a dead language’ and little seeds of doubt were instilled. Heaven knows who came up with it, but one began to question the efficacy of learning a ‘dead language’.
    By the 1970, 80s rote learning had become unfashionable and the art and act of learning was no longer second nature. By the late sixties, early seventies the whole concept of a traditional family had begun to erode, and I can’t even begin to emphasise the importance of a home life that encourages honesty, courage, independence (our parents left us to sort out our own entertainment) taking risks, picking ourselves up after falling over and skinning our knees, or elbows. Getting into trouble and being given the strap, whether we thought it justified or not, but by the 1990s canning had been banned in school and by the end of the 90s children had rights.
    So I don’t for a moment question what Melvin has to say about a curriculum that includes Latin and Greek, poetry, music, fine literature, nor its ability to foster reason, so out of fashion today, but the home life had an equal role in helping develop both mind and body, creating the ability to face the vicissitudes of life without melting like delicate little snowflakes.

  • Jody says:

    There are two things to say in regard to your comments, Warty. Firstly, nothing ever stays the same in society. You’ve only got to look at the decadent post-war years of the 1920s – which were in direct contrast to the post WW2 years – when hedonism ruled. The violence of prohibition in the USA and the desperate poverty and humiliation for the Germans couldn’t have been more polar opposite. Secondly, the educational changes referred to in the 70s and 80s came hard on the heels of the hippy counter-culture and the start of the Marxist ideological march through the institutions. These things will fade along with every other cultural fad which belongs on the merry-go-rounds and swings paradigm. The ensuing ideology will be all about damage control and economic austerity.

    • Warty says:

      Indeed, nothing stays the same in society, Jody. What the ‘ensuing ideology’ will be is anyone’s guess, because there is one hell of a battle ahead of us.
      The social upheaval in Germany in the immediate aftermath of WWI, followed by the decadence at the time of the Weimar Republic, were some of the reasons for the rise of the National Socialist Party, and the liberal attitudes in Germany, and their fear of the far right is in itself a reaction to the National Socialist Party and the shame accompanying the holocaust. Germany has to get over all of this if it has any hope of surviving into the mid 21st Century.
      But my reminiscing on schooling in the 1950s early 60s was no mere nostalgia trip: it was an attempt to point out that both the home life (by and large) and the schooling back then were both equally a component of enhancing the use of reason, which was one of Melvin’s themes. Do I think it was preferable to the education system of today? Having taught English at a secondary school level for twenty five years, in Sydney, you bet your sweet life I do. And I witnessed first hand so many of the changes for the worse over that period. The changes you spoke about I experienced first hand, just as you did.

  • ian.macdougall says:

    Warty and Jody:
    The nemesis of the halcyon post-WW2 period can be summed up in one word and two numbers: Vietnam 1965-1975.
    In 1962, the US had the western world solidly on side during the Cuban missile crisis. Billy Graham spoke to huge rallies wherever he went. By 1975, there were huge demonstrations in the US and Australia (100,000 in the streets of Melbourne) against conscription and the war. In the process of all that, whatever ideological and cultural unity there had previously been disappeared in a huge cloud of pot smoke, drugs, rock culture and deliberately vibrant colour and costume.
    There followed naturally, identity politics.

    • Jody says:

      I put all that decadence down to the Cold War and the endemic existential threat to the western world which existed for at least 2 decades. Vietnam only really affected the draft dodgers and university rabble; the brave soldiers who fought in those wars got on with it and then endured suffering afterwards (as indeed all soldiers in any theatre of war have and do).

      • ian.macdougall says:

        Sorry Jody, but Vietnam affected EVERY 18 YEAR OLD MALE of conscriptable age.
        As McNamara realised very late in the day, the Vietnam War was a colonial war and conversely a war of national liberation, in which the US fought on the wrong side, and the Vietnamese population (increasingly induced to support the freedom fighters by American bombing, massacres, napalm, etc, etc, etc) finally overthrew the US South Vietnamese stooge revolving door governments and took back their own country from the colonialists and their US proxies. (Or should that have been ‘poxies’?)
        The US was in violation of its own founding principles, constitution and even its own national anthem. Its politicians realised early that they could not win, so Nixon and Kissinger ‘Vietnamised’ the war, starting a long, slow and inevitably bloody withdrawal ending in a disorderly scramble to get into the last helicopters, planes and what have you, with aircraft all trying to land simultaneously on the same aircraft carrier and with all sorts of taxpayer-funded aeronautical equipment being helped unceremoniously into the South China Sea.
        For those of us who had spent years demonstrating against it all in the streets, it was a tragic delight to watch, and so reminiscent of the last days of Chiang Kai Shek’s corrupt and incompetent regime in China.
        Moreover, when Donald Trump quacks on about ‘making America great again’ he means somehow getting over, around, and out from under that ignominious and totally deserved DEFEAT.
        Look up Robert McNamara ‘The Fog of War’ on Youtube for further details.
        The poor returning Aussie soldiers were not greeted as ‘brave heroes’. The Australian population had been exposed to far too much of the reality of the grubby cause they were fighting for on the TV every night for the preceding 10 years to be gulled by that. The homecoming ‘heroes’ never got to march down streets jam-packed with grateful and enthusiastic flag-waving supporters as did those in the victory march in 1945. Despite all the efforts of the tabloids with headlines like ‘Heroes Home!’ the streets were pretty empty. And today the memorial to Vietnam in Canberra is set up along Anzac Parade with those for WW1 and WW2 in a pathetic pretence that it is of the same ilk and quality.

        • Jody says:

          I would say the vast majority of my male peers in that age group you describe escaped the draft and most were at university, causing the discontent I’ve previously mentioned. Only a very few I know actually went there and all but one escaped unscathed. One died later of a brain tumour; he was in his late 20s. My sister spent time as a clinical psychologist counselling returned “Vietnam Vets” and said some were seriously disturbed. Today business would be booming for returning soldiers from the middle east/Afghanistan. In short, wars were fought before and since Vietnam.

          Also, I very well remember the feeling of fear and despair over the threat of nuclear war which we daily lived with in the 60s and 70s. Most of my friends had this attitude: ‘why bother having children and bringing them into this kind of world”. For many of them Vietnam compounded that already bleak view and many chose to take drugs instead. So, in my opinion, Vietnam was but ONE of the many issues of the day.

        • en passant says:

          Ian MacBot,
          You really are the ultimate disinformation troll who writes poor faction to support your justification for your personal fears and cowardice.

          ’18-year olds’? Selective conscription was in the year of your 20th birthday, but why let that little fact interfere with the endless faerie tales you waste our time with?

          As conscription was selective you only had about a 1:4 chance of being called up. Surely a few Black Masses would have guaranteed your number would not have come up?

          Secondly, exemptions for those called up were ‘generous’ with university students receiving automatic deferrals until they had completed their degrees – when yes, they could be enlisted, if required.

          For those who were called up only about 1:4 served in Viet Nam – and all were volunteers, because there were ALWAYS more people wanting to go than places available. You did not know that, did you? But then you know so little, and make up so much.

          Tell us all about these ‘massacres’ you know about (apart from the American My Lai, but make sure you include those of the NVA and VC) and any you know of that Australians were involved in.

          “… took back their own country from the colonialists …” Enlighten us all as to who the ‘colonialists’ were in 1965-75. I love faux history, so this is a revelation I am looking forward to reading about.

          “.. The homecoming ‘heroes’ never got to march down streets jam-packed with grateful and enthusiastic flag-waving supporters”. Umm, surely you will get one thing right by a simple random chance. In 1987 a belated “Welcome Home March” was held in Sydney that was street-fillingily popular. Don’t like the facts? Just eliminate them.

          Unfortunately, I could not march with you, but then again, I have always had a job that did not allow me time off to protest whatever. Some of have to work and grow up, while others have to remain groundhog MacBots forever.

          You take perverse pride in denigrating brave men who served in Viet Nam (whether or not their cause was just is irrelevant) as it is their courage to go and serve as their country demanded that we are evaluating. But then I have not forgotten how morally low Australia has sunk as I remember a comment you made about the ‘honour trap’ of self sacrifice.

          You know, of course, that about 300 former Australian servicemen have moved to Vung Tau? They are not there for ‘forgiveness’, but because they find it a better place to live than the sadly declining Australia.
          I know that I am repeating myself because in commenting about your post I note (that like a broken record stuck in a groove) your comments are the same falacies you made at:

          In future, could you please begin your inane posts with “Once upon a time …” and provide as a standard part of every reply the answer to the two questions that would win you the Nobel Prize for Climatology:
          1. What is the ideal average global temperature? and
          2. What is the ideal concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere?”

  • Keith Kennelly says:

    The halcyon period in human education, achievement, knowledge and hence judgement was centuries ago. For a society to exist and develop over 6000 years had to have as a basis the ideas expressed in this article.

    It is maybe time to reassess many of the so called pillars of westernism in light of the recent discoveries, or more accurately the modern or latest reassessments of the literature of the ancient Egyptians. Bearing in mind most of what we have been traditionally taught about such has been filtered through the western Christian beliefs. Ie those who had ventured into the Egyptian past were Christians and they coloured the discoveries with their views.

    Here is an example. How many Pharaohs were women?
    How many Cleopatroahs were there?

    What form if relationships did Egyptians enter?

    Research those and you will understand my points.

  • Keith Kennelly says:


    I too grew up in that era and was streamed into the Commercial courses at high school. I wasn’t considered sufficiently able for the Professional or , General or Trade streams.

    Meanwhile my mother guided my reading. I promised her I’d read all my life.

    That lead to a fairly keen mind, inventing, writing and a readonably successful commercial outcome.

    The fine literature did engender all the attributes noted in the article.

    It is not necessarily only for formal education can achieve those attributes, especially good judgement.

    I agree education should be aimed at creating good judgement.

    • Warty says:

      You are quite right: the development of mind is not necessarily dependent on a formal education, or even being an effective student. You yourself would probably cite Winston Churchill as being an excellent example of a largely self educated man. And you are right, there are many avenues, other than higher mathematics (where I was hopelessly out of my depth) and a classical education.
      Authorities may indeed ‘sentence’ boys and girls as being insufficiently able for this or for that, and many will wear those tags for the rest of their lives, but such pronouncements are not necessarily true at all. The mark of a person is his ability to be able to decide his own destiny, regardless of others, and despite the obstacles fate might present. But reading what you wrote above, I suspect you knew all that anyway.

  • Jody says:

    Here’s another self-educated individual, albeit an extremely hypocritical and potentially dangerous one:

  • Keith Kennelly says:

    Not entirely Warty. Thanks


    Why bother. Howes was a communist, who abandoned communism and became just another labor hack emerging from the union quagmire.

    His ascidsuations with both would suggest he hasn’t sound or good judgement.

    Quite the opposite of you are suggesting.

    • Jim Campbell says:

      Too late Melvin – with respect and discipline down the chute the chances of overcoming haste and superficiality and resurrecting good education are zero.

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