Friday, November 23, 2012

Against a Classical Education

While browsing the homeschooling section of my local library, I stumbled across The Well-Trained Mind. Having heard traditional homeschoolers refer to this book many times, I was curious about its contents, so I checked it out. 

The book's first chapter argues that modern education has become too focused on self-expression, without giving children any tools with which to express themselves. It puts forth the idea that childhood should be a time of building skills and knowledge so that a child can better express herself later in life. While I don't think there's any such thing as "too much" self-expression, they do raise a good point. Self-expression is easier once you've learned the skills to do it. I find there is a certain appeal to the book's focus on teaching skills like logic and rhetoric, skills that I find the population at large to be sorely lacking. And I can understand their position that exposure to lots of good art and literature helps "fill the well" of creative inspiration.

So while I find the idea of a classical education intriguing, I still have many objections to it. Primary among them is its treatment of children as empty vessels to be filled, as non-persons whose time and energy can and should be controlled by those who "know better". I find the very idea of "training" children to be dehumanizing. But there is another problem with classical education that I'd like to focus on here, and that is the pedagogy itself. 

Classical education is based on the idea that there is a highly specific set of knowledge that all people should have. On the surface, this isn't a terrible idea; it's not hard to argue that reading, writing, math, logic, history, and science are important things to know. So my problem isn't with the idea that everyone should have this set of knowledge. My problem is with the idea that everyone should have this set of knowledge to the exclusion of everything else.

There are worlds and worlds of knowledge out there, and I personally think all of it is equally valuable. A classical education seems to be focused on the idea that Greco-Roman and Western European history are essential for everyone, but African, Middle Eastern, Asian, Eastern European, and Native American history are not. I find this notion to be rooted in Eurocentricism, colonialism, and its accompanying racism. On the subject of religion, The Well-Trained Mind makes brief mention of "explaining" religions like Buddhism and Islam, but ultimately treats Christianity as truth. As a person of faith myself, I understand their position that faith should be part of education. But even if your family happens to be Christian, my own belief is that children should be offered a buffet of possible ideas about God and allowed to work with those which make the most sense to them. It is possible to teach "our family believes this about God" without teaching that everyone else's beliefs don't matter.

A classical education does seem to include lots of exposure to art, music, and literature - but again, this is the art, song and story mainly of dead white men. Why is it more important to study Mozart than to study aboriginal tribal music or watch a Bollywood dance scene? Why is the Bible to be studied at length but the Koran only glossed over and the Tao Te Ching left out entirely? Classical education seems, again, to be rooted in the idea that the elements of Western civilization are the only ones worth studying, and by extension, that (mostly white) Westerners are the only ones whose ideas are worth caring about. This is fundamentally racist in nature.

And that's my ultimate objection to The Well-Trained Mind and its accompanying philosophy: it teaches that some people's lives and perspectives matter more than others. It offers children the same restricted, whitewashed world that was offered to me in school - and even more regrettably, to my non-white peers, who continued to see their own histories and people devalued and ignored, sometimes even having their destruction glorified in the name of justifying white imperialism. This kind of treatment of the world of knowledge is not okay. Children should be taught to see the world whole, to see all people as equally beautiful. They need to learn to live in a world that contains all kinds of people, and to treat all those people with respect. When I am interacting with an adult, whether as a friend, a coworker, a consumer or a voter, this is the knowledge I am most interested in seeing them have. If they can do that, I really don't care if they need to use spellcheck to send a good email or a calculator to do simple math. Seeing everyone as equally human matters more.


Chelsea Bradham said...

I have to disagree with this post for the following reasons:

As far as leaving out "Other Cultures" this is entirely false, especially in terms of Eastern European culture. Many of the private schools that teach to the classical method are Orthodox Christian schools and they incorporate the history, art, and even languages of the Eastern European lands.

Anonymous said...

I see your arguements clearly, and have have had the same concerns, BELIEVE ME. What I came to in the end is that while I don't say Christianity is the only truth or viable theology, it is the only one with forgiveness as a main tenet, which is the only future out of a caste system of birth or the ability to rise from our failings... and THAT makes all the difference to me and I think ALL of mankind if becoming 'better' is what you're afte. When I look at the world I have to see that despite the advanced age of some countries and religions, they are largely still in poverty, squalor, oppressed, brutalized, and... hungry. I see nothing wrong with their religion except that it's no way that I want to live or want my daughters and sons to live... so if in context the foundations of the civilization that I enjoy are rooted in a wisdom the pre-dates Christ, a time when that world was only white, I don't see the exclusion, only an idea that did become a good one, for ANY race or culture-- much in the same way principles of child raising, discipline, and running a thriving and healthy home is somewhat archetypal-- also regardless of race, children must be tended and managed and kept safe in efficient ways. I'm not intending to gloss over all the religions or cultural traditions, I'm just having to focus on the ones I want to support because this is where the highest quality of living in terms of non-violence and equality are, and I like those aspects of American and Western life.