I recall my first teaching assignment. Full of high-minded
ideals and the ambitions of engaging intellectual grandeur, I began my
inaugural sixth grade humanities lesson with a simple directive: "Please
open your textbook to page one." As particular adolescents are often
predisposed to doing, one boy mustered enough courage and contempt to
boldly profess to me, "Why?" Although it was unlikely that his intent
was to initiate a philosophical discussion on the ultimate purpose of
education, it occurs to me now that his question is rather a relevant
one, whose ultimate answer I doubt we have sufficiently considered.
Contemporary society has much to say on the particulars of
educational practice, though little of its purpose. Any statements
thereto are at best mere talking points usually devoid of any
substantive implications. Consider, for example, the recent attention
attributed to the acquisition of '21st Century Skills' in education.123
This notion, that is the cultivation of a pupil’s mind only as it
pertains to a career, trade or profession, has recently swelled in
popularity, and for the purposes of this editorial, any proponent of the
spirit of this pedagogy shall henceforth be referred to as the
Though seemingly a vogue and progressive idea, vocational training
has its precedence rooted in antiquity. In ancient Athens, formal
education was not available to all as it is in present society. Boys of
wealthy and elite families received an education of an intellectual,
moral, and physical nature, while the poorest members of society, and
slaves, received purely technical instruction. Of this practice,
Aristotle remarked, "And to young children should be imparted only such
kinds of knowledge as will be useful to them without vulgarizing them.
And any occupation, art, or science, which makes the body or soul or
mind of the freeman less fit for the practice or exercise of virtue, is
vulgar."4 It was Aristotle’s contention that a vocational
education alone "absorb[s] and degrade[s] the mind," because it lacks
the instruction necessary for the development of virtue. This kind of
education makes a man “vulgar” and less free.
With education considered in such a narrow context, the modernizer
misses the fundamental, humanizing element inherent in a liberal arts
education. The conception of '21st
Century Skills', you see, takes us not one step further in answering
the adolescent’s simple and profound question, "Why?" Supposing the
modernizer answers, "So pupils will be better prepared for a particular
career," necessitates the same proposition, put differently, "To what
end?" Supposing the retort is then, "Because it is good for society,"
again necessitates the same fundamental question posed in yet another
manner, "Why should society be benefited?" Round and round the circular
fallacy spins until the modernizer ultimately recognizes the objective
value of a particular principle. Until he finally concedes to an
objective truth, such as the study of a particular thing is a good in
itself, or as Socrates extolls,
"…beautiful too, as are both truth and knowledge," the sixth grade boy
yet has no ultimate reason to go about the difficult work of learning
his declensions or comprehending the language in Shakespeare.5
At Classical Preparatory School, we recognize the goodness of
particular ends in themselves. Aristotle exhorts this kind of education,
saying, "It is evident, then, that there is a sort of education in
which parents should train their sons, not as being useful or necessary,
but because it is liberal or noble."6 We seek to study those
things which are inherently good, thereby "humanizing" us, or refining
our minds in accordance with man's historical search for wisdom and
truth. C.S. Lewis refers to this canon of intrinsic good as 'the Tao,'
saying, "It is the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain
attitudes really are true, and others really false, to the kind of thing
the universe is and the kind of things we are."7 In
orienting the learner's mind to such things, we develop in students an
innate ability to think critically and for themselves, and cultivate a
store of historical intellectual thought against which to consider new
ideas or experiences. Unlike the modernizer's conception of education, a
pupil who is afforded a foundational training in the liberal arts is
intellectually prepared for the demands of all vocations rather than a
particular field only. He also has, perhaps even more fundamentally, a
training of the heart. That is, as Plato described, he understands and
loves what is right and beautiful, and conversely hates what is wrong
When my sixth grade student first posed his question, "Why," I didn't
have much of an answer. Although frustrated at the time, I am now
indebted to my former pupil for encouraging me to consider such an
1 "Framework for 21st Century Learning", P21 Partnership for 21st Century Learning.
2 “21st Century Skills”, ASCD.
3 Kyle Moroney, “Michigan Principal Shares Maker Movement STEM Program at the White House,” MLive, July 5th, 2015.
4 Aristotle. Politics. The Internet Classics,
5 Plato. The Republic. The Internet Classics,
6 Aristotle. Politics.
7 C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, Reflections on Education with Special Reference to the Teaching of English in the Upper Forms of School (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), 701.