You are here

Back to school

So far I’ve proposed beauty and contemplation as pieces of a program for restoring the transcendent and therefore humanity. What else is needed?

One obvious point is tradition. I’ve gone on and on about what tradition is, how it comes about, why we need it and why it’s generally reliable. I don’t think I’ve said much about how to restore it, except to observe that it’s a pervasive feature of human life that’s basic to every possible social order, so the point is less to restore it than to allow it to function normally by recognizing its necessary authority and abandoning the attempt to replace it overall by some supposedly rational construction.

Tradition is something passed down, and education is always education into a way of life, and therefore into a tradition. Present-day education most often ignores that. It pretends to a sort of neutrality that in fact stands for an attempt to organize the whole of life into a technically rationalized hedonistic system, and so to educate the young out of the actual tradition of their people and into one based on the supremacy of markets, bureaucracies and formal expertise.

Sex ed, for example, could be something schools leave alone, on the theory that schools deal with public things and sex is private. It could be based on reticence and teach mostly by implication and example. Or it could discuss the family and the attitudes and habits that stabilize it and make it functional, and show students how bringing sexual impulses in line with those things integrates them with other human concerns and so makes possible a way of life that they can approve and find rational and satisfying overall. It doesn’t do any of that of course. Instead it teaches students that sex is something they should make of what they will, and treat not as a basic principle of human life and connection but as a private hobby, consumer good, or perhaps occasion for therapy.

So what to do? Some thoughts:

  • Greater clarity is needed. Schools always teach a tradition and way of life, and it’s important which one. Claims of neutrality are obfuscation in the interests of those running the show.
  • Expertise is development and organization of knowledge in accordance with institutional principles. It can’t be trusted when the value and reliability of the institution itself are in question. If you think scientism might be a problem, you shouldn’t rely on what scientists tell you about it.
  • Ordinary people therefore need to make their own judgments. It’s the job of parents to do so as to their children’s education. Presumably, on reflection people will want to send their children to schools that support and enhance the way of life they believe best. That will likely be one to which they are already attached, although not necessarily the one they actually follow. We all fall short of what we think it would be good for us to do.

So how can schools support and enhance ordinary life? An obvious way is to teach traditional academic subjects: classic texts, history, geography, mathematics, the natural sciences and the fine arts. All those things extend ordinary life. They give it its basis and setting, enlarge and clarify its aspirations, and suggest its possibilities. They give students something to admire and love—Shakespeare or whatever—that is tied to the everyday but goes far beyond it. They require organized consecutive study for mastery, and so are natural subjects for school.

They also, of course, can be taught in a debunking way, just like anything else. The history of wine would look bad if it were taught by teetotallers. The same should be expected when traditional Western academic topics are taught by people who understand themselves not as traditional Westerners but as expert functionaries who draw their identity, status and understanding of reality from institutions based on scientism, technocratic hedonism, and universalistic aspirations.

The organization of schools, and the way teachers are trained and chosen, is therefore crucial. Big problems don’t have magic fixes, but presumably it would help to make the educational system much less centralized. There are few economies of scale in education, almost everything of importance happens locally, and people on the spot know more and care much more about what goes on than distant experts and administrators. It’s hard to see any excuse for the degree of centralization we now have. It makes the system look more like an attempt at top-down social revolution—the conversion of students into tolerent and pliable drones for the world economy—than anything else.

It would also help for the school and its teachers to have some definite idea of the way of life they want to support. Today that probably means religious schools are better. They know there’s something better than career, consumption and the technostate, something we can pursue and approach but not quite pin down, so what they do is likely to look more like education than a manufacturing process. At one point schools might have been able to orient their activities more by the ethos of a particular class—the high WASP elite or whatever—than by religion. Fancy prep schools and Ivy League colleges once served a purpose. It seems doubtful that possibility still exists, though.