Education – past and present…how about the future of it? (Contd. article)

(Thank you for your visit, dear reader, and for your continued interest in my rather lengthy article on education and its past and present conceptualizations, or better yet: re-conceptualizations. Wishing you, as always, a wonderful Sunday and an equally pleasant new week.)

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Education to deliver service to humanity is not a theory limited to Ancient Greece. There are men renowned for their high intelligence but also those lesser known who with persistent passion stood behind their conclusions as to what education is not supposed to be. In the following, a discussion ensues on an intellectual of modern times whose educational philosophy has been largely overlooked in modern ages: Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936).

  1. Life and Work: Selected Facts

Gilbert Keith Chesterton – one of the most unnoticed thinkers of the 20th century, the English biographer, philosopher, writer, poet and literary and art critic has lived in the United Kingdom all his life. He is known never to have gone to college but to art school instead.

 Gilbert K Chesterton

 [Photo: Free Images Online]

Dale Ahlquist has the following relatively unknown life and work details to report on Chesterton in an article in The American Chesterton Society:

In 1900, he was asked to contribute a few magazine articles on art criticism, and went on to become one of the most prolific writers of all time. He wrote a hundred books, contributions to 200 more, hundreds of poems, including the epic Ballad of the White Horse, five plays, five novels, and some two hundred short stories, including a popular series featuring the priest-detective, Father Brown. In spite of his literary accomplishments, he considered himself primarily a journalist. He wrote over 4000 newspaper essays, including 30 years worth of weekly columns for the Illustrated London News, and 13 years of weekly columns for the Daily News. He also edited his own newspaper, G.K.’s Weekly.

Ahlquist also writes about the ease within which Chesterton expressed himself regarding literary and social criticism, history, politics, economics, philosophy, and theology and how this laid-back philosopher “debated many of the celebrated intellectuals of his time: George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, Bertrand Russell, Clarence Darrow.” In an obvious tone of disappointment, Ahlquist adds to say how “the world has immortalized his opponents and forgotten Chesterton,” while, “i]ronically, all of his opponents regarded Chesterton with the greatest affection.” According to Ahlquist’s account, George Bernard Shaw said that “[t]he world is not thankful enough for Chesterton.”

It is long overdue for the world to become thankful for Chesterton’s conceptualization of education, as I argue.

  1. “The Superstition of School”

A significant Chesterton statement resonates the essence of Plutarch’s vision of Academic philosophy, and therefore he is in most appropriate company in this essay:

Education is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another.

Let us not forget the variety of topics Chesterton has covered in his essays of encyclopedic extent, hence how this particular claim by him is not to understand in isolation but rather in close connection to his sociological as well as political contexts – as in the proposed system to the ‘training of a statesman’ by Plutarch.

In his essay, “The Superstition of School,” Chesterton claims with conviction that “without a gentle contempt for education, no gentleman’s education is complete (Classic Essays).” What he demonstrates, when he writes about “the snags of sociology,” is of critical value:

[O]ne of them is concerned with Education. If you ask me whether I think the populace, especially the poor, should be recognized as citizens who can rule the state, I answer in a voice of thunder, “Yes.” If you ask me whether I think they ought to have education, in the sense of a wide culture and familiarity with the classics of history, I again answer, “Yes.” But there is, in the achievement of this purpose, a sort of snag or recoil that can only be discovered by experience and does not appear in print at all. It is not allowed for on paper, even so much as is the recoil of a gun. Yet it is at this moment an exceedingly practical part of practical politics[.] […]

As if to describe our times, he further analyzes the problematic at hand:

The snag in it is this: that the self-educated think far too much of education. I might add that the half-educated always think everything of education. That is not a fact that appears on the surface of the social plan or ideal; it is the sort of thing that can only be discovered by experience. When I said that I wanted the popular feeling to find political expression, I meant the actual and autochthonous popular feeling as it can be found in third-class carriages and bean-feasts and bank-holiday crowds; and especially, of course (for the earnest social seeker after truth), in public-houses. I thought, and I still think, that these people are right on a vast number of things on which the fashionable leaders are wrong. The snag is that when one of these people begins to “improve himself” it is exactly at that moment that I begin to doubt whether it is an improvement.

How in sync do the Chesterton words flow on and on, when one recalls Plutarch’s concern over the ‘improvement of a character’:

He seems to me to collect with remarkable rapidity a number of superstitions, of which the most blind and benighted is what may be called the Superstition of School. He regards School, not as a normal social institution to be fitted in to other social institutions, like Home and Church and State; but as some sort of entirely supernormal and miraculous moral factory, in which perfect men and women are made by magic. To this idolatry of School he is ready to sacrifice Home and History and Humanity, with all its instincts and possibilities, at a moment’s notice. To this idol he will make any sacrifice, especially human sacrifice. And at the back of the mind, especially of the best men of this sort, there is almost always one of two variants of the same concentrated conception: either “If I had not been to School I should not be the great man I am now,” or else “If I had been to school I should be even greater than I am.” Let none say that I am scoffing at uneducated people; it is not their uneducation [sic] but their education that I scoff at. Let none mistake this for a sneer at the half-educated; what I dislike is the educated half. But I dislike it, not because I dislike education, but because, given the modern philosophy or absence of philosophy, education is turned against itself, destroying that very sense of variety and proportion which [sic] it is the object of education to give.

Chesterton delivers the solution to the problem of his diagnosis in no less succinct terms:

What is wrong is a neglect of principle; and the principle is that without a gentle contempt for education, no gentleman’s education is complete. […] the truth of which I speak has nothing to do with any special culture of any special class. […] The moment men begin to care more for education than for religion they begin to care more for ambition than for education. It is no longer a world in which the souls of all are equal before heaven, but a world in which the mind of each is bent on achieving unequal advantage over the other. There begins to be a mere vanity in being educated whether it be self-educated or merely state-educated. Education ought to be a searchlight given to a man to explore everything, but very specially the things most distant from himself. Education tends to be a spotlight; which is centered entirely on himself [sic]. Some improvement may be made by turning equally vivid and perhaps vulgar spotlights upon a large number of other people as well. But the only final cure is to turn off the limelight and let him realize the stars. (1923)

It is not at all difficult to recall at this point as to how the same thought found its home in Ancient Greece in the writings and teachings of Plutarch:

When the intelligence of the new student has comprehended the main parts, let us urge him to put the rest together by his own efforts, using his memory as a guide and thinking for himself. The mind does not require filling like a bottle (PL MOR 1 P257).

As with Chesterton, the sole genius of the 21st century, Albert Einstein was – though quite under-examined for this aspect of his intelligence – a devoted advocate for education as a “searchlight (Chesterton).”

(Next Sunday, “Education and the 21st Century – Albert Einstein and Sydney Justin Harris )

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