By John Taylor Gatto
An intelligent and sensitive woman named Mary Wallech, when asked by her grown son Martin, my good friend, to consider the possibility that America’s wars were never fought for the reasons offered by great newspapers and television stations, replied simply, “It’s better not to know.” I recall Mrs. Wallech to you not to explore any implications of her thesis or that of her son, but to underline for all of us how difficult it is to come to terms with the concept “education,” how slippery.
Was Mary Wallech content to remain ignorant, simply to be the peasant cut off from the larger world that her immigrant ancestors were, or was she wise beyond her years in understanding that the pursuit of forbidden knowledge often ruins the seeker, that the malice of the great ones who seek to fool ordinary people is unfathomable at bottom, another of the eternal deficiencies of human nature? That attending too closely to unraveling their deceits can unravel, instead, one’s faith in the ultimate goodness of the universe? That the loss of faith is a worse harm than being gulled?
These aren’t questions I have an answer for, and the Wallechs are all dead now so we can’t ask them, but observe how many layers of the secret reality beneath surfaces we are alerted to by the ability to ask such questions. Sharp questions signal a reflective mind at work and that in turn bespeaks the presence of an educated mind, not merely an intelligent one.
The closer you look at the word “education,” the slipperier it gets. You wouldn’t expect the education of a successful Eskimo to be the same as that of the Kalahari Bushman and almost the instant you ears hear that challenge, they need no expert lecture to finish the analysis; an education in self-reliance and courage such as might mean the difference between satisfaction and misery in a remote village isn’t at all what the weight of city living demands.
James Bryant Conant, the longtime president of Harvard and godfather of the enormous “comprehensive” high school which has played such a leading role in the de-intellectualizing of the school years, once admitted to feeling great anger when he heard the question, “What is an education?” An education, said Conant, is “what a school delivers.” While a logic class might call that begging the question, Conant maintained that it was the only answer that made sense. From a bigshot’s perspective he was probably right – you go along to get along, those who criticize the program are given short shrift.
But while it’s useful to know what a Harvard president thinks an education is, there are a lot of different takes of this business that are different: The anthropological point of view form the first half of the 20th century said that the point of education was to pass on the cultural heritage and assembled knowledge of the tribe, and to place the individual on the social map and explain that map to him: The notion of a Christian education was, and has remained, to know God and to serve His will: Classical Greek education was about excellence in morals and physique, in the Hellenic period intellect was added to the mix: For Pindar, the Roman poet and thinker, education was about learning to be yourself, about polishing and exercising your innate virtues and talents after, presumably, first discovering them.
I could supply a dozen other definitions, but my point isn’t to have you select one from the column of possibilities, only to point out what to this old schoolteacher has become painfully obvious: Most of us have only the vaguest idea what we mean when we talk about education. If other people praise our children, or if they are certified by supposedly competitive tests, then we assume that the mysterious process of education is happening. And maybe it is.
But maybe it isn’t either. One of the difficulties of trusting to luck or the judgment of others, of steering by instinct, is that we don’t have all the time in the world. As I write, your kids are being pushed willy-nilly, at breakneck speed, into a future whose appearance is difficult to see. All we know about it is that expert prognostications are certain to be wrong. Study after study, taking the predictions of 10, 20, 30, 40 years ago about the future and comparing them with reality leave no ground for optimism at all.
Even in a homely way we can see that the mechanisms of the pseudo-scientific seer don’t work. For many years the Wharton School of Business at Penn has shown that the overwhelming number of stock market prediction services – over 95% — don’t do as well as the averages, that even the few who seem to do better over time are no more than the number that pure chance would produce, making its choices blindly by spinning a wheel or tossing a dart.
And it’s been a horrifying academic secret for decades that the children who walk away with the highest formal honors, the valedictorians and National Merit Scholars, have a horrendous performance record in later life.
Here’s a final homely example: Up until three years ago, I was certain that it would be possible, with close attention, to break the code of gambling on professional football, and consistently win by picking correctly against the professional odds out of Las Vegas. After all, the game was finite; its resources were visible, quantifiable and closely studied by specialists all over the country. But driving through Vegas one day three years ago, at the end of the season, I picked up a year-end summary of the predictions of 12 leading football experts who had predicted every game during the season past. The best did no better than chance, and most did much worse than that!
All three of the above sets of prophets, in finance, in the correlation of academic prowess and success, or in major league sports, are unable, using the tools of reason, to master the future.
All this, I think, argues against blindly trusting that outsiders will know with any degree of accuracy whether your kid is progressing toward the condition of being educated. Whatever that means.
What I think it means is that you and your kid have to be the principal judges of whether things are going right. And to do that, all of you, beginning with the oldest members of the team, have to think the matter of education through. What does it mean to you?
You don’t have to forget the Conants or the Greeks or all the rest, but you can’t trust them to pick the destination for you; most importantly, even if you agree with somebody else on the destination, you can’t trust anybody else to map the road to it for you. Horrifying as it may seem, you have to wrestle long and hard with the right questions to ask, to agonize about the scarcity of time and what might be most worthwhile to fill it with?
To get to Paris you have to know what Paris is first, then what your options of arrival are; to get to education . . . ditto. Gruesome as it may sound to people reared on multiple-choice tests, there isn’t any right answer, only an answer that’s right for you; if you leave that choice to someone else, the odds are against you.
To get you started on your own quest, I’ll tell you what I think an education is, for an American about to live through the 21st Century. As long as you remember that I wrote this for myself and not for the human race, it can’t do you much harm to peer into another mind at work on the problem.
Twelve Reflections on an Educated Person
- An education person writes his own script through life, he is not a character in a government or corporation play, nor does he mouth the words of any intellectual’s Utopian fantasy. Education and intelligence aren’t the same things. The educated person is self-determined to a large degree.
- Time doesn’t hang heavily on an educated person’s hands. She can be alone, productively, seldom at a loss for what to do with time.
- An educated person possesses a blueprint of personal value, a unique philosophy which tends toward the absolute, not one plastically relative, altering to suit present circumstances. An educated person knows who he is, what he will tolerate, where to find peace. Yet at the same time, an educated person is aware of and respects community values.
- An educated person knows her rights and knows how to defend those rights.
- An educated person knows the ways of the human heart so well he’s tough to cheat or fool.
- An educated person possesses useful knowledge. She can ride, hunt, sail a boat, build a house, grow food, etc.
- An educated person understands the dynamics of relationships, partially from experience, partially from being well-read in great literature; as a consequence he can form healthy relationships wherever he is.
- An educated person understands and accepts her own mortality; she understands that without death and aging, nothing would have any meaning. An educated person learns from all her ages, even from the last hours of her life.
- An educated person can discover truth for himself; he has intense awareness of the profound significance of being (as distinguished form doing), and the utter importance of being here and now.
- An educated person can figure out how to be useful.
- An educated person has the capacity to create: New things, new experiences, new ideas.
- Education is built around ten cores: They metaphysical reality, the historical reality, the personal reality, the physical world within reach, the physical world outside personal awareness, the possibilities of association, an understanding of vocation, homemaking, the challenges of adulthood, the challenges of loss, aging and death.
Education for me is a matter of approximations; I personally haven’t ever arrived totally at any of these destinations even though I’ve lived two-thirds of a century. But knowing these are values I cherish helps me to find my way in the wilderness, provides me with maps that keep my feet on the path.
The older I get the more it seems to me that all of the principles in my own private formulation you’ve just seen are related to one another, when you resolutely attend to any one of them you are actually working on all. It took me about a half century of living to distill out these principles, so my advice is not to be daunted when you begin to climb your own mountain.
As long as you accept that it’s your journey under your direction, and that it involves an obligation of real and continuous struggle on your part – that nobody else can do the struggling for you – you will prevail. Good luck.
By The Late John Taylor Gatto (1935-2018)