Sense and Nonsense: What’s Wrong With Education

A month after the fall semester begins, we can talk about students. Parents often wonder what students are learning in their classes. In 1933, Etienne Gilson, in a lecture titled “The Eminence of Teaching” (A Gilson Reader, 1957), recalled St. John Baptist de la Salle, the founder of the Brothers of the Christian Schools. “We should not imagine that school children know nothing more than what they are taught in school,” Gilson wrote. “In fact, what we teach them is but an infinitesimal part of their knowledge, but it is precisely made up of what, without us, they would never learn.” The mind, Aristotle said, is capable of knowing all things, but it must order the things that it knows on some basis other than its ungrounded self.

In a similar vein, Chesterton remarked in What’s Wrong with the World that “there are no uneducated people. Everybody in England is educated; only most people are educated wrongly.” What is it to be “educated wrongly?” To begin with, the expression implies that we recognize some difference between what is right and what is wrong. If we do not recognize such a distinction, we do not educate. Chesterton continued:

“Education” is a word like “transmission” or “inheritance”; it is not an object, but a method. It must mean the conveying of certain facts, views or qualities, to the last baby born. They might be the most trivial facts or the most preposterous view or the most offensive qualities, but if they are handed on from one generation to another they are education. Education is not a thing like theology; it is not an inferior or superior thing; it is not a thing in the same category of terms.

We don’t go to school “to get an education,” as the saying goes. The most vapid of studies is the study of “education” itself, as if it were a “subject.” Education as a topic in isolation does not much interest us and ought not to do so.

Why, then, go to school? The only conceivable reason is to learn what is true. And if that truth is not found in what are called “educational institutions,” we must pursue it alone by any means available, usually by books that tell the truth. In today’s era of mass education, the pursuit of truth, of what is, is still largely a “private” enterprise, even in college—perhaps especially in college. Enclaves of truth exist in most colleges. There are teachers doing what teachers should do. But we have to find them. Not only does faith seek truth, but truth seeks truth.

But, returning to Gilson, what is it that we would never learn without teachers? Who teaches the teachers? Who teaches the philosophers? What is handed down from one generation to another? Is truth something I discover, as the classics taught us, or is it something I make, as much of modernity teaches? If I make my own “truth” and you make yours, what do we talk about? The answer is that we cannot talk about anything, for there are no common terms for discussion.

But the last thing I want to know about someone is how he “feels” about the truth. There is no arguing with feelings, especially thoughts disguised as feelings. If someone says “I feel that this is true,” there is no gainsaying the issue (if we assume he is describing his feelings accurately).

“Dogma is actually the only thing that cannot be separated from education,” Chesterton provocatively added. “It is education. A teacher who is not dogmatic is simply a teacher who is not teaching.” This does not mean “dogmatic” teachers cannot be wrong. They are the only ones who can be. The only teacher worth arguing with is a teacher who professes to be pursuing the truth rather than the formulation of his own unanswerable feelings. I can argue with someone willing to give reasons for his position. I cannot argue with someone who has no position apart from his feelings or who has a theory according to which no positions are possible.


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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