Fiddling While Rome Learns
What is True Education?
By Mr. Josh Brisby, M.Ed.
In the past we have discussed the differences between classical education and public education. Yet, it is one thing to think of differences between different types of education; it is another thing to ask, “What is true education?” The following proverb is attributed to my favorite philosopher, Socrates:
Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.
Socrates was famous—or perhaps infamous—for always asking questions and seeking to define terms. And, as Plato’s dialogues show, Socrates was never truly satisfied with the definitions that his philosophical quandaries produced. So, to continue in his legacy, let us ask how we would define the word 'education.'
Webster’s Dictionary defines ‘education’ as “the action or process of educating or of being educated.” This, of course, begs the question, what is it to be educated? Webster defines ‘educate’ as “to train by formal instruction and supervised practice especially in a skill, trade, or profession” and “to develop mentally, morally, or aesthetically.”
As we can see, even what comes from a supposedly objective source, the dictionary, is quite vague as to what constitutes education. I teach my students to strive for seek the why of things. In this case, we need to seek which definition of education is correct—or perhaps none of them are—and then understand why we think so.
First, using the Socratic method of dialogue, we can seek to take a position and teem out its implications, drawing it to its logical conclusion. Take the above definitions. The first can be easily dismissed: “the action or process of educating or being educated.” This definition commits the logical fallacy of petitio principii, or “begging the question.” It defines nothing. It uses the same related word ‘educate’ so that it never defines education. I call this ‘the politician’s trick.’ Politicians are superb at this sleight-of-hand. “I’m going to fix the economy by making it better. And I’m going to make the economy better by fixing it.” Please notice, did the politician ever give the specifics of how he is going to fix the economy? Indeed, what does he even mean by fix? So we can easily do away with the first definition from Webster.
Let us now consider Webster’s second definition, “to train by formal instruction and supervised practice.” To be honest, this is probably the accepted definition today, at least in most schools. We can see this by how they approach the rest of the definition, “especially in a skill, trade, or profession.” What does it mean to ‘train’ someone? Is it not to mold someone to be or become what the teacher desires? In this sense, is it not simply ‘filling with knowledge’ for the purpose of a trade or skill? This second definition is exactly what Socrates wishes to avoid when it comes to education. The one who is ‘educated’ in this definition simply “receives knowledge of a skill,” nothing more. The child or adult, in this sense, is merely passive, a vessel through which so-called knowledge is poured.
Let us now look at Webster’s other definition of education: “to develop mentally, morally, or aesthetically.” This, I would argue, is what true education is. Why? Because we all, in our heart of hearts, know that an education is not merely training or the development of skills. When we think about people, we think about all the various qualities or characteristics that make up such a person. This even leads many to think of a good education as a well-rounded one. That person can only be made or formed if he or she is growing mentally, morally, and aesthetically. And that person cannot do that without all aspects of life, physical and spiritual. Further, that person is not merely passive in this education, but they participate actively. In this true education, the teacher is not only the facilitator, who ignites the spark. The teacher tends the spark and kindles the fire. The student participates in this education, fanning the flame, because the teacher instructs and piques the wonder and the curiosity of the student. As Socrates says, “I teach nothing. All I can do is teach them to wonder.” Socrates considered himself a “midwife,” merely giving birth to ideas. This is what true educators do and are. We teach our students how to think. We do not think for them. We inspire their wonder and curiosity of the universe, and we ignite that spark. We put the wind in their sails for them to navigate their ships.
This is true education. Why? The whole student continues to grow as a person, and we educate them not just for a forty-minute class period, but we inspire them for life. By the act of educating, students are inspired to begin and to continue with their education. This is why graduation is called “commencement”—which means “beginning.” Graduation is not the end. It is only the beginning. Now our students are ready to seek to always strive for education, to fan that spark into a flame, to strive to take their sails and navigate the vast ocean of wonder and curiosity that lies out there in God’s wonderful universe.
This is true education.
Philosophy As Wonder, Curiosity, Goodness, Truth, and Beauty
By Josh Brisby, M.Ed.
Here at Memorial Lutheran School we teach Logic as well as Speech and Debate during the middle school or “logic years.” We inspire our students to love wonder, curiosity, goodness, truth, and beauty. These topics all converge in a subject usually reserved for college students: philosophy. However, philosophy certainly has a place in middle school and high school because of the connections between inquiry and wonder, curiosity, goodness, truth and beauty. Philosophy has traditionally been divided into various academic fields. Let’s explore how each field can find its place in the classroom.
The inquiry of metaphysics and ontology inspires us to be curious about the questions “what is real?” and “what is the nature of reality?” Many of us take this for granted. For example, I assume the laptop on which I am typing this article, right now, is a real entity. I can “feel” it and “see” it. Yet, if I assume it is real merely because my senses notice it, then how am I sure I am not hallucinating? Rene Descartes in particular went so far as to doubt everything but concluded that at least he must exist, since he was thinking. “Cogito ergo sum,” “I think therefore I am” is his popular contribution to thought. Was he right? In exploring questions of being and reality, we can respond to this with a critique as well. Asking our students “why?” gets them to think. I often tell students I am the “why guy.”
The inquiry of epistemology inspires us to wonder about the question “how do we know?” For example, we take for granted that atoms exist. Have you ever seen an atom? We take for granted that Hawaii exists, or that George Washington existed. How do we know that all this is not some grand conspiracy? Of course, that would be pretty over-the-top; but, at the very least it raises the question. Can we have true knowledge simply because someone else has told us? Philosophers ask the question of how knowledge is justified and warranted. Can I have true knowledge if there is a possibility I could be wrong? Or does this knowledge have to be infallible to be real and true? The nature of knowledge is even a topic that some Christian philosophers have sought to address. They usually point to Colossians 2:3, “in [Christ] are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” Yet of course I would ask them if this passage is really talking of Christ in the sense of epistemology. The Bible is sufficient for knowledge of salvation. But is it sufficient for the rules of chess or a flight operator’s manual, etc.? The question of “how do we know” brings students and teacher alike to curiosity and wonder together.
The inquiry of aesthetics asks “what is beautiful?” You have heard that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Is this really true? Does not God have an ultimate standard of Beauty? The philosopher Plato responded to this question with his theory of the forms. Everything is a lesser copy of an ultimate Form, insofar as there are therefore different degrees of “beauty,” with ultimate “beauty” being the “perfect form of beauty.” For Plato, “ugliness” is therefore not a “thing,” but simply a lack of the “form of beauty” on this “chain of being” or a lower rung of the ladder. When discussing “beauty” then philosophy permits us to move beyond opinion and into a substantial discussion with the ancients.
The inquiry of ethics asks the question “what is good”? It also therefore deals with the inverse, what constitutes evil. What are the virtues? What are the vices? Aristotle believed everything could be thought of in terms of excess or deficiency. The in-between, or the “Golden Mean” is how one can find the “good” or the “virtues.” This branch of ethics is called “virtue ethics.” For example in Aristotle’s system, the virtue of “courage” has an excess of “foolhardiness” and a deficiency of “cowardice.” No one would say a man that rushes into battle without weapons or planning is “courageous.” Nor would one say that a man who runs away from battle is “courageous.” But a man who plans and receives counsel and training and weapons before running into battle would be considered courageous. How philosophy intersects with ethics provides for ample discussion on the question of what is “good.”
The field of logic is the study of proper argumentation and how to apply those arguments. What is an “argument”? A formal argument has premises and a conclusion. An informal argument will not be as “polished” as this, but will be an assertion backed up with evidence. We all make arguments every day. Even something as simple as this assertion, “mom, we need to get gas for the car because the needle is on empty,” is an argument. The mother in this example could respond with a counter-argument by saying “no we don’t because the needle is broken.” The son or daughter could respond in turn with another counter-argument in saying “but daddy had the needle fixed so we really do need gas”, etc., until one side finally concedes. Here at Memorial we enjoy this especially in Logic class and in Speech and Debate. Of course, we teach our students to argue respectfully and logically.
There are other fields of study as well, such as cosmology and cosmogony which have to do with the nature and origin of the universe. Here at Memorial we have what we would call a “Christian cosmology” and even a “Lutheran cosmology” in that we affirm that everything in this universe is ultimately about the Cross of Jesus Christ as the center point of all of history.
Philosophy has a significant place in the classroom at a classical Lutheran school. Here at Memorial, it is taught in ways that inspire love of wisdom, and of wonder and curiosity. The Good, the True, and the Beautiful are found in Christ and in His Word and in His creation. He is true Wisdom. Equipped with this Wisdom by faith, our faculty and students stand ready to venture into areas of philosophy inclined to wonder as they think and live in the world.
This post today marks the beginning of Memorial Lutheran School’s blog. Weekly the faculty, staff, and clergy of MLS will release articles and devotional material for the edification of our church and school families. Mondays will feature the release of an article on classical Lutheran education, philosophy, worldview or other topics. Wednesday will feature a sermon preached in chapel during the week prior or a devotion appropriate to the current season of the Church year. We pray that the blog will be a fruitful way for MLS to foster discussion and enthusiasm toward “building a strong foundation.”
The Faculty and Staff of MLS
“The How and the What”
---Musings on “the importance of teaching our students how to read and write, how to think, and how to imagine beyond themselves, their experiences, their lives, and their world.”---
Martin Cothran of Memoria Press has stated succinctly that a classical education is one that teaches students “how to think and what to do,” (Martin Cothran, What is classical education?, Memoria Press, 2017).
Reading, writing, thinking, imagining: these are critical skills. They are skills that require a judgment or discernment. This word "critical" comes from the Greek word kritikos, which in turn comes from the Greek verb krino, meaning to judge or discern. When one does any of the above (reading, writing, thinking, imagining), judgments and decisions are made. Seldom do we think about how we make those judgments. We do not ask the questions that we ought. What assumptions underlie our decisions? What assumptions underlie what others say or do? Are these legitimate assumptions? When reading, is there a way to sympathize with a character or an argument without claiming it as our own position?
A classical education is a “liberal” education. It is freeing in its inculcation of the “how” to think, read, write and imagine, and the “what” of virtue, eloquence, and Christian love. It is freeing too in how it permits each student to see that their knowledge, their works, their emotions and experiences all work together to serve those around them and those that they come in to contact with.
A classical education frees children to think critically and to do so with well-trained discernment. This is important because each student needs the tools of discernment to serve the neighbors that they will have now and will have in the future. A great education may be one that merely teaches "how to think" properly. But a classical Lutheran education is uniquely significant in that this, proper thinking, is not the end or point of the education. The end, the telos (another Greek term that is quite useful), is to love the neighbor, to look outside of oneself. A classical education is dedicated to teaching children "how to think" and "what to do." This is all for the benefit of the other and not the self.
Our education is directed outward. Much of education has been focused inward, motivated by the "self". Therefore, the focus on the teaching of “how to think" instead of “what to think” is “critical.” Now of course, students must be inclined and directed toward this “how”. A certain extent of the “what” must be taught so that reading, writing, and arithmetic can lay the foundation of the skills of the Liberal Arts. But once the tools are in place, then instruction toward the “how to think” can begin. “How” is applicable in a variety of circumstances and this is a boon to the classically educated youth. Many children and adults have been trained solely in “what to think” and there is little freedom to think outside of one particular profession or mode of life. A training in “how” provides the tools to transcend the modern sins of self-absorption and self-centeredness. The narcissism of our age (see Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations for example) becomes more deep-seated with every generation.
Thinking beyond oneself involves analyzing assumptions and presuppositions. Talking beyond oneself involves listening to others. Reading beyond oneself involves taking chances by reading outside of one's preferences. Imagining beyond oneself is the result of loving, analyzing, listening and participating in the conversation of humanity. On one level this conversation takes place in the classroom as the result of a curriculum founded upon classical principles and texts and lectures that come from the treasure trove of Western civilization. On another level, the formal instruction of education is the beginning of the act of inclining and forming students towards the actions that foster the love of the neighbor. This training in "how to think" molds one towards the proper "what": loving others in thought, word, and deed.
Classical Lutheran education inclines and forms students to think about themselves in light of others. Our Lord's summary of the "greatest commandment", love of God and love of neighbor, properly directs our focus and our end (Matthew 22:37-40). The love for God that Christians have is shown outwardly when we love our neighbors. The law here is that we need to think beyond ourselves, our needs, our emotions and our experiences. Learning "how to think" prepares us to do this academically and theologically. The academic knowledge and the theological knowledge gained from a classical Lutheran education equips students to think, talk, read and imagine in ways that serve others. The promise here is that God provides us love through our neighbors and love for our neighbors through us. Training children to be thoughtful, conscientious, and loving neighbors through thinking, reading, talking and imagining is a noble and worthwhile endeavor. We at MLS are glad that you are a part of it.
Rev. R. W. Paul - Headmaster and Associate Pastor