Imagine two approaches to teaching students: either impart centuries old time tested wisdom and approaches to learning disciplines, as taught by Plato, Aristotle, Rousseau, Da Vinci, Sun-Tzu, Al-Khwarizmi, and so forth. Or rely on poorly tested pedagogical theories produced by academics from relatively new disciplines (eg. Education) that are based on problematic methodologies.
Most schools choose the latter. The best schools the former. Here’s what students learn at each (latter = New; former = Classical):
New Philosophy: Be happy. Happiness is ultimate goal of life.
Classical Philosophy: You’re a dumbass, you don’t know jack shit. Those who don’t realize they’re dumbasses who don’t know jack shit are dangerous, will never grow, and will be miserable (summary of Plato’s Republic and Socratic dialogues, which are foundations of Western philosophy).
New History: Bad people do terrible things to good people. Good people are victims. Be good and help these victims.
Classical History: People do some fucked up shit to each other. Figure out ways to protect yourself from other people. (Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian Wars).
New Science: Nature is beautiful and thus should be left alone, protected from human intrusions.
Classical Science: Nature is fascinating and unpredictable and thus will do some fucked up shit to people. Figure out a way to work with nature, to protect yourself from its whims. (Francis Bacon).
New Math: Math is for boring people who are not creative.
Classical Math: Use of numbers is the most precise way to map and describe the world. It’s a language and critical to understanding many fields, including music and art. (Leonardo Da Vinci).
New Literature: It’s wrong to feel hate, rage, and anger. Such emotions must be repressed.
Classical Literature: Life is cruel, lonely, and painful. Deal with it by embracing full spectrum of emotions, including hate, rage, and anger. Use such emotions to motivate oneself, to fight against failure. (Dylan Thomas, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night).
New Writing: Good writing uses lots of big words, many adverbs, and strings of long sentences. Good writing is an expression of one’s feelings.
Classical Writing: Good writing is succinct, concise, and precise. Good writing is simple and focused on effective communication. (Common Fucking Sense)
New Social Studies: Make the world a better place by protecting people, especially children, from stress, so they can maximize their potential and create a fair world.
Classical Social Studies: People, especially children, must be exposed to frustration and pain, and learn to embrace a wide range of experiences and emotions in order to prepare them for reality that’s often cruel and unfair. (Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile).
The reason so many schools choose new, untested, theories is because they promise dramatic improvement with less work. Figuring out what the best schools do right and emulating them is too much work and likely too offensive to too many parents. The best schools are run by leaders who understand the value of and the extraordinary effort it takes to improve on time-tested wisdom. It takes a lot more than simply being “nice” — easy to do — to a kid to make him capable of learning how to learn, to be sentient, compassionate, and passionate. That’s why the best schools — public and private — expose their students to pressure packed environments that test their resolve, both in the classroom and on the field. The rest instead complain that students are too overworked, too stressed from this, that, and whatever.
Consider the above distinctions carefully, how they produce different results. For instance, the kid who thinks nature is merely beautiful is NOT going to become a scientist working to solve problems that arise from climate change because she will NOT have the same sense of urgency as that kid who thinks nature is fascinating and sometimes cruel. She will more likely become a self-righteous activist. That’s because the “nature is beautiful” narrative feeds one’s narcissism — “so nature is meant for my enjoyment, my pleasure, and I must defend that which is made for my pleasure.” Nature as “fascinating and cruel” motivates because it understands science as the race against disaster. Starting to see how a public school like Stuyvesant, full of working class students, can consistently produce world changing scientists from each one of its classes, while ours mostly produce activists?
Alright, so I’m exaggerating — I was trying to get your attention — our schools don’t produce mostly fuck ups. The point is, they’re mostly producing mediocrities and we have to figure out why that’s the case. Unless we’re fine with mediocre, which in this rapidly globalizing and competitive world can quickly become the new Fail. Now that’s fucked up.