Wednesday, January 27, 2010

How democracy is killing education

We are post-Cold War, so it is safe to criticise the impact democratic principles have had on various aspects of our culture. I am not a Marxist, nor am I a proponent of any other form of government. To quote Winston Churchill, "democracy is the worst form of government... except all the others..." Democracy is good, but it is not a cure-all.

A few months ago, I read an essay by George Parkin Grant, where he criticized the impact of John Dewey on education. Dewey mandated a homogenization of democracy and education. His ideas laid the foundation for educational philosophy and pedagogy, ideas that have dominated public schools across the continent. George Grant, however, notes that democracy and education are incongruous. In order to provide “education for all” you must operate on a common ground, a common denominator…So, he argues, you end up with the “lowest common denominator”.

Education, however, is about challenging students to higher understanding and garnering the best results from the collective human intellect. One outcome of education is that some individuals will rise above their peers. Not everyone who makes it to “base camp” reaches the summit of Mount Everest. But such a view can be construed as educational elitism, which is not very democratic at all. On a colloquial level, teachers, students, universities and colleges, and employers, all complain about “lowered standards” and the “dumbing down” of curriculum. Articles circulate about our general lack of knowledge, our decreasing vocabulary and limited grammar knowledge, our collective stupidity, and our hubristic stubbornness in rejecting any remedy for these problems. We have “successfully” regressed to the lowest common denominator. We have brought the summit of Everest to base camp. By lowering standards and by removing obstacles, we bolster up some students while we “handicap” others… So long as everyone is either “raised” or “lowered” to the same point, then democracy and equality have prevailed.

Like the boys from Golding’s Lord of the Flies, we assume that democracy “vincit omnia”. In truth, democracy doesn’t conquer all; democracy is only as good as the people who are voting. Admittedly, democracy does work, albeit imperfectly, in the North American political landscape. Does it work in Iraq? Does is work in Afghanistan? Eventually it might. If the people rule, then the people need to know how to rule… hence, the natural pairing of democracy and education. But what has happened in North America has gone beyond “pairing”; democracy and education have been blended and education has been diluted.

The Classical Greek city-state, Athens, was the birthplace of democracy, a democracy that inevitably failed. Democracy failed for a number of reasons, many of which had nothing to do with democratic principles. For example, the experimental and innovative climate of Athens, the intellectual climate that produced democracy, was also a very unstable one. Democracy without “checks and balances” is also very unstable. Nevertheless, the “invention” of political democracy---even in its most rudimentary form in the 5th century BC---is an incredible contribution to Western civilization; but, the failure of that democracy should also be weighed. The politicking and spin-doctoring that plague our current political culture were also plaguing Athens’ political climate. At times, Athens degenerated into legalized mob rule; they democratically sentenced Socrates to death! Socrates! They voted for the foolish and flawed Sicilian campaign during the Peloponnesian war. Politically, they were unified. Naysayers were ostracised or sentenced to death. The lofty ideals that gave birth to democracy were displaced by the lowest common denominator, what they all could agree on.

To unite education and democracy on a philosophical level means the death of one or both. If Socrates---the paragon of teachers, the one who debated, asked pressing questions, challenged the status quo and sought for greater understanding---was rejected by democracy, then why would we think a democratized education could survive?

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Reading Tolkien, Reading Reality...

It had been a number of weeks since I was able to read Fellowship of the Ring to my boys. When we picked it up again last night, I was afraid we wouldn’t be able to get into the story… But by the second sentence, all three of us were engrossed. We last left Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin in Tom Bombadil’s cottage… which is an unusual and seemingly digressive part in the plot and we were even mid-chapter (which is an awful place to resume a book that has collected some dust)… Nothing, however, deterred our immediate reengagement with the story.

Needless to say, I am amazed by the power of Tolkien’s writing. The story resonates with so much realism and truth. Tolkien writes like someone who has not only lived, but also as one who has thought about life and who understands it. Lord of the Rings is truly a remarkable book, probably one of the best books of all time. On my own, I am reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which is an incredibly enthralling story, but it falls far short of the depth and profundity of Tolkien’s tale of hobbits and wizards.

At the heart of Tolkien’s insightfulness is undoubtedly the fact that he is writing from a Christian perspective. He understands the world the way it actually is. Last year I also read Albert Camus’s existentialist novel L’Etrange: in many ways, Camus is attempting to capture the world authentically, dispensing with romantic ideals and unfounded optimism; however, I was unable to relate to the protagonist. Camus’s story, despite being incredibly captivating, fails to depict the real world; rather, it depicts his philosophical beliefs. Lord of the Rings, it could be said, does the same; the only difference is that Tolkien’s philosophical outlook is more consistent with reality.

In the chapters we read together last night, Frodo humbly aspires to be courageous and to lead his merry band of Shire-folk; he does this out of necessity and he often falls short… So, he still needs help, sometimes help from his friends and always help from the Divine, who although remains unnamed, is present in the story. At one point in the story, while in the Barrow-downs, Frodo musters courage to protect his friends from a Barrow-Wight. He resists the temptation to use the ring to disappear and run away, saving himself; instead, he stays and risks his life to save others. He also has the humility to cry out for Tom’s help; miraculously, Tom answers the call and rescues the hobbits from the Barrow-Wight. Frodo’s courage is growing, but he hasn’t arrived yet; before he has the courage to battle his foes, he must first have the courage to overcome his own fears and temptations. How true for us all! All the events of these two chapters paint a beautiful picture of life in this world, albeit not a perfect picture. Frodo’s actions were like a keyhole of light in a dark room; minuscule yes, but in a dark room, a key hole of light is a very beautiful thing indeed. This is the world I live in. This is reality.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Christianity and the Classics

For a few years I have been teaching a course that examines Classical civilization, from the Mycenaeans to the Romans. The course explores the Greco-Roman world from a number of interconnected perspectives: Mythology, Literature, Philosophy, Religion, Art, Architecture, Archaeology, History, and Geography. I am by trade, a teacher of English literature; taking on a course like “Classical civilization” has required me to do a considerable amount of research. I am still learning new things, even after four years of studying the subject for instructional purposes. They say that a student can learn more by teaching; so, as a teacher of Classical civilization, I have indeed learned a great deal. The most surprising thing I have learned is that studying Greco-Roman world has given fresh insight to my understanding of New Testament Christianity. Tertullian once postulated, “What has Jerusalem to do with Athens?” In other words, what does Christianity have to do with Classical thinking? The rhetorical answer is "nothing". But such an austere view ignores the big picture: Jesus came to the Greco-Roman world, the New Testament is written in the language of the Greco-Roman world, the Apostle Paul ministered to the Greco-Roman world, and the church sprung up in the Greco-Roman world. These are significant factors to consider. In his book, 5 Cities that Ruled the World, Douglas Wilson suggests that---by God’s design---“a certain amount of cross-pollination” occurred between Hebrew thinking and Classical thinking in the forming of Christianity in the first century (81). He qualifies this notion, of course, stating that New Testament Christianity is no syncretism between the God of Abraham and the gods of the Greeks… Citing Romans 11, however, he compares the Kingdom to an olive tree: God grafted Greek gentiles into the Hebraic trunk; the result is a “new kind of olive” (80). The more I study the Classics, the more I realise how much Greco-Roman flavouring has been added to the hearty stew of Christianity. Whatever ingredients God uses for His recipe does not diminish the fact that He is still the chef par excellence!

Wilson, Douglas. 5 Cities That Ruled the World Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

A Messy Reader...

It is now 2010, and I am reviewing my reading list from 2009. My plan was to read Schaeffer from March 2009 to March 2010... Alas, I have fallen short of my plan to learn at the feet of this spiritual giant.

Here is my list of Schaeffer readings:

- True Spirituality
- Mark of the Christian
- Escape from Reason
- Art and the Bible
- (Biography) Francis Schaeffer: An Authentic Life (by Colin Duriez)

What else have I been reading?

- This Momentary Marriage by John Piper
- Mindset by Carol Dweck
- L'Etrange by Albert Camus
- Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
- The Iliad by Homer (finally finished!)
- Wise Blood by Flannery O'Connor
- Jack's Life by Douglas Greshem

What have I started but haven't finished (yet)...?

- The Aeneid by Virgil
- Art for God's Sake by Philip Ryken
- Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
- Christian Lover by Michael Haykin
- Five Cities that Ruled the World by Douglas Wilson
- Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (with Laurie)
- Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien (with the boys)

This last bit, the bit about "books I have started but not finished"... that's the "Messy Reader" bit. I think I have a sickness. This morning I starting reading Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Perhaps the eighth habit might be, read one book at a time and finish it! For the record, I am enjoying all the books I am currently reading.