Polonius Defends Liberal Education

Polonius“By indirections find directions out.”

-Polonius from Hamlet

Polonius usually isn’t the guy to pattern essays on, but here I make an exception to make a point. I was recently lamenting the demise of the liberal education model in public school. At my district students will more than likely graduate having taken more electives than core courses (by core I mean English, Social Studies, Math, and Science). The “when will I ever use this?” line is being used increasingly (and not just by students). As a result, “career” classes which teach workplace “skills” are becoming more and more required in high school.

It is clear that the benefits of a well-rounded (i.e. liberal) education are no longer recognized. To steal from Arthur Bestor, apparently people think the West was settled by people who took classes in “How to be a Pioneer,” or American late 19th and early 20th century ingenuity owes its proverbial status to schoolroom manipulation of gadgets.

Of course it hasn’t always been this way. According to Wikipedia, in Confucianist China civil servants were tested. “The examination tested the candidate’s memorization of the Nine Classics of Confucianism and his ability to compose poetry using fixed and traditional forms and calligraphy.”

That test hundreds of years later influenced the Brits. According to CivilService.Gov.UK, if you wanted to join the treasury in 1855 you had to be prepared to answer questions on the first three books of Euclid and translate a passage out of Latin, German, French, or Italian.

Just for fun, here are sample history and grammar questions from the Brit. test:

  • What were, at different times, the titles of the Chief Magistrates of republican Rome?  Name the first and last of the 12 Caesars and the principal writers of the Augustan Era.
  • Construct sentences exemplifying the use of the relative pronouns in the possessive and objective cases.

I blame the change on Pragmatism (Dewey, James, and Pierce) but that is a topic for another post. The interesting question is not why the change away from liberal education, but rather why did people in the past think things like grammar, Roman History, the books of Euclid, and composing poetry were valuable prerequisites for civil servant jobs in the first place?  (Certainly they are not considered so today.)

I think there is more than one good answer here, but today I’m talking about creativity. All good jobs require problem solving. Not just fixing “problems,” but also answering the question, “How can I do things better?” Ingenuity, creativity, getting answers that work that are unique, thinking outside the box, whatever you want to call it, usually comes from analogical thinking. It comes from seeing an analogous situation in some seemingly disparate field of knowledge, and applying it to the field at hand. A requirement for this (sadly absent today) is the belief that all knowledge is related.

For instance, the notion that form must follow function. Some people understand this. But the person who really understands this is the one who sees that it applies in the composition of paintings, of literature, of governments, of music, of cars, of buildings, of poetry, of clothing, etc. Not only does he get the notion better because he sees it in different subjects that he is familiar with, but he is used to the notion that he can get ideas to solve his problems in government from poetry or painting, that he can get ideas to be a better builder by studying music or cars. In short he can “By indirections find directions out.” Or to make Polonius’ line better suit my needs, “The educated individual can make any directions find directions out.”

After all, if you can find a defense for liberal education in Polonius, answers can be found anywhere.


Education Advice from 1953 – Arthur Bestor

“The school has a contribution to make to every activity of life. But it makes that contribution by doing its own particular job honestly and well. That job is to provide intellectual training in ever field of activity where systematic thinking is an important component of success.”

Arthur Bestor – Educational Wastelands: The Retreat from Learning in our Public Schools

I know no one is reading my blog yet, but in case someone someday does, I would like to plug a book. I had this book by Mr. Bestor on my wish list for many months thanks to a recommendation in a lecture by Lisa VanDamme (whose VanDamme Academy is doing great things by the way), but I put off buying it because of the title. That public education is becoming a wasteland is no revelation and I wasn’t too interested in reading about all the negative aspects that I experienced first-hand daily.

This was a mistake. This book is wonderful! It is positive, benevolent, and it articulates (much better than I could) many of the principles behind my own practices. So far, it is an ode to the power of a true liberal arts education.

Here Mr. Bestor defends the efficacy of the abstract.

“A formula is abstract not because it has lost touch with facts but because it compresses so many facts into small compass that only an abstract statement can sum up. Simple forms of knowledge can accomplish simple tasks; complex forms of knowledge can accomplish complex tasks.”

Here he links the intellectual to the moral.

“It (intellectual training) implies no opposition between the intellectual and the moral realm, for ethics is applicable to the thinking process itself, and rationality is a constituent of every valid ethical system.”

Here he sums up his argument (and mine) that a school must stick to its job of intellectual training.

“By knowing its capabilities and its limitations, a school can make a more effective contribution to vocational training, to physical education, and to ethics than if it cherishes the delusion that it is a home, a church, a workshop, and a doctor’s office rolled into one.”

Here he links hard work with originality.

“The test of every educational program is the extent to which it trains a man to think for himself and at the same time to think painstakingly. Originality and rigor, imagination and discipline – these are not pairs of mutually exclusive qualities. They are qualities that must be welded together in a liberal education.”

And while Mr. Bestor starts in chapter two with a collectivist argument I’m not fond of (education is vital to American democracy), he ends the chapter properly, showing the benefits of an education to the life of the individual.

“To make himself truly free, a man must break the intellectual chains that keep him a serf by binding him to his parish, by binding him to his narrow workaday tasks, by binding him to accept the authority of those placed over him in matters temporal and spiritual. A liberal education frees a man by enlarging and disciplining his powers. He is no longer bound to his parish, because education makes him spiritually a citizen of all places and all times. His workaday tasks no longer subdue his mind to their narrow demands, for he is large enough to cope with them and with the great intellectual tasks of a free man as well. He is no longer obliged to accept blindly the authority of those above him, for they are above him no longer. In the things of the mind he is their peer, and he can decide for himself, on as good ground as they, the great human issues that confront him.”

Thanks Mr. Bestor. I wish you around today saying these things. Thank the gods for the printed word.

Leporello Teaching

One ancient test for the canonical remains fiercely valid; unless it demands rereading, the work does not qualify. The inevitable analogue is the erotic one. If you are Don Giovanni and Leporello keeps the list, one brief encounter will suffice.

Harold Bloom – The Western Canon (page 29)

Leporello from Mozart's Don Giovanni
Leporello from Mozart’s Don Giovanni

For those of you who don’t know, in Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni Leporello sings a really funny aria (sometimes called the “Catalogue Aria’) explaining the book in which he keeps track of all of Don Giovanni’s “encounters.”

So how do we apply Leporello and Don Giovanni to education? In Texas we are told we must cover the TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills). Each class has a list (usually a very long list) of things that should be covered for that class throughout the year. I think this is ok in itself. But notice how that duty is often performed.

The TEKS for many become the curricula. Each day, like Don Giovanni, we conquer a few more TEKS, Leporello records them in the book, and that’s that. In all fairness, before the test all the TEKS are (frantically) reviewed.

But education shouldn’t be presented to the student as a set of skills he must master one after the other (which it will certainly appear to be if that is the guide the teacher uses). This is disintegration with a vengeance, the opposite of what education should try to achieve. Education should in the end give the student a sense of knowing an integrated whole so that he “gets” science, “gets” math, “gets” writing, etc. That sense of getting a subject isn’t achieved once he gets a certain percentage of TEKS mastered, it is achieved when he understands the subject as a whole, as a one.

This is nothing new. Giambattista Vico back in the early 1700s uses the term “barbarism” to refer to the unnatural fragmentation of knowledge. According to Vico, the “arts and sciences, all of which in the past were embraced by philosophy and animated by it with a unitary spirit, are, in our day, unnaturally separated and disjointed.” I daresay since Vico’s time this has become worse.

Creating lessons rich in interesting content that integrate the “many” into the “whole” with opportunities to prompt critical and creative thinking should be first priority. If you are teaching science, math, writing, or history, design the course such that the student has the best opportunity to “get” science, math, writing, or history. Then, if you find you have missed some TEKS, find a way to incorporate them. Don’t be a barbarian. Don’t be a Leporello.

Why Write?

“We live in our minds and existence is the attempt to bring that life into physical reality, to state it in gesture and in form.”

Ayn Rand  The Fountainhead


I’ve always thought the “P” (Purpose) of SOAP (Subject, Occasion, Audience, Purpose) was most the important part. So it is appropriate that my first blog post explains why I’m writing. Why am I bothering to have a blog page on my website?

The answer is to struggle with and clarify my own thinking. Which, incidentally, is why I have my students write so much. Writing is your thoughts made manifest outside yourself. It is your thoughts worked out, cleaned up, essentialized, and made convincing. After writing your thinking should be clearer, purer, better integrated,  more convincing (to yourself and others), and more in sync with reality.

So while these blog posts are in the form of a communication to a  reader, my fundamental point in writing (and in assigning writing to my students) is not communication. It is thinking/reasoning. Of course, I’m making a slightly artificial distinction between two things (communicating and thinking) that hopefully are integrated. As Isocrates says in his Antidosis “the same arguments we use in persuading others when we speak in public, we employ also when we deliberate in our own thoughts.”

So then, the writing here is still about communication to a degree. After all, I could just write thoughts in a private notebook. But knowing that the thoughts might be read (by others or by my later self), putting the thoughts out into the world, prompts me (or any writer) psychologically to make sure the thinking is refined and clear.

An analogy is working on a piece of music. I’m not a huge fan of performing, but if I want to ever learn a piece of music especially well and enjoy all that comes with that accomplishment (the feeling of being a “pianist,” the feeling of owning a piece of music, the feeling of close communication with a favorite composer by studying his mind’s product), I need to make myself perform it. I need to present my thinking and work on the piece to the world. Otherwise, that last bit of polish, that last five percent of work at the end (which is ninety percent of the project) will never happen.

So this will be a place to work out and clarify thoughts and to get them out into the world. For surely the world is a better place if people work to get more clear thoughts out into the world.

“Right thinking is the first principle and source of writing”

Vico (quoting Horace)