If you were to ask yourself what single aspect of education is lacking in modern society, what would it be? What topic, if better integrated into school curricula, would benefit the world the most?
Teaching science and technology better? It seems we have plenty of the technical aspects of education in place today: everyone knows how to operate a computer better than a phone book and can comprehend (at least at a basic level) the infinities of mathematics and finitude of Earth. Teaching STEM subjects with even more emphasis may result in more or better doctors, engineers, and other scientists, but the trajectory of education in general has already more than adequately adjusted for these subjects, so I doubt whether further emphasis on STEM would be the single greatest reform of modern schooling. As I’m near to my doctorate degree in a STEM field, one might suppose some partiality to STEM. However, it may be the case that my proximity to it only enables a better view of its flaws.
How about teaching second languages better? No doubt better communication among various peoples would generally improve relations and efficiency of exchange between different peoples. This is a decent answer for the moment. Let’s see if there’s one greater.
Another good answer might be those practical skills that can help us in everyday life: basic money management, automotive care, job-hunting do’s and don’ts, and much more. All these would certainly help those in their young twenties get life started on the right foot and avoid certain troubles, but ultimately all these skills can be learned easily through the counsel of friends, simple trial-and-error, or the Internet – a major advantage to the last few generations. All that’s needed is a proper motivation to learn these skills.
Few Good Things Are New
The answer that I propose to the opening question is nothing new to education in the West; in fact, it predates our modern conceptions of education complete with rows of students in cinder-block-walled classrooms nodding in blank affirmation of a lecture on cell mitochondria. (I have nothing personal against the energy-producing organelles of cells, but they strike me as one particular piece of biology any middle school student knows but will probably never need to know.) I echo many others, such as the great Robert Hutchins, chief editor of the Great Books of the Western World set, when I put forth a return to a classical education approach as the best change to make in schools today.
This classical education primarily entails learning through the Great Books. In a sense, you can think of the Great Books as a record of ideas that waxed and waned throughout the development of the West. This is practical in many ways. Through the Great Books, readers learn far more than simply a command of language and composition. Readers take a journey through many of the most significant historical events in the world, great milestones in human scientific achievement, the philosophies of our greatest thinkers, the evolution of political thought, the theologies of the Western religions, and how many of these different areas of knowledge overlap and influence one another. Our modern brains tend to segment such branches of knowledge into tidy boxes, and this might stem largely from how modern schools silo knowledge in highly structured class curricula. In the Great Books, though an author (e.g. Sigmund Freud) writes heavily on scientific subjects, we will also find their writings delving deeply into sociology and philosophy. Hence, the reader of these Great Books gains an education far beyond merely literature itself.
The primary reason for my suggestion of a classical education to be reintroduced today, however, is that many of the cultural problems facing the United States (and other Western nations) is a lack of understanding of the West. Ignorance of Western ideas and history has caused the West to turn against itself, to hate its “history”, to slander its greatest figures, to disregard its laws, to undo its social and economic progress, and to dynamite its very foundations.
Beyond an appreciation for the Western culture, a classical education also imparts students with better means to think critically. Reading the Great Books is a mystery, in part, to uncover the hidden meaning in the narrative. This is an exercise in discovering what truth out of confusion. Much of modern media is a barrage of conflicting opinions and occasional sprinkles of facts. A classically trained mind is best prepared to sift through the various narratives to find the true story or meaning.
Beginning the Journey
The very best thing about a classical education gained through the reading of the Great Books is that it is so easy – not easy in terms of effort required, but easy in terms of accessibility. The only requirement is an ability to read at a high school level. You don’t need a college degree to read the classics, nor do you need $50k. Materially, a classical education is beautifully simple. No instructors, classmates, or study materials are necessary – just good old (no, Great!) books. Can’t afford a new book a month to read? Go to your library. The successes of the Great Books fortunately make them widely available online, in used book stores, libraries, and even garage sales. Books published before 1925 have officially entered the public domain and thus are often found free online. (I am partial to real books, but I admit reading on a phone on the train or in line at the store is often practical.)
Don’t know where to start? I highly recommend reading The Well-Educated Mind by Susan Wise Bauer for further introduction to the Great Books. Robert Hutchin’s The Great Conversation (1952) is the first volume of the Great Books of the Western World book set and gives fantastic context and commentary about the importance of reading the Great Books. Lastly, I’ve compiled several famous Great Books lists that those interested may peruse. There are many proposed methods on the “best” approach to reading the Great Books (various schedules of reading and the like), but the important thing is simply to begin reading. Pick out an interesting title, grab a cup of good (does not need to be great) coffee, and begin.