Why Study History? Part IIa: The Definition of “Education”

Note: This is the second post in the series: “Why Study History”

Before an examination of the role of history in education can be made, the definitions of both “history” and “education” must be set forth. To begin with the later, there are two broad understandings of what constitutes “education.” On the one hand there is what I will call “humane education.” On this view, the primary purpose of education is to make students good. It is an education that concerns itself with the whole of human life and the formation of the child or student into a robust human being. On the other hand, there is what I will call “utilitarian education.” On this view, the purpose of education is to make students useful for some task. The modern utilitarian usually has something like “career” or “job” in mind when defining the “task” for which the student is to be trained. Etymologically, the word “education” is derived from the Latin ēdūco which means to lead forth, draw out, or bring away. This general concept is common to both humane and utilitarian education to the degree that both views see education as the process of leading the student from one state into another.

Both humane and utilitarian views of education go by different names, but it should be pointed out that, historically speaking, it is a mistake to associate “humane education” with “traditional” or “classical” education and to associate “utilitarian education” with “modernist” or “progressivist” education. Both forms of education can be found across the centuries and in many parts of the world simultaneously. For example, Aristotle, in defending the humane education like that found in Athens, criticizes the Spartans for their utilitarian education that was only concerned with “necessary and useful things,” and ignored what is “noble” (Aristotle, Politics, 1332b1:15-1334a1:25). However, “humane education” has been the dominant view among educators and philosophers until the modern period. Says Mortimer Adler, “one opinion from which there is hardly a dissenting voice in the great books is that education should aim to make men good as men and as citizens” (Mortimer J. Adler, “Education,” Great Books of the Western World, 297).

“Humane education” has its roots in Greece and is most closely associated with the Greek word παιδεία (paideia). “Paideia” refers to the nourishing or upbringing of a child and it is from the related Latin term humanitas which we derive “the humanities.” Both paideia and humanitas take it for granted that a child will not naturally grow into a full human being, and therefore requires humane education. For humane education, “the aim of education is the perfection of the individual soul, the cultivation of its faculties for their own sake and in due gradation of absolute value, using the external world, in so far as it does us this at all, chiefly as a means and opportunity of arriving nearer to the ultimate perfection or of rendering clearer our vision of the ultimate truth” (W. H. Hadow, “The Place of Humane Letters in Education,” 20).

The “means” alluded to by Hadow, most closely associated with humane education, have been the liberal arts. “Liberal” because those were the arts it was thought necessary to master in order to free the human mind. As Mortimer Adler says, “the liberal arts are traditionally intended to develop the faculties of the human mind, those powers of intelligence and imagination without which no intellectual work can be accomplished…once all were acquired, the student was “free” to stand before all things as a whole, both to know and to act” (Mortimer J. Adler, “What Is Liberal Education?”. It is not taken for granted that the child will naturally grow into an adult, rather the child requires cultivation. According to Leo Strauss, “‘culture’ means…chiefly the cultivation of the mind, the taking care and improving of the native faculties of the mind in accordance with the nature of the mind. Just as the soil needs cultivators of the soil, [so] the mind needs teachers. [Humane education] consists in reminding oneself of human excellence, of human greatness” (Leo Strauss, Introduction to Political Philosophy).

Different undertakings of humane education have included various disciplines or “liberal arts” to achieve the end of a fully develop human person. For example, Pythagoras of Samos, in the sixth century B.C. developed a progressive education of three levels: oral instruction, musical education, and culminating in mathematics. This was later developed by Plato in the Republic to involve music, sports, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and finally philosophy. By the time of ninth century A.D., humane educators had codified the “Seven Liberal Arts.” These involved the trivium (or 3 ways of knowing) of grammar, logic, and rhetoric, and the quadrivium (or 4 ways) of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. They are properly “ways” as “ways of knowing.” The common theme among these varying schemes of “liberal arts” is that they worked on the inner life of the mind of the student, cultivating and forming the student to become more fully human. As stated above, this was the dominant view of education.

If humane education is concerned with the formation of a child into an adult, a definition of what it means to be human in the first place is necessary. Every understanding of humane education must be understood with the ideal of the human person. For instance, Pythagoras’ educational system culminated in mathematics because this was the sacred doctrine that fully formed the human mind. “Irrespective of the cultural setting, the crux of the educational paradigm was the same—i.e., beginning with the end in view and approaching that end incrementally with each art building upon the other…” (Littlejohn and Evans, Wisdom and Eloquence, 29). Often, utilitarian views of education purport to be silent on the issue of human nature, seeking instead merely to train the student to accomplish some task. For example, the utilitarian might seek to train the student to perform some job only, while attempting to ignore the question of why a person should perform any job in the first place. Such a philosophy is inconsistent. As David Hicks says,

Education at every level reflects our primary assumptions about the nature of man, and for this reason, no education is innocent of an attitude toward man and his purposes. The writer on education who fails to state his view of man at the outset expects to perform some polemical magic. He masks his premises and invites a gullible reader to judge his conclusions on the deceptive merit of a logical deduction. In fact, whether he wishes to or not, he presupposes an order of human values; his understanding of the nature and proper end of man determines the purposes and tasks that he assigns to education. (David Hicks, Norms and Nobility: A Treatise on Education, 3-4)

As indicated above, education concerns itself with the cultivation of the mind. Related to this notion is the idea that education is also the process of “enculturation.” That is, if we examine the nature of “education” beyond simply “schooling,” education is the process by which one generation hands off or communicates its culture with the next generation.

It is clear that culture is inseparable from education, since education in the widest sense of the word is what the anthropologists term ‘enculturation’…No doubt this is a far wider process than what is commonly known as education, for we apply the word ‘education’ only to a very specialized type of enculturation—the formal teaching of particular kinds of knowledge and behavior to the younger members of the community through particular institutions. And the most important of all the processes by which culture is transmitted—the acquisition of speech—takes place before formal education begins. (Christopher Dawson, The Crisis of Western Education, 3)

That is, “education” is the process by which a group incorporates a younger generation into its customs, practices, art, history, etc. This process often happens tacitly from the very moment a child is born as it learns the primary part of culture from parents: that of language. As will be explored later, E.D. Hirsch identifies modern utilitarian education’s failure to properly “enculturate” students as the primary reason for the overall failure of these students to be able to function in society; so that culture (or history) becomes a primary component of any educational philosophy, whether humane or utilitarian. Therefore, an evaluation of the relative merits of humane education versus utilitarian education is unnecessary for this series of posts (but certainly will be a part of a different series I have planned for the future), since the overall goal of this series is to argue that regardless of one’s philosophy of education, history plays an essential role.

Up Next: Part IIb: The Definition of “History”

Previous Posts in the Series:
Part I: Introduction

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