St. Augustine in the Classroom

by Benjamin Domenech on 5:24 pm August 14, 2007

Thus a man must be instructed in the methods of teaching before he can gain understanding of truth.

St. Augustine

I get a fairly steady number of emails asking me about my experiences as a home schooled student. I’m not the most gung-ho product of home schooling that you’ll find – I think it isn’t for everyone, though it certainly worked in my case. I also have three younger siblings, all of them home schooled – and if my sister’s upcoming enrollment at UVA is any indication, they’ll do quite well.

Other former students or parents may tell you that home schooling is the only way to “escape” the suffocating conformity of public (or even private) school life. I don’t believe that – but I do believe that the enormous rise in home schooling over the years (recent statistics reveal the American home schooling student population brushing the 2 million figure) serves as a clear indication of the deep-rooted philosophical divergence that exists in the broader views of the educational process.

The modern American debate over public education, in my view, ultimately concerns differences in our understanding of the minds of the students in the classroom. The mind of a child, according to some, must be exposed to a wealth of information from multiple sources and utilizing a variety of teaching methods. The teacher ought to be the source for new concepts and ideas, the classroom a petri dish for the multicultural and pluralist beliefs of our post-modern world.

One of the reasons that parents were reluctant to flee the public schools in past decades – indeed, there was no huge rush in statistical terms until the 1980s – is that, as a stated goal, the educational ideology of the public schools isn’t too shabby. Most parents that did leave (whether for the hippie-inspired “unschooling” or for private or parochial schools) left because they disliked the social ramifications of the conformity public school inspires, not that they disagreed with the fundamental concept of classroom education.

In the home schooling movement, however, we see a different philosophy reflected: the idea that a moral compass must be bequeathed to a child in order to achieve any full education, and that today’s parents can no longer trust the public schools to responsively reflect that compass – or even acknowledge that it exists.

Indeed, the trickle down decisions of the federal education bureaucracy indicate a marked loathing for the idea. According to educational bureaucrats, the classroom is a forum for Ideas and Learning designed to equip a child to function in today’s marketplace and to decide for themselves what they ought to think of the world they live in.

This steadfast institutional belief can be illustrated easily through the overwhelming growth of “in-class discussion” as the primary method of teaching in the public schoolroom. Today’s teachers rarely lecture or require memorization outside of some mathematics and hard science classes – instead, a student is often merely asked to come to class “ready to discuss” the required reading.

In the social science realm, this is tantamount to abdication of any significant philosophical role for the instructor. Children are left “free” to come to their own conclusions about the world they live in, and the pluralistic classroom’s ideological neutrality is thereby ensured.

What many home schooling parents have realized (whether they would describe it this way or not) is that this semblance of “philosophical neutrality,” propagated through the shared ideas of preteens in a classroom forum, is not neutral at all. When a teacher informs a child that they should not call communism “evil” merely because it is “different,” the teacher do not inspire pluralism, but a decidedly ideological view of world history.

The educational bureaucrats and public schools instructors have failed to realize a very simple truth – that it is impossible to teach without espousing a philosophy.

Education cannot function as a purely relativistic process. When students learn about the Puritans by arguing in class about the pros and cons of repressive religion, they leave the classroom with a fundamentally biased view of history. This method of teaching discounts the importance of writings on the subject (Allan Bloom’s dead white men), preferring the often ill-informed sentiments of the student over the commentary of the giants in the field.

Education once consisted of the search for truth and beauty, but it is now a process that ignores the voices of the past and denies the need for a moral compass. St. Augustine wrote that you must first know how to read a book before you can read it. In the modern classroom, you can skip both.

Previous post:

Next post: