What’s Wrong with the World

The men signed of the cross of Christ go gaily in the dark.


What’s Wrong with the World is dedicated to the defense of what remains of Christendom, the civilization made by the men of the Cross of Christ. Athwart two hostile Powers we stand: the Jihad and Liberalism...read more

More on the education of the young

About a month ago, we had several discussions here about the education of the young. Here is an interesting and sensible comment that Tony made about a teacher's not going outside the scope of delegated authority to bring religious matters into education. Tony's basic point, which one would think of as quite uncontroversial, is that teachers shouldn't go off on religious tangents when employed to teach a specific subject to which such tangents are irrelevant. His argument was that a teacher who does so usurps authority that the parents haven't given. The parents expected this person to teach about art or drug awareness (for example), not about religion.

Now, in our present situation, sociologically, I'm afraid that's only common sense. I want to suggest, though, that our present situation is rather unfortunate in that it has become necessary to have such a strict division among different subjects that even an occasional tangent, along with good teaching of the expected subject matter, is now intolerable. It would be a more natural relationship among parents, teachers, and children if teachers could be trusted by the parents not to teach something harmful to the children. In that situation, parents would be able to trust a teacher to be in more general terms a role model to the children, so that such occasional tangents could be taken in stride as not a big deal, even if one happened to disagree with some specific aspect of their content.

In support of the idea that such a situation could be legitimate and charming rather than in principle and always a bad thing, I present the following fascinating anecdote from Agatha Christie's autobiography (one of my favorite books):

There was a girls' school in Torquay kept by someone called Miss Guyer, and my mother made an arrangement that I should go there two days a week and study certain subjects....I remember one teacher there--I can't recall her name now. She was short and spare, and I remember her eager jutting chin. Quite unexpectedly one day (in the middle, I think, of an arithmetic lesson) she suddenly launched forth on a speech on life and religion. “All of you,” she said, “every one of you--will pass through a time when you will face despair. If you never face despair, you will never have faced, or become, a Christian, or known a Christian life. To be a Christian you must face and accept the life that Christ faced and lived; you must enjoy things as he enjoyed things; be as happy as he was at the marriage at Cana, know the peace and happiness that it means to be in harmony with God and with God's will. But you must also know, as he did, what it means to be alone in the Garden of Gethsemane, to feel that all your friends have forsaken you, that those you love and trust have turned away from you, and that God himself has forsaken you. Hold on then to the belief that that is not the end. If you love, you will suffer, and if you do not love, you do not know the meaning of a Christian life.”

She then returned to the problems of compound interest with her usual vigour, but it is odd that those few words, more than any sermon I have ever heard, remained with me, and years later they were to come back to me and give me hope at a time when despair had me in its grip. She was a dynamic figure, and also, I think, a fine teacher; I wish I could have been taught by her longer.

Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I had continued with my education. I should, I suppose, have progressed, and I think I should have been entirely caught up in mathematics--a subject which has always fascinated me.

Some points about this incident that strike me:

--The school was obviously private, and parents could make a variety of arrangements with the school. Agatha's mother chose for her to attend part time for specific subjects.
--The parents could take the children out any time they wanted to, and in fact Agatha's mother did eventually take her out of the school simply because she had a different educational idea.
--Agatha remembers this teacher as having been a fine teacher who taught mathematics with vigor. Her sudden urge to give the students a brief sermon on the subject of suffering and the Christian life did not in any way impair her teaching of arithmetic.
--One can plausibly infer from the passage that she strengthened Agatha's interest in mathematics, which Agatha would have liked to have studied with her for longer.
--The teacher was unashamed and unselfconscious about her tangent on the Christian life. It obviously never crossed her mind that this brief interlude could be considered unprofessional.
--It clearly never occurred to Agatha to think that there was any problem with her doing so, either. It was an unusual event, to be sure, but Agatha sees no conflict with the teacher's professional duties. We may guess (I think justifiably) that no one else in the situation did so either. There were "free thinkers" circa 1900, when this incident would have occurred, but there doesn't seem to have been any attempt to respect the feelings of any "free thinker" children who happened to be in that mathematics class.
--It's probably safe to say (from other general information about England at the time) that Torquay circa 1900 was fairly religiously homogenous.

All of the surrounding sociological circumstances are, of course, absent in today's public schools. Due to a series of court decisions, everyone is hyper-sensitive about the introduction of religious matters under any circumstances. Teachers, in particular, are not supposed to betray their religious views.

Parents must at least pay for public schooling via their taxes, and even though the home school and Christian school movements have freed parents to some extent from compulsory public school education, a parent who casually takes his child out of a public school without careful research and possibly even legal advice may find himself in a pickle. There is thus a certain coerciveness to public schooling which makes it understandable that "sensitive" or "controversial" subjects not be introduced without clear parental permission.

A similar tangent in the middle of a math lesson could probably occur now without repercussions only in an explicitly Christian school or Christian math class (for example, a class run by a Christian home schooling co-op). Elsewhere, even in a non-Christian private school, it would be utterly taboo.

And that's a shame. Nobody was a loser here, and someone--Agatha, at least--was a gainer. The teacher did not spend any serious length of time on the digression. The professional teaching of mathematics and Agatha's respect for her as a teacher of mathematics did not suffer. In fact, if you read that passage several times with an unbiased eye, I believe you will get a fairly vivid picture of her, and her willingness to do something a little unconventional in the way of a short sermon on the Christian life is part and parcel of her vivid personality and style, which in turn is part of what made her good at communicating her subject matter.

I therefore submit that in the teaching of the young it would be a good thing if we could regain something of this flexibility from a hundred years ago. I'm not entirely sure how to do that, and I'm inclined to think that the best place for it to begin is in schools run along specifically religious lines, where there is more likely to be the requisite trust between parents and teachers. And we should perhaps rethink our notions of professionalism in areas like teaching so that people can be people with their students. (Something similar is true of the medical professions, I'm inclined to think, but that may be a subject for another time.)


Comments (10)

I'm somewhat of a regretful agnostic, and I only preface with that to make it more forceful when I say that I fully endorse Lydia's wish.

I wish that all childhood educational arrangements were voluntary, and the more intimate the setting, the better. These two changes would provide all the opportunity one would need to find teachers or tutors with whom "spontaneous" lessons like this could be expected to happen. Learning is so much more interesting when unexpected and fascinating things happen along the way. I'd be pleased to know my kids were being regularly treated to spiritually and mentally expanding diversions, regardless of how far off topic.

Lydia, that's a great quote from Agatha Christie. I've got a couple of die-hard Agatha Christie fans in the house (wife and daughter) with whom I shared the passage. As for the larger issue that you raise, of course I do agree up to a point. But I don't want Muslim or Wiccan or secularist teachers going off on digressions like this in the schools. We're really just completely doomed unless we get back to a Christian social milieu somehow.

But I don't want Muslim or Wiccan or secularist teachers going off on digressions like this in the schools.

Right. Exactly. And rightly so, because you don't trust them to say nothing that would be actually harmful to your children. What one thinks of as harmful to one's children will necessarily depend on one's convictions about truths of ultimate importance.

Now, I suspect that even within a somewhat ecumenical milieu something could be worked out. For example, if one can imagine a more distinctly Catholic version of this digression (I don't know--perhaps something about offering up suffering for others or sharing in Christ's sufferings), that would be absolutely fine with me. And I would think that there are Catholic parents who might not mind something with a Protestant "flavor"--perhaps something about dedicating your whole life to Jesus or having a personal relationship with Jesus.

The teacher's words here make me wonder just a bit about her Christology. She sounds like she's conveying rather too much of a difference between Our Lord and God for my strictest theological standards of accuracy. But it wouldn't bother me in the slightest for one of my children to hear this digression in the middle of a math lesson.

Within bounds, we can "roll with" some differences of emphasis and so forth, or even some disagreements with implications of what the person says, and consider that _this_ (as opposed to the horrors of public schools) is what could be meant by its being "healthy for children to encounter other viewpoints."

(By the way, Jeff, if your family loves Christie, I think they'd like the autobiography. She was such an unassuming person. Naturally one doesn't agree with every opinion she utters in her charmingly rambling disquisitions and memories, but it's a very enjoyable book.)

Thanks, Eli. I think you capture the idea quite well when you talk about interest and spontaneity. Education is so artificial otherwise. In the middle of a science lesson, I want a student to be able to ask, "Is everything made of matter?" and for the teacher to be able to answer to the best of his ability and belief, not to reply sternly, "That question has no place in a science lesson." It is, in fact, a sort of obvious question to come up in a science lesson, yet it's a metaphysical question.

It is, in fact, a sort of obvious question to come up in a science lesson, yet it's a metaphysical question.

Yes, it is metaphysical, as well as a science question. That is, it is right and proper in teaching science to teach what the limits of science are too. If you teach physics in such a way that the student thinks that physics is the only science (to the exclusion of biology, mathematics, etc) then you are teaching physics wrongly. When I teach my kids physics or chemistry or math, I let the discussion (sometimes) range all over the world, because I want to "place" the science within context of everything else: all knowledge interlocks with all other knowledge.

Within bounds, we can "roll with" some differences of emphasis and so forth, or even some disagreements with implications of what the person says, and consider that _this_ (as opposed to the horrors of public schools) is what could be meant by its being "healthy for children to encounter other viewpoints."

Right. If our culture were sound and properly ordered, we could trust a high-integrity institution to have high quality teachers. This would include teachers who are not afraid to allow their personal perspective be seen without imposing that perspective on the student with undue pressure, thus enabling the student to grow into his own self enriched by the example of others who are not in lockstep likeness to himself. This is a normal part of the completion of education. This assumes teachers who have the humility to know their own limitations, to respect their proper sphere as assisting the parents who are the primary educators, and who can love a student without trying to create exact images of himself or herself. That's what it means to be a secondary educator.

It also implies a more limited role the younger the student: with very young children, the teacher should reflect very closely what the parents want modeled and taught, with less leeway. The young child is not yet formed enough in independence to roll with differences. It is in young children that we want to foster especially the docility of will to God's will: since the parent, and after the parent the teacher, holds God's delegated authority, the young child learns docility of will to God by becoming docile to the parent and the teacher. This can only be accomplished in the young without confusion when the teacher is in great conformity with the parent (who ought to also be in conformity with God's will, naturally). For that reason, it is frankly a bad idea to have "non-sectarian" primary schools at all: the only likely result of them is to turn out non-sectarian kids. ("When he is done, the disciple will be like to the master.") And the evidence is overwhelming.

Going off on tangents is not the real problem.

All education is fundamentally religious. Most people assume that knowledge can be organized and taught to children without regard to a specific worldview, but that is impossible. Even the act, ipso facto, of sending children to school and of keeping them in for a certain length of time is not arbitrary; it is based on a belief of who should be educated and why, which is directly tied to our ultimate responsibilities.

To steal John Derbyshire's notion for the second time in as many days, you get more freedom when there's shared cultural assumptions.

The reason we reject letting teachers suddenly go on about other subjects (I'm going to ignore what actually happens if the teacher's views are liberal to extremist and look at it idealistically) in their classes is because we don't share cultural assumptions.

Dear Lord, look at the reactions to the pledge of allegiance-- even if you can skip the God part! We can't even get national agreement on what humans are people-- of course everything that's important is not to be spoken of. Same reason that "sex, religion and politics" are forbidden subjects.

I know, Foxfier, but the thing is, one *can't* educate children without content on those subjects. Even if the content is neatly sorted into classes, the content is necessary. What astonishes me is the way that too many people think that somehow it's possible to have a child in school from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. five days a week and teach him _nothing_ that isn't "neutral" on the subjects of sex, religion, and politics (ethics, metaphysics, etc.). And if there's anywhere that that doesn't happen, it's today's public schools!

I know I'm preaching to the choir, but it's really a thing to make one shake one's head.

Now I should look up some links (which I didn't have time to do when writing the main post) to the really big disagreement we had here (me and others with my co-blogger Steve Burton and commentator Perseus) on this subject. Their implication was that distinctively (say) Catholic education is propaganda.

That discussion of the supposed "indoctrination" involved in a teacher's even _revealing_ a particular "view of the good life" begins approximately here:


It is, I might add, entirely off-topic for the post above it, but it goes on for a while, interspersed with other comments.

What astonishes me is the way that too many people think that somehow it's possible to have a child in school from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. five days a week and teach him _nothing_ that isn't "neutral" on the subjects of sex, religion, and politics (ethics, metaphysics, etc.).

It works if you put your perspective in the right format; there are people who really do think that their views are not just the correct ones-- who holds a view they don't think is correct? That would be silly-- but that it's objective, and people just disagree because they are evil, stupid, stubborn, etc. It's easiest to find among the evangelical atheists, although I'm not sure why, maybe because they tend to view manners with the same dislike as religious instruction or inconvenient historical facts.

Teaching your kids to not take stories at face value is a very important skill to impart for a decent education.....

(Yes, this is a sort of paraphrase-before-reading-it of the truth vs indoctrination angle)

Post a comment

Bold Italic Underline Quote

Note: In order to limit duplicate comments, please submit a comment only once. A comment may take a few minutes to appear beneath the article.

Although this site does not actively hold comments for moderation, some comments are automatically held by the blog system. For best results, limit the number of links (including links in your signature line to your own website) to under 3 per comment as all comments with a large number of links will be automatically held. If your comment is held for any reason, please be patient and an author or administrator will approve it. Do not resubmit the same comment as subsequent submissions of the same comment will be held as well.