“Indeed, the condition of human nature is just this; man towers above the rest of creation so long as he realizes his own nature, and when he forgets it, he sinks lower than the beasts. For other living things to be ignorant of themselves, is natural; but for man it is a defect.”
~Boethius, in The Consolation of Philosophy (523 AD)
There is this daft idea mesmerizing the business world that you can round up the managers of any company plagued by a negative culture, corral them for a couple of days, training them to delegate, manage conflict, deal with difficult people, communicate effectively, and so on, and then release them back into the workplace to transform things with inspirational leadership. That this daft idea never translates into concrete reality should surprise no one, but of course it does, and all the hand-wringing about the lack of return on investment in leadership training goes on.
What is the simple reality that the devotees of the daft idea refuse to countenance? In a nutshell, if you want to inspire people to be the best they can be in working together for the good of all, then the bedrock requirements are a well-informed intellect, i.e. the capacity to think both analytically and creatively, and moral integrity, i.e. a virtuous character.
In other words, leaders must be properly educated before skills training can have the desired effect. Without the wisdom built by education, skills are widely abused, misused, or left unused. Boethius correctly identified the fundamental defect that has corrupted human potential for as long as civilised society has existed. It should surprise no one that the global leadership crisis has coincided with the decline in the reading of history and classic literature over the past half century and more.
There are many aspects to a proper education, but the reading of classic literature and history remains the essential core. As the famous science fiction writer, Ray Bradbury, said: “I don’t believe in colleges and universities. I believe in libraries because most students don’t have any money. When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression and we had no money. I couldn’t go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for ten years.”
One of the most edifying books ever written on education is E D Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy, in which he exposed the misguided ideas that have sabotaged educational achievement from the 1960s onwards. Since that time, the amount of money spent on government schooling has kept going up, while academic achievement has declined, showing no consistent signs of recovery even in the case of charter schools and areas that have experimented with voucher systems. Explaining the fundamental error, Hirsch maintains “the achievement gap is chiefly a knowledge gap and a vocabulary gap”.
The disastrous wrong-turn in education in the 1960s, inspired by Rousseau, Piaget, and Dewey, instituted the era of ‘child-centered’ learning in which children are encouraged to construct their own knowledge based on their individual interests. Proponents argue that children have to learn how to learn and to think for themselves instead of merely having their heads stuffed with facts. In an influential discourse written in 1993, the title of which trumpeted the need for teachers to change from Sage on the Stage to Guide on the Side, Alison King, an associate professor of education at California State University, made the case for child-centered learning:
“According to the current constructivist theory of learning, knowledge does not come packaged in books, or journals, or computer disks (or professors’ and students’ heads) to be transmitted intact from one to another. Those vessels contain information, not knowledge. Rather, knowledge is a state of understanding and can only exist in the mind of the individual knower; as such, knowledge must be constructed – or reconstructed – by each individual knower through the process of trying to make sense of new information in terms of what the individual already knows.”
Now this all sounds good, but it had, and continues to have, deleterious effects on the intellectual development of people in most western countries, and this goes a long way towards explaining both the moral confusion and the leadership crisis suffocating western society.
Quite apart from the fact that a good teacher needs to be both a sage on the stage and a guide on the side, educational research supports common sense in recognizing reading comprehension as the key factor in gauging a person’s intellectual acuity and his or her readiness for more advanced studies or practically any kind of employment other than the most basic manual labour. And reading proficiency is precisely the area that exposes the failure of state schooling. Bear in mind also that reading proficiency is necessary for success in mathematics and science as well.
As Hugh Blair, the 18th century rhetorician, noted: “when we are employed in the study of composition, we are cultivating reason itself. True rhetoric and sound logic are very nearly allied. The study of arranging and expressing our thoughts with propriety, teaches us to think, as well as speak, accurately…”
I had endless arguments with colleagues and parents on these issues while teaching in the 1970s, at a time when history was gradually being marginalized in the curriculum, and literature classes steadily jettisoned classic texts in favour of contemporary books that were deemed more “relevant”. My central concern for students at that stage of my own intellectual development was not so much the very vital transmission of a cultural heritage, but rather providing them with the factual content and general knowledge without which reading proficiency and thinking for oneself inevitably stall. I saw my role as helping young people fill what I called their “cultural reservoir”, in order that they might construct a properly informed and rational worldview as the necessary foundation for thinking gainfully on any subject. As G K Chesterton put it: “Thinking means connecting things, and stops if they cannot be connected”. More content, more connections, better thinking.
This is precisely the point that Hirsch developed in his books, Cultural Literacy and The Knowledge Deficit. Cognitive science and psycholinguistics endorse his view that factual knowledge is essential in the ongoing development of reading and comprehension abilities. Children who enter the school system with limited vocabulary and poor general knowledge are at a grave disadvantage to peers who come from a home background in which reading, story-telling, conversation, and singing are part of everyday life. A school that eschews content-based teaching widens that gap until it becomes an abyss.
In an appendix to Cultural Literacy, Hirsch put forward around 4000 concepts that he maintained all Americans should know if they were to be considered literate. Concepts like 1492, The Aeneid, a bad workman blames his tools, carbon dating, Charlemagne, deoxyribonucleic acid, the Enlightenment, eugenics, Dostoevsky, familiarity breeds contempt, the Good Samaritan, Iago, IRA, jingoism, Kafka, making mountains out of molehills, Renoir, Robespierre, serfdom, thermodynamics, Vikings, The Waste Land, and serving either God or Mammon, are concepts that fuel the mind for creative reasoning and continuing development.
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