In his latest book, Why Knowledge Matters, Hirsch devotes an entire chapter to showing how schooling in France has provided damning evidence of the folly of the constructivist theory of education. In 1989, Lionel Jospin, the minister of education in Mitterrand’s government, swept away one of the most successful elementary school curricula in the world, and instructed primary schools to design their own locally relevant curricula, focusing on the individual interests of the children. French traditional culture was to have no privileged status in the new curricula, and the assimilation of new immigrants became well-nigh impossible. The common curriculum and universal standards were consigned to history.
Fortunately, the retention of the old national assessment system, together with fastidious, record-keeping bureaucrats, documented the extent of the disaster inflicted on several generations, and the French economy, by Jospin’s misguided determination to emulate the constructivist model employed in the US. To the dismay of the educationists, with practically every other factor remaining constant, it was plain that the dramatic drop in performance levels among French children was the result of the revised curricula. As Hirsch puts it:
“They reported an astonishingly steep decline in achievement in each demographic group. Each group was academically harmed by the new system, and the harm became ever greater as one went down the economic scale. The children of the unemployed declined most of all. Achievement decreased. Inequality increased dramatically.”
These results from the most definitive comparative study of curriculum effects ever undertaken in any country are unambiguous and irrefutable, but don’t hold your breath waiting for the establishment in any western country to act on this robust scientific conclusion. Because curriculum is control, the essential aim of state schooling. Content, what is fed into young minds, is what shapes their worldview, and therefore how they think about things in general. Governments, and corporates, who claim they want young people who can think for themselves, creative and questioning, are lying; or else they simply do not understand that education is not about technology and teacher-pupil ratios, but about content and character. Anyway, why would misleaders have any inclination to develop real leaders?
Miguel Monjardino, a professor of geopolitics at the Catholic University of Portugal, has designed a four-year program based on reading selected Greek classics to help prepare high school students for university. The program is called the Republic, a word that reflects what happens in the weekly two-hour seminars, monthly walks in the hills, three formal dinners, and annual public readings of the Iliad or the Odyssey. Students come from diverse backgrounds, the vast majority going on to acquire science, technology, engineering, or mathematics degrees. Despite fears that Greek classics would prove too demanding for teenagers, the program has been a huge success, with past participants expressing profound gratitude for the positive impact on their lives. Monjardino has never encountered indifference in any student on the program, and once the initial obstacles of undernourished vocabularies and digital-age attention spans are overcome, the intellectual and emotional development of the young people is both rapid and robust.
Reflecting on the reading of the Iliad, Monjardino explains: “Our early conversations are about ideas like power, authority, honour, love, shame, and command. The first disagreement comes quickly. On one side are the students who believe that Agamemnon is right. Leadership for them is about power, privilege, and domination. On the other side are those who feel, at least at the beginning of the Iliad, that Achilles is the true leader of the expedition. Men respect him and listen to him. Leadership for this group is about personal honour, example, and sacrifice. ‘We disagree,’ said a perplexed student. ‘We have different opinions.’ To their surprise, the class realized that they had a profound difference over something important, which forced them to think.”
Monjardino states the reality plainly: “History and philosophy matter. There is no statecraft without them. Thucydides and Plato knew this, but we seem to have forgotten it. Nevertheless, I’m betting that in the years ahead, our readings and conversations will help these students defend the virtues of a free society in a world that will go through great changes, just as Athens did...
G.K. Chesterton also exposed these realities in All is Grist: “Anyhow, that is what is the matter with Business Education; that it narrows the mind; whereas the whole object of education is to broaden the mind and especially to broaden it so as to enable it to criticize and condemn such narrowness. Everybody ought to learn first a general view of the history of man, of the nature of man, and (as I, for one, should add) of the nature of God. This may enable him to consider the rights and wrongs of slavery in a slave community, of cannibalism in a cannibal community, or of commerce in a commercial community. If he is immediately initiated into the mysteries of these institutions themselves, if he is sworn in infancy to take them as seriously as they take themselves, if he becomes a trader not only before he becomes a traveller, but even before he becomes a true citizen of his own town, he will never be able to denounce those institutions – or even to improve them. Such a state will never have the ideas or imagination to reform itself; and hustle and bustle and business activity will have resulted in the dead fixity of a fossil.”
Having repudiated its history and culture, the West today is geared to produce misleaders, ideologically engineered men and women bent on promoting the narrow agendas of special interests. Leadership will not be restored without a return to true education, the kind that develops wisdom and virtue, the kind that demands a well-informed mind shaped by a broad knowledge of history and classic literature.
As should be obvious to any educated mind, knowledge and virtue are essential if freedom is to flourish. It is also true that leadership is only necessary when a society is free; unfree societies are typically ruled by oligarchs or dictators i.e. misleaders. All of us should be alarmed not merely by the waning of liberty and the rule of law, but by the apathetic response of the general public in the face of the oligarchic power-grab. As Thomas Jefferson wrote, in a letter to Charles Yancey:
“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”