Today’s Schools Are Producing ‘Hollow Men’

One of the most heinous crimes against humanity that modernity has perpetrated is its war on the humanities. And let’s not forget that the humanities are thus called because they teach us about our own humanity. A failure to appreciate the humanities must inevitably lead to the dehumanizing of culture and a disastrous loss of the ability to see ourselves truthfully and objectively.

The follies and fallacies of modernity and their dehumanizing consequences have been critiqued by some of the greatest writers of the twentieth century. T. S. Eliot’s Modern Education and the Classics, published in 1934, complements C.S. Lewis’s own ‘Reflections on Education with Special Reference to the Teaching of English’ which was the sub-title of Lewis’s book, The Abolition of Man. Both works insist that education cannot be divorced from morality and that the latter must inform the former. Similarly Eliot’s The Idea of a Christian Society (1939) and his Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1948) dovetail with Lewis’s position as regards the necessity of Christianity to any genuine restoration of European culture. Most notably, Eliot’s depiction of ‘The Hollow Men’ in his poem of that title, published in 1925, prefigures Lewis’s ‘Men without Chests’ in The Abolition of Man who are fictionalized to great satirical effect in Lewis’s That Hideous Strength, the latter of which contains a delightful parody of the disintegration and dumbing-down of the modern academy.

New Survey Shows Americans Have Soured on Higher Education

The end of the school year is always greeted with great pomp and circumstance. But while many exult over the completion of high school, college, and other levels of schooling, support for higher education as usual seems to be waning.

According to a survey from the New America think tank, the American public agrees that it is easier to be successful with a sheepskin in hand, but also believes it’s time to change the iron grip which a college degree holds on society. As the graph below shows, nearly 70 percent disagree with the statement that “higher education in America is fine how it is.”

Education Used to Happen Outside of School

Schooling as a forced societal construct is a fairly recent phenomenon

Prior to passage of America’s first compulsory schooling statute, in Massachusetts in 1852, it was generally accepted that education was a broad societal good and that there could be many ways to be educated: at home, through one’s church, with a tutor, in a class, on your own as an autodidact, as an apprentice in the community–and often all of the above.

Even that first compulsory schooling statute only mandated school attendance for 12 weeks of the year for 8-14 year olds–hardly the childhood behemoth it has become.

Acknowledging that schooling is only a singular model of education opens up enormous possibilities for learning. Looking to successful education models of the past and present, we can imagine what the varied and vibrant future of education could be.

In earlier generations, individuals and groups often created dynamic learning communities all on their own, without coercion. The esteemed thinker, Noam Chomsky, references the rich and varied ways in which people learned prior to the onslaught of mass schooling. He states:

“I grew up in the Depression. My family was a little, I’ll say employed working class, but a lot of them never went to school in the first grade, but [were familiar with] very high culture. The plays of Shakespeare in the park, the WPA performances, concerts, and it’s just part of life. The union had worker education programs and cultural programs. And high culture was just part of life. Actually, if you’re interested, there’s a detailed scholarly study of working class people in England in the 19th century and what they were reading, and it’s pretty fabulous. It turns out that they didn’t go to school, mostly. But they had quite a high level of culture. They were reading contemporary literature and classics. In fact, the author concludes finally that they were probably more educated than aristocrats.”

The scholarly study that Chomsky alludes to is Jonathan Rose’s book, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Class. In the preface, Rose writes that “the roots of that autodidact culture go back as far as the late middle ages. It surged again in the nineteenth century… Thereafter, the working-class movement for self-education swiftly declined, for a number of converging reasons.”

A main reason was the rise of compulsory schooling mandates in Europe and in the U.S., and the corresponding shift in education provided by individuals, families, and local community groups to the obligation of the state. Since then, schooling and education have become inextricably linked, with mixed results.

For example, the literacy rate in Massachusetts in 1850, just prior to passage of that first compulsory schooling statue, was 97 percent.[i] According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the Massachusetts adult literacy rate in 2003 was only 90%. Nationwide, the literacy rate today stands at 86 percent.

Like cars are to transportation, schooling is a ubiquitous and popular mode of education. But it is not the only one. There are many ways to learn, to be educated, particularly as technology and information become increasingly accessible.

The power of technology and the Internet to propel learning without schooling is documented in extensive research by Dr. Sugata Mitra and his colleagues. In one study of their “hole in the wall” experiments, Mitra presents compelling findings on how children from disadvantaged backgrounds in 17 urban slum and rural areas across India used publicly available computers to gain literacy and computing skills on their own, without any adult interference or instruction.

The children, ranging in age from six to 14 years, acquired these skills at rates comparable to children in control groups who were taught in formal, teacher-directed classroom settings. Mitra and his colleagues define this self-education as “minimally-invasive education,” or MIE.

In further studies, Mitra and his colleagues revealed that these same poor, formerly illiterate children also taught themselves English and learned to read simply by having access to computers and the Internet in safe, public spaces within their villages. Mitra’s powerful, award-winning 2013 Ted Talk about his “hole in the wall” experiments and findings is definitely worth a watch.

By disentangling schooling from education—to truly de-school our mindset about learning–we can create enormous potential for education innovation. Schooling is one mode of education; but there are so many others to explore and invent.


[i] [i] Total Massachusetts population in 1850 was 994,514; total illiteracy rate in Massachusetts in 1850 was 28,345

This post Education Used to Happen Outside of School was originally published on Intellectual Takeout by Kerry McDonald.


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Is School Curriculum Preventing Kids from Reading?

When I was five, I nabbed the book my mother was reading out loud and used my fledgling phonics to sound out the captions below the pictures. Since then, reading has been one of my favorite pastimes.

But when I was in second grade, my English curriculum dictated a unit study on the Beatrix Potter stories. Every story was read, and then a multitude of vocabulary words and comprehension questions were given.

Does College Chaos Increase When Schools Fail to Teach this One Subject?

Over the weekend, The Washington Post brought an interesting West Virginia school fight to the forefront.

As the WaPo explains, schools in Mercer County have long held optional Bible classes during the day. Among other things, the classes teach character and classic stories from the biblical text.

Many parents are supportive of the classes – even to the point of raising money for them – but others are not. And those other parents have decided to bring a lawsuit against the classes, alleging “that the program violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment” and fails to offer alternatives for children who choose not to participate.

How Latin is Helping Inner City Youths Strive and Succeed

In the last few years, there has been a resurgent interest in making Latin a part of the school curriculum. After all, the benefits seem too good to pass up, particularly those which show that Latin boosts reading, math, and science scores.

It is likely these benefits that attracted a Philadelphia inner city charter school, Boys’ Latin, to make the ancient language a cornerstone of their curriculum. And according to The Wall Street Journal, the students are excelling in the study of Latin:

This month the school received the results on the introductory level National Latin Exam, a test taken last year by students around the world. Among the highlights: Two Boys’ Latin students had perfect scores; 60% of its seventh-graders were recognized for achievement, 20% for outstanding achievement; and the number of Boys’ Latin students who tested above the national average doubled from the year before.

Tuition-Free College isn’t Free—But it Does Have Some of the Makings of a Pyramid Scheme

Under the leadership of Governor Andre Cuomo, New York recently adopted a free-tuition scheme

Proposals to make public university and college attendance tuition free were floated by Democratic candidates during the 2016 presidential election primaries. Bernie Sanders was and still is one of its most ardent supporters. Hilary Clinton advocated it during the general election. For many Republicans—such as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and President Donald Trump—it is a vision of socialist central planning, evoking the question: Who pays?

Is tuition-free higher education a distracting illusion? Is it simply smoke and mirrors, meant to curry votes or draw attention from initiatives to reform higher education (e.g. introduce more vocational and technical training)?

Why Do Schools Shut Parents Out of the Classroom?

When I was younger, I heard that a sign of a good music teacher was an instructor who welcomed parents to sit in on a child’s lesson. Recognizing the value of this advice, I incorporated it into my own private studio when I began teaching several years later. Sure, it was a bit awkward at times, but in general, it paid off for all involved – particularly in the instance where I laid down the law, student threw tantrum on floor, and observing parent took my part with a vengeance. Good times.

Unfortunately, not all educational venues view parental observation as a good thing. Jay Matthews wonders why in today’s Washington Post:

“When I am about to go I want to tell my kids and grandkids how much I enjoyed watching them in action — talking, writing, building, playing. It helped me understand the essence and individuality of their lives.

But I have relatively few memories of them in school. Our education system does little to encourage parent observations. The few times I was allowed to watch my children in class taught me things and left vivid recollections. I wonder why schools don’t try harder to make that happen.

Many educators have the view that parents can be nuisances and their school contacts should be limited. Usually there is just one back-to-school night a year. Parents sitting and watching in the back of a classroom doesn’t fit ordinary school culture.”

Thomas Edison Would Have Been Given Adderall Today

Nancy Edison rejected schooling in favor of learning for Thomas Edison

The trouble with our way of educating is that it does not give elasticity to the mind. It casts the brain into a mold. It insists that the child must accept. It does not encourage original thought or reasoning, and it lays more stress on memory than observation.- Thomas Edison

In 1855, when he was eight years old, Thomas Edison enrolled in school for the first time. After 12 weeks, his teacher, Reverend G. Engle, called him “addled,” or unable to think clearly. Edison apparently hated school and its heavy focus on sitting, memorizing, and repeating. As biographer, Louise Egan, explains: “Tom was confused by Reverend Engle’s way of teaching. He could not learn through fear. Nor could he just sit and memorize. He liked to see things for himself and ask questions.”[1]

Student Achievement: Only as Good as the Books Read in English Class?

When it comes to improving education, a lot of emphasis is placed upon the STEM subjects: science, math, and the like. Proficiency in such areas, it is argued, is necessary if the U.S. wants its students to be successful on a global scale.

Such a supposition may be true; however, new evidence suggests that student success may not be found solely in the number and quality of math and science courses our kids take. In fact, one of the greatest instigators of student success may be in the quality of school English courses.