Educating for Life
by Johann Christoph Arnold
July 13, 2006
To help speed my recovery after recent heart surgery, a friend of mine gave me a set of novels and stories by Dostoevsky and Tolstoy–a gesture I appreciated tremendously. I read these books when I was young, and memorized certain passages. They have been a beacon for me in times of struggle, also in trying to help other people. These writings are divinely inspired and contain nuggets that point to biblical and universal truths. For me they have the same stature as the writings of the Old Testament prophets, and I think every high school student and adult should read them. After all, these books stand at the center of a true education.
Unfortunately, fewer and fewer young people have even heard of such classics, let alone read them. In recent years the American government has worked very hard to improve the public school system. The No Child Left Behind law is being hailed as one of the most significant achievements of the Bush administration. But even if those who wrote this legislation had noble intentions, their efforts are badly misguided and will have devastating results.
Nobody can truly teach by means of computers and technology. As glamorous as it looks, the fruits are bad. In fact, it seems to me that we are raising a generation of robots, with damaged and even ruined souls. Here I am reminded of the words of Jesus, “Woe to you if you mislead one of these my little ones. It would be better if a millstone is hung around your neck and you drown in the deepest sea.” All of us need to take this warning seriously.
A truly valuable education has one purpose: to teach children that fulfillment can be found only in serving others. A life of service leads to community, to God, and to true nationhood. Why are we so afraid of it?
True education takes place through the influence of role models, not by means of robotic imitation. Let me give you an example: When my grandfather was a young man, at the time of the First World War, the patriotic teachers of his native Germany inspired a whole generation of students to enlist. The response was overwhelming, even if misguided. Tragically, thousands were killed. But the point remains: the country’s teachers were real role models, and led their students into battle.
Years later, in Paraguay, where I grew up during World War II, the teachers I had (who were highly trained German refugees) had such enthusiasm and passion that even though we had no textbooks and no visual aids–only a blackboard–we had a first-rate education. Most of it took place outdoors in nature–in real life. But now, a half-century later, I know that my peers and I had an education that today’s millionaires would covet for their children. Sadly, they will not get it, for love or money, because we have our priorities all wrong.
I have seen, on my journeys around the world, that the education I had as a child can still be found in many Third World countries in South America, Africa and Asia. As in my day, the children of today’s developing countries live in poverty. But if they have nothing else, they still have a teacher who loves them and is determined to see their education through. Both these teachers and their pupils have a sparkle in their eyes that has been destroyed in this country–and a glow that should put us to shame. Computers and audiovisual aids are not magic. They are not even necessary to make learning become alive.
Anyone who is involved in the field of education (including parents!) would do well to ponder these words from Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, which speaks about the vital importance not only of an education, but of every single day: “You must know that there is nothing higher and stronger and more wholesome for life in the future than some good memory, especially a memory of childhood, of home. People talk to you a great deal about education. But some good, sacred memory preserved from childhood–that is perhaps the best education. For if a man has only one good memory left in his heart, even that may keep him from evil…And if he carries many such memories with him into life, he is safe for the end of his days.”
If one day is so important, what about a month or a year? Children are our only future. Why are we so afraid to give them the best we have?
August 1, 2006
I have a good deal of sympathy for Arnold’s plaint about the disappearance of the classics in American education. I gather that he and I are of a generation. Judging from his comments he got a rather good education – or at least he thinks he did which suffices for almost all that matters. However his was not a typical American education; indeed it was not an American education at all. He argues that education today is degraded. He is right about American education; however, the simple truth is that American education has always been degraded.
Arnold has a vision of what education is supposed to be and how it is supposed to be achieved. Thus “A truly valuable education has one purpose: to teach children that fulfillment can be found only in serving others.” and “True education takes place through the influence of role models”. This sounds very noble but it is not. People do not find fulfillment only is serving others; they find it in many ways. Arnold’s “truly valuable education” is not education at all – it is indoctrination. More than that it is the sort of indoctrination that the very powerful desire in the less powerful. I do not believe that Arnold consciously is a flack for the powers that be, but there he is. Mind you, it is a prescription from an earlier age, one of the proletariat, the bourgeoisie, the gentility, and the aristocracy. A “true” education is (or was) just the thing for the gentility, training for a life of service with the precondition of privilege. It is problematic in a world of rapidly changing technology and social structure.
Be that as it may, I think that there is something terribly wrong with anyone who thinks that of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky that “These writings are divinely inspired…”
On the whole Arnold strikes me as a man who has a romanticized attachment to the past and a distaste for technology. This is not a bad thing in a man, but his eloquence echoes the grumbles of those for whom time has passed by.
I will grant this: The young of today live in a world that we of an older generation do not and can not understand. It is a commonplace that we do not and cannot truly understand the world of the distant past. People in antiquity had experiences and lived in social settings quite different from our own. It is easy to appreciate that the minds of the ancients were different from ours – they are so remote.
It is less easy to grasp that the young who are all about us are equally distant. And yet they are. They have grown up with ubiquitous consumer electronics all about them. Their brains are wired differently in consequence. Whether this is good or bad, or perhaps just different, I do not know. This I am confident of – Arnold does not know either.
This page was last updated August 1, 2006.