Education is not a science and despite what the education industry constantly promotes there is no magic formula for making everyone brilliant and successful. Taken together these theses constitute a heresy that offends the deepest held beliefs of professional educators. The belief that education is something like an empirical science, along with the American utopian dream that every man is a potential genius if we just find the right method. Against these utopian delusions stands the tradition of classical education. 

Real Education

In a previous post I defined education as the cultivation of the arts and sciences through the use of signs. In subsequent posts I will explore this theme in more detail, but for now it is sufficient to point out the importance of the term “cultivation.” This is an agriculture term that points to inherent powers within the subject, in this case, within the student. Education is not something that may be stamped rigidly upon the student through science or magic. There is no one process that works. Of course, we can over time identify some common sense practices that are usually helpful. Nevertheless real education presupposes human nature and individual dispositions. 

The realities of human nature are prior to any educational efforts and authentic teaching consists in bringing to actualization the latent powers of human nature. In other words, real education requires a knowledge of the reality about man. This is why neither scientific methods of education or magic bullets will not work. Although science is useful, it is ultimately insufficient for understanding human nature. 

The Irreducible Human Person 

The human person is the union of body and rational soul. This union creates a substantial whole richly endowed with complex and unique powers. To be sure, the elemental and quantitative composition of the body play an essential role in the psychological and cognitive development of the human person. Temperament impacts perception, feeling, and volition, and temperament is basically a physiological-chemical reality. Classical education does not presuppose a dualistic view of the human person. We are not souls trapped in bodies. Rather our bodies are animated by an intellectual soul that elevates even our powers of memory and sense; moreover the rational soul enables human life with the power of intellect. 

Intellect is the human power for abstract thought. This ability is sometimes ridiculed in our technological-capitalist culture — even by church leaders —, but this should not be so. Abstraction is our ability to think the universal and permanent; abstract thought transcends the narrow limitations of space, time, and particular circumstances. Of course all authentic thought is rooted in experience and this includes abstraction. Yet both Aristotle and Saint Thomas wisely teach that human thought begins in experience, but it may also go beyond experience. If this were not so, then human thought would never transcend the particular and the subjective, it would never attain to reality in itself; it would never attain to the truth. 

Science is Not Sufficient

Since intellect transcends the particular and the changing it also transcends the sensible; intellect cannot be directly observed or tested. But intellect permeates the whole of human reality. Ideas about friendship, truth, reality, evidence, justice, etc. impact our perceptions, feelings, and relationships. It follows that what is most distinct about the human person — his intellectual power — cannot be adequately studied by science, for science is limited to the repeatable, observable, and testable. Therefore, any educational model that is based on the findings of science is necessarily limited and one-sided. 

An adequate approach to education must be rooted in a true and deep anthropology and this is only found in philosophy and theology. Indeed, the truth is that education is an art not a science. To say this is to defy the pretensions of the pedagogical industry, but it is necessary to do so and the reason is this: the claims that there is a science of pedagogy inevitably gives priority to method over human nature and truth. This is profoundly mistaken. It is wiser and better to follow the path of classical education — the way of human nature, truth, and the art of cultivation. Modern scientific findings acquire educational value only within the art of human cultivation.