Few issues so engage the passions of the public as education — and with good reason. Almost everyone values education and almost everyone has an opinion. We are exposed to an endless stream of articles and commentary about the politics of education, the decline in education, and so on. We are told that we need to overthrow sexist or Eurocentric forms of education — the Iliad and Odyssey need to be consigned to the dustbin of history. Those of us who have been involved in education have felt the constant pressure to demonstrate “relevance,” adopt the newest educational technologies (needed or not), and employ the latest and greatest methods of pedagogy — which usually contradict past versions. All of this made worse by the American obsession with “results,” namely, money and power. Indeed, when parents and college-age students think about education it is usually merely in terms of utility, money, and prestige. Of course, given the expense of higher education it is understandable that participants want to see some tangible return on investment, and the truth is that most universities have sold themselves as gateways to affluence and prestige. All of this points to ignorance of the real meaning of education as discovered and expounded by the wise — Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Boethius, Thomas Aquinas, etc. 

Education as Cultivation

What is real education? Real education is the cultivation of the arts and sciences through the use of signs. To unpack this definition fully would require an exhaustive and detailed treatment but it is possible to offer a few brief comments on a few central points. 

Education is a form of cultivation. When a gardener cultivates, he does not invent or create. Rather he provides circumstances and resources that enable a plant to develop and actualize its inner potential. Cultivation assists in the actualization of a potential, an inclination, that is already present in the plant. Something similar goes on in education. 

The teacher does not pour information into the student, and he does not invent the student’s cognitive powers. Rather the teacher primarily uses signs (more on this later) to bring out the latent cognitive powers of the student. Contrary to what many “educational experts” will tell you, actual, concrete teaching is not a science — although there are objectively important means (again more on that later). Teachers ask questions, demonstrate examples, and guide students through exercises and readings in order to stimulate the student’s innate inclination towards the truth. 

The Arts and Sciences

Real education, in the deepest sense, is not exclusively about acquiring professional skills. Perhaps more importantly, education does not directly create moral virtues in the student. Rather education is about the arts and sciences. This language is still preserved in many institutions of higher education, although the reality is quickly disappearing. 

First and foremost, the arts and sciences are habits that transform and enrich the person. This is very important. The arts and sciences are not reducible to routines, techniques, and information. Rather they are perfective habits — they are ways of thinking and acting that flow from our inner resources. Without descending too far into the details, the arts are habits that perfect the object made, that is, they perfect what is outside of the person whether we refer to poetry or well made furniture. The sciences perfect the intellect itself, that is, science makes a man apt and fit to think well within a given subject matter — to compare, distinguish, define, synthesize, and infer conclusions from what is already given. 

Education, Reductionism, and the Human Person

In the classical perspective, education is about cultivation and habit. This point brings to light one of the core modern errors about education. Contrary to propaganda of the educational industry, education cannot be reduced to a technical empirical science because the human person cannot be so reduced. Man cannot be reduced to a lump of cells or a cog in the capitalist machine. Man is more than biology and economics; therefore education must be more. (More to come …)