the home of random thoughts, ideas and otherwise.


Whither Education by Silvano Borruso


Taken at face value, the title of this essay means that education has been lost. The loss is by no means obvious. It requires proof, which this essay will undertake to offer.

The scientific method starts with observation. What we observe, the world over, is an ingrained idea that schooling and education are one and the same thing.

But appearances, as is known, easily deceive. Are we justified in unifying these two practices? If we were, we should find that definitions and observation more or less coincide. Let us check.

Thomas Aquinas defines education as “the promotion of the offspring to the perfect state of man as man, i.e. the state of virtue”. 

Thomas does not define schooling, and neither do we. All we can do is to describe it in some detail, not least its historical development from well before the times of Aquinas to our own days. What do we see?

It is easier to state what we do not see, namely the remotest coincidence between the so-called school “systems” and Aquinas’ definition. Such “systems” are strikingly similar, regardless of time and space. But let us take a look at the details.

Most observable is the trio schoolroom-teacher-pupils, the latter ranging from kindergarten to university. 

Next come the regimentation: the teacher is not free to teach what he thinks beneficial for his pupils, but the contents of a list called “syllabus”, drafted by officials of an institution called “Ministry” set up and financed by the State.

Next is the exercise called “exam”, oral or written, depending on local traditions. Pupils, now “candidates”, are asked questions and give answers, graded according to “official standards. 

“Grading” is done in function of a completely arbitrary “pass mark”, which although changing from one country to another, is lowered artificially when honestly graded exams show an unstoppable down-sliding of students’ knowledge.

Those who “pass the exam” are always awarded a “certificate” in the form of a colourful piece of paper that “qualifies” the holder as having “mastered” a certain “subject” to the “minimum standards” demanded by “the system.”

And the holder of the above certificate is considered “educated”, i.e. “employable” by those in search of “workforce”.

At this stage, the confusion education=schooling is total. If schooling does not educate, what does it do? We can unfailingly answer this question by applying an equally unfailing criterion: “By their fruits you shall know them”. Let us therefore observe what schooling does a) to students, b) to teachers, c) to parents, and finally d) to society at large.

Fruits of schooling

  1. a) Few students enjoy learning. Most of them suffer boredom, without knowing what it is and what to do to avoid it.
  2. b) Few teachers enjoy teaching. Most of them do it for the money, or as a last resort after failing everything else.
  3. c) Schooling encourages parental delinquency by lifting from them the responsibility entailed in their educating their children themselves as implied in  St Thomas definition above.
  4. d) Schooling provides society with an army of conditioned myrmidons of the State, another of chronically unemployed, a third one of lawless, a fourth of… (fill up; ad libitum).

The above are the fruits of observation. What is the problem? Let history answer, so as to act as the magistra vitae that Cicero claimed it to be.

The problem

In a single word, the problem is Equality, an inexistent condition imposed on the world of learning against nature and turned into a mantra thoughtless repeated by all and sundry.

The mantra has resulted in a general perception that sees the problem as if it were the solution. Let us therefore delve, however briefly, into its history.

The model classroom-teacher-schoolchildren was successful in the cathedral schools of the fifth century, because they aimed at preparing boys for priestly ordination. It therefore made sense to have them all in the same room, where one priest after another imparted classes of different subjects of the same priestly nature.

Outside that milieu, the model has never worked, despite its different and ingenious variations on the theme. Every teacher knows that, regardless of “subject”, he is facing not one, but four different audiences of schoolchildren:

    1. Those with talent and interest in what he has to say; The more of such, the better for the reputation of the school/college or what have you;
    1. Those with talent but no interest. They let him speak, but reserve their attention for the future;
    1. Those with interest but no talent. Their frustrations may turn violent, as increasingly happens;
    1. Those with neither of the two, “the scum” or like-minded sobriquets; the fewer of them, the better for the reputation of the school.

This is the problem in all its crudity. Its severity has been compounded by several factors:

    1. Shifting of schooling from aiming at forming the human person, as some liberal arts colleges still try to do, to preparing masses of children for the labour market. 
    1. Co-education, i.e. mixing mature young women with immature striplings, thereby depressing the development of the former by forcing them to keep pace with the latter. How young women perceive their being so mixed as a kind of promotion is a mystery beyond my understanding.
    1. Free and compulsory State monopoly of whatever passes for “education”. Not paying school fees, but being taxed for a working life to support a mammoth outfit called “Ministry” is far costlier than personally paying the few teachers/tutors/masters that could serve the purpose of preparing the young person for whatever he/she shows talent for. “Compulsory” is what made Giovanni Papini, as long ago as 1914, call schools “part-time prisons” and advocating their wholesale closure.
    1. The inevitable contradiction between the ideology of equality and the inherently discriminating method of examinations (remember that the term discrimen is Latin for “examination”). Since two contradictories cannot possibly coexist, the bugaboo of equality has been imposed on the examination system, by lowering its standards. The pass mark is increasingly abysmal, so that everyone can get some “certificate” or other, that in no way certifies real abilities, but the having given the right answers to questions posed by the architects of the “system”. Its consequences have been a deliberate dumbing down of subject matter, of reading methods (look-and-say) the elimination of the Trivium (logic, grammar, rhetoric, thus rendering pupils unable and unwilling to think, etc.

The lamentations could go on, but it is time to reflect on the possibility of returning education to making it flow back to within the banks of a river in spate. Is there such a thing as natural education, that by being helped rather than hindered could be effective? Let’s have a look at it.

Naturally growing up

The natural maturing of the human being is not a linear, smooth process that one would desire. It consists, instead, of a series of shocks, at the end of each of which first the baby, then the infant, the boy/girl, the young man/woman, becomes increasingly fit to become independent from the family milieu, enter society, contribute to it in one way or another, and leave behind a legacy by which to be remembered (or, alas, forgotten). Let us pay attention to the shocks. 

First shock: birth. After nine months of gravity-less, tranquil floating in amniotic fluid, the baby comes into the open. Now it has to breathe independently from the mother’s metabolism. The shock expresses itself as the well-known, and welcome, scream received with understandable joy by whoever attends the event. Here a mistake can begin to mess up the baby’s life. Nature’s inter faeces et urinam nascimur (St Augustine), affords the first immunity, which the Caesarean birth denies. This is not the place where to develop the issue.

Then there follows lactation, a second period of rather effortless existence with food on demand, and further strengthening of the immune system by breast-feeding. It lasts a little more than a year.

Second shock: weaning, wisely done by introducing foods other than mother’s milk first together with it, then little by little without. Little impurities further strengthen the immune system.

Third shock: faces other than mum’s disturb the baby’s solipsism. Some recur, like dad’s; others are occasional: aunties, relatives, friends and acquaintances. Such appearances naturally introduce to social life.

Fourth shock: a sibling. Now Baby must learn how to look after him/herself, paying for mistakes with instant punishment: scalding for going to close to a flame, getting bruised from falling, getting cut from some blade imprudently left around, etc.

Fifth shock: curbing the passions. At 3-4 years the passions, animal drives towards pleasure and away from pain, plus aggression and defence, wake up before reason. Baby wants something, and wants it now. Here the parents’ action is crucial. Their natural wisdom shows the way: grant anything reasonable and forbid anything unreasonable, up to spanking if necessary. After the age of reason, spanking does more harm than good, but it does not follow that punishment becomes redundant: it changes modality, the idea being that the orderly curbing of the passions is part and parcel of education.

Sixth (desirable) shock: work. Am I suggesting (horror of horrors) that a boy should be introduced to the world of work at four?! Yes, this is exactly what I am suggesting. Schooling instead of work is perhaps the most damaging practice that has unfortunately acquired currency, distracting educators, chiefly parents, away from their primary duties. Kindergartens, where infants are deprived of their natural development by being enclosed in golden cages by delinquent parents, are places where the natural curiosity of the little ones is curbed instead of expanding as it should. School should accompany work, as it used to when farm work and school use to alternate according to the cycles of nature.

The Papini Manifesto

As much as one can sympathize with Papini’s suggesting closing down all schools, from kindergartens to universities, carrying out his manifesto would consign thousands upon thousands of educational establishments to oblivion. There must be a better way of remedying the situation, by no means easy but feasible, if backed by a united force of responsible parents and no-nonsense political power favouring the common good instead of dilly-dallying in inanities as they do now.

The present model contemplates parents paying the educational bureaucrats, private or public, who in turn pay the teachers, who prepare their charges to cram textbooks and obtain coveted “certificates”, i.e. pieces of paper certifying a useless possessing and equally useless spewing of information bereft of understanding and wisdom. Papini observed that apprenticeship, the one-to-one effort at teaching learning, is the only natural method for the intellectual-moral-manual development of the young person. But modernity has deliberately destroyed this model, imposing instead the rigid, Napoleonic, masonic, totalitarian, and now openly corrupting, anti-youth method-system. 

What follows is only a suggestion: think what would happen if the situation was overturned. The existing bureaucrats, private or public, would offer not only classrooms but also apprenticeship centres with laboratories, workshops, specialized libraries, etc., the more the better. Parents would entrust their children to the teacher/instructor/master, or whatever, for a personally contracted fee. The instructor would at some stage, judged ripe by him/her, certify the ability of the pupil to match his personal professional standards, responsibly signed, thus assuring notoriety for his own technical and pedagogical abilities. In turn, the instructors/teachers, etc. would pay rent to the school administration to secure a teaching facility and its protection, plus a a certain degree of organization such as a timetable etc.

All would benefit from the general atmosphere of freedom, of teaching as well as of learning. Incompetent personnel would of necessity be weeded out, while pupils would seek –and find- a learning matching their natural abilities, whether intellectual, manual, artistic or whatever. Human abilities are countless, but unduly restricted by today’s stifling uniformity.

The change would not have to be sudden: the facilities suggested above could be introduced into the existing set up little by little, aiming at completing the overturning in a matter of years, or decades if it needed be. 

For an academic Catholic curriculum I attach the Piarist program, deliberately destroyed by Masonic fire 150 years ago.

19th November 2019