On Seneca & Sasse

This is a re-post from a blog I wrote at Ricochet.com.

As I watched the livestream of Senator Ben Sasse’s keynote address kicking off this year’s ExcelInEd Conference, I was reminded of a fairly famous Latin phrase: non scholae sed vitae discimus – we learn not for school but for life.

Senator Sasse is a smart guy, a former college president, and well-read.  I’m a fan of his frequent appearances on Jonah Goldberg’s podcast.  His thesis this morning was “Education and schooling are not the same thing.”  It’s a pretty bold thing to say that to a group of people whose livings depend on … schools.  So kudos to him for speaking the truth.

It’s because I’m a fan and supporter that I thought it was worthwhile to point out a couple of issues that tend to undermine rather than bolster his thesis.  He leads with a talking point that has been used ad naseum by the fans of John Dewey — whom Sasse rightly goes on to critique.

He characterizes the current form of education that we have as based on a “Prussian” model, in which students sit in age-segregated rows and learn primarily through lecture.  He describes it as an “industrial model” of education, designed to maximize social control and prepare students for jobs in factories.  This banality is trotted out by those advocating progressive (i.e. Dewey-an) reforms, such as more group work (“cooperative learning”) and constructivist approaches to learning.

Yet Dewey was Senator Sasse’s target as the popularizer of the “industrial model.”  Something isn’t adding up here.

And, I have to add, this idea that lecture is the primary mode for most student instruction in public schools and that they all sit in rows is a strawman.  Teachers, especially in elementary grades, are taught in schools of education (and therefore heavily influenced by Dewey) that young children should work in groups, precisely in order to achieve the “socializing” effect that Dewey wanted to achieve.  Students would “construct” meaning not based on truth or on facts that the teacher might have been in position to share, but based on interactions and input from their peers.

The old-timey pictures of kids sitting in rows and learning by lecture, well, they exemplified Catholic education in the 19th and part of the 20th centuries.  And guess what?  Up to mid-century, these schools may have been the best poverty intervention program ever introduced into American cities.  It was a school like this (St. Pius X in Savannah, GA) that shaped and set Justice Clarence Thomas on his path in life, for instance.

Anyway, back to Dewey.  He had a strong distrust/dislike of Catholic education, a point which Sasse correctly invokes.  Dewey did not like the idea of knowledge for knowledge’s sake, an older and (yes) classical notion of education.

When people who favor educational freedom, revolutionizing funding structures, and generally shaking up the way we think about what school (i.e., my tribe) trot out the “industrial model” argument, it sets my teeth on edge.  Lots and lots of schools used (and still use) a lecture mode, with a teacher doing teacher things, and students doing student things, like paying attention, taking notes, and asking/answering questions.  A lot of these were Catholic schools.  I truly don’t think you can blame this convenient set-up (which we know dates back millenia, v.i.) for all the problems with education in this country.

Relief found in Neumagen near Trier, a teacher with three students (180-185 AD) Photo: Wikipedia / Shakko

The bigger issue is that we ask schools to do too much.  This goes back to Dewey’s articulation of the idea that the school should be the vehicle through which the child is “socialized.”  And these social ends tend to be measurable outcomes like employment.

This is the verse in the hymn where conservatives and libertarians join the choir — obviously, employment/economic productivity is an outcome that we want, and since taxpayers are footing the bill whether someone learns to read or ends up incarcerated, let’s make sure schools are focused on skills-acquisition.

You hear a lot these days about career and technical education (CTE) and I’m very much in favor of there being lots more available.  But I’ve also heard industry leaders basically make the Bismarkian case that public school systems should be responsive to their workforce needs (based on 5 and 10 year projections).  They tend to be the same folks who talk about 21st Century Skills and Critical Thinking.  Because these seem to support the idea that students will be employable/economically productive after graduation, lots of education reformers (especially on the right, broadly understood) get on board.

Other flavors prefer schools to be in the business of making good citizens or creating entrepreneurs.  These too, are both a little too narrow and too broad.

Which brings me back to that Latin phrase.  Guess what?  While that phrase is attributed to Seneca the Younger, it was actually an inversion of what he wrote.  He was anticipating an argument against a literary (classical) education from his correspondent, Lucilius.  These letters, by the way, have gotten additional attention lately given an English edition that Tim Ferriss recently published, based on Gummere’s translation.

So who inverted the phrase?  That’s right.  Germans.

It is exceedingly easy to say that we should learn things for life and not for school.  But by placing “life” or “practical considerations” as the end of education, those in power are predetermining the course that families, absent a context of full choice, can make.  There are choices that schools and school systems make about what is out and what is in – the selection of some texts, the absence of others.  And if the system decides that its job is to fit students for “life” (whatever the trendy or cronyistic definition of skills happens to be at the moment), the results will be poor.

My Stoic point of view may be showing here, but the point of education ought to be self-governance.  Socialization, in the Deweyan sense, is the exact opposite of this goal.  I urge my fellow travelers to avoid adopting the progressive the “industrial model” line of argumentation (complete with invocation of paper tigers like drill/kill, sage on the stage, etc.), and realize that when they make arguments in favor of schools that will adapt students better to a new age of disruption, they are simply following in the footsteps of Dewey, and replacing one measurable, socially acceptable goal with another.

Senator Sasse rounds out his talk by reminding his audience that students “aren’t widgets, they are souls.”  And I think this is a far more compelling line of argumentation to pursue.  Since it is folks like him who shape the narrative of policy discussions, I’d urge him to resist the use hackneyed progressive tropes about “industrial education” and instead make the case from first principles.

The moral high ground in this debate is that parents and families should be in charge of defining both the end towards which and the means by which they educate their children.  Some may just choose to put their kids in desks that are in (heaven forbid) rows.

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