Monday, Aug. 4, 2008 |”Philosophy buries its undertakers.” — Etienne Gilson, French Philosopher

The interview with Matt Spathas reveals a trendy ignorance about the purpose and content of a liberal education. In deciding what is important to study, Spathas advocates “probably less history and more future.” Really? When I was a kid 30 years ago the futurists, the press and public opinion were persuaded we were entering a new Ice Age. I am glad my public school teachers focused on less relevant material. No, studying the past remains essential for any society that hopes to govern itself. A study of history remains the precondition for political intelligence. The easiest citizens for a tyrannical government to control are those that know little of the past.

Spathas goes on to diminish formal knowledge — “factoids” — by implying Google will replace the textbook. Relevance is the only criteria we should use in deciding what to study, as the utilitarian purpose of education is to prepare for the workplace. Goodbye to art, music, dance and philosophy. Welcome to a Starbucks education. Consumer choice and marketing euphemisms will reign supreme.

In diminishing formal knowledge in favor of critical thinking, Spathas is setting up a false dichotomy. One cannot exercise critical judgment without a wide and deep base of knowledge. Instead of presenting one as the enemy of the other, he might consider the way in which the best critical thinkers also tend to be the most knowledgeable. Perhaps it is more of a spiral. In addition, he might want to consider his stereotype of “knowledge-thirsty” Asian students. How exactly are we going to compete if we go in the opposite direction? Lastly, does Spathas trust engineers to build our bridges who have not been tested in prescribed areas of knowledge? Brain surgeons? Formal knowledge always matters.

Teaching history to young people is often counter-biological. History is the broadest of all academic disciplines, integrating the various social sciences and limited only by what does not fall under the domain of human experience. People increasingly enjoy history as they get older and as time, travel and life experience take root. Helping adolescents develop a broad perspective of time, place and events is developmentally critical for making informed judgments about individuals and society.

To quote Gilson again, “History is the only laboratory we have in which to test the consequences of thought.” The study of history is inherently multicultural, open to endless revision and provides a crucial platform for students to examine ethical behavior. A quick glance at this article’s headlines confirms its contemporary relevance.

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