Educating Whom?

As an “educator” (such as I am called nowadays), I assume that the past has much to teach us, rather than the other way around. I regard this as obvious inasmuch as, even if one were inclined to hector the poets, philosophers, and rulers of old on their racism, sexism, Euro-centrism, and other moral and socio-political crimes and misdemeanours, they wouldn’t listen. They are dead. They are past reforming.

On the other hand, while it is useless to remonstrate with the dead, it may be that they have much to say to us. Everyone knows the old saw that he who has failed to learn the lessons of history is condemned to repeat them. But this is, for once, an unnecessarily pessimistic view of history. Many things in history are worth repeating: Magna Carta, habeas corpus, the enshrinement of property rights, the plays of Shakespeare, Bach’s fugues, the constabulary’s considerate invention of warning shots.

I cannot accept, therefore, that the purpose of education is to enhance adolescent self-esteem (though the possession of a real education cannot help but do so). The purpose of education is to enhance a student’s esteem for others, and the work of others: for the authors of great literature, the creators of great art, the thinkers of great thoughts, the owners of the kind of wisdom and erudition every civilized person (until recently) has aspired to.

Besides, there is entirely too much self-esteem abroad in the world (and entirely too little humility). A colleague in the English Department once related that, following her lecture on the House of Pride in Book I of Spenser’s Faerie Queene, a female student approached her to ask, “You mean that pride isn’t a good thing?” No, pride is, definitively, apodictically, not a good thing. For nearly two thousand years pride was counted a deadly sin, indeed, the sin from which all of the other deadly sins take root. Even before Christianity began to oppress and despoil us all, the man of pride was a stock character in Greek and Roman comedy. The student who assumed that pride has always been held a virtue would have known this, of course, had she acquired more schooling and less self-esteem.