- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 7, 2004

Education is out of joint. It examines nature more than life, mathematics more than justice. It assumes we are placed here to watch the growth of plants or to marvel at the speed of the Internet, not to learn how to do good, and avoid evil, as Socrates understood.

Man is elevated only to the extent of his morality and moral wisdom. That should be the North star of education.

The great business of the human mind is not external nature, but discovering a higher purpose between ashes to ashes and dust to dust. As unsurpassed philosopher Sam Johnson elaborated: “Whether we provide for action or conversation, whether we wish to be pleasing or useful, the first requisite is the religious and moral knowledge of right and wrong; the next is an acquaintance with the history of mankind, and with those examples which may be said to embody truth, and prove by events the reasonableness of opinions. Prudence and justice are virtues and excellencies of all times and of all places. … Those authors, therefore, are to be read at schools that supply most axioms of prudence, most principles of moral truth, and most materials for conversation; and these purposes are best served by poets, orators, and historians.”

Elementary school students need immersion in Aesop’s Fables, La Fontaine’s Fables, “Alice in Wonderland,” and Greek mythology. Instead, they read insipid “award winning” books like “The Bee Tree” or “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus.” Young children need instruction in moral distinctions and matters of degree; in speaking and writing with exactness and brevity; and in landmark issues and events in American history, including slavery, the Revolutionary War, the Constitution, the Civil War and Pearl Harbor. At present, however, young children are taught nothing about expressive skills, nothing about moral reasoning and nothing about the pivotal happenings that have made the United States, warts and all, the greatest nation in the history of mankind.

Secondary school students need to master Shakespeare, Milton, Goethe, Dumas and Thoreau. The histories of Herodotus, Thucydides, Tacitus, Plutarch and Gibbon should be scrutinized. Fiction that celebrates heroes like King Arthur or Antigone should be preferred to anti-heroic works like “The Catcher in the Rye.” Major religious texts should be analyzed, including the Old and New Testaments, the Holy Koran and the Mahabharata. Critical essays and debate about the past and present should be staples, for example, the morality of Agamemnon’s killing of his daughter Iphigenia, John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, America’s alliance with Josef Stalin to defeat Adolf Hitler, and President Harry Truman’s atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to avoid a bloody land invasion of Japan. Every student should compose a daily sentence featuring spare, evocative and exact language, subject to alternative words or metaphors suggested and explained by teachers.

American civilization will wither and die without a revival of classical education and serious moral thinking. The United States now bestrides the world like a colossus, but so did the Roman Empire before its “Decline and Fall” as chronicled by Edward Gibbon. The barbarians defeated Rome not with superior weaponry or wealth, but because Rome rotted within.

A classical education underwrites democracy. As Thomas Jefferson preached, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” The Founding Fathers drew repeatedly on the lessons of history in forging the Constitution. James Madison, for instance, in Federalist 18, 19 and 20 extrapolated lessons from ancient Greek, German and Dutch confederations to justify federal supremacy over the states. The living and those yet to be born owe an enormous debt to the intellectual brilliance of the 55 who attended the Constitutional Convention in 1787. As British Prime Minister William Gladstone effused: “I have always regarded that Constitution as the most remarkable work known to me in modern times to have been produced by the human intellect, at a single stroke (so to speak), in its application to political affairs.”

The United States could have avoided much of its current and past follies, both foreign and domestic, if its leaders and the public knew history and had acquired a fine sense of justice, prudence and moral judgment. In the 1930s, the country came to believe war was caused by munitions makers and international bankers, not by malevolent politicians craving territory and conquest. During the 1960s and 1970s, the Great Society delusion that altruism and the angelic dominated human nature was born of ignorance of failed utopian communities like Brooke Farm.

Science and math should be supporting actors in the education enterprise. They are bereft of moral insights and inspiration. Thus, Werner von Braun easily segued from building V-1 and V-2 rockets for the Third Reich to sending a man to the moon for the United States.

Without a keenly developed sense of morality and justice, there is nothing to distinguish mankind from beasts.

Bruce Fein is director of the Lichfield Scholars Program.

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