Teaching Children to Be Human

Teaching Children to Be Human
May 6, 2014

Joy Pullmann

Joy Pullmann is a research fellow on education policy for The Heartland Institute and managing... (read full bio)

School Choice Weekly #36

The classical liberal arts have been peeping above the barricades a bit this week. In South Carolina, for example, Republican candidate for state superintendent Sheri Few has said that’s her preferred model instead of national Common Core mandates. This weekend in the New York Times, David Brooks wrote a beautiful essay on one night’s conversation between Isaiah Berlin and Anna Akhmatova in 1945’s Soviet Union:

By 4 in the morning, they were talking about the greats. They agreed about Pushkin and Chekhov. Berlin liked the light intelligence of Turgenev, while Akhmatova preferred the dark intensity of Dostoyevsky.

Deeper and deeper they talked, baring their souls. Akhmatova confessed her loneliness, expressed her passions, spoke about literature and art. Berlin had to go to the bathroom but didn’t dare break the spell. They had read all the same things, knew what the other knew, understood each other’s longings. That night, Ignatieff writes, Berlin’s life “came as close as it ever did to the still perfection of art.” He finally pulled himself away and returned to his hotel. It was 11 a.m. He flung himself on the bed and exclaimed, “I am in love; I am in love.”

Today we live in a utilitarian moment. We’re surrounded by data and fast-flowing information. “Our reason has become an instrumental reason,” as Leon Wieseltier once put it, to be used to solve practical problems.

The night Berlin and Akhmatova spent together stands as the beau ideal of a different sort of communication. It’s communication between people who think that the knowledge most worth attending to is not found in data but in the great works of culture, in humanity’s inherited storehouse of moral, emotional and existential wisdom.

The Atlantic this week also included another beautiful defense of how the liberal arts prepare a child for more than a job--they prepare him to live. That was also the theme of at least two Wall Street Journal articles this week, both discussing how business leaders are more likely to create world-changing innovations and be strong, creative leaders if they have spent time studying philosophy, the arts, and the humanities. In The Atlantic, philosophy professor Scott Samuelson writes:

For the most part, the wealthy in this country continue to pay increasingly exorbitant tuition to private prep schools, good liberal arts colleges, and elite universities, where their children get strong opportunities to develop their minds, dress themselves in cultural capital, and learn the skills necessary to become influential members of society. Meanwhile, the elite speak of an education’s value for the less privileged in terms of preparation for the global economy. Worse yet, they often support learning systems designed to produce “good employees”--i.e., compliant laborers. … Those in the middle class, let alone the poor, have to fight an ever-steepening uphill battle to spend their time and money on the arts appropriate to free people.

As Andrew Kern of the CIRCE Institute has said, there are two main epitomes of a good education. One consists of training a highly skilled technician. The other looks more like apprenticing to an artist. Both forms can turn out productive workers and decent people. But this week’s miniature flotilla of articles on the liberal arts offers strong arguments that only one of these forms can also turn out responsible, thoughtful citizens who have developed the capacity to express creative, regenerative love. Take the time to consider them--and whether “college- and career-ready” education aims far too low.


School Choice Roundup

Common Core Watch

Education Today

  • U.S. HISTORY: The College Board is retooling Advanced Placement U.S. History curriculum to be more activist and emotional, and less focused on knowledge.

Joy Pullmann

Joy Pullmann is a research fellow on education policy for The Heartland Institute and managing... (read full bio)