There is a danger in education which even the best curriculum cannot of its own circumvent. This is because the problem is one of the heart. The wrong kind of knowledge puffs up. Only love has the power to order the powers of the mind properly.
This of course is no good reason to forgo an education, or a good reason to be careless about what is taught. But it is a reminder that the proper end of learning must ever be kept in mind, lest we make little monsters of ourselves and others. Our infatuation with curriculum sometimes threatens the centrality of this fact.
“The problem is with the Enlightenment,” we insist.
“Scientific materialism has undermined the faith,” we lament.
“Secular colleges and liberal values have destroyed the truth,” we bewail.
But in all our attention to these problems and in our attempts to address them, have we forgotten the weightier matters. Are we tithing mint and cumin? Are we busy straining gnats? Have we forgotten love. It may depend on our attitude toward curriculum and learning. Will the curriculum be the cure? Is it our pride and joy that our child is classically trained and highly metaphysical? Is this the goal toward which all our efforts tend, or is our greatest care that they should learn something of love?
Lest like Anne Shirley, we switch anodyne liniment for vanilla, we must remember that even the finest cake is nothing if the batter has been ruined.
I was reminded of this while listening to Jane Austen’ Mansfield Park:
“Dear mama, only think, my cousin cannot put the map of Europe together—or my cousin cannot tell the principal rivers in Russia—or, she never heard of Asia Minor—or she does not know the difference between water-colours and crayons!—How strange!—Did you ever hear anything so stupid?”
“My dear,” their considerate aunt would reply, “it is very bad, but you must not expect everybody to be as forward and quick at learning as yourself.”
“But, aunt, she is really so very ignorant!—Do you know, we asked her last night which way she would go to get to Ireland; and she said, she should cross to the Isle of Wight. She thinks of nothing but the Isle of Wight, and she calls it the Island, as if there were no other island in the world. I am sure I should have been ashamed of myself, if I had not known better long before I was so old as she is. I cannot remember the time when I did not know a great deal that she has not the least notion of yet. How long ago it is, aunt, since we used to repeat the chronological order of the kings of England, with the dates of their accession, and most of the principal events of their reigns!”
“Yes,” added the other; “and of the Roman emperors as low as Severus; besides a great deal of the heathen mythology, and all the metals, semi-metals, planets, and distinguished philosophers.”
“Very true indeed, my dears, but you are blessed with wonderful memories, and your poor cousin has probably none at all. There is a vast deal of difference in memories, as well as in everything else, and therefore you must make allowance for your cousin, and pity her deficiency. And remember that, if you are ever so forward and clever yourselves, you should always be modest; for, much as you know already, there is a great deal more for you to learn.”
“Yes, I know there is, till I am seventeen.
If one thinks of education as something that ends at seventeen, if one thinks of learning as something indicative of age (rather than human nature), if learning is more an accomplishment and less a direction, than curriculum and accomplishment have gotten the upper-hand.
Education must never be an egoistic preening. There is one ultimate measure which is the rule of true learning and thus of all excellence and mediocrity–love. Without love, we whitewash tombs.
The question which the teacher must ask himself or herself is whether they (teacher and students) are learning to love God more, to love the mystery of the creation better, and to seek the good of their neighbor with greater attention and humility. Is education humanizing, making one gentle and courageous, patient and energetic? Or is education habituating us to be curators our lives? Is education a delighting in something outside of ourselves and gratitude for the gifts we have received, or only in how terribly clever we are?
Are we nearly done learning, or have we hardly begun?