If you surveyed one hundred “educators” to define education, after the initial shock, and painfully long pause of silence you would probably be given the most recent acceptable version of educationese. Some would offer a definition by way of describing outcomes, assessments, goals, objectives, torrential techniques, maddening methodologies, and pet pedagogies but, that is not what, thankfully, Dr. Richard Gamble does in The Great Tradition.
“Readers looking for up-to-the-minute advice about innovative teaching methods and classroom technology, or about how to prepare students for the ‘real world’ and tomorrow’s top-ten careers, will be gravely disappointed” (xvi).
The Great Tradition, masterfully edited by Richard Gamble, is a unique anthology best described in the term given by Mortimer Adler years ago—conversation. This dynamic dialogue reaches from the ancient to the early nineteen seventy’s about the aspirations, needed learning environment, and the meaning of the most authentic education. The excerpts are all given the historical context with notes about the author and the specific reading. Approximately sixty writings on genuine education are generously provided. The wonderful movement from information about the author and the times, to knowledge about what is to be expected in the reading, and then to the ever present wisdom in the readings including Xenophon, Plato, Aristotle, Seneca, Cicero, Basil, Augustine, Hugh of St. Victor, Bonaventure, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Erasmus, Edmund Burke, John Henry Newman, Thomas Arnold, Albert Jay Nock, Dorothy Sayers, C. S. Lewis, and Eric Voegelin.
Obviously among this list anyone who knows anything about the history of education also notices who is not a part of the conversation. The educational utilitarian calling for “practical” education and “job training”, also not invited are the educational Romantics with a deeply flawed view of human nature, and last, the offer of joining the group was not extended to the all too present “Progressive”. One reason they may not have been invited to the conversation is that many could not understand the others at the table, but mainly because this ill-informed indoctrinational presence reigns supreme in education departments in state, private, and even religious institutions.
As with any good conversation, there are points of dissent, but solid reasoning is provided. In addition, with all great conversations there is a convergence of truth and wisdom that is fine tuned and clarified by the ebb and flow, tone and tenor, and conclusions reached with others in the conversation.
Different from many books about education written in the past few decades, in particular, liberal education, is the tone of this volume. While authors from the ancient world to the present bemoan various ills of the process, content, teachers, and students, the vast majority are hopeful in tone.
Several authors address the issues that contemporary educational “scholars” pretend they invented. In authors such as Cicero, and Seneca there is the discussion of the practical nature of education (77, 101). A number of the authors, including Petrarch and Erasmus exalt the essential connection between virtue and learning (308, 361). The lasting formative value of liberal learning is to bring about living the wise life as encouraged by Vico, (480) and this wise life is manifested in what the modern world calls the private and the public. The proper relationship between Religious studies and the Liberal Studies could be (re)established if Religion and Bible faculty entered into talks with Professors of Literature, History, and Philosophy gathered around the readings of Clement of Alexandria, Jerome, Augustine, Bruni, and John Henry Newman.
Possibly the most recurring theme is the emphasis on the historical connection between wisdom and eloquence. The majority of the authors made explicit reference or allusions to these lost realities. With the modern academy teaching “speech” or “communication skills,” one seriously wonders if there will ever be rhetoric informed by logic, and nurtured in wisdom present again.
Many of the excerpts make reference to false knowledge, false learning, and false teachers with their false educational philosophies. That is only half of the picture. Many others include the definition of authentic education, the best means by which humans learn, the kinds of teachers who have always and will always uphold the Great Tradition and philosophies of education that are grounded in truth and wisdom.
This book will hopefully get wide reading and use. University Presidents (if any still read) should read this book and ask their Deans why the university curriculum is not profoundly informed by these authors, Deans should read this book (again, assuming that management skills have not eclipsed the life of the mind) and encourage their faculty to create reading groups to determine the best way to get this book to the largest number of people. Finally, faculty in the education departments, Humanities Programs, and Liberal Studies should repent of the sin of whoring after the spirit of the age, set aside all “tools” for assessing and measuring that which really cannot be assessed or measured and feast. Let the mind, heart, and soul drink deep of the fountain that is called The Great Tradition.
Roots are essential to most vegetation, humans, institutions, and cultures. Roots that run deep, and are fed by the nourishing soil that uphold the rest of the growing entity are essential for life. It is imperative, if not too late, to become reconnected to the life sustaining soil in which the roots of education once were grounded.
“The Great Tradition, in contrast, anchored in the classical and Christian humanism of liberal education, has taken the broader view that what is useful is that which helps men and women to flourish in nonmaterial ways as well-in other words, that which helps them to be happy. Indeed, what the Great Tradition has meant by the words ‘humanism’ ‘liberal,’ and ‘education’ will emerge from the full context—spanning a breathtaking twenty-four centuries—of the remarkably intelligible, unified, and coherent conversation that unfolds in these pages.” (xvi-xvvii)
If there is any hope for an educational Renaissance, especially within the Liberal Arts it will have to occur with a sense of the authentic education, primarily formative, exemplified with the readings in this book.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.