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what is an educationWhat is an education? What does it mean to be an “educated” human being? Ask a public school teacher or two and the answers may surprise you. Not because they will enlighten you, or give you a new perspective, but because in general there are vast plains of intellectual empty space that lie between the truth about education and what most teachers know about it. I have asked hundreds of public school teachers, students, and experts what it means to be educated, and the answers have been surprisingly untethered from the fetters of reason.

Diogenes (412 to 323 BC) said “Bury me on my head, for very soon this world will be turned upside down.” As a cynic not privy to revelation about the fact of our fallen nature, we can perhaps forgive him from full commitment to the obvious. Chesterton eschews the cynic and echoes the saint in saying that “any scene can be more freshly and clearly seen when it is seen upside down.”

Fallen man has been trying to turn the world on its head ever since Adam and Eve were first told the lie “ye shall be as gods!” History is a record of man’s attempts to become his own creator. The result of every effort ends just as the story of the Tower of Babel, in confusion and miscommunication. All becomes unintelligible because man would fancy himself the architect and by trying to engineer the reversal of creature and creator, everything is naturally turned upside down. In the City of Man, there is an infallible magisterium called “public education.” This industrial complex is a type of the Tower of Babel and as self-perceived gods, the educational experts designing the dreadful schools are infallibly wrong. This may shock the casual observer, but even an opaque view of the societal landscape bears this out.

No facet of the modern world could be more upside down than public education. Much ink has been spilt attempting to both justify and expose this truth, but, perhaps as brevity is the soul of wit we can go to a root error and investigate the anatomy of confusion. The Magisterium in the City of Man proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that it is infallibly wrong by getting the most basic tenant about education wrong, the very definition of an education itself.

In interviews asking “what is an education?” the answers have coalesced into complete consensus. No one in the public schools seems to know what it means to be educated. The most common answer from teachers is a platitudinous recital the dreadful “Outcomes Based Education” platform of “mastering a set of standards” and related skills. Many believe that completion of a program evidenced by a diploma signals the “educated” human being. Sadly, most college students will honestly tell you “I don’t know” after gently prodding them for clarification on the hackneyed clichés they had been taught to parrot.

Although all the experts and veterans I asked gave technical non-education answers, one amusing response came from a veteran math expert. She enthusiastically quoted Steve Forbes who vacantly pronounced “an education is to replace an empty mind with an open one.” The irony in her answer is formidable. The quick sobriety of Chesterton reminds us that “merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid. Otherwise it is more akin to a sewer, taking in all things equally.” A better summation of our public schools I cannot imagine, except to notice that, unlike the sewer that takes all things in, our public schools are no longer open to truth, goodness, beauty, or virtue. It would be more accurate to state that the public schools are inculcating minds open to error and closed to truth.

Coming up short on so many interviews, I thought I might have more luck going to the top. I went to our county superintendent of schools’ office to ask them what it is to be an “educated” human being. After four days of mulling it over they reported the following points.

  1. You will get as many definitions of education as the number of people you ask.
  2. To be educated means to have learned enough language and math to be a good citizen.
  3. It is not about the subject being taught, but what the teacher does with her audience. It is all about the student teacher relationship and what she can get them to do.
  4. That is the answer today, the answer tomorrow will be different.

The “dictatorship of relativism” characterizes the above numbingly incoherent statements. Clarity leads to the inevitable conclusion that our public educators have lost sight of what it means to be an “educated” human being. So it must be asked, how do the schools educate anyone when they don’t know what it means?

In What’s Wrong with the World, G.K. Chesterton sets the record straight by reminding us that when it comes to defining education, there is no such thing. “Education is a word like ‘transmission’ or ‘inheritance’; it is not an object, but a method. It must mean the conveying of certain facts, views or qualities…if they are handed on from one generation to another they are education.” He further illustrates that “education is not a thing like theology, it is not an inferior or superior thing; it is not a thing in the same category of terms. Theology and education are to each other like a love-letter to the General Post Office.” Public education ought to imitate the general post office and teachers ought to be like mail carriers. We are to deliver the love letters, not write them.

As a transmission of culture, how we educate our children ought to include passing on to them the “best that has been said and done” in the Great Western Tradition and in consideration of the “democracy of the dead.” We have abandoned that strategy in favor of having secular humanist social utopians re-writing the love letters themselves in coded ideology, and at that, with a numbed mind, a hardened heart and an illiterate pen. We are in dire need of a recovery of the classical understanding of an education.

It is a terrible crime to hand the formation of our children over to an enormous class of uneducated teachers, yet that is what we have done. As it stands, there is nothing redeemable about the public schools or the lies they instil in our children. While old Diogenes wanted to be buried on his head, Chesterton more rightly preferred to look at situations upside down to see them properly; we must take it to that next step after realizing that our schools are upside down, completely and irrevocably. We must turn everything right side up. Let us take our children back and assume our responsibility as their first teachers and teach them as they ought to be taught. Let us deliver the love letters ourselves, unaltered and unspoiled by the treacherous spirit of this vacuous age.

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Published: Apr 12, 2014
Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg
Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg is a Senior Contributor at The Imaginative Conservative. A convert to Catholicism, he is a catechist, a school teacher, and a writer and speaker on matters of faith, culture, and education. He holds a degree in History from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Steven is a member of the Teacher Advisory Board and writer of curriculum at the Sophia Institute for Teachers, a contributor to the Integrated Catholic Life, Crisis Magazine, The Civilized Reader, The Standard Bearers, Catholic Exchange, and a founding member of the Brinklings Literary Club.
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2 replies to this post
  1. I would add that public schools also neglect scientific education. Carl Sagan was fond of saying that most teachers, when asked basic questions by kids like “why is the moon round and not square?” would discourage children from inquiry rather than introduce them to concepts like mass and gravity, which would explain the shape of cellestial objects. Nowadays, at least in the EU, it is literally ILLEGAL for teachers to answer such questions, because they are forbidden from teaching beyond the strict confines of the ever simplified curriculum. Lest we think the humanities are the only subjects suffering, the hard sciences are too.

  2. Steven,

    You say, “As a transmission of culture, how we educate our children ought to include passing on to them the “best that has been said and done” in the Great Western Tradition and in consideration of the “democracy of the dead.” We have abandoned that strategy in favor of having secular humanist social utopians…”

    The first part is absolutely spot-on–how we should transmit American culture. But your interpretation of what academia/education are transmitting–“secular humanism”–is a bit off the mark.

    My research into the roots and origins of the message of American education/academia today began with identifying the core message, the cultural payload, that the educators/academics are transmitting to our children.

    It’s not “secular humanism.” The key belief system at the core of their message is fundamental anti-Traditional-America. That’s it. Anti-Traditional-America.

    Examine any message, meme, fad, fashion in education/academia, and you’ll find that the common denominator is anti-Traditional-America.

    Full details in my book, Willing Accomplices:

    Here’s an excerpt from an article published in Newsmax in 2008, that touched on education/academia’s anti-American influence on our children:

    “In 1934, the operation against America’s Education system bore fruit at the Teachers College of Columbia University. A group of intellectuals began their contribution to the communist project to destroy traditional American society, calling themselves, “Reconstructionists.” Their message planned for every classroom, called for educators to be “less frightened of imposition and indoctrination.”

    “My analysis reveals that the leader of this group, George Counts, was likely a covert influence agent. His multiple trips to the USSR, from the late 1920s to the early ‘30s, place him squarely in the sights of the KGB’s covert influence operators.

    “During his travels across the communist country, he would have been squired by intelligence officers, who would develop him for eventual recruitment. The success of this covert influence recruitment is reflected in Counts’ books, published in 1931, “The New Russian Primer,” and “The Soviet Challenge to America.”

    “The first was a direct translation of a communist indoctrination text for Soviet children, extolling the virtues of the first five year plan. His co-author was a Soviet “translator,” most likely supplied by the KGB.

    “According to a Sept. 23, 2008, Wall Sreet Journal article, after the ’60s, Bill Ayers and Obama’s foundation in Chicago pushed for school reform. Ayers said, “’Teachers should be community organizers dedicated to provoking resistance to American racism and oppression.’ His preferred alternative? ‘I’m a radical, leftist, small “c” communist.’” The covert operation bears fruit decades later.

    “Willi Munzenberg, Lenin’s chief covert influence operator was determined to instill the mindset in Americans that, as Koch says, “to criticize or challenge Soviet policy was the unfailing mark of a bad, bigoted, and probably stupid person, while support was equally infallible proof of a forward-looking mind committed to all that was best for humanity and marked by an uplifting refinement of sensibility.”

    “This is as close as we can come to a definition of PC today. Simply substitute “Soviet” with “Democrat,” or “liberal,” and there you have it. Keith Olbermann could not express the PC point of view any more clearly.

    “Munzenberg’s operations, run from Vienna and Paris, dispatched communist espionage officers into Hollywood. There they built solid operations, recruiting screenwriters, producers, actors, directors, and hangers-on.”

    “Read Latest Breaking News from

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