The Grail Code 
The saboteurs of democracy

Sitting around talking? Isn’t that what we send kids to the principal’s office for?

Still, there might be something to it. Call it a “seminar,” and you just might get away with it.

I’ve been thinking about seminars a lot lately, because I’m just about to go to my twentieth college reunion, and in four years of college I hardly did anything else but read and then sit around and talk. That was St. John’s College in Annapolis, a school that’s somehow managed to stay obscure for 311 years now.

Let me tell you a little about St. John’s, because its program is the one that inspired most of the seminar-style great-books programs out there. It’s still called the “New Program” at St. John’s, even though it’s seventy years old, because in Annapolis anything after the War of 1812 counts as “new.”

There are no textbooks and no tests at St. John’s. Well, that statement isn’t strictly accurate. There are two tests: one to make sure you know enough algebra to read some of the important mathematicians on the third-year list, and one to make sure you can translate enough Tocqueville to say that you’re going into your senior year with a reading knowledge of French. If you don’t pass one of the tests, you go back and review your algebra or your French, and then take the test again. You keep taking the test until you can pass it.

I bring up those tests because they’re indicative of a certain attitude that’s fundamental to the radical great-books programs. The purpose of the tests is not to sort students into different levels of achievement or to weed out the unqualified. The purpose is only to help the student learn. That attitude is what makes this approach so radical, and it distinguishes it from every other common style of education.

Think about it for a moment. If you’re a teacher, what is your goal? You’ll probably answer right away that your goal is to help students learn. So the more your students learn, the better you’re doing, right?

Now ask yourself this: What would happen if you gave every student 100% on every test? How would the school administration react if every student left your class with an A for the year?

Well, I suppose they’d double your salary, wouldn’t they? I mean, you must be a very good teacher if all your students are learning everything they’re supposed to be learning.

But in fact that’s not what would happen at all, is it? You’ve seen teachers reprimanded because they grade too generously. If you gave everyone an A this year, you wouldn’t be a teacher next year.

That’s because, whatever you may tell yourself, helping students learn is not the main goal of a traditional American education. The main goal is really to sort students out. The system not only expects but demands that a certain number of students will excel and a roughly equal number will fall behind.

If you wanted to be shocking (and when have I not wanted to be shocking?), you could state the same idea in political terms: the goal of the American educational establishment is to sabotage democracy.

What I mean is that American schools are set up to act as factories for deciding who will be given an opportunity to succeed and who will not. That’s what we’re doing, isn’t it? If you get good grades in school, you can go on to a good college and find a high-paying job and drive a Lexus. If you get bad grades in school, you can be a cashier at the Foodland. Our schools are creating permanent class distinctions that will stay with our children for the rest of their lives—and they’re starting to create those distinctions when our children are only six years old.

All this may seem like rambling or even ranting. But you may remember (if you’ve been reading for a few days) that the subject under discussion was “What is a great-books education?” And here is part of the answer: a great-books education, according to the radical method, is a democratic and egalitarian form of education, opposed not only in its methods but also in its aims to the elitist educational methods in use in most schools.

Now, I’m well aware that the great majority of educators in America would tell you that the great-books approach is elitist, and that whatever educational theory is in favor today is democratic. I’ve led you through this political rant because I know that elitism is the charge most often hurled at great-books education.

So let me summarize what I’ve said so far about the real aims of American education as it’s carried on at most of our schools.

1. The real aim is not learning, but sorting students into categories.

2. The system aims at creating permanent social divisions between students who “excel” and students who do not.

3. For the system to work, a certain number of students must fail to meet the requirements. If that doesn’t happen, then the requirements must be changed until it does happen.

In other words, if you’re a teacher, your work is not considered successful unless you manage to prevent some of your students from learning.

Now, the radical great-books approach has opposite goals, and therefore starts with opposite assumptions. It assumes that every student can learn and ought to learn. But more than that, it assumes that every student has a contribution to make to the learning of the group. Finally, it assumes that the role of the teacher, and of the school, is to give the students the help they need to learn.

That’s the difference, then. On the one hand, we have an aristocratic system designed to create and perpetuate class distinctions. On the other hand is a democratic system whose goal is to help every student learn. Until today, if I had asked you which was which, you probably would have got them mixed up. Now that I’ve set you straight, we can go on to talk about what actually happens in the classroom.

6 Responses to “The saboteurs of democracy”

  1. Stephen Says:

    Well… I’m no proponent of the public school system as we know it, but surely the aim of the now ‘traditional’ educational system with frequent, standardized testing isn’t to create divisions and stratifications, but rather to be able to discern, through measurement, whether the students are in fact learning, so that remediation is possible. What would be the point otherwise? I think it’s just a product of our modern scientific/industrial approach to how to do things.

    Of course, in *practice* the remediation part is a lot harder than throwing the teaching out there and seeing what sticks, and perhaps it rarely actually gets done. But it doesn’t seem right to me to interpret a deficiency in practice as an “aim”. No? Do you assert that we ought to go through a ‘qui bono’ exercise to see something else going on?

  2. Stephen Says:

    (Doh! I meant “cui bono”, of course.)

  3. Occasus Says:

    Just curious: have you read John Gatto’s “Underground History of American Education”?

  4. The Grail Code» Blog Archive » Am I being fair? Says:

    [...] And so I’m brimming with things to say about the Great Books, whatever they are, but first a small distraction. A kind reader has asked me whether I’m really being fair about the “aim” of American education, which I said was not to teach but to create a kind of caste system. Surely, he says, the real aim is to find which students need help, so that they can get the help they need. Granted, that doesn’t happen as efficiently as we’d like, but “it doesn’t seem right to me to interpret a deficiency in practice as an ‘aim.’” [...]

  5. The Grail Code» Blog Archive » Great books: what really happens in the classroom Says:

    [...] So we were just about to talk about what happens in the classroom in a “great-books” education. [...]

  6. Andy Kang Says:

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