I wrote this in response to a WSJ article comparing Utilitarian to classical education. It was too long and glib but what can you do?
In a way, this is yet another false dichotomy modern thought seems to drive us into. If by utilitarian, you mean practical, the division is an illusion. If by Utilitarian you mean “based on the philosophical premises of Mill and his followers or the American variation expressed in James, Dewey, and others of the pragmatist and progressive schools, then the division is crucial.
In other words, if this is a philosophical argument, we need to go back to classical education. While if this is a practical argument, we need to go back to a mode of thinking that could see the unity of learning and practical benefits, which is, of course, a classical education.
But it does matter what we are talking about when we use the words classical education. Over the course of 2500 years, education in that tradition varied widely and its hard to pin down any core principles. There was one goal though: to cultivate wisdom and virtue in the students/disciples.
People who believe in the glory of being human don’t settle for anything less. People who don’t believe prepare us for a world that changes too fast for us to be prepared for it.
People who believe in the glory of being human note how we are unique: that awesome faculty of language; the ability to calculate, to measure, to perceive things with mathematical tools; the ability to hand on histories that enable development and intelligent adaptation; the capacity to test and perceive truth and then to embody it in sentences, poems, stories, works of art, musical compositions, gardens, and communities based (not on greed for money and/or power but) on a recognition of a common glory that draws us into a mutually beneficial harmony united by something or someone higher than ourselves.
People who believe in these things teach children how to read, write, and calculate using their reasoning faculties as well as their senses. They teach them the traditions that they feed on and that they owe to their posterity, including the stories that define them as a people. They teach them how to test assumptions with an eye, not to deconstruction, but to construction and even reform. They cultivate their capacity to remember, both alone and in community.
They link them to their heritage by preserving the languages in which that heritage stored its treasury.
They prepare them, not for the Quixotic quest to overthrow the world that is and to replace it with a world their conditioners use them to build, but for actual, practical, daily leadership in ways that heal where they can heal, guide where they can guide, and follow where they should follow.
In other words, they lay foundations for a lifetime of learning (that is to say, for pursuing wisdom) no matter what vocation they follow by teaching them how to use language and math, without which no community can ever be free and no individual can ever thrive. They teach them the natural sciences so they can learn and live in harmony with the world as it is. They teach them history so they can receive and hand on the treasury of their heritage. They teach them metaphysics rooted in the reality of truth so they are both bound by and set free by the truth. And they realize perfectly well that nothing can hold all this together except a transcendent realm of the true, the good, and the beautiful before which we must humble ourselves, as Plato, Aristotle, the apostle Paul, Augustine, Aquinas, Basil the Great, and everybody prior to the Utilitarians (with a few tentative exceptions) understood.
People with this form of education are the only practical people on earth, except those who tend a farm with loving devotion. They make good citizens. They make good employees. They make good families. They make good leaders. Have the utilitarian educators improved on that?