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Grit, Democracy, Poverty, and Classical Education

A response to an article about the “grit narrative” by an Independent School leader:

If I were to write a book about student motivation and teaching approaches, I would call it The Pharisee and the Prodigal. This is why.

I am deeply concerned, and have had this concern renewed while reading chapter 7 in Norms and Nobility for the Apprenticeship, with the need in our self-identified democracy that “the masses” – those despised and used children of the poor especially – need a classical education. Here’s Hicks:

“The logic of democracy… demands that everyone be educated as members of an elite. Each student in a democracy must be educated as an aristocrat.” P. 80

“Only with a norm-minded citizenry, the product of a broadly based classical education, can the democratic ship of state negotiate a safe passage.” P. 81

“Democratic society needs a citizen body educated to make normative decisions – decisions about what ought to be as well as what can be.” P 82

“Classical education is neither wedded to an aristocratic form of government (as the scholarly elitist presupposes) nor is it the pestiferous breeding ground for elites (as the modern democrat fears). Rather, classical education sets the conditions and requirements of the whole man, developing his individual, social, political, and religious selves — and when extended through the blessing of democracy to the masses, classical education gains in strength and in richness, as he limited example of Periclean Athens attests. To speak of classical education for the few is a contradiction in terms, for paideia is the inheritance of all men as individuals, not of any class of men as servants to the state.”” P. 82

NB Surely we are aware that democracy is a development of and a sustainer of the classical world?!

Now let’s get practical:

“Classical education’s second objective in a democracy is to teach people to discriminate and to make sound judgments. True democrats… want to know not only if a thing can be done, but if it ought to be done. Standing between them and their need to possess this knowledge are two conditions.

[This is where I jump up from the bottom of your screen like an app icon saying: “Hey, down here: NOTICE THIS!!!”]

“The first condition is a free access to ideas and to a high quality of information on which to base informed opinions, and the second is a normative intellect, embodying a clear definition of purposes and a discriminating sense of values with which to synthesize this information and form intelligent judgments. Lacking either of these conditions, democracy will fail because its average citizen will begin to doubt the soundness of his own judgments. He will surrender his fundamental democratic right to ideas and to decision making to a few experts whose specific job it is to analyze a specific issue and decide the issue, as an analyst might say, on its own merits.” p. 83

“Without classical education’s normative learning, the democratic citizen will grow lazy in his demand for a high quality of public thought and information.” ibid

“Democracy is a noble form insofar as its aim is to provide the freedom necessary for all people to develop their full human potentials, but it becomes a vile form when, bereft of culture, it abandons this purpose and begins to value freedom for its own sam. When this happens, democracy–which only survives as a means toward higher ends–dies, and the many subtle forms of tyranny begin to infest its rotting corpse.” p. 85

“…self-governing men, the unshifting ground of greatness…” p. 86

“Not only does the democratic-utilitarian education based on rights prevent the student from achieving self-awareness by blotting out two-thirds of his human identity [ed. note: virtue and piety are the other 2/3), but it clouds the perception of his relation to others. The student perceives his classmates and fellow citizens as his servants, owing him rights, rather than as his equals to whose rights and needs he owes virtuous and pious submission. Truly, democratic citizens are not born, they are made; and only a classical education with its balanced conception of man and it aristocratic ideal of the life of virtue is apt to form democratic citizens who are more eager to give of their obligations than to receive of their rights.” 87

“It is in the performance of man’s duties to himself, to others, and to God that his rights are important to him.” p.87

I write as a Christian, and since I do so I see those children locked in poverty as very much victims of the sins and oppressions of others. I see them as largely excluded from the opportunities and the support network that have surrounded me all my life, even when I’ve struggled to survive. I see them as temples and Images of the Living God, for whom no price is too great to see them delivered.

I don’t know how, without hope and faith, they can be expected to develop grit. I also don’t see how, without hope and faith, their teachers can be expected to stay the course and keep their balance when the system that works against the children works against them too.

It discourages me, frustrates me, makes me sad, when my children tell me stories about college students and even professors who can’t communicate an idea, who don’t know basic ideas of logic or reasoning, who aren’t able to think in metaphors (which any five year old can do very well, so what happened?).

The poverty of our minds, which arises from our utilitarian approach to education and life – i.e. our love of money, fear of poverty, and nihilistic sense of ourselves and our significance – is spreading poverty throughout and upward in our society.* The inability to make decisions rooted in reality destroys families, economies, and societies.

For all these reasons, I thank God for those who are working with the poor and the oppressed and I pray that they will come to see what a classical education, properly understood, would mean to those children, both now and in their futures. I pray for the Hope Academy in St. Paul/Minneapolis, for the Flint academy in Ft. Worth, TX, for the new classical school in Jinja, Uganda, and I pray for the millions of children who are systematically told that their lives have no meaning and that grabbing what you can get is the purpose of life, but who are excluded from the means to grab.

If a classical education permeates American education (and it will depend on suburban whites to get over themselves and support it), I can have the hope that Hicks presented in his 1980 book. If we continue on the path of nihilistic, utilitarian eduction, and if its principles and patterns continue to infiltrate the governance, environment, curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment tools of our classical schools, then, practically speaking, I cannot hope.

God has given us this gift at this moment, freely, so we could give it freely. We must give. We must give.

* I do not mean that the poverty of our minds comes from the poor. Indeed, I believe it is an indulgence of the very wealthy who can experiment with utterly irresponsible ideas and transfer the cost to others. They are the ones who drive American education and they are not very willing to analyze the results of their work against their philosophical premises. Indeed, I’m not sure they can.

It is the poverty itself that is flowing upward, for the simple reason that rich people are not poor.

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