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The Mark of an Educated Man

Aristotle once wrote that “It is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits.”

This is one of the most important principles of thought ever expressed – and one that has been almost universally neglected in our day, especially by those who oversee the ways we teach our children how to think.

We look for scientific precision when we study literature, for artistic judgment in math and spelling. When we assess, we look for statistical variation of immeasurable matters.

Why? Because we don’t know the nature of the subjects we are studying. Until we do, we must ask more questions and make fewer assertions.

The classical curriculum resolves this problem because Aristotle, who was wrong about things for which he lacked tools, saw into the nature of the subjects and elucidated them for us: because he paid attention. He looked closely and steadily at reality. He didn’t exclude the bits he didn’t like, as the naturalist and the spiritualist do.

May we who seek to restore the classical tradition take confidence in its enormous achievements and not settle for anything less than the attainment of this “mark of an educated man.” It will require:

  • a curriculum that reflects this principle
  • a mode of teaching that honors it
  • modes of assessment that sustain it
  • governance that supports and PURSUES it
  • wise responses to and leadership of a community that doesn’t know it wants and needs it
  • the organic cultivation of an environment (I would say “building of” but that presumes too much) that breathes it

None of this will be easy, all of it is needed. With courage and wisdom we can grow, and that is what is needed most. Because, here’s the thing: What Aristotle is describing in his simple statement is nothing short of the mark of an educated man.

I wrote a first rendition of this article back in 2009, but having just returned from our conference, A Contemplation of Harmony, during which Brian Phillips and I introduced the idea that we must harmonize the six dimensions named in the bullet list above, I felt a need to bring it forward.

When you display an idea at the front of the theatre of your mind for an entire year (because you have been thinking about it for years before that and it demands that kind of attention – ideas are prima donnas after all), and then you have four or five sessions over three days to present to those you love something of the grace you have been given during that year, you come home apologizing promiscuously to the idea you so thoroughly disgraced.

Over the next little while I am going to try to say some of the things I couldn’t or didn’t say during the conference. This one is general, but still very practical.

The student who graduates from our instruction but cannot identify the degree of precision with which a given subject can be known has not yet graduated from our instruction. We need to learn how precisely a given field of learning (whether it be an art or a science) can be known. We need to teach it in light of that possibility. If we don’t, we aren’t teaching the subject successfully and we will make it impossible to harmonize that subject with another subject because we won’t know its powers and its glories.

When a classical school has reached maturity, every dimension of its life (teaching modes, curriculum, assessment, goverance, community, and environment) will embody this principle:

“It is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits.”

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