- Some skills are easy and if nature is allowed to take her course, most people learn them. We can tell one object from another with little education and simple counting is not hard to grasp. Those skills are not why we go to schools. Even reading, key to so much understanding, can be learned before school or without formal schooling by many children.
There are some skills that are much harder. Few can do calculus without a teacher, physics as it is understood is inaccessible without education, but we need not be so out there: critical thinking is not something most of us get naturally. We all think, but most of us do not think well. This is a skill that must be learned.
Thinking well does not make a person wise: you can reason from the wrong ideas to insane theories. Thinking well is not love and without love a man will die. Still, thinking well is a skill that civilization needs for great accomplishments: clear, logical thought is vital.
We need clarity to avoid confusing our neighbor. We need logic so that we can learn new truths if we start from old ones. This is priceless gift, but it is not easy. Thinking well requires discipline, just like it is not easy to understand a great book with any depth. A very great text, think the Gospel of John, Plato’s Republic, or Dante’s Comedy, will give up great treasures immediately, easily, and some of what we find on our first reading will endure.
I remember forcing myself through Republic and gulping down sections that now would take me days. What did I learn? Not much. Did I enjoy it? I did not, but there was substance in the text, deep truth, and my great teachers (first Modrak, then Geier) disciplined my mind enough to grasp more.
Thirty years later, there is still more. Take something simple I realized today: Plato is writing in the voice of Socrates, long after Socrates has been martyred for his love of wisdom. Yet the dialogue starts “I went . . . “ past tense. Plato is creating an image of Socrates creating an image of a past event. Plato’s Socrates is a blend of invention and the man while the entire conversation is a pure fiction. We look back in memory and the story we tell is like the truth, an image of the truth, and that helps.
Now is so loud. The world, the flesh, and devils fill our days and nights, our present, with pandemonium. The past, we cannot avoid fictionalization, just a bit, is not loud, and so can point to the eternal: love, faith, hope, practical wisdom, moderation, and justice. The nature of real education, a liberal arts education, is not to specialize or to gain money making skills.
The skills of the specialist are precious and have their place. A person must make a living. Yet the practical arts and the money are for being human, flourishing. At one point in Republic, the educational bully, Thrasymachus, has won an argument with Socrates. He is the sort that in a modern school would run things, drawing a big educational salary. He would cut the “unnecessary” general education classes or spend so little on them that they would become actually useless.
The majors would become more isolated from each other . . . And discipleship would be available only for the rich. Thrasymachus and his education for money and power had won in Athens, but (Plato’s) character has a weaknesss. He actually wants to live the good life. He has given up on the good, truth, and beauty for power, because he thinks, really believes, that the life of the powerful is best.
Socrates disagrees, but in his haste to protect the young men from this bad idea, Socrates has failed. Thrasymachus starts to leave, he will be able to raise tuition once the parents get the news of his victory. Socrates connives him to stay and persuade him further, to make sure of his victory. If you read to Book V of Republic, you know that Thrasymachus will change and get better, but this has not happened yet. The teacher of injustice is about to leave but pauses. Perhaps he can run up the score. Socrates wishes to be taught! Thrasymachus says:
How should I do that if you are not convinced by what I have just said? What else can I do? Are you asking to be spoon-fed?
Socrates knows that cannot be done. Learning is hard. The old philosopher says:
God forbid. But I do ask you to be consistent.
He wants Thrasymachus to stay and improve his argument. Perhaps, Socrates suggests, it was powerful, great rhetoric, but just a bit inconsistent. Can’t he stay and see?
God forbid we hurry past learning and fail to think carefully, consistently. God forbid he leave the discussion or cut out the core of education to maximize profit, growth, or efficiency. Thinking well takes time.
God forbid we fail.
*I begin an informal summer reading of Republic using Scott/Sterling (a new translation for me). Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4. Part 5. Part 6. Part 7. Part 8. Part 9. Part 10. Part 11. Part 12. Part 13. Part 14. Part 15. Part 16. Part 17. Part 18. Part 19. Part 20. Part 21. Part 22. Part 23. Part 24. Part 25. Part 26. Part 27. Part 28. Part 29. Part 30. Part 31. Part 32. Part 33. Part 34. Part 35. Part 36. Part 37. Part 38. Part 39.