What Can Go Wrong With Classical, Great Books, and Montessori?

I’ve written this post in reply to my esteemed Patheos colleague, Pascal Emmanuel Gobry, inspired by his post today at Forbes and elsewhere.

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One reason why I write so little about education here is because I don’t want to bore you. Education requires, as Pope Francis recently put it, pinzas (tweezers). This is very frustrating to most people, especially the ones who are concerned about it, but it is this very frustration that often prevents serious understanding.

Cheap opinions and prescriptive programs and quick fixes abound, but even when these options are “effective” and produce “results” or “success,” the more fundamental problems remain the norm and, often, embed themselves deeper.

This is why education needs to be spoken about with care, with a philosophical mood that is willing to get lost and a bit dirty. Part of this is because there is no serious discussion of education that is not, beyond the literal topic or theme, always already educational in itself.

But who really wants to attend to the tedium of love? Who wants to guess and clean the messy excrement and simply hold the beloved for no other reason than love itself and the hope for a sound sleep? This is a disposition, a mood, a feel for things that is shown in the work that avoids the seductive selling of snake oil.

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If you are still reading, then, we might be getting somewhere. This is important foreplay.

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As with most serious crafts, education has a number of important preliminaries that cannot be conflated or rushed.

Without being too hasty, let me simply declare four things that must be considered with a certain amount of conceptual distance between them: education, teaching, curriculum, and schooling.

As mere terms, with definitions, you can think what you want about them; but as things, with descriptions, it is important to not equate each thing with the other, even when they overlap.

This is why pedagogy — and, more radically, mystagogy — is an art.

The most common entry into nonsense and miscommunication is when education is mistaken for schooling and not sufficiently distinguished from the work of teaching and the questions of curriculum. Even more problematic is when generic schooling is confused with compulsory schooling.

But the worst problem is when education becomes branded by an ism or a name. It almost always acquires the slimy surface that invites a slip into ideology.

When education becomes ideological, it is time to burn it down and start over. After all, there is literally (and metaphysically) nothing to lose. This was at the very heart of Ivan Illich’s little-understood notion of deschooling.

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Classical, Great Books, and Montessori are curricula, with implications about teaching that follow, and similar governing notions of education behind them. None of them require a school, but many schools rely on them. This basic fact — the fact that the three curricula do not rely on schooling, much less compulsory schooling — is a major credit in their favor.

Therefore, to talk about Classical, Great Books, or Montessori curricula is not the same thing as talking about schools that use these curricula.

One reason why it is important for me to tread slowly and softly is because my opinions about Classical, Great Books, and Montessori curricula begin with admiration and recognition of a shared intention. Where I am critical is under no terms meant to give reason to stop doing them. In fact, the most sensible people I know who use or endorse the curricula do not support their names or traditions or other externals so much as they champion a particular aspect that they feel makes good sense and is salutary on the whole, all things considered.

In fact, each of these curricula began as a movement motivated by a spirit of critique. You could say, albeit not in the same exact same ways, that they all approximate a different-sided critique of modernity. As a starting point, I am on board with this. Where I differ is in the particulars and the tendencies for imbalance or abuse.

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My first problem with Classical approaches is that so few of them have much to do with Classical Antiquity. Most of them are built on the Middle Ages and suffer from an immunity from self-reflection about that. Nostalgia takes us to Odysseus, but let’s not forget the problems and faults of his nostalgia — and the costs.

Truth be told, a Classical model for a curriculum is much more related to the many neoclassical revivals during Early and Mid Modernity. In terms of education, this model shares sympathies for Classical Liberalism, and pairs well with countries born or reformed by it; but this, again, is a rather goofy combination with other more Medieval recoveries of the Trivium and so on.

And this brings us to the Great Books, which often shares territory with a Classical curriculum. I would say that the Classical approach, when used more holistically, has more bandwidth than the Great Books, but often the reverse is true. In any case, my primary critique of the Great Books also tends to apply to Classical curricula (and, more mildly, to Montessori).

The biggest problem with the Great Books is not (only) the canonical issue; the great limit of the Great Books is books. Not many will recognize the danger in filling one’s head with quality reading, since today we live in the almost universal consensus that literacy is an unqualified good. But this is as dangerous as it is impractical, perhaps more so. What is truly “great” about great books is beyond the book itself. There is an incarnational reality, the word must become flesh for the book to be great. But what is so wrong with naked flesh?

What is wrong with the Great Books, which can sometimes be remedied by curriculum itself, is its protestant scriptural emphasis.

Montessori is more difficult to critique, since it directly refers to a person, Maria Montessori. Suffice it to say that, unlike the other two, there is an even stronger ideological temptation in a Montessori curriculum that can only be resisted by a thorough and critical study of her sources.

I am fascinated by the rather beautiful combination of Romanticism and Catholicism to be found in a Montessori curriculum, but there is also a step further that easily becomes prescriptive and programmatic about Montessori that is foreign to, for instance, Rousseau (who insists that his ideas in Emile are not to be implemented or imitated willy-nilly).

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What are the alternatives?  Anything and everything except another “alternative.” Even a good alternative; even Classical, Great Books, or Montissori.

The most radical and revolutionary change is the one that ignores the external facade and focuses on what is inside. To change everything we must be willing to change nothing and simply recover what we have lost, with a nostalgia for the future. Hope.

This is why pedagogy without mystagogy is bankrupt, and not only for theological reasons. And this only begins to describe the catastrophe that has become our collective educational lack of imagination.

This is not practical and will not distill itself into a how-to book or a winning political policy — but that’s the point.

We need move beyond finding this of that to replace that or this. It is time to begin, again and again.

 


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