Exploring Depths of Experience in Arts, Letters, Science and Ideas
Uncut Pages: Three Parables of Credibility and Credulity in Contemporary Education By Katherine Kearney MaynardGo Back to the Table of Contents
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Such lessons in upward mobility are not lost on children in contemporary Newark or the South Bronx: no child who possesses social antennae of any reliability would ever submit to a process (”educational” or otherwise) that thoroughly un-fits him or her for competition, let alone success, in American life.

From this perspective, all the talk about the role and value of “education” in contemporary life may be nothing but shallow chatter. Far more telling is the concept of “education”: who it serves and what it in fact accomplishes.

* * *

Near the beginning of the 20th Century, England, upon whose empire the sun never set, entered into a war that verged on suicide and wiped out an entire generation. It was a particularly brutal and modern war and a particularly brilliant generation. Paul Fussell explains that this generation held a “belief in the educative powers of classical and English literature.” Faith in education was “still strong” among people of every class “... and such education was still conceived largely in humanistic terms.” The Workmen’s Institutes, the National Home Reading Union, the appearance of affordable editions of classic and modern texts had “established an atmosphere of public respect for literature unique in modern time.” A humanistic education was clearly seen by many as the means to “assist those of modest origins to rise in the class system.” Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory cannot be opened without finding some reference to the highly cultured and educated soldiers who actually fought, and died, in World War I.

Yet while some of this war generation believed in personal and class mobility through the ideals of education, others had different means at their disposal. Consider Sir Douglas Haig, the Commander of the English forces. In one bloody day at Loos, France, Haig sent 10,000 men into no man’s land in broad daylight. Within three hours, the entire force was killed. If a generation had struggled to obtain the rudiments of a humanistic imagination, Haig went far in eradicating that notion in an afternoon, and in Fussell’s words, was the “perfect commander for an operation committed to endless abortive assaulting.”

As a young man, Haig had failed his staff examinations. By rights, he should have washed out of the system, like a failed cadet at West Point or Annapolis. Instead, Haig appealed to a family friend: the Duke of Cambridge. The Duke interceded, and Haig was commissioned in the English army. The incident illustrates how “connections” enable mediocre men to rise though English society and its institutions. However, Haig’s steady rise to positions of responsibility and titular authority had dire consequences. His leadership during the Great War would come to embody all the ignorant, recalcitrant forces that humanistic education hopes to overcome. With “friends in all the right places,” according to Barbara Tuchman in Guns of August, Haig obtained the top command-with predictable results. A generation was killed off, and perhaps with it the now quaint sounding notions of a humanistic education. Haig left a legacy, however. Fussell notes that “his want of imagination and innocence of artistic culture have seemed to proved a model for Great Men ever since.”

With such models of “greatness,” it is indeed difficult to convince any emerging soul of the true values of a humanistic education. The very powerful frankly disdain humanistic education. Never have more men and women had the leisure and means once thought to be prerequisites for the pursuit of culture. Never have so many rejected the opportunity.

Perhaps only those most recently freed from the more dire and tragic of life’s circumstances can still trust in education as a spiritual revival of imperishable values. In James Fenton’s poem “Children in Exile,” which relates to the struggles of Cambodian refugees in London, Fenton describes how “A tiny philosopher climbs onto my knee.” Fenton recalls the words of the child, which for us may become an omen:

Suppose, he says, I have a house
and car,
Money and everything, I could lose
it all,
As we lost all our property in the
But if I have knowledge,if I know five languages,
If I have mathematics and the
No one can steal that from me...

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