The Great Conversation:
Education—Part I

By Gabriel Blanchard

We shall doubtless get to the last in due time, but what, in the first place, is education for?

On the whole, in our series on the Great Conversation, we have spent little time on the etymologies of names for the selected ideas. Since the meanings of words depend principally on actual usage, and since most people speak to be understood rather than to be historically consistent, nine times out of ten a word’s etymology will be interesting but not important. But it is only right to indulge the taste once in a while, so as to furnish readers with isolated facts with which they may annoy their friends.

The word education comes from the Latin verb ēducāre, meaning “to rear, bring up, train”; however, it is often more fancifully derived from ēducere, which is simply the preposition ē/ex “out of, from” stuck on the front of ducere “to lead.” The fanciful story that traditionally goes with the derivation is that this refers to the job of upper-class Roman child-minders, who would lead them out to school for their lessons. Hence also, the fanciful etymologist may continue (if he has not yet been wrestled to the ground and forced to stop by responsible persons), the terms pedagogy and pedagogue, originating in Greek—many Roman slaves, tutors and child-minders especially, were Greek-speakers, you know—and specifically the word παιδαγωγός [paidagōgos], used by the Apostle to describe this job analogically with the law of Moses in the Epistle to the Galatians. Whether any of these just-so stories are true is, of course, of no consequence whatever. As C. S. Lewis says in his excellent volume Studies in Words, “As a child I—probably like many others—evolved the theory that a candlestick was so called ‘because it makes the candle stick up.’ But that wasn’t why I called it a candlestick. I called it a candlestick because everyone else did.”

By the time he begins referring to St. Paul merely as “the Apostle” without clarification, the fanciful etymologist certainly ought to have been hurled bodily from the premises; if he has not, he may punish the audience further by speculating that this etymology exemplifies a contrast between an older and liberal model of education and the utilitarian, lifeless pedagogical theory of today, which trains only by rote and sees value in nothing but preparation for the workplace. If challenged to explain how being led about by slaves forms a clear contrast with being taught for the sake of money, he may, for once, be silent. But even if the examples were poorly chosen and their background fallaciously explained, the contrast between utilitarian and humane education is genuine. And it is also true that public education in the US is, on the whole, the former.

EDUCATION, n. That which discloses to the wise and disguises from the foolish their lack of understanding.

The case for utilitarian education is reasonably clear. We must eat to live, pay to eat, and work to be paid; therefore we need to know at least enough to do some kind of work. The most hardened and impenitent of liberal educators will surely admit this much. Yet they may also point out that that kind of knowledge ought to be, and usually is, covered in job training or, for particularly complex professions, vocational education. Ought it really to be education as such? We may be surprised at this juncture to hear support for the liberal educators from old-fashioned socialists, of all people, especially those of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.* Whatever the later history of socialism, one of their popular slogans at the time was “bread and roses,” symbolizing two distinct human needs—bread for bodily necessities like food, housing, and health care, and roses for the æsthetic, spiritual, and intellectual needs of the soul.

Both the liberal educator and the old-fashioned socialist may go further by recalling the original antonym of the word liberal. It was not conservative (a strictly modern opposition), nor even tyrannical (as we might expect based on classical Liberalism). The original antonym was servile: what Latin speakers called servilis was characteristic of the slave, as opposed to what was liberalis, the quality of the free man. The present writer does not know for certain whether men like Cicero, Cato the Younger, Marcus Aurelius, or St. Augustine would have called our public schools “servile education”; but it seems likely. The slave is forced to do work for someone else’s sake, and allowed no concerns but practical ones. Much the same is true of the schoolchild, regardless of curriculum or teaching model; but the utilitarian educator would have us aspire to nothing else. Only the free man can busy himself with what is pleasantly useless, that is, with truth and beauty for their own sake, from the curvature of space-time to the curling hair of the nymph and the god in Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne. (It is strange and amusing to realize that the real benefactor of the public in this regard is not the public school but, of all possible things, public television.)

Or, going still further back, we may recollect Aristotle’s famous opening line to the Metaphysics, “All men by nature desire knowledge,” a fact brightly reflected in the faces of children who are so indefatigably thrilled to have their questions answered. The less-recognized corollary, however, is that he who does not desire knowledge has been wounded in his very nature—has been rendered something less than a man. It would assuredly be received as lavishly theatrical sarcasm, but it might be a worthy thing, in all seriousness, to conduct funereal services for those who have lost their curiosity, at least among those of our readers who pray for the dead.

There is much else we must go on to discuss with regard to education; we have not even reached the famous question with which Socrates began, whether virtue can be taught. But this contrast between servile and liberal education is the first necessity, and all else can be considered only in its light.

Go here for Part II.

Suggested reading:
Aristophanes, The Clouds
The Wisdom of Jesus, Son of Sirach
St. Augustine, On Christian Teaching
Dante Alighieri, The Banquet
François Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel
John Milton, Areopagitica
St. John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University
Dorothy L. Sayers, “Are Women Human?”

*Eugene V. Debs is probably the best-remembered example of this group. Five times a presidential candidate (earning 6% of the popular vote in the election of 1912), he also helped found the Industrial Workers of the World, which shaped the beliefs of Catholic activist Dorothy Day.


Gabriel Blanchard has a baccalaureate in Classics from the University of Maryland at College Park, and works as CLT’s editor at large. He lives in Baltimore, and is an uncle to seven nephews.

If you liked this post, you might enjoy some of our other installments in the “Great Conversation” series—we have introductions to authority, form, humor, necessity and contingency, progress, war and peace, the will, and many more. Be sure to check out our podcast Anchored as well, where our founder Jeremy Tate sits down with leading intellectuals to discuss issues of education, policy, and culture. Thank you for reading the Journal.

Published on 20th July, 2023. Page image of the upper portion of Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne (source), completed in 1625 and considered one of the finest Baroque sculptures in existence.

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