The Great Conversation:
Education—Part II

By Gabriel Blanchard

We have discussed what education is for; what does it consist in?

Go here for Part I.

In our previous installment, we discussed the distinction between liberal and servile education, which hopefully shows rather than tells why we prefer the former at CLT. Yet this is only one part of “the question of education”—whatever that phrase means.

Aristotle‘s four causes are of use to us here. Now, at first it may only sound more hopelessly abstract to speak of formal, efficient, material, and final causes: as so often, these metaphysical categories become much clearer if we apply them to terrible sandwiches. Each of the four causes is a different kind of answer to the question “Why is this sandwich ghastly?” The formal answer addresses the nature of sandwiches, which for our purposes may be defined as food objects featuring a minimum of two (2) pieces of bread laden in-between with additional food*; insofar as an attempted sandwich fails to meet that standard, e.g. by being what is called “open-faced,” that is why it is bad. The efficient answer identifies who made the sandwich—the agent who introduced one or more types of badness into it—and is therefore the chief concern of civil and criminal proceedings (even those entirely unconcerned with sandwiches). The material answer addresses the ingredients: sea-sponge, thumbtacks, ennui, and crunchy peanut butter are not materials fit for human consumption, and their use accordingly renders a sandwich bad. And fourthly, the final answer addresses the purpose or purposes of sandwiches; a sandwich that tastes nasty, nourishes poorly or not at all, positively damages our health, leaves us hungry, or all of the above, is a terrible sandwich.†

Let us now return to the two slices of wall with children in between that form our chief concern. The liberal-servile dichotomy we proposed last time addresses the final cause of education—namely, the nurture of childhood curiosity such that it matures into an adult love of knowledge for its own sake. But we must promptly modify this; Martin Luther King‘s maxim that “intelligence plus character is the goal of true education” springs immediately to mind. We may therefore add to the liberal-servile distinction a second, that of moral versus amoral education.‡

Of course, few educational systems or institutions would actually profess amorality, and even those that do pride themselves on being “value-neutral,” or whatever synonym they may prefer, are probably thinking of a very specific and small subset of values about which they are neutral. (Among other things, one would be hard pressed to find a school that is consistently amoral about whether its students or their parents are obliged to pay their tuition.) What is fairly common is education that lacks a thought-out, complete, and explicit moral component, resulting as a rule in a haphazard and contradiction-riddled moral education. However, this points us toward another question—one of the oldest questions in the Western tradition, in fact. A moral education is all very well, no doubt; but can virtue be taught?

There was also a man named Socrates, who went around barefoot asking people to define their terms. He taught that the good life consists in being good and that virtue is knowledge and knowledge is virtue. (People who talk like that are called philosophers.)

Plato’s Protagoras is devoted to this topic. It represents Socrates visiting the titular Protagoras, a respected sophist who claimed to be able to teach virtue—or rather, he claimed to teach ἀρετή [aretē], which has traditionally been translated “virtue.” In modern translations it is often rendered “excellence” instead, which captures its meaning a little better, but the word did connote specifically moral excellence. In any case, Socrates, by his usual technique of patient, ingenuous questioning, demolishes the grounds on which Protagoras claimed to be able to teach virtue, while at the same time reaching the conclusion that all virtue is ultimately a kind of knowledge and can therefore be taught. Protagoras, by contrast, has been maneuvered into defending the positions he specifically denied earlier in the conversation, which incidentally undermine his claims to be able to teach virtue (and by extension, his right to charge for doing so!).

But here, we may abruptly recall something that Socrates, who seems to have been a hopelessly good-natured sort of man, appears unable to credit: the paradox of the divided will. It is famously expressed by St. Paul: that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I. Knowledge and reason may be capable of identifying right and wrong, and ignorance or immaturity of obscuring them; to this extent, Socrates was correct. But knowing and choosing are fundamentally different things. When our eyes fall upon an apple, the knowledge “here is an apple” is almost something that happens to us, barely voluntary. But choice, which is the sphere in which the virtues exist, is entirely about the will. Choice differs as much from knowledge as seeing that an apple is desirable to make one wise, and plucking it from the tree and eating it.

Of course, it does not follow from all this that that which is good made death unto me. After all, the problem lies not in morality, but in ourselves. We are the ones who do the wrong and right that we do, no matter what our precise beliefs about the interplay of human freedom and the external factors that limit it (from physical conditions to divine grace). And, as noted, knowledge may not be enough to make us better, but that does not mean it is unnecessary: if this people which knoweth not the Law were taught it, they might grow no better, but they will assuredly remain accursed if they are not taught it.

Of course, all this “free will” business suggests one more aspect of education that we have as yet not touched on much. The child is not merely an object in schools, as sandwiches are in kitchens; the child is a person.

This is a vast subject, and the present author therefore has surprisingly little to say about it directly. One can get to know persons; to study them sounds a little like stalking; and a didactic explanation of “how to get to know people” would likely be worth reading as a deadpan satire of academia, yet not that helpful as a piece of practical advice. But the one thing he will make a point of expressing is his deep conviction that children ought to be respected by those of their elders who hope to educate them. Other qualities are desirable in an educator, and may matter far more. But judging from the present writer’s experience, those other qualities are widely covered in educators’ literature and this one is not. He is even bold to suggest an exercise for the aspiring educator. Below is an exchange between a young person and a syndicated etiquette columnist. The latter’s style can easily be taken for condescending mockery; try instead to read it as perfectly frank and sincere—for instance, imagine oneself as the child and the reply coming from a grown-up who always spoke in complete good faith. See what feelings result from the experiment.

DEAR MISS MANNERS: I don’t like to clean the kitchen, but my mom got mad at me. I’d rather stay in my room watching television and listening to my radio. Also, I don’t like to go to any parties, but my mom and dad make me go. I am mad at them. Please tell me about manners. Thank you very much.
GENTLE READER: You are being brought up. Put another way, you are the victim of child rearing. Miss Manners sympathizes with you about the difficulty of this process and does not expect you to believe that it is your parents whom you will one day be thanking, but such is the case.

Suggested reading:
Quintilian, Institutes of Oratory
St. Isidore of Seville, Etymologies
Hugh of St. Victor, Didascalicon: The Study of Reading
Charles Montesquieu, The Spirit of Law
John Dewey, The School and Society
Charlotte Mason, Towards a Philosophy of Education
Mortimer Adler, How to Read a Book
Judith Martin, Miss Manners’ Guide for the Turn-of-the-Millennium

*This definition—though less clear to persons who have had no prior dealings with sandwichkind—allows us to pass over the nature of the “toast sandwich” and other affronts to public decency.
†The canny reader will note that the formal and final causes are closely related, bordering sometimes on the indistinguishable (which suits the strongly teleological philosophy of Aristotle). The distinction generally corresponds to that between a thing’s structure and its purpose, and can be seen more clearly in e.g. the formal versus final causes of man: even those who deny that human beings have any inherent purpose will mostly agree that we have a specifiable structure.
‡In principle, we could introduce finer gradations: the mostly-Christian Western tradition has conventionally recognized three categories within the moral, namely pagan morality (or right and wrong as known by reason alone), the Jewish Torah (which introduces divine revelation to the discussion), and Christian morality (which develops and reinterprets the Torah). However, we need not explore these details here.


Gabriel Blanchard is CLT’s editor at large. He holds a bachelor’s in Classics from the University of Maryland, and lives in Baltimore.

If you enjoyed this piece, make sure you check out our podcast, Anchored: hosted by CLT’s founder, Jeremy Tate, Anchored hosts leading intellectuals from both the US and abroad, discussing topics of education, policy, and culture.

Published on 27th July, 2023.

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