Why a "Hard" Education
Is Better

By Matt McKeown

Training pupils in appreciation is no substitute for training them in facts.

Education may be divided into two kinds, “hard” and “soft.” The former treats schoolwork primarily as workthat is, something the students have a responsibility to complete, honestly and diligently. The second treats schoolwork primarily as a means for students to be enriched and express themselves, and accordingly downplays things like testing and grading in favor of a more ethereal, unstructured approach to learning. Having taught (briefly) in public schools, I feel we might as well throw the children in a makeshift thunderdome and place bets on winners as take the “soft” approach. It would save money on school resources and be a lot more entertaining.

This isn’t to say that children don’t have different learning stylesthey obviously do. But the thing we are trying to teach, as distinct from how we teach it, needs to be “hard.” In the second edition of the collection On Stories: And Other Essays on Literature, C. S. Lewis writes about the two kinds of education with characteristic incisiveness. He opens an essay titled “The Parthenon and the Optative” (the latter being an element of Greek grammar) thus:

“The trouble with these boys,” said a grim old classical scholar looking up from some milk-and watery entrance papers which he had been marking … “is that the masters have been talking to them about the Parthenon when they should have been talking to them about the Optative.” … Ever since then I have tended to use the Parthenon and the Optative as the symbols of two types of education. The one begins with hard, dry things like grammar, and dates, and prosody; and it has at least the chance of ending in a real appreciation which is equally hard and firm though not equally dry. The other begins in “Appreciation” and ends in gush. … It teaches a man to feel vaguely cultured while he in fact remains a dunce.

As he points out, what actually happens when a teacher with an adult appreciation tries to impart this directly, their bad pupils will still slack off and their good ones will learn how to ape their teacher’s attitudes rather than learning the material. In trying to cultivate a student’s spiritual capacities, schools try to teach what can’t be taught, and grade what can’t be graded. It isn’t really possible to make a child love learning; you can only make them learn. Their loves will be their own.

The “hard” kind of education succeeds because it places the material in front of students, teaches them the tools to understand it rather than to “appreciate” it, and gives them an incentive (usually testing) to pay attention to it. Whatever the subject, it’s like learning a language: so long as the students don’t understand the material, it may as well be noise, but when once they hear the meaning as well as the sound, they can apprehend the beauty that is being offered to them. The difference between “soft” and “hard” is the difference between pretty sounds and the line “She walks in beauty like the night / Of cloudless climes and starry skies, / And all that’s best of dark and bright / Meets in her aspect and her eyes.”

By inculcating how to deal intelligently with factsteaching the optative, to use Lewis’ own examplethe teacher puts their students in the position of being able to profit by paying attention to beautiful things, not to the teacher’s own personal enjoyment of them. Requiring them to recount the plot of Much Ado About Nothing or Wise Blood is primarily a tool for making them read Shakespeare or O’Connor: it quietly orchestrates a meeting between student and author in the hope that sparks fly, rather than trying to talk up an arranged marriage between them.


If you enjoyed this piece, you may also like our introductions to the names on our author bank, from Tertullian to Albert Einstein. Or take a look at this essay on the importance of studying history from one of our top-scoring students.

Published on 19th June, 2020.

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