Diary of a pre-certified teacher, Vol. XI: Five philosophies

Augustine Brehon Contributor
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There are five philosophies of education: essentialism, perennialism, progressivism, social reconstructivism, and existentialism. In my “Foundations of Education” class, which I am taking to become a certified teacher, we have been given an assignment: pick which approach you prefer.

My answer was simple: all of them. The different philosophies of education represent the spectrum from right to left. Essentialism is the “core curriculum” approach of people like E.D. Hirsch, who wants schools to teach foundational facts and knowledge that every educated person needs to know—who was George Washington, how to do algebra, “The Illiad,” etc. Perennialism is similar, with more emphasis on the Great Books. Progressivism, first advocated by John Dewey, is more about real-world experience and social interaction than a core curriculum or the Great Books. Social reconstructivism and existentialism are basically what happens when hippies, angry liberals and Marxists run schools. You learn to hate Republicans, and can do whatever you want in school. It’s the School of Rock without the discipline.

A good school will have a little bit of all of this—but in the right combination. A good curriculum is like Indian food; if the spices, oil, dairy, vegetables and meat are not in the right combination, the thing will fall apart. The most intense and unusual experience I had in education was at Georgetown Prep, a Jesuit high school outside of Washington. At the time I was there, in the early ‘80s, the school had the mix right—almost. It was about one-fifth essentialism, one-fifth social reconstructivism, two-fifths progressivism, and one-fifth existentialism. Periennialism, especially Catholic perennialism, had been given the boot (the Jesuits are the Saul Alinskys of Catholicism). But the larger point is that if done right, the five philosophies of education will compliment each other. In fact, it’s hard to teach one style honestly and effectively without teaching the others.

At the time I was there, Georgetown Prep was almost evenly divided between liberals and conservatives. Liberal teachers had started their long march through the institutions, but conservatives had not been entirely routed. It made for an interesting combination. On the same day I would have classes with: the hippie music teacher who played “Pinball Wizard” on the class piano; the Irish Jesuit, a former boxer, who was in his 60s and could still kick anyone’s ass in the school, student or not; the history teacher who taught his subject backwards, starting with Ronald Reagan and ending up at the American Revolution; sex-ed with Bernie Ward, who went on to become a left-wing radio host and is now in prison for trafficking in child pornography; a priest who acted out the great ancient Greek battles and never gave accurate grades; and Latin class with a 127-year-old Jesuit who wept when he talked about Our Lord’s Passion. And I’m leaving out the four foot high English teacher who’s eccentricities would require a book, the gym teacher who wore shorts outside in the dead of winter, and the young Jesuit, Fr. Hart, who taught us about the theology of Jimi Hendrix and Devo.

It was quite a mix. The very best teacher there, and probably the best teacher I ever had, was the history teacher. He taught history backwards. This may sound like a gimmick, but it worked. Indeed, he was a combination of some of the the best elements of the five philosophies of education. We learned history starting with the history we were living. This made things much more interesting. We moved back from Reagan through Jimmy Carter, Watergate, Vietnam, the Cold War, etc. The teacher was a liberal, so we went light on the evils of communism, but he was fair, and a very demanding teacher (I felt lucky to escape with a C in his class). His tests would be the kind of ball busters that had multiple choices of multiple choice, like: a, b, c, d, e, a and c, a and e, b and d, or none of the above. He expected you to both know the facts and think for yourself; he was an essentialist perennialist progressive. It never occurred to him or any of the other teachers that learning history would result in anything other than us being engaged in the real world. Indeed, learning Latin, Shakespeare, how to deliver a speech and the outcome of ancient battles would make us intelligent and articulate men who were able to analyze modern politics. We would be able to recognize contemporary political patterns while understanding certain immutable things about human nature.

We read Shakespeare and the Bible, but were also allowed to be creative and have fun. Fr. Hart, the rock ‘n’ roll Jesuit, who played Hendrix in class also assigned “The Screwtape Letters” and the film “On the Waterfront.” When we started our own satirical underground newspaper, the administration did not stop us—and in fact one faculty member even consented to an interview. We drank a lot of beer and they looked the other way. Kids need discipline and rules in school, to be sure. The existentialist philosophy that let’s kids do what ever they want, man, is an invitation to a day wasted picking belly lint and playing on the X-Box. At the same time, if they are afraid of their teachers they will never form friendships with them, friendships that can bear remarkable educational fruit. They also will never do anything impulsive and stupid, which is part of the fun of being in school. Like I said, you need the right mix. In the case of Georgetown Prep, the recipe was too heavy with progressivism, social reconstructivism and existentialism, and too light on perennialism and essentialism. We were Catholic in a Catholic school but never read St. Augustine, St. Teresa, Dietrich von Hildebrand—or John Paul II, who was pope at the time.

Education in America today may be messed up due to the idea of segregating the schools of education into different genres. A good school will teach a kid to change both himself and the world—and how both things go together, which is not always the liberal template of progressivism and social change. If a student is well turned out, polite, well read and good at the art of conversation, he will positively affect his society simply by example. If he is resentful, illiterate, self-serving and foul-mouthed, he will not. Liberals never learn that understanding of timeless truths and right and wrong will help change the world. I’m always reminded of the line I heard the writer George Weigel use when confronted with a Catholic politician who was going on and on about “social justice”—raising the minimum wage, protesting unjust wars, saving the planet. All well and good, Weigel said—but didn’t this person understand that there is no greater cause of social justice in this world than saving the lives of a class of people who are marked for death simply because of their small size? What is a greater cause of social justice than abortion? It is in fact the social justice issue of our time, bar none.

One of my most precious possessions is a 1986 letter I got form Fr. Hart, the Jesuit at Prep who taught us about both Jimi Hendrix and C.S. Lewis. I graduated in 1983, but he and I had remained friends. We recommended books for each other, and he became a religious mentor when I was going through a period of atheism. At one point I sent him a mix tape with some of my favorite songs on it, and enclosed a letter telling him to check out the band the Police. I also told him that I had seen and liked the movie “Gandhi,” which he had recommended, and sarcastically asked him if he was still going to mass, as I didn’t see any point to it. Fr. Hart wrote me back the following:

I watched the “Synchronicity” concert on HBO the other night. I’m sorry to have to tell you that I was disappointed in Sting, though I thought the other two guys in the band were outstanding. I am afraid that your hero was a bit burnt out, perhaps from the bizarre lifestyle that superstars can get into. Especially when they are touring. Sting looked bloated and acted sloppy. It seemed to me that for the most part he was not interested enough in his songs to try and do them with all his attention. I wonder if Sting hasn’t been slipping on the Ring lately—and you know what happens to those who try to use the Ring.

Just before sitting down to write you I listened to a few numbers from the tape you made—songs like Don McLean’s “Crossroads” and George Harrison’s “Beware of Darkness”—and they sent me on a train of thought—about pain. It just so happens that one of the songs Sting did well was “Kin gof Pain.” Then there’s the piece by Don McLean—“Can you find my pain? Can you heal it?” What is this pain they are talking about, Mark? Do you know? I know a little bit about my own, and I know that everyone has it—but I know that each person’s pain is as personal as their name. And I know that it’s worse to try and cover it and hide from it than accept it.

I was very happy that you saw the movie Gandhi, and even happier that you were impressed by it. Gandhi could live as he did because deep down he had accepted the pain without protest. And he could do so because he found a Life strong enough to absorb the pain without needing to resist—and being able to live that way is what I call salvation. In case you’re wondering, I am driving at something. It’s the Eucharist. I was fascinated that you asked me if I was still going to mass—and because of that I can’t help mentioning it in connection with these other things.

How do you think Gandhi could ever walk around the way he did and see people as he saw them and treat them as he did? For myself I am sure it was not simply because he was a very strong individual with great moral character. I am sure that is was because he was in touch with God. Like Jesus, it wasn’t just at his death that he offered the sacrifice of his life. That is the way he lived, and the way we are called to live—not necessarily on the heroic scale of Gandhi, but in the way we treat ordinary people. To live that way is to offer a sacrifice to God.—it is what the mass calls being a “living sacrifice of praise.” The very action of living and dying that way is what is celebrated in the Eucharist.—and if you know that and look quietly and with respect into the celebration itself, you may find there a source of strength more surprising that anything you’ve experienced. My experience is that it grows on you gradually. If you accuse me of preaching I can answer that you asked for it by wondering out loud if I was going to mass.

Essentialism? Perennialism? Progressivism? Yes, yes, and yes, as well as modernism, Hinduism, Catholicism and rock ‘n’ rollism. It is the wisdom that goes beyond genres and is, as St. Augustine wrote, every ancient and ever new.

Augustine Brehon is a name assumed to protect the author, who is currently receiving his education certification near Washington, D.C.