A (Dys)functional Approach to Education


It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it (Aristotle). When we lose the educated mind, we are unable to entertain thoughts without accepting them and lose the foundations of a democratic society. The growing evidence of this condition in America should reveal the dysfunction of our educational approach that emphasizes form over substance and function over foundation.

In order to prepare individuals to participate in an economic system, methods of learning were designed that could result in functional preparation for particular roles. The way in which college degrees are assigned (relative to particular job titles) demonstrates the continuation of this system. It is beneficial to prepare to fill a particular role; however it is less so when this is done at the expense of creating an educated individual. Robot training can and should be functional. Human training can and should be foundational allowing for adaptability and creativity along with a self-directed ability to master some function or another.

Unfortunately, our present model preserves and promotes function over foundation at the expense of individual formation. Brilliant students drop out of college because they cannot conform to predefined roles, fail to memorize ridiculous information sets, or solve their problems so creatively that they fail to meet the standards of a grading rubric.

The confusion of function for foundation resulted in a system that produced a certain kind of result at the expense of a certain kind of person. Thus we no longer have educated minds, but functional skill sets. These are almost entirely economic without accounting for the human element.

Popular calls for education reform to produce ‘functions’ of creativity only provide an ironic outline of what is missing from this functional education system: the human element. Education must produce humans. Creativity is a natural expression of humanity. In order to teach someone what it means to be human, there must be some understanding of what this is or how it might look.

Lewis proposes in “The Abolition of Man” that centuries of civilization have deemed it significant to record certain elements that are necessary and essential to the identification and development of a human being. At times they vary in their approach and presentation, but fundamentally these elements remain consistent across time and space.

The Abolition of Man includes an Appendix of various factors considered by great cultures through time (Greek, Hindu, Chinese, Egyptian, Anglo-Saxon, Norse, etc.). Perhaps these might be considered a starting point for an education system that leads to the discovery and shaping of the human element of individuality rather than its abolition: an emphasis on building a foundation needed for a more functional society.

Note: Lewis does not consider this list to be exhaustive but rather a source of insight into the nature of what he calls the Tao or the ‘way of nature’ to which humanity is called.

  • The law of general beneficience (ie. don’t murder; help others)
  • The law of special beneficience (love your family)
  • Duties to parents, elders, ancestors
  • Duties to children and posterity
  • The law of justice (includes sexual justice, honesty, and justice in court)
  • The law of good faith and veracity
  • The law of mercy
  • The law of magnanimity (ie. be willing to sacrifice your life for something greater)

All references from “The Abolition of Man: How Education Informs Man’s Sense of Morality” by C S Lewis. For more blog posts in this series, click here.

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