I have had more years of schooling than I care to count, and yet there are basic learning skills and bodies of information I have not mastered. There is much I do not know that anyone with my educational background should know. I have learned from discussion with others that most people who attended either grade school or high school since about 1960 can identify with the description “educated, but ignorant.” In an op-ed piece, Lauren Lipton describes this very paradox.

How is it that someone can breeze through grade school, junior high, and high school with A’s and B’s and emerge at the end never having learned about Stalin or Lenin or Castro, what Watergate was all about, or where Madagascar is? Without ever having dissected anything?

Since realizing the scope of my ignorance, I have been trying to figure out what went wrong with my education. By current standards, I seem to have had the optimum California public school experience. I went to grade school in San Diego County and most of high school in the San Francisco area, at what seemed like well-equipped institutions. My parents gave me lots of mental stimulation.

But I was also a student during the 1970s and 1980s, when experimental education programs started in full force. And I was in junior high during the Jarvis-Gann tax reforms of 1978, which resulted in massive budget cuts to schools. I can’t help but think that these upheavals shortchanged the students in some way.

One experiment that probably sounded good on paper was to pair up a class of “faster” third-graders with a class of “slower” fourth-graders and have the two teachers teach both classes. Each child could then learn at his or her own pace. But all I can recall of my third-fourth combination was a huge, noisy roomful of forty or fifty kids. Instead of getting the attention of both teachers, the class was so vast that it seemed nobody got any help.

My fifth-grade teacher abolished all the desks in the room and let us build our own curtained huts. He also tried to teach us about a market economy by issuing play money and letting us sell handmade wares to each other every Friday. I spent the entire year hiding out in my hut, making beads with my girlfriends. I learned a lot about bead making but not a lot of whatever it is fifth-graders are supposed to know. (Note 1)

Ms. Lipton later moved to San Francisco. Her new school emphasized the basics, so she had to struggle to catch up. But she found even this school to be lacking.

But moving to a more traditional school did not solve my education problems. Back-to-basics schools seem to rely on archaic evaluation methods that better test how well you can memorize than whether you have absorbed what you have learned. My short-term memory is apparently good, which is why I managed to pass American history at the top of my class without retaining more than a few general facts.

Then there were the subjects that were never even taught-at least not in my classes: world literature; any important events after World War II; any connection between subjects that would have made them more significant to a sixteen-year-old, such as how science affects religion or geography affects history.

My school experience was similar to that of Ms. Lipton. I started out in a traditional school. The students were not segregated according to intellectual ability; everyone was expected to learn the same body of material at the same pace. I had very caring, grandmotherly teachers. I learned a lot. My only complaint was having to sit quietly with my hands folded waiting for everyone in the class to finish their assignments. I can distinctly remember sitting at my desk watching the hands of the clock move. So much wasted time.

When I was in the fifth grade my family moved to another town, and the school I attended was very progressive. The students were divided into one of three tracks for each subject. The most vivid memory I have of that school was the chaos that reigned in the halls, cafeteria, and even the classrooms. Having come from a very disciplined school, it seemed here the inmates had taken over the asylum.

This was my first exposure to the experimentation that soon became standard fare. Math was taught using a method called New Math. I never did understand the premise of this new approach. I remember the teacher started the class by describing a mathematical problem; the students, who were supposed to ask probing questions, did; and the teacher praised all questions equally, even patently dumb ones. Rarely were any of the questions answered. I never had a sense of resolution. This “advanced class” took a year and a half to reach the point where I had left my untracked classmates in the traditional school. So much wasted time.

The experiments and innovations became more outlandish as time went on. One innovation I particularly regret was the abandonment of any kind of reading list for our English class. In previous years, the teachers had maintained a list of books deemed acceptable for book reports; the teachers decided, however, that this list was counter-productive. The goal, they reasoned, was to get students to read as much as possible, even if the material was not of the highest quality. And since not all the students were enthusiastic about the books on the list, they should be allowed to read whatever they wanted to read. So I spent my time reading Mad magazine and Peanuts comics. Now I deeply regret that I did not read the many good books I could have read during those years. But I was like any other kid: given the option of doing less work, I jumped at it.

I can remember the first time I sensed I had missed out on something in my educational experience. I had been accepted into college and received in the mail some introductory material about the college. One item was a list of fifty books the college expected all incoming freshmen to have read. The list included such works as A Tale of Two Cities, The Communist Manifesto, The Origin of the Species. Of the fifty books, I had read only a couple. I could have been reading these books during my school years, but instead I wasted my time reading magazines and comics.

I could give more examples, but anyone who is under forty could probably supply their own stories of failed experiments to which they were subjected. I felt like a veteran guinea pig who had the bad luck of always getting brand X.

Although I have listed several complaints about the educational system, I want to head off quickly two possible misunderstandings. First, I do not want to leave the impression that I blame the educational system for all the inadequacies of my education. I did not make the most of the opportunities afforded me. Only in my adult years have I come to value education duly, and I must shoulder a portion of the responsibility for the quality of education I received. Second, I do not want to leave the impression that my education had no redeeming moments. I learned a lot in grade school, high school, and college. I had some very good, conscientious teachers. But what I did learn must be credited to a few good teachers who operated within an educational system gone awry. My education could have been much better.


Why has the American educational system deteriorated so much in recent decades? In 1987 four harsh critiques of the American educational system were published. (Note 2) While each emphasized a different aspect of the problem, the combined impact was clear: the concept of relativism has thrown education into complete disarray. Truth, which used to be central to the mission of education, has been trivialized and fragmented by relativism, leaving education without a clear purpose.

The trend toward relativism is not new. In his essay, The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis traces this attitude to before World War II. (Note 3) This insightful and prescient essay deserves our renewed interest. Lewis begins with a discussion of a textbook imbued with the spirit of relativism; he calls it “The Green Book.” The authors of “The Green Book” related a well-known story about Coleridge overhearing two sightseers looking at a magnificent waterfall. One of the sightseers called it “sublime”; the other called it “pretty.” Upon hearing these two descriptions, Coleridge proclaimed the first correct and the latter mistaken. The authors of the textbook chided Coleridge for such a proclamation, since there was no basis on which such a critique could be made. They argued that the sightseers were not really making statements about the waterfall; they were merely relating their subjective feelings about the waterfall. The authors added, “This confusion is continually present in language as we use it. We appear to be saying something very important about something: and actually we are only saying something about our own feelings.” (Note 4)

Lewis demonstrates that this one sentence is very wrong-headed. One who calls a waterfall “sublime” is not merely describing his subjective feelings; he is saying something about the waterfall. Correctness of such a statement, therefore, can be assessed. The textbook’s authors’ wrong-headed notion will have a profound effect on the student who studies this text: “The school boy who reads this passage in “The Green Book” will believe two propositions: firstly, that all sentences containing a predicate of value are statements about the emotional state of the speaker, and secondly, that all such statements are unimportant.” (Note 5) Lewis realizes that the school boy will probably not be able to articulate this perspective, but it will become part of his analytical apparatus and part of his way of thinking.

Lewis explains his concern that the kind of perspectives advanced in “The Green Book” undermine and destroy the very basis of education. Historically, the goal of education has been to train children in virtue, to teach them how to determine right and wrong action. “The Green Book” claims such judgments are impossible to make. When speaking about a waterfall, the teaching of “The Green Book” may seem innocuous, but this same reasoning can be applied to more serious matters with graver consequences. For example, this logic leads to the conclusion that one cannot say the acts of Hitler were heinous. In other words, the teaching of “The Green Book” does away with the basis for moral judgment.

An education based on the perspectives “The Green Book” advocates will produce monsters, described by Lewis as “men without chests.” He explains this expression:

We were told it all long ago by Plato. As the king governs by his executive, so Reason in man must rule the mere appetites by means of the ‘spirited element.’ The head rules the belly through the chest-the seat, as Alanus tells us, of Magnanimity, of emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments. The Chest-Magnanimity-Sentiment-these are the indispensable liaison officers between cerebral man and visceral man. It may even be said that it is by this middle element that man is man: for by his intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal. The operation of “The Green Book” and its kind is to produce what may be called Men without Chests. (Note 6)

Now, almost fifty years after Lewis wrote these words, we are seeing an educational system absolutely permeated with the spirit of “The Green Book,” a system that systematically denatures the chests of its students. All statements that indicate a judgment of goodness and evil are rebuked as being purely subjective and, therefore, insignificant. (Note the irony: statements of value are worthless.)

There is another result of the teaching of “The Green Book” about which Lewis does not talk: It not only destroys the basis for morality, but also does away with objective truth. From the perspective of “The Green Book” authors, we cannot talk about the waterfall as it really is; we can only talk about the waterfall as we perceive it. There can be, therefore, no objective knowledge of the waterfall; there can be only opinions. In other words, objective knowledge is unattainable and, therefore, irrelevant. Once objective truth is dispensed with, knowledge becomes divorced from reality and levitates into the clouds of fantasy. Eventually, knowledge becomes fragmented and then incoherent. This view was unthinkable to the ancients, who thought all subjects were interrelated, because all subjects deal with an aspect of reality, and reality is a coherent whole. Once we deny the existence of objective reality, we lose the threads that bind the various subjects together. Today’s educational system teaches every subject as if it exists in a vacuum, insulated from the forces at work in other disciplines. As a result, science is thought to be unrelated to or, more likely, at odds with religion; philosophy contributes nothing to history; math is irrelevant to literature. Not infrequently, things taught in one class contradict those taught in another. In a political science class, I was taught that war is the result of fear born out of lack of communication and misunderstanding; the way to peace is through communication and dialogue. In a history class, I was told that war is almost always between neighbors who engage in active economic, political, and cultural relations with one another, since frequent contact gives the most opportunity for the accumulation of grievances. Contradictions between different subjects are quite permissible if there is no one, unifying truth; a fragmented, inconsistent body of knowledge is not a problem to the modern way of thinking. Students, therefore, learn to store knowledge from each subject in a separate compartment so that there is no mixing. Consequently, their knowledge is hopelessly fragmented, while the urge to seek coherence has been quelled.

Given this perspective, the modern educator’s conundrum is easy to see. How does he answer the question, “Why educate?” In the past, educators somehow connected truth to the goal of education. But now truth cannot be the goal of education because truth does not exist. So the goal of education becomes not what is true, but what is useful. But the content for the phrase “what is useful” depends upon one’s values; it varies from student to student and from teacher to teacher. Thus the goal of education has become hopelessly ill-defined; no matter what direction you shoot, you stand an equal chance of hitting the target. This helps explain the rampant experimentation we have seen in the last three decades: educators no longer know why they are doing what they are doing. Having lost any firm anchor, they are adrift, subject to the capricious winds of fashion.

In the absence of any better raison d’être, modern education has been reduced to career training. This can be seen clearly in the curriculum at the college level where, for example, the focus of training in the study of history is not how to think about the past, but rather how to fit into the profession of historian. This has important implications for the structure of the curriculum: philosophy, biology, religion, and literature, for example, are considered unimportant, since there are very good historians who know little or nothing about these subjects. Whether knowledge of philosophy, biology, religion, and literature helps a person think about history is not even considered. The shift of focus to career training has been subtle, but the ramifications are very significant.

The notion that education equals vocational training is most clearly heard in public political discourse. The main proponent of an educational reform bill in the state of Oregon wrote, “In large part, our future as Oregonians and the economic prosperity of our state will depend on the quality of our education, the skills of our work force, and the productivity of our citizens. Unfortunately, our academic and technical skill levels presently are not adequate to compete in an increasingly demanding international economy.” (Note 7) Nowhere in the remainder of the article does she even hint at another justification for education. The measure of the quality of education is economic benefit. Our society assumes a good life is synonymous with a good living. Is it true that income determines the quality of one’s life? The wisdom of the ages screams, “No!”, but modern man is not interested in stale, dusty, irrelevant voices from the past; he is preoccupied with the quadrophonic, Dolby-enriched sounds of our own time.

The Oregon legislature has just passed legislation that will introduce wide-sweeping reforms in our state’s educational system: public education will begin with three-year-olds; kindergartners through third-graders will be combined in the same classrooms; the school year will be lengthened; and exams will be given every few years to measure the students’ progress. The legislators who championed this legislation are very proud of their achievement. If my diagnosis is correct, however, these reforms are far too superficial to produce any real improvement in our educational system. These reforms are designed to make students better laborers, and while they may produce a modest improvement in this regard, I suspect they are destined to fail even in this. No one can be taught unless he wants to learn; therefore, to attend to the student’s motivation is imperative. If the carrot an educational system dangles in front of students is a vague promise of better employment in the distant future, students will not be coaxed to learn. But given the current perspectives of educators, they have no other carrot to offer.

I have no hope the educational system will make any significant improvements in the near future. People must first carefully reconsider the purpose of education, but I have heard no discussion of this issue that lies at the heart of educational improvement. Until we have precisely determined the goal of education, we can hardly “improve” it.


Parents have long considered education very important. Education is part of a more comprehensive task of training children to be mature adults. A parent’s desire to educate derives from two natural impulses: love for the child and a recognition that knowledge can lessen pain and suffering. Parents love their children. They want to do whatever they can to protect and to prepare their offspring for everything life will throw at them. Education is, therefore, the more or less formal and systematic process by which parents transmit to their children the information and skills that prepare them for life. The information parents pass along is a selection of the most important facts they have accumulated; the skills are those parents deem most valuable.

To prioritize information and skills, one is forced to decide what life is all about. Consider a parent dying of cancer who writes a letter to his child. He must decide, out of all he could say, what is most important to communicate to his child. Babe Ruth’s rookie season batting average is an unlikely candidate, but something about the parent’s love for the child seems appropriate. Similarly, every educator makes decisions about what to pass along to his students. Those decisions are rooted in the educator’s understanding of the meaning of life.

When I ponder what I would most like my children to learn, what would most prepare them to weather the storms that await them in their lives, I have little difficulty finding an answer: I would like them to learn to trust in God and live in obedience to Him. I want them to learn job skills; I want them to be good citizens; I want them to learn how to conduct themselves in our society. But these are all secondary goals. Nothing could be more fundamental, more crucial, than faith in God. Education must have this in view. And yet I am painfully aware that I cannot inject this kind of trust and obedience into my children’s lives. They must make this decision; I cannot make it for them. Education cannot make my children people of faith.

Many factors come together to produce faith in a person’s life, many of them rather mysterious. While we cannot make our children come to faith, we can nurture it; we can create an environment conducive to faith. Since God really exists, and since God is the creator and architect of all that is, truth is faith’s closest ally. God has constructed the universe in such a way that studying it tells us much about its author and how He wants us to live. Therefore, we can promote faith and obedience in our children by giving them the skills and information necessary for discovering what is true, always keeping in mind, however, that for knowledge to lead to faith, it must be accompanied by humility. (We are all familiar with people who know a great deal and yet do not believe in God.) Seen from this perspective, the primary goal of education, one that is achievable, is to turn students into capable, daring seekers of truth. By this I do not mean indiscriminate seekers of various facts; it is not a matter of memorizing the Almanac. Any conscientious truth-seeker will quickly discover that some facts are more significant than others. Truth, as it pertains to human existence, is hierarchical: right action resides at the pinnacle. Therefore, the primary task of one who wants to understand truth is to discover the basis and nature of virtue-to learn the art of right action. The goal of education, then, is the cultivation of wisdom. This, essentially, is the goal the ancients attached to education.

Wisdom as the goal of education is not right merely because the ancients believed so. However, the disintegration of morality and civility in our time ought to prod us to take another look at the perspective of education that until recently has dominated throughout the history of mankind. The ancients assumed that we inhabit a moral universe, morality being a part of the warp and weft of the cosmos. They understood, therefore, that if we choose to ignore principles of right and wrong action, we will suffer. This makes careful study of our world, through our experience and the experience of others, very valuable, because it leads to the discovery of moral principles. Therefore, time devoted to contemplating the purpose of life and the moral principles on which life is based will be well spent.

Several years ago I helped build a house. The framer I worked with talked about making the house “square with the world.” He meant by this phrase that we should make the foundation and walls level and plumb and the corners square. Any time we failed to make a wall conform to these absolutes, we paid for it in later phases of construction. An error in the layout of the foundation would send a ripple of headaches all the way to the roof, because the law of gravity is not just an abstract notion of human convenience, but an integral part of the universe that can be ignored only at the risk of suffering. Similarly, the ancients believed that morality is built into the universe. The principles of moral conduct are those behaviors that cause the least pain; to live lives “square with the world” is to our advantage. Any time we deviate from that standard of conduct, we and those around us will suffer consequences. To live wisely, therefore, every human being must carefully study the structure of reality.

To say that we live in a moral universe is to claim that God, as creator of the universe, has made an organic link between immoral acts and destruction. It is possible to conceive of a divine creator who, while insisting that man live according to a fixed standard of morality, did not build into creation punishments for wrong-doing. In such a case, a man who murdered his brother might not suffer any discernable negative affects. In a moral universe, however, the perpetrator of an immoral act will inevitably suffer negative consequences. These consequences may not be apparent to the casual observer or to a mind set on rationalization, but they will be apparent to the careful observer.

If we live in a moral universe, then there is no such thing as victimless crimes committed between consenting adults behind closed doors. Any immoral act will cause harm to the perpetrators and society at large. No walls are thick enough and no door can be closed tightly enough to keep the poisonous affects of sin from leaking out and having their deadly result. Immoral acts take a toll-spiritually, emotionally, and possibly even physically-on those involved and everyone in their society. Education in virtue, therefore, is important for the well-being of society as a whole.

If wisdom is our goal and if study of the universe is a key to wisdom, then education has an important and clearly defined objective: to train students how to investigate the universe. Education must equip students with the skills and the information needed to make sense of reality. Certain skills are essential to learning: the ancients called these logic, grammar, and rhetoric. In other words, they believed one ought to be able to reason clearly about a wide range of subjects, listen with understanding to the words of others, and express one’s thoughts clearly. One needs these skills in order to increase knowledge; using them a student can master a wide range of subjects and thereby come to an understanding of the nature of reality. In this view of education, the coherence of all truth is very important. For instance, if I want to know whether a parent should use spanking as a tool of discipline on children, history can tell me what effect spanking has had on children in the past, anthropology can tell me how people in other cultures discipline their children, biology can tell me about the physical effects, psychology can illuminate the mental and emotional impact, philosophy and art can expose me to the opinions of other people who have thought about the issue, and theology helps me to understand the biblical proclamations on the topic. All these subjects, and others, contribute little pieces to the puzzle. My goal is to develop as complete a picture as possible of the total impact of spanking on children in order to determine whether the effect is “good.” And the criteria by which one determines whether the effect is “good” can also be determined by careful contemplation of the nature of reality. Using knowledge of creation to determine what is “good” is the essence of wisdom. Hence the ancient view of education is consonant with the impulses of a Christian parent: both mandate that children be trained in the art of wisdom.


If the goal of education is to train students to learn to live wisely, this will have important implications for the method and content of education. Strategies are always developed with respect to some goal; the slightest change of goal will have ramifications for the strategy employed. Therefore, since the goal of wisdom differs significantly from the goal of our current educational system, one would expect the educational strategy to be significantly different also.

A. Motivation

The most important difference in strategy would be to change how educators motivate children to learn. Children are naturally curious. For a time this natural curiosity about the world can provide the motivation to learn, but unless this curiosity is buttressed with a sense of importance and excitement about knowledge, it will wither and die. Therefore, a connection needs to be made very early between knowledge about creation and the questions that every human being wants to have answered: “Where did I come from?” “Why am I here?” “What is death?” “Who is God?” “What is justice?” Anyone who has children knows they become very interested in these issues at a very early age. At an early age, therefore, two ideas must be impressed upon them: the more we know, the better we are able to address such questions; and knowledge from many different fields contribute to the answers. Understanding that broad learning helps to answer their vital questions will greatly motivate students. (Note 8)

Parents and teachers ought to be another source of motivation. We are all aware of instances in which a teacher’s excitement and enthusiasm has infected one or more students. Love of learning is contagious. If a child is surrounded by people who are excited about and value learning, he will likely inherit this attitude. On the other hand, if a child is surrounded by people who do not value learning, he will likely adopt this attitude. A child’s entire educational exper-ience should indicate to him that learning is exciting and valuable.

B. Skills

The skills a student should learn are essentially those long held to be the cornerstones of education. The modern educational system, however, has converted these skills into technical abilities rather than tools of learning. For example, reading is taught, but not the kind of reading a truth-seeker needs to learn. In our schools, reading is the skill of converting marks on a page into words and sentences, a skill sometimes called decoding. The skill a truth-seeker needs goes beyond this. He must be able to squeeze from the sentences every possible piece of evidence about what in the author’s mind caused him to make such a statement-a very different skill from that taught in our schools, yet one essential to the task of truth-seeking. Reading is important to the truth-seeker because a vast reservoir of knowledge, most of it written, has been accumulated by mankind over the ages. To make use of that knowledge, one must be able to read what others have written.

To be able to read, in the sense in I have just described, one must master another very important skill: listening. It may seem that listening comes as naturally as falling off of a log, but this is not true. Listening must be developed with practice, and listening skills have, in our day, reached a low ebb. Quite noticeably in public debate, for example, very rarely does anyone take the time and interest to try to fully understand their opponent; they just shout at each other. Listening is central to marriage, and breakdown in communication is a frequent cause of divorce; therefore, if listening is a devalued skill in our society, then a high divorce rate should not surprise us. The key to listening is wanting to learn what another has to say, but listening, I fear, is becoming a victim of rampant narcissism. And without the ability to listen, we can not make use of the knowledge gained by others, including our predecessors. And if we do not learn from our predecessors, we put ourselves in the place of the most primitive cave man.

Another skill essential to interpreting the words of another person is facility with language. The label usually attached to this skill is grammar. People frequently have assumed that the value of grammar is to learn to express oneself in conformance with certain linguistic conventions. In recent times, it has been argued that no one set of language conventions is inherently better than any other; therefore, why study grammar? Simply speak the way you want. The truth-seeker, however, has a different reason for studying grammar. He wants to understand how language works so that he can more correctly interpret the words of others, and the study of grammar is essential to such an understanding. Furthermore, the truth-seeker wants to be able to organize his thoughts more carefully, and since language is essentially the art of organizing one’s thoughts, the study of grammar can help one think more clearly.

The study of foreign languages can be helpful in this regard. Since most important works are either written or translated into English, to know English well would be adequate. However, since we learn English as babies, we are often too familiar with it to be cognizant of how the language works. Therefore, to learn a second language is very helpful. Invariably, one who learns a second language ends up knowing his native language much better.

Knowing how language works helps the student develop another important skill: the ability to express oneself in language. We can learn much by listening, but we can learn even more by dialogue. As we interact actively with another person, our thoughts are challenged and made more precise. Therefore, for a student to learn to express himself in both oral and written form is important.

As a student practices his writing and speaking skills, he is at the same time developing another very important skill: clear thinking. The goal in writing is to lay out one’s line of thought in such a way that the reader can follow it easily. The writer must make a thought distinct in his own mind and then convey it in an organized, logical presentation. Therefore, learning to write well is an exercise in thinking well.

Mathematics is another skill important to the truth-seeker. In our schools, math is usually seen as a technical skill one needs to know in order to preform in the business world. But the truth-seeker’s interest in math is for another reason: math helps develop good thinking skills. Mathematics, a discipline that begins with a few basic premises and builds from there, is an excellent proving ground for the development of systematic reasoning skills. As the student gathers information from various disciplines to construct an understanding of reality, he must be able to make logical extrapolations from certain basic facts. The study of math helps him develop the skill to do this kind of reasoning.

Another skill central to clear thinking is the ability to make fine distinctions. But to make fine distinctions one needs to have the concomitant skills of observation, classification, and generalization. These skills can be cultivated in several different disciplines, but they are probably best developed in the natural sciences. Nature presents us with a dazzling array of creatures and objects that display astounding variety based often on very subtle differences. A few months ago I tried to determine how many different kinds of grass we have in our pasture. With a casual glance all the grasses looked the same; on closer observation, however, every plant was unique. To classify the grasses it was necessary to decide which differences could be ascribed to individual uniqueness and which were due to differences of kind. Nature is full of problems, problems which can only be solved after careful, thoughtful observation.

C. Content

I have listed the skills a person needs to be able to think deeply about the key issues of life. But one of the lessons the educational system of the last few decades has taught is: skills without content are not much use. Prior to 1940 great emphasis was placed on the need for students to memorize facts, but this emphasis was attacked by those who charged that education should teach learning and analytical skills, not dry, undigested facts. A change in emphasis was made, and the students’ knowledge of facts decreased as expected-with an unexpected result: students still did not have very good skills. Studies conducted by E. D. Hirsch help explain this phenomenon. (Note 9) In one study he had junior college students and university students read a short passage dealing with interpersonal relationships. When he tested their comprehension of the passage, junior college students did just as well as university students. Then he had the same students read a passage equal in difficulty to the first; this time, however, the topic was the Civil War. In this case, the university students did much better than the junior college students. Hirsch concluded that the difference was not in reading (decoding) skills, because the junior college students demonstrated with the first passage that they could read just as well as the university students. Rather, the junior college students lacked the necessary background knowledge to make sense of the second reading. They did not know what to associate with certain phrases or names (Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, Appomattox); therefore, they could not understand what they were reading. With the first reading, however, they knew as much background information as their university counterparts, because the topic was one about which every human being learns through normal experience. On the basis of such studies, Hirsch concluded that to be able to read and interact with others, one needs to be familiar with the set of facts that speakers and writers assume other educated people know. One needs to have mastery of certain facts, therefore, to be able to use one’s learning skills-which argues in favor of learning a broad base of knowledge in order to be able to learn more.

Knowledge about the universe has been divided into many different categories, for example: natural sciences study the natural world and its workings; social sciences study the activities of man; and theology studies the nature of God as revealed in special revelation. Although these divisions can be useful, they are merely conveniences that have been carried to a fault. Modern education assigns different pieces of knowledge to different disciplines and does not allow any two disciplines to share the same piece of knowledge. For the truth-seeker, knowledge is a coherent whole that cannot be divided; a given truth can be seen from the perspective of different disciplines, but it does not belong to any one discipline. Education ought continually to stress the coherence of all knowledge. Knowledge that falls in the natural science category must be consistent with knowledge in the social science category, which must be consistent with theology. A basic knowledge of each of these aspects of reality improves our knowledge in each of the others. A sound education, therefore, would cover all of these categories, while emphasizing their interconnectedness.

For the purposes of truth-seeking, to distinguish between kinds of knowledge rather than disciplines is more sensible. We gain some of our knowledge through personal experience and observation. Each person gains a vast body of experience as he lives his life, but this kind of extensive and direct knowledge tends to be self-reinforcing, because everyone tends to interpret his experience according to his existing beliefs. Personal knowledge is all the most primitive caveman had. We are far more fortunate; we have two other very valuable kinds of information: special revelation and knowledge from others. We have been given inerrant Scripture to help us make sense of the cosmos, and there could be no more authoritative word on the important issues of life than that of the Author of life himself. The Bible addresses a limited number of issues, however, and it is not always as transparent as we would like. We also have knowledge from centuries and centuries of people who have wrestled with the vexing issues of human existence. They have recorded their thoughts in various forms of human expression, the two main categories being philosophy (discursive form) and art (aesthetic form). We are fortunate to have this vast treasure house of proposed answers to our questions, but they are just that-proposed answers-and each must be assessed critically. Sound knowledge, regardless of kind, points to the truth. We can place information from each kind side by side, and if they do not all point to the same truth, an error has been made somewhere: experience was misinterpreted, or Scripture was misinterpreted, or the opinions of the philosopher were wrong; somewhere there was a mistake. The goal of education is to equip the student to gather information from all these sources and forge from it an accurate understanding of truth. This is a truly worthy goal.


Our current educational system is in transition. Although many of its features are holdovers from former times, do not let the resemblance fool you: modern education is fundamentally different from that of ancient times. It must be so, for modern educators do not share the values of previous generations, and some of those changed values have a direct bearing on education. Because the ancient goal of education- virtue (or wisdom)-no longer makes sense to modern educators, they have adopted another goal: career training. This change of goal has affected every aspect of education, from curriculum to method to organization. The skills and subjects taught now may have the same names they have had for centuries, but they are in fact different skills, taught with a different goal in mind. Education has been reconfigured to prepare students for the work place.

This change of goal has destroyed education. Whereas education once had a lofty and noble goal, now the goal of education is base and relatively insignificant. The impact of this change is incalculable. It has reduced the motivation to teach; what once was a noble mission has been transformed into just another job. And it has reduced the motivation for students to learn.

Until society re-evaluates the goal of education and sees the rightful goal of education is wisdom, education will continue to struggle. No reforms will solve the problems, and our society will continue to suffer. Society will not accept wisdom as the proper goal of education, however, until it acknowledges that objective truth and moral absolutes indeed exist. In other words, the solution to our educational woes is nothing less than reformation.

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(Charley Dewberry, a biologist and MSC staff member, was asked to write a response.)

David has argued that the abandonment of objective truth and moral absolutes has caused wholesale changes in the American educational system. Without objective truth, we can not talk about reality as it is, but only as it appears. When the possibility of knowing objective reality was part of the prevailing view, all subjects were considered interrelated, because reality was seen as a coherent whole. Once objective truth was rejected, knowledge became fragmented, incoherent, and inconsistent; every subject was taught as if it existed in a vacuum, insulated from the forces at work in other disciplines. With the abandonment of moral absolutes and objective truth, the goal of education shifted from teaching children how to determine right and wrong action to career training. This goal shift has affected every aspect of education, from curriculum to method to organization. As David sees it, education will continue to struggle until society acknowledges that objective truth and moral absolutes do exist. This very pessimistic prognosis has no cure short of reformation.

David’s analysis has leveled a serious charge at our educational system. Given the fragmented nature of education these days, where each discipline seems to operate independently–often at cross purposes and contradicting each other–he has made a very comprehensive general claim: relativism, resulting from an abandonment of truth, has thrown education into complete disarray. Like David, I have had more years of schooling than I care to count; at this point, it is much easier to count the years I have not been in school. And for most of my educational career, I have been in the sciences, tucked in a corner of campus far removed from David’s classics and history. While it does not seem far-fetched to claim that relativism has swept into the liberal arts and maybe even into the social sciences, to claim that relativism has impacted the sciences seems less imaginable. By examining a small corner of education, the sciences, which represent one of the tougher tests of his thesis, I want to see whether David’s claim can be supported. If his claim is true, we can expect to find relativism in modern biology, as well as history or social science.

In 1988 a paper entitled “Reading Beyond the Textbook: Great Books of Biology” appeared in Bioscience, the most prestigious biology journal in the country. The article, written by two emeritus professors in biology who have both served as past presidents of the National Association of Biology Teachers, expresses their concern as follows:

Faculty members have bemoaned the intellectual shallowness of many senior biology majors. These above-average students memorize well and can recite professors’ lecture notes and portions of textbooks. Some have participated in basic research activities with faculty members and have even presented papers at scientific meetings. Although many are planning careers in biology, they are not biologists in mind and spirit. They do not read, think, or speak like biologists. Few meet faculty expectations when they attempt to discuss the history and interrelationships of major concepts of biology, and even fewer can place science in a liberal-arts context in relation to the social sciences and humanities.

To lift our students to their highest potential as scholars and citizens, we must help them discover the nature of biological thought. Although students must become familiar with recent discoveries and new technologies, it is more important that they understand how science works, how biology has been interpreted by great thinkers, how we may use and misuse scientific knowledge, and how biologists today truly stand on the shoulders of the giants of biology’s past. One way to do this is to introduce students to the great books of biology.

The authors’ comments seem aimed at the fragmented nature of modern education. While they are most concerned with training biologists, the authors acknowledge the importance of placing their science in a liberal-arts context in relation to the social sciences and humanities. Although their students can do the “nuts and bolts” of science, these authors would like their students to do more: to achieve their highest potential as scholars and, even, good citizens. Thus they believe changes need to be made in biological education.

Such concerns sound vaguely similar to those David expressed. The two biology professors agree with David that modern education is highly fragmented, that learning basic skills for a career is not the only purpose of education. They want to develop the capabilities of their students; and they understand that to become mature biologists, their students must understand how science works, how biologists today stand on the shoulders of giants in biology’s past, and how biology relates to the social sciences and humanities as well as to the other sciences. The solution to the problem, claim the professors, is an infusion of some of the great books of biology. To arrive at their list of great books, they sent a short letter to 108 biology professors, asking each to list the top twelve books in biology. The authors listed only two criteria for selecting the books: firstly, the book must have a valid scientific basis; and secondly, because scientists conclude on the basis of data and science is not a topic on which one votes (“The single voice of Galileo triumphed over thousands ranked against him”), the books should not include any statements like “scientists believe” or “some scientists conclude.”

The authors believe the great books of biology will help students integrate their career skills into the larger cultural context, giving them a broader, more mature understanding of life. David, on the other hand, claims that any solution to the problems in the American educational system short of reaccepting as foundational premises both objective truth and absolute morals will fail ultimately. If David is right, we would expect biology to be resting on a foundation of relativism. Is he right?

First, let’s look for relativism in the criteria the biology professors used to select the great books of biology: each book should have a valid scientific basis, and each book should not claim that science is consensus. The authors support their second criterion with “the single voice of Galileo triumphing over the thousands ranked against him.” If relativism, which makes all knowledge opinion and prevents us from knowing the world as it is really, has infected the sciences, on what basis could the authors point to Galileo’s triumph over the thousands? Thus it would seem the professors’ criteria rule out the possibility of relativism. A close look at their book list, however, reveals one exception to the titles that are otherwise clearly biological in nature. The exception is a book by Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. I want to examine this book’s appearance on the list in a bit more detail.

Kuhn wrote his book in the late 1950s to rebut the prevailing view that characterized science as a method that allowed its practitioners to set aside all presuppositions and biases: science based on objective facts. Kuhn and several others led the charge against this view.

In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn argues that science develops and changes in the following way: First, in a “pre-paradigm” phase, each scientist blazes his own trail; there are no agreed upon foundations or methods; everything is questioned. Over time, the community of practitioners begins to accept certain ideas, and these givens form what Kuhn calls, “the paradigm.” Once a paradigm has been established, Kuhn calls this second developmental phase in a field of science, “normal science.” In this phase, all practitioners accept the paradigm dogmatically: the paradigm, immune to refutation, establishes certain ontological commitments, standards or methods, a set of problems to solve, and a set of standard examples that represent achievement; and, most importantly, the paradigm dictates what problems the scientific community finds interesting.

From Kuhn’s perspective, normal science has many positive features: 1) Science is not pursued at random; it is an organized expedition into the unknown rather than a single explorer blazing a trail into the unknown. The individual “normal” scientist is not an explorer, but a problem-solver, and a community of problem-solvers working together is the most efficient way for science to progress. 2) The scientist knows what kind of results to expect, which aids in identifying anomalies. 3) The scientific community can be trained by reading textbooks, so everyone can operate within the same paradigm.

During the normal science phase, science is problem-solving. No paradigm fits all the evidence, but because the researchers believe so strongly in the rightness of the paradigm, they will spend most of their time and energy trying to make the evidence fit the theory. If a scientist succeeds in bringing a particularly troublesome piece of evidence into agreement with the paradigm, he has solved a most difficult puzzle. If scientists can not solve a particular puzzle, the ability of the scientists is questioned, not the adequacy of the paradigm.

Over time, however, anomalies begin to multiply; that is, the number of puzzles that can not be solved increases. And this multiplication of anomalies leads to a crisis. According to Kuhn, at this crisis point, and here only, can scientists investigate new paradigms. Kuhn calls this third stage in science its “revolutionary phase.” Adherents of the old paradigm and those of the new argue with one another, working to demonstrate the relative merits of each paradigm. The analogy Kuhn draws between a scientific and a political revolution highlights his point that once polarization occurs, political recourse fails, and rival parties must resort to mass-persuasion techniques, because, after all, there can be no higher standard than the assent of the relevant community.

Kuhn calls a central aspect of the debate between rival paradigms, “incommensurability”: both sides use the same words, but they mean different things; each side has its own standards and methods, which can not be compared to an objective standard, but only to themselves. Choosing between paradigms, therefore, is not a logical decision. Because each paradigm establishes its own criteria for evaluation, there is no way to claim that one paradigm is more true than another. Progress in science, therefore, can not be expressed in terms of “being more true”; that is, having a closer correspondence between the paradigm and the world. Scientific progress becomes merely one paradigm replacing its predecessor.

Despite the apparent objectivity of the debating and experimenting during this revolutionary phase, Kuhn likens the process whereby one paradigms eventually wins the allegiance of the entire community to a “conversion experience.” The two paradigms are seen not so much as two sets of facts and theories, but as two contradictory ways of seeing the world. Although adherents of each paradigm make reasonable arguments, Kuhn argues that the rightness or wrongness of either paradigm or whether one is closer to the truth can never be proved irrefutably. In fact, he argues, sometimes a paradigm is chosen because it does not explain everything and, therefore, allows scientists to solve a greater number and variety of puzzles during the next period of normal science.

Embedded in Kuhn’s theory is the relativism David identifies in his paper. One of the major results of relativism, David points out, is the abandonment of objective truth, without which we can talk about reality only as we perceive it, not as it is. According to Kuhn’s thesis, the paradigm determines how a community of scientists will see the world, what questions they will find interesting, and what kind of solutions to problems are possible. A paradigm, then, determines to a great extent how the world will look and what constitutes a fact; all facts are theory-laden (paradigm-laden); no facts in science are objective. To be fair, Kuhn’s relativism is not exactly the same as that David describes, in that Kuhn’s interest is not how an individual perceives the world, but how a community of scientists perceives it. But if an individual can see the world as it is really, then why is the scientific community stuck with just their perception of it? Thus, despite denying he is a relativist, Kuhn is skeptical that we can know objective truth.

The fact that The Structure of Scientific Revolutions appears on the list of the great books of biology might just reflect the biologists’ recognition that Kuhn’s book represents a threat to their science of which everyone should be aware. I find that explanation wanting, however. Looking at the list of “the great books” of biology, I am struck by the fact that all but one has been published during the 20th century. Although the publication dates listed in the table are not all first-printing dates (Darwin’s, Voyage of the HMS Beagle, for example, was written in the 1830s), the majority of books listed were written in the last fifty years. Therefore, every book on the list was written within the perspective of the current paradigm, with Darwin’s writings forming the foundation of the paradigm. Not all the books on the list agree totally with all elements of the current paradigm, but they accept the current paradigm as the context of their discussion. So when the biologists who wrote the article claim “it is more important that [students] understand how science works, how biology has been interpreted by great thinkers, how we may use and misuse scientific knowledge, and how biologists of today stand on the shoulders of the giants of biology’s past,” they are referring only to the current paradigm. Absent from their list are the likes of Aristotle, Linnaeus, Lamarck, Goethe, Cuvuier, and Gilbert White. The book list itself suggests that the biological community has accepted Kuhn’s model. The book list itself reflects the relativism embedded in Kuhn’s thesis. Books outside the current paradigm hold no value for modern biology.

Thus it appears the recent history of biology supports David’s claim, for at least one avenue where relativism has entered science is the general acceptance of Kuhn’s book. Written in the late 1950s, its influence spread throughout science during the 1960s, and with it came all the negative consequences mentioned by David and by the two professors in their article: their students were intellectually shallow, and they did not know how to think about large, difficult questions.

My experience suggests that the two professors are overly optimistic in their claim that supplementing the education of biology students with a few great books will produce students who reach their highest potential as scholars and citizens. Until 1980 I was a product of just such a biological education. However, when I first read Kuhn’s book in 1978 on my way to Oregon to begin my Ph.D. in ecology at Oregon State University, I discovered immediately that I had no tools with which to think about Kuhn’s book. I knew he was presenting a radically different view of science from that I had been given during my years of college, but I had no way to evaluate the truth of his claims. (Also, I have since learned that my original reading of Kuhn’s book was very poor. I had mastered the task of textbook learning, but I had never learned to read.) I am an average or better student; I got a good biological education; but I never got the tools and skills I needed to wrestle with questions outside the current paradigm of modern biology. In short, all my education prepared me only to solve puzzles within the paradigm of modern biology.



1 Lauren Lipton, “Educated Woman Fears Her Ignorance Shows,” The Eugene Register-Guard, Sunday, July 14, 1991. (Back to text)

2 W. J. Bennette, “First Lessons: A Report on Elementary Education in America.” Washington, D. C.: U.S. Department of Education, 1986; Alan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987; W. L. Boyd, “Public Education’s Last Hurrah? Schizophrenia, Amnesia, and Ignorance in School Politics.” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis (Summer, 1987): 9(2), 85-100; E. D. Hirsch Jr., Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs To Know. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987. (Back to text)

3 C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man. New York: MacMillan, 1947. (Back to text)

4 Lewis, 14 (Back to text)

5 Lewis, 15. (Back to text)

6 Lewis, 34. (Back to text)

7 Vera Katz, “Students Deserve a Diploma that Counts,” Eugene Register-Guard, June, 1991. (Back to text)

8 I have no illusions that this will magically make all children into eager, self-motivated learners. Much of learning is hard work; some of it is drudgery. Discipline will always be an aspect of education. In the early years, the parent or teacher will need to enforce much of the discipline. Eventually, however, the student will become self- disciplined. (Back to text)

9 Hirsch, 41ff. (Back to text)