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  • Daniel Kephart

The Good Life, Not The Efficient Life.

Updated: Mar 21, 2019

Today's article is written by a guest author, Michael Merten. Merten is a graduate student at Hillsdale College, where he specializes in Political Theory and American Political Thought.

Here’s the scene.

You’re in 9th grade. The balding teacher of your Algebra 2 class has just started explaining the Pythagorean Theorem. You tone him out, gaze distractedly out the window, and wonder.

What the heck is the point of this?

A few years pass. You’re in college, grinding towards a biology degree. It’s Sophomore year. You jerk awake as class ends, look up at the PowerPoint, and shake your head. This is HIS 198—the image on the screen is a graphic explaining the rise of the French state during the Medieval period. Not biology. Not even close. You shoulder the backpack. You walk out.

This is education as a means to an end. Get the info, get out. If you’re an American, this is probably how you approach education. It’s woven into the fabric of our Republic, a consequence of utilitarian thinking older than our Constitution. We began as a commercial republic, rendering any other approach to education impractical and undesirable for the large portion of Americans.

Education is meant to prepare you for a career, nothing more.

Now, I’m aware that the liberal arts style of education dominates primary schools and colleges. This is irrelevant. Our collegiate format is a vestige of the previous approach to education kept alive by a brief revival. This is a dying, decaying beast—as is demonstrated by the growing prevalence of “non-major” classes. You know the type: The biology class designed as an “easy A” for English majors, the chemistry class every History student passes with flying colors. Students walk out with a good grade and not much more. Frankly, it isn’t ridiculous to ask why we teach these classes at all. Put another way, why do we offer “gen-eds?”

Something’s changed. Rather than teaching critical thinking and creative problem solving, we supply students with narrow formulas for narrower applications. This results in the growing indecision and confusion of recent generations. Efficient? Without a doubt. Unfortunately, this style of teaching results in a rigid, un-adaptable mindset. Now, a little rigidity isn’t a bad thing. Having a backbone, having something to rely on, that’s absolutely necessary. When life hits hard, however, rigid minds crack. Indecision floods in, followed by anxiety and fear of the future. A quick look around illustrates that this is the world we live in. Yet it doesn’t have to be this way.

A different style of learning, commonly called “classical education,” might just provide the remedy for our current problem. Humanity can better pursue the good life rather than settling for the efficient life. Classical education teaches critical thinking, not plain information. How to think, not what to think. Classical education cultivates wisdom and tends virtue. Most importantly, classical education encourages original thought by honing the mind, body, and soul.

Modernity reduced learning to memorization of facts and formulas. Admittedly, facts and formulas are necessary. Our education systems, however, should drive students to truly ponder important topics. They should wake up with a sense that their lives matters. They should be driven to consider the greater moral and philosophical questions of history. Classical education seeks answers regarding ethics, virtue, philosophy, and human nature. By aiming at something other than the mere application of knowledge, classical education provides a higher purpose, something beyond the useful.

This is a hard pill to swallow. The quest to better understand higher questions purely goes against our culture’s grain. Still, our current approach isn’t working. Changing our way of learning might be an integral part of preserving who we are as human beings. Our lives hinge on the principle that man has meaning, that everything to live can be found by living. Today, relativity is rampant. Millions assume nothing is absolutely knowable—not about man, not about his surroundings. That’s what happens when we look only at the chemical or consider only the mechanical.

But consider the larger picture…

Classical scholars study the Trivium: Grammar, logic, rhetoric. Grammar serves to help man to communicate. Logic separates the factually true from the false through reasoning. Rhetoric shows us how to convince others of our findings. These are the foundational building blocks of human experience. We need them. We can’t live with out them. But it doesn’t stop there.

On top of the Trivium classical scholars built the Quadrivium: Arithmetic, Geometry, Music, and Astronomy. These are numeric sciences (even music, which is why listening to Beethoven is so beneficial for children). They represent different applications of a multiplicity of formulas. Altogether, they form the study of the relationships of all things to one another. These are the threads which comprise the universal web.

Mathematics teaches us that we live in an interrelated universe.

What is at stake here, then, is nothing less than a functional understanding of the universe. If students understand the Trivium they can master the Quadrivium. If they can master the Quadrivium then the sky is the limit. By constant debate and discussion regarding the nature of nature, we can learn to extrapolate information far beyond what the classroom can supply.

This style of learning presumes that you, as a person, matter. You play a role of cosmic significance. Your individuality and its effects cannot be limited to a firing of synapses and a few undecipherable weather patterns. Instead, life is a puzzle which holds together in a perfect coherence. There is a whole world out there which could be made better, if only you asked the right questions.

Now, isn’t that a world worth living in?

Special thanks to Michael Merten, our guest author this week, for sharing his insight with us. Merten is a scholar in the areas of Political Theory and American Political Thought.