Education for a New Enlightenment

By Marsha Enright

Winter 2010 — If you’re familiar with two- to five-year-old children, then you understand what Aristotle meant when he said “All men, by nature, desire to know.” Very little will stop the young child from exploring the world and trying to learn—sometimes to the exasperation of parents!

The young child who turns into the restlessly eager-to-learn, -to create, -to achieve adult is the fountainhead of human progress. Michelangelo, Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, Ayn Rand, Craig Venter, Steve Jobs—these are the people that never lost their two year old’s passionate, internally-generated drive to know and, consequently, change the world.

This is the state-of-mind which education in a Good Society would strive to achieve. These are the type of people who made Renaissance Florence, Enlightenment England, Revolutionary America, and our technology-abundant current culture possible. By nurturing this state of mind, the Good Society would create a self-perpetuating future of rational ideas, science, technology, liberty, and inspiring art in the renaissance of a New Enlightenment.
Before describing the shape of that education, let’s consider what kind of cultural backdrop would support that state of mind.

Upward Striving: The Essence of the New Enlightenment Culture

Reason, achievement, and liberty would be commonly accepted values and revered openly: ironically, this is not as different from today as we might think, but it would be much more consistent, well-justified, and widespread. Achievement in all fields would be honored much more uniformly and that of entrepreneurs and good businesses would be praised often on the nightly news. Capitalism would be celebrated as a boon to mankind.

Unlike today, these three values would be understood as an integrated whole, valued in all endeavors, from poetry to politics. Heroes of reason, liberty, and achievement would be widespread role models, rather than confined to comic books as freaks with supernatural powers. Only a shrinking minority would revere rap stars or leftist academics, like those who strategized the Chicago Way to the White House.

All excellent work would be honored. Individuals would feel proud of whatever they deservedly achieved, whether as a janitor or a jazz violinist. Schools would cater to vastly different educational needs; some for the academic life, some the artistic, some the trades, some for business, athletics, or the military—any productive area of human endeavor. A culture of creativity would surround the developing child.

All education would be private, mostly supported by tuition income with help from a vast array of private philanthropy. Responsibility for educating children would fall clearly to the parents. It would be the norm for parents to value individualism and independence in their progeny. Most parents would know that they should practice objectivity and forbearance in regard to their children. Their responsibility as nurturers would be to help the child develop into an achieving individual, passionate about his work, whatever that might be. Constant, upward striving, i.e. real progress, would be the bellwether of such a society.

(For a taste of these attitudes, read the novels of the early 20th century author Henry Kitchell Webster, such as Calumet K, The King of Khaki,and The Thoroughbred, recently available in paperback.)

Rather than “give my child everything so they won’t have to work as hard as I did,” parents would teach their child the joy of responsibility and work, like Frank Hanna’s father, the investment banker featured in The Acton Institute’s documentary The Call of the Entrepreneur. Instead of taking his two sons to Little League, Frank’s father provided opportunities for the boys to work at various family businesses. This gave the boys the experience of achievement and a taste of making money from it, plus the analytic knowledge to understand how businesses work. After a brief stint as a lawyer, Frank joined his brother in opening their own investment banking firm, reveling in the joy of finding great businesses to capitalize.

Those families with massive wealth would impart the responsibility of wealth and the ethic of achievement to their progeny. Rather than becoming dissolute ne’er-do-wells who don’t know how to live up to the previous generation, such heirs would find their passion and use their wealth to achieve it. Those in the family interested in the family business would become thoughtful stewards of the wealth, like Dagny Taggart in Atlas Shrugged, adding to the family’s achievements. I saw a current example on the TV show Undercover Boss in which Dave Rife, head of family-owned White Castle Corporation, expressed his desire to make his grandfather proud by improving the corporation the grandfather started.

To develop flourishing individuals, education would have to be based on the science of fundamental biological and psychological needs. These principles would call for the development of skills such as the habits of first-hand observation and excellent reasoning which enable objective judgment, so important for knowing what is exactly true in order to achieve success. Skill in creativity is equally important in solving problems and finding new solutions in all aspects of life. Further the integration of mind and body, including a great deal of self-knowledge, is crucial to effective functioning and happiness. The ability to effectively interact with other people is also essential to achieving happiness in home and work life. Finally, it’s almost impossible to live well without the ability to effectively put thought into action. These are some of the needs and abilities—important to a well-lived life—which would be nurtured in a great education.

Furthermore, the people who would implement this approach would be committed to individualism. This means that although teachers, parents, and administrators would recognize that there are universal human needs, they would also realize that individuals vary greatly in the particular way they develop and must have their needs met distinctively. For example, a gregarious child must work hard to develop his independence, while an introverted child not interested in or sensitive to others might need to learn more social awareness to work most effectively in the market.

Schooldays in the Good Society

Well, that’s great you say—but what would a school actually look like in a better future?
For one thing, it would not look much like the average grade to graduate schools of today, which are more often factory-like warehouses than exciting, attractive environments in which to explore the world and oneself.

Students would not be confined to the classroom.

Market competition would provide a plethora of choices, one school building more beautiful and luxurious than the next, even for the most inexpensive schools. If you doubt it, just think of how much more attractive Dunkin’ Donuts stores have become since the spread of Starbucks. The buildings would be well-integrated into natural landscapes or cleverly designed in highly urban environments to keep children in touch with nature and natural opportunities to observe and experiment. The layout would make it easier to make physical activity—the connection between body and mind—a regular part of the day.

The typical school in the Good Society would have classrooms filled with beautiful learning materials which would appeal to the students’ senses and would involve movement, shape, and color to cement concepts in memory. These materials would concretize the concepts and information students need while absorbing their attention effortlessly and appealing to their interests.

Each day, students would choose their work from an array of challenging materials from most knowledge areas. Students of several ages would attend the same classroom, providing an environment more representative of adult life than traditional schools, and giving students an opportunity to learn from each other and practice their mastery of knowledge by instructing other students.

Students as young as toddlers might work with others, but they wouldn’t have to. The result? Many would love to work together, giving students the experience of freedom of association and practice in teamwork. Part of the curriculum should consist of instruction in important social skills, from the appropriate way to blow one’s nose to how to express anger to a classmate in a productive fashion. This way of working readies students for a social life in which they can express and enjoy their individuality in a civil manner.

Excited conversation would take place throughout the classroom, as students share in their discoveries and ideas. The environment would be strategically arranged to allow the student freedom to move, work, make many choices throughout the day, and get feedback from reality about the success and the appropriateness of behavior.
Learning materials could be used for multiple problems; once the basic function of the material is mastered, students can discover their own problems and solutions, thereby encouraging creativity.

As befitting a society that values productiveness and rejects the separation of theory and practice, practical knowledge would be highly esteemed in the Good Society. From the age of three, students would have practical responsibilities for shared school property, returning materials to their place for use by the next student, cleaning up after themselves, feeding animals, or greeting visitors. At the upper levels of education, young adolescents would engage in real work, such as growing food, creating saleable products, operating retail businesses, or taking care of farm animals—all integrated with their academic learning. These activities would enable them to explore career opportunities and enjoy the achievement of production and meaningful work during their energetic adolescent years.
Adolescents would study the classics, such as Plato, Aquinas, Bacon, and Shakespeare, for a strong grounding in the liberal arts. The liberal arts would be recognized as essential to a complete education because, by learning philosophy, history, literature, science, mathematics, music, art, and the history of all these subjects, students grasp the way all subjects are related to each other. They also learn what ideas and events created present-day culture. This knowledge would be vital to maintaining a free and just society, because it would help students learn what made freedom and prosperity possible and how to protect it. Furthermore, the liberal arts would provide a broad base of knowledge to each student. This would enable each individual to adapt more easily to market and career changes. Two 20-year studies of top CEOs and scientists substantiate this view. They have found that the vast majority of these high achievers obtain their undergraduate degrees from small liberal arts colleges.

Because knowledge is practical, students would not be confined to the classroom. It would only be the taking-off point for exploring and experiencing the world. Remember Francisco D’Anconia’s education “all over the world” in Atlas Shrugged? On a more limited budget, every child would have such experiences: going out to explore the places in which he lives, learning to shop for himself, camping, and working in local businesses. Their responsibility and independence would grow with their age.

Schools in the Good Society would be motivated to provide the best possible teachers because the inspiring ideas and values in the culture would demand it through market competition. What kind of teachers would be the most effective in aiding a young person’s work to become the best person he or she can be?

Effective teachers would be highly knowledgeable in scientifically proven child psychology and the philosophical principles of a flourishing life. They would be persons of high character and achievement; passionate individuals who love to learn and form excellent role models for students. They would be empathetic and kind, nurturing the young spirit while inspiring it.

Teachers would also be sensitive to the vast differences among individual interests, abilities, and methods of learning. Their role would be to nurture each child into a flourishing adult, whatever form that would take—plumber or physicist, actor or entrepreneur. They would be the child’s advocate and parent educator, helping the parent understand the nature and needs of each individual child.

It’s Montessori

You may recognize my description of the school in the Good Society as a well-implemented Montessori school.

Like Objectivism, the principles of the Montessori philosophy of education are complex and must be very intelligently understood and practiced in order for their implementation to be consistently successful. I have yet to find anything more excellent for a deep understanding of and fulfillment of the child’s-to-adolescent’s learning needs than a well-implemented and authentically-implemented Montessori school. I believe this philosophy and method of education would be widespread in the Good Society—perhaps its principles would be so well-accepted as to become the common conception of education.

In many respects, the Montessori classroom deeply implements a philosophy of individualism. Yet, the ideas and practices of collectivism often hold sway among many of its teachers, parents, and administrators, undermining the Method’s results. These can be the ideas of radical environmentalism, which mystically values “The Earth” over human life. Or they can be the ideas of altruism which encourage students to dedicate themselves only to charity as the highest of goals. Or they can be an anti-capitalist attitude, which is ignorant of economics and sees all trade as zero-sum.

Rather than these attitudes, the Good Society would encourage a more sensible environmental approach which values clean air and water, and recognizes human time as the scarcest of resources. It would value the creative improvement of human life in whatever form that takes—business, science, art, or charity—and the immeasurable improvements to life possible through free trade.

In the Good Society, the Montessori approach would need to be expanded in various ways, especially to include the values lauded by Ayn Rand, such as an appreciation of capitalistic creativity and achievement.

And that wouldn’t be hard, because the Montessori classroom, materials, and methods already nurture creativity and achievement. Just ask Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Jeff Bezos of Amazon, chef Julia Child, and a bevy of other successful entrepreneurs, all of whom were Montessori students. Or ask the thousands of parents and high school teachers who notice the remarkable difference in attitude and action between those of their young people who have attended Montessori schools and those who haven’t. That’s because the Method encourages individual thinking, conceptual development, and an integrated approach to studying subject-matter, while giving the child structured freedom to creatively explore passionate individual interests.

Enhanced Montessori

In the Good Society, the Montessori approach would be immeasurably enhanced with the following:
1. Systematic, highly conscious work on reasoning skills;

2. A stronger emphasis on the liberal arts;

3. A study of free market economics and the institutions of liberty;

4. An expansion of the Montessori Method to the college level.
What are some of the ways these changes would be implemented?
1: To develop cognitive skills, the program would have an extra, explicit focus on thinking skills, objective reasoning, and creative thinking, especially for the upper high school or college level. Students would be taught at least these elements of effective thinking, if not more:

• Observation, or paying careful attention to facts and accurately identifying them;

• Inference, or accurately drawing conclusions from information;

• Implication, or accurately drawing a second conclusion from the truth of a first conclusion;

• Induction, or accurately generalizing from knowledge of particular things to general principles;

• Deduction, or accurately identifying specific conclusions from general principles;

• Integration, or making the connections and relationships between thoughts and ideas to a unified body of
knowledge;

• Productive rearrangement of knowledge or creativity;

• Introspection, or the art of effectively identifying the contents and processes of one’s own mind;

• Evaluation or successfully identifying the value for oneself in what is observed and concluded;

• Implementation, or how to successfully use one’s thoughts to achieve one’s ends.

2: Excellent life preparation means being able to participate knowledgeably in civil society—just as the citizens of the early U.S. republic did. Their high rate of excellent literacy made The Federalist Papers the subject of everyday reading and debate; this would be the expected norm in the Good Society. Studying the liberal arts, students would be introduced to important and difficult works such as those of Plato and Aristotle, Bacon, Locke, Bastiat, and Rand at an early age, with intensive study of them in college.

3: Students would learn about the heroes of business and the achievements that made our civilization possible, along with the heroes of science, history, mathematics, and literature. And they would be introduced to the ideas and history of freedom and tyranny early in their school life.

4: Finally, as is done for students at other developmental levels in Montessori schools, the developmental needs of the young adult would be thoroughly considered to craft the teaching methods, setting, activities, and curriculum of college students.

College as it Could and Should Be

So what would college look like? There would be far more exact scientific research and understanding of what human beings need at the college level to develop well, resulting in a plethora of choices. And within an institution, careful scientific observation and experimentation about the best means of learning would be de rigeur, as it is in every authentic Montessori program.

Parents and students would be treated more like customers of a service business.

According to Michael Novak in The Fire of Invention, by 1852 there were more colleges in Ohio than in the whole of Europe. The sharp differences among the more than 4,400 colleges we have today are being dulled by government oversight of policies, curriculum, and finances. Government loans drive affirmative action policies. The accreditation process, which has been required only since the advent of government funding for college, hampers innovation. According to studies done for the Association of College Trustees and Alumni, accreditation does little to assure and excellent education.

Everything would be run more efficiently with little or no bureaucracy—it would instead be actually responsive to customers. Parents and students would be treated more like customers of a service business, every college competing to do the best job possible, instead of leaving students alone to get through a mandated course of study.

The current college system is, basically, a certification program for work or graduate school, i.e., “You’re worth X to your employer.” It results in an odd business structure. Students fail to graduate, or take longer than needed. Five years is the current average, no doubt enabled by low-cost government loans which delay the pain of borrowing money until after graduation. Fifty-seven percent take six years to complete the BA! This breaks down as follows: 60% of whites, 49% of Latinos, and only 40% of African Americans graduate within six years.

It’s ironic that our current culture tolerates such high risk in one of life’s biggest purchases, a college education. Where else do we put up with such results, for so much money? Not at Starbucks. Could you imagine “Sorry, even though you’ve paid, you can’t have your coffee”? Richard Vedder (of the Center for College Affordability and Accountibility) and a variety of economists and researchers attribute this failure to the lack of accountability caused by easily obtained government loans.

In the Good Society, colleges would be free from government interference or help. The higher education market would be a hotbed of competition, as it was in the U.S. up to the last 40-50 years. Many more small colleges would arise to give personalized guidance and service, and allow students to more easily know and be connected to their teachers and other students.

Not as many people would attend college. Many would be interested and skilled in non-academic areas such as crafts, the trades, the arts, and business. Their high school education would be so rich and thorough that they would be knowledgeable citizens without college. Further, non-college-level work would be honored for its excellence and importance in our civilization so that people without a college degree would not feel like second-class citizens as they often do today. There would be no government-generated push for “everyone” to attend college, resulting in the current idiocy of BAs for Construction Management and MBAs necessary to run a McDonald’s. Rather, high school education would be far more challenging and deeper than it is today, and there would be a rise in detailed, targeted technical education post-high school.

At the college level, inexpensive education obtained through online information, lectures, and demonstrations would be bolstered by judiciously chosen, close, in-person relationships with caring tutor/professors. Precious in-person time would be spent on productive discussions and deep conversations about their studies with these tutors and with other students. Tutor/professors would be expert guides to learning, not task masters.

Technology would be used for information delivery and rich simulations through which to practice all kinds of skills, from sports, to governance, to running a business. And it would also enable the use of new tools of evaluation such as Experiential Sampling which is now used in the study of “Flow,” i.e., high performance and optimal experience. Experiential Sampling researches individuals’ real-time experiences, i.e., actions, thoughts, and feelings. It could be used to find out more about professorial effectiveness. New tools of psychological evaluation and growth derived from the discoveries of Martin Seligman and other researchers in the psychology of high functioning, happy individuals would also be used to craft better in-class processes.

Colleges would design work, portfolios, and experiences to show employers and other schools their students’ achievements, instead of depending on unvalidated and inconsistent evaluations by professors not trained in human development or even the rudiments of teaching. Instead, professors would be required to learn the principles of learning and teaching and they would have to regularly train and review teaching methods and curriculum.
Rather than study in cloistered academic settings for years and years, colleges would offer creative and collaborative learning programs with businesses and other work settings as the norm, as well as opportunities at job sites. One current example is the relatively new program at the John M. Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts which requires its students, starting in freshman year, to work in teams on projects.

Ultimately, the education practices of the Good Society would result in an unimaginable outpouring of excellence, energy, and creativity, far beyond even the imagination of science fiction writers. Because these practices nurture the best within each individual, we can foresee a future of amazing technology, higher human fulfillment, and inspiring art. Peace would be widespread, driven by the shared values of reason, individualism, achievement, and freedom. Let us work our mightiest to see such a society in real life.


Marsha Familaro Enright, formerly a psychotherapist, co-founded in 1990 the Council Oak Montessori School (elementary level), of which she is the president and administrator. Enright is currently the president of the Reason, Individualism, Freedom Institute, and leads development of the College of the United States and its wholly independent scholarship fund. Enright also is a writer for The New Individualist magazine.

Originally published in The New Individualist and at: http://www.atlassociety.org/print/1302

 

 

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