On the Subjects of Education

The subject of education is large. It technically covers all of the information ever known, or at least currently known. It's hard to face something that enormous and determine which direction to go. Nevertheless, we must wrest some semblance of order from the clutches of this giant known as education and determine a path forward.


I was recently teaching a young actress who is focused on her career to the exclusion of most other things. She's currently in a play, and because they have had intensive rehearsals for the last few weeks she has missed school.

This is a normal cycle for her. She has a job that consumes most of her time and energy for a few months. Her mother and father work with her during that time on some subjects. And obviously she still has private English lessons with me. Then, after the job is done, she goes back to school. But, as her career grows that's becoming harder to do, and it seems like a normal high school experience may not be the path for her.

That's all fine. You can learn just as well, or better, at home. I skipped quite a lot of school. My mother would ask me why I was skipping school and I would tell her I could learn more by staying home and reading. Which is true. But, she assured me that I still had to go to school.

Learning is almost impossible without inner motivation. With some people, usually certain kids, that's a huge part of my real work. It's finding out what they want to learn so that they will be motivated and engage in the material. This actress and I have been working on this exact problem. She's very specific about what she doesn't think she needs to know, so she doesn't want to study certain things.

I decided to start over, to have a discussion about what she thought would be valuable to her.

There are many ways to think about the structure of education. It was in medieval universities where subjects were divided up in the way that we recognize today. (Yes, I'm going to ignore ancient Greece, ancient Rome, and the rest of the world for now.)

First, there was the trivium, which consisted of: grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Next, there was the quadrivium, which consisted of: music, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy. That's a total of seven subjects, which seems like a decent number to me.

One of the problems with education now is that there are too many directions to go. Just look at the lists of majors at universities. There are hundreds of them. Do you need to study hundreds of subjects to have an idea of how the world fits together? Yes, you do. That's a problem.

One reaction to this problem is to overreact. To decide that there is so much to learn that it doesn't matter. That you just have to choose. I think that might be a natural tendency for someone that is as career focused as this young woman, and it was the direction she was headed in.

The first thing I wanted to do was find a base, to establish common ground. It's hard to beat the concept of the 3 Rs: reading, writing, and arithmetic. She agreed that all of those were important, and she's already doing pretty well at all of those in both English and Russian.

It's hard to beat the 3 Rs, but I can, with what I have termed the 4 Rs: reading, writing, arithmetic, and rhetoric. In this case, by rhetoric I mean the various forms of public speaking. It's a skill that can be learned with steady practice. I did it primarily through Toastmasters. And it's immensely valuable in so many ways. Luckily, as an actress, my student is already doing a lot of training in that direction.

After that we run into the same problem, there are too many directions to go. Here's a way to solve that. Study a subject that covers all of the rest. There is one subject that covers every other subject, and I'm not talking about philosophy, although that's a good guess. I'm talking about history.

Everything that has ever happened is a part of history. Every subject is a part of history. Here's the problem with history, it's boring. But that's because of the normal way in which it is taught in schools. "Here's a date and a place, and here's some stuff that happened then and there. Remember it for the test." Completely boring! There is a better way.

Because everything in history is connected you can pick up a thread almost anywhere and it will lead you to places that are astounding.

If the student just happens to be interested in the American Civil War, as a for instance, that's going to connect with why there was a cultural division, how it came about, how it resolved, the history of slavery, religions impact on all of this, the history of laws in both the United States and Europe, international trade and politics, military operations, different economic systems, technology improvements in arms, spying and codes, shipping, land transportation, and so much more. More than you could study in a lifetime, or two.

So, just start with something or someone your interested in. And the someone is important. People are interested in people, and people are what make history. Read the original sources if you can, instead of what someone says about what someone says. Commentaries and interpretations can be great, but you'll often find that the truth is different from what's in the textbook. Read the speeches, read the letters, read the official reports, the diaries, the journals, etc. You'll be amazed how much history continually changes, and it will be interesting the entire time.

You'll need to zoom in and zoom out continually to understand what you're learning. In our example, to understand the American Civil War you need to know what the Corwin Amendment is, and what the Minie Ball is. Those are specific things from that specific time. You also need to know the debates about states rights that the American Founding Fathers were having a century before the Civil War when they made the Articles of Confederation, and then replaced them with the American Constitution. To understand those, you need to understand English political history for the 700 years before 1800, Roman law, the Viking political system, Athenian democracy, and more. And none of that even touches on the Minie Ball.

I think I made my point. I convinced my student too, history is a great subject that is an inexhaustible source of valuable and useful knowledge.

The other most important subject for understanding how the world fits together is literature. Humans think in stories. And they are more than that, much more than that. Stories communicate things that we can't communicate in any other way. They transmit culture, worldviews, morals, and unconscious insights. They help show us more than what has been, they help to show us what can be, and what should be. They allow us to work out behavioral patterns in a separate reality and come to conclusions about right and wrong, good and evil. Without stories, we would not be human.

Of course, as an actress she was already sold on the importance of stories and literature.

With these six things as a foundation you are equipped to explore and decide on other areas of exploration. There are so many. I like the rest of the humanities, especially things like psychology, anthropology, politics, economics, religion, and philosophy.

The major criticism that I probably deserve up to this point is that I haven't mentioned science. It's good to have a general overview, but for all of the focus on science in our society, most people don't know that much, and don't need to know that much about it. Touching on biology, chemistry, and physics often seems to let kids know when and if they're interested in these things. Learn some of the history. Then, you can explore as much and as deep as you want, just like all of the subjects in the humanities that I mentioned.

I have a student right now that's highly interested in biology. She's eleven. That's great. We're specifically working on writing because her and her mother want her to improve in that area, but I still think it's useful to incorporate other subjects that she's interested in. I do that in an odd way. For instance, we talked about how Michael Crichton had an M.D. from Harvard University, and now we're writing some science fiction while also talking about genetic modification. In this case biology becomes literature.

There are so many other choices that have to be made. What about music, languages, sports, trades, fine arts, performance arts, law, medicine, business, finance, accounting, theology, engineering, electronics, and programming? Yeah, I say do them all, or do all of the ones you're interested in, or all of the ones that you're interested in that you can also manage as far as your time, energy, money, and attention are concerned. These are choices that have to be made based on interest and context.

These are often the areas where people will do a little bit of something and then switch. Do one thing for a couple of years, and then move on. I think it's perfectly fine, and even good, to explore like this. At least get some exposure so that you know what you don't like. And it's probably good advice to then dive deep somewhere and really drill into something. Parents can have a major influence over that, but in the end the student will ultimately decide if they are going to engage and give something their attention and dedication.

If you focus on the first two layers of education that I propose you will have laid a solid foundation that is a benefit to everyone. Start with the 4 Rs: reading, writing, arithmetic, and rhetoric. Expand on that by reading, writing, and talking about literature and history. The rest we can never be as sure about, for life in the end is always an exploration, and education is no different.

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Read more of Jeff's thoughts at: http://www.jeffreyalexandermartin.com/

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