Rescuing Education

Mission: Impossible: Teaching Outside the Box, Learning Outside the System

David Solway
September 15, 2022
“When a clown enters the palace, he does not become king. The palace becomes a circus.” That ancient Turkish proverb applies equally well to North America’s current education system. Here smugly ignorant “students” collide with dogma-driven “educators” fixated on ideological indoctrination. The result is a fetid system that’s no longer capable of nurturing literate citizens, but instead is focused on cranking out institutional foot soldiers for the cultural revolution. Having spent most of his career working in this decaying palace, David Solway has every reason to be bitter. Yet his own experiences tutoring the seemingly unteachable, changes afoot in the educational firmament and the growing alarm of parents have him hoping still.
Rescuing Education

Mission: Impossible: Teaching Outside the Box, Learning Outside the System

David Solway
September 15, 2022
“When a clown enters the palace, he does not become king. The palace becomes a circus.” That ancient Turkish proverb applies equally well to North America’s current education system. Here smugly ignorant “students” collide with dogma-driven “educators” fixated on ideological indoctrination. The result is a fetid system that’s no longer capable of nurturing literate citizens, but instead is focused on cranking out institutional foot soldiers for the cultural revolution. Having spent most of his career working in this decaying palace, David Solway has every reason to be bitter. Yet his own experiences tutoring the seemingly unteachable, changes afoot in the educational firmament and the growing alarm of parents have him hoping still.
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Relax, Luther; it’s much worse than you think.

—Ethan Hunt, Mission: Impossible

As a former college and university teacher, and the author of three books on education, I know first-hand the extent to which the majority of today’s students are incapable of literate performance, devoid of preparatory instruction and of humility before the majesty of the Great Tradition that would allow them to grapple with a strenuous and comprehensive curriculum. Steeped in the political and cultural shibboleths of the time, and coddled into a state of self-assured autonomy of judgment, all too many have been deprived of genuine learning in both K-12 and the academic disciplines. They are “woke,” poor things. Grasping the rudiments of grammar and style, learning how to write coherently (by which I mean both the cursive of penmanship and the cursive of thought) and reading with comprehension in history, literature, philosophy and politics have become dead letters, quite literally. The juvenility and ineptitude in which a vast cohort loiters bodes ill for the culture, as we daily witness.

The default procedure among the vast majority of administrators and teachers is to ignore the obvious, to authorize largely useless computer and remedial instruction for the acquisition of writing skills and language proficiency, insist that “fairness” justifies weakening admission standards at the expense of quality, admission having been made “test optional,” and that “social justice” rather than scholarly achievement and disciplinary merit is the aim of general education. Disparate results in standardized tests and scholarly performance are pro forma understood by ideologues as unjust rather than metrically applicable, although we may note that these artifacts have in any event become increasingly sieve-like. In more and more cases, such tests have been scrapped altogether; even the hallowed MIT recently lurched to the very brink of suspending its admissions exams in favour of enrolment through diversity targets.

Teachers and administrations use “justice,” “equality” and “fairness” to structure K-12 and university classes, degrading academic attainment and disciplinary merit in favour of political and social activism. The result is the woke generation – ideological and self-assured but, in the author’s view, often unteachable and nearly incapable of reasoning. (Sources of photos: (top) Trent University; (bottom left) The University of Virginia; (bottom right) Brock University)

Clearly, the education agenda has changed for the worse. As Michael Rectenwald writes in Springtime for Snowflakes, “The social and linguistic claims of social justice ideologues” issue in beliefs that are “unconstrained by the object world…[T]he determination of truth and reality [become] dogmatic, authoritarian and anti-rational.” Thus, the dismal Audre Lorde replaces Shakespeare as a literary giant, the sonnet is rusticated and “decolonized” as a product of “white western culture,” and coursework is prefaced by a pledge to honour current infatuations like Indigenous land rights and the mirage of “diversity and inclusion.” As the Turkish proverb has it, “When a clown enters the palace, he does not become king. The palace becomes a circus.”

For “social justice ideologues…the determination of truth and reality [becomes] dogmatic, authoritarian and anti-rational,” writes American scholar Michael Rectenwald (left). At the University of Pennsylvania, students replaced a portrait of William Shakespeare with that of “dismal” poet Audre Lorde (right) in the name of “diversity.”

While these institutional debits and failures remain in force, the crux of the issue lies elsewhere. Early reading in the home – that is, actual reading and being read to – is an advantage that cannot be overestimated. Education, as the adage has it, begins in the home with loving and responsible parents. Single moms and helicopter dads often won’t cut it; at the very least, the already considerable challenge steepens. According to Aristotle in the Politics, a child’s character and potentialities are formed by the age of seven, and there is considerable truth to that.

Absent parental supervision, students enter the school system at a deficit, which often carries through into post-secondary. “And that is perhaps the real tragedy of our education system,” writes Janice Fiamengo in an article for PJ Media, “not only that so many students enter university lacking the basic skills and knowledge to succeed in their courses – terrible in itself – but also that they often arrive essentially unteachable, lacking the personal qualities necessary to respond to criticism.”

Reclamation is dauntingly difficult. Ideally, we would need to assume native and untapped inclination in the student for serious study, a curriculum stressing the basics and expanding outward, an administration concerned with education rather than the political entrenchments that have dominated the university campus, unions that are not in bed with the syndics, and teachers who are themselves well-educated and professionally accountable.

The real tragedy, according to Janice Fiamengo (left): “Not only that so many students enter university lacking the basic skills and knowledge…but also that they often arrive essentially unteachable, lacking the personal qualities necessary to respond to criticism.”

This is to a troubling degree a Sisyphean proposition, starting at the prior levels. Teachers’ training college and a woke milieu, for example, have tended to reduce public school teachers to the status of computer bots, mindless algorithms and political activists invigilating a leftist agenda, topped by a pathological obsession with sex-and-gender. Given the current implausibility of massive reform, we may have to begin the restorative project elsewhere.

In my own practice, I was encouraged by the fact that some of my students proceeded to develop, with whatever assistance I could offer, their own bibliographic odysseys into the future – even in an age in which, as C2C Journal associate editor Patrick Keeney writes, “The paper book [has become] redundant, as hopelessly out-of-date as cassette recordings, video stores or rotary phones.” One recalls in this regard German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach’s famous remark, “We are what we eat,” emended in essayist Joseph Epstein’s obiter dicta, “In a sense, we are what we read.” Reading, Maryanne Wolf observes in Reader, Come Home, promotes a perspectival opening of the mind, an essential developmental phase of which untold millions are being robbed in our digital culture.

While 19th century German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach (left) held that, “We are what we eat”, American writer Joseph Epstein (middle) proposed that, “We are what we read.” Californian scholar and educator Maryanne Wolf (right) concurs, underscoring the importance of reading as a means of opening the young mind.

Although this flowering best and most easily occurs in childhood, my experience shows that young adulthood is not always too late. I can attest that a reading program undertaken in earnest and duly proctored over time contributes, at least for some students, to a growing love of books, along with a building command of grammar, syntax, usage and vocabulary as well as increasing mental agility. But in so depressed a contemporary learning climate, it means not only thinking but teaching outside the box.

For a number of years I introduced optional weekend seminars for interested students in my home, and they produced demonstrable results. Many picked up a love of reading and studied the books I recommended and discussed with them in a leisurely and convivial atmosphere. Morning encounters soon became all-day sessions. Students started bringing ample dishes of their mothers’ cooking so that our tutorials came to resemble a kind of moveable feast.

I began by acquainting each participant with Canadian history professor Hilda Neatby’s magnificent 1953 So Little for the Mind and her 1954 A Temperate Dispute, in which she recognized how poorly equipped her students were for lucid and substance-oriented thinking: “Ignorant of things they might be expected to know, they do not care to learn. They lack an object in life, they are unaware of the joy of achievement.” Neatby, who believed in the principle of merit and the inculcation of excellence, was neither an “elitist” nor a pedagogical Gradgrind, but a realist who believed in evident if unflattering truths.

As she declared in So Little for the Mind, “The ‘democratic society’ in the name of which education is steadily being watered down lives only…in the ability of the majority in varying degrees to inspire, support and use…the creative efforts of the gifted,” that is, to nurture aspiring, intelligent and diligent minds in process of formation. Though set down approximately two generations before our informal workshops, Neatby’s observations and strictures remained relevant to the academic situation and would serve, I trusted, as incentives for enhanced performance, for a desire to excel and become the kind of students she advocated for.

Hilda Neatby, a prominent mid-20th-century Canadian history professor and author of So Little for the Mind, warned that poorly equipped students “lack an object in life” and “are unaware of the joy of achievement.” The democratic society, she asserted, should live “to inspire, support and use…the creative efforts of the gifted.”

And it worked. My students’ classroom performance and writing ability improved, as did their grades. I would set them tasks like comparing Shakespeare’s Coriolanus with Dostoevsky’s The Possessed, readings more often than not beyond their immediate capabilities but enlivened and leavened by rapt discussion. Students registered in the Faculty of Science and taking their compulsory English course were fascinated by our discussion of The Divine Comedy and its relation to scientific discovery; measuring the coordinates of Dante’s imaginary Inferno led to Galileo’s discovery of the square-cube law and the science of scaling theory.

Our conversations about the nature of humanism and the quest for nobility flowed from selective readings in such texts as the anonymous chivalric romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel and Cervantes’ Don Quixote. The students would deliver short essays for group commentary. Errors would be flagged and corrected. These informal efforts ultimately “took.”

Another way of putting the issue is in Medieval terms, where we find a learning model, mutatis mutandis, as pertinent today as it was centuries ago. The subjects taught in the liberal arts university of the Medieval period were divided into the trivium (grammar, logic and rhetoric) and the quadrivium (geometry, arithmetic, astronomy and music). One could not commence the quadrivium until assimilating the trivium. But there is a twist in the sequence. In today’s oxymoronic “learning environment,” students must first be convinced that the quadrivium is a value in itself and a goal to be sought if they are to apply themselves to the trivium. Fortunately, in the present context, both endeavors can be pursued at the same time. In other words, serious reading and remedial grammar instruction may be coterminous. One learns grammar and syntax at the same time as one reads Yeats and Kafka.

Such was the working principle behind my home classes. And it was surprisingly effective. Fit though few, students who desired to improve their writing, reading and conversational skills and who had internalized the grammatical, syntactical, phrasal and structural conventions of the language could proceed to the next phase, described by Rabelais as having a good time while applying oneself to study or, as he put it, drinking to your heart’s desire while reading of the fearsome exploits of his towering humanist, Pantagruel. (The name seems to be a conflation of Greek for “all” or “always” and Arabic dialect – or Hagarene – for “thirsty.” Makes sense.) This is the stage of reading-intoxication and the assimilative joy of learning that completes the educative process.

Can today’s Gen Zs even envision “reading-intoxication,” in which the reader leaps internally from mere learning into a state of ravenous intellectual insatiability? Shown at left is Pantagruel’s Meal from Francois Rabelais’s Pantagruel, engraved by Paul Jonnard-Pac.

This “program” is not as fanciful or improbable as some may think. I suspected that with the right approach, many students would prove responsive. I have received messages and visits from former students who were grateful for this “home schooling,” many saying that these conclaves conducted over several semesters signalled a turning point in their academic careers and their lives.

“Thanks for Pantagruel,” one of my visitors and now an avid reader said over a bottle of Burgundy. Another, remembering her Coriolanus, wrote “The Volscians are all around us” – and she was right. Another mentioned Robert Browning’s great poem Andrea del Sarto,” which we had studied with reference to the Italian High Renaissance. “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp/Or what’s a heaven for?” was the memorable line that continued to inspire him. Still another quipped that our home classes were nothing less than an academic version of Mission: Impossible, and quoted Ethan Hunt’s, “Could we get a cappuccino machine in here, ’cause I don’t know what you call this?”, alluding to the detritus strewn about by the education establishment and to our compensating festival-like colloquia.

Now, the good news: Author David Solway’s private tutoring method enabled struggling and seemingly unteachable students to transform themselves not only into functional readers but lovers of literature whose minds came alive through discovery. Many went on to successful careers in the professions, science and writing, plus fulfilling family lives.

I recall fondly a “hopeless case,” a part-time street thug in whom I sensed a latent talent and whom I coaxed to try out our weekend confabs. Putting away his switchblades and baseball bats, he became in time an exemplary student, earned the second-highest marks in my satire and poetry classes, proclaimed himself my personal bodyguard and, now an engineer, still professes a love for Jonathan Swift and Philip Larkin, on whom he wrote two very fine term-papers. Three of my students became teachers. Most went into business, the professions and the sciences. Another is a writer who has sent me his manuscripts for vetting. Everyone with whom I remained in contact was successful in his or her chosen field and a productive member of society. Several of the girls, now married women, would send photos of their growing families.

Much has changed in the years since I decided to take early retirement to devote myself to writing, at a rate of acceleration that is frankly astonishing. What I see around me today resembles a different planet and the students I observed during visiting lecturer stints in the public schools and universities – the snowflakes, the social justice warriors, the budding feminists, the proto-Marxists, the media trolls, the insurgency recruits – seem like extra-terrestrials.

Spelling, grammar, syntax and logical concinnity, as well as what E.D. Hirsch called “cultural literacy,” are regarded as conspiracies waged against the millennials’ self-appointed virtuosity, abetted by teachers who are equally sub-standard and an education system dedicated to failure. Many are victims, author Tyler O’Neil writes, of “progressive intersectional leftism.” The point was emphatically made by Thomas Sowell in Inside American Education: what students are learning is “presumptuous superficiality, taught by practitioners of it.”

Recipe for failure: As conservative commentator Tyler O’Neil (left) noted, today’s students are victims of “progressive intersectional leftism,” echoing Thomas Sowell’s (right) assertion that, “Worse than what they are not learning is what they are learning – presumptuous superficiality, taught by practitioners of it.”

Recipients of what may be called “trophy education,” receiving participation awards and inflated grades for manifest trivialities, are for the most part dysfunctional, some in their schooled ignorance believing they have been mandated to redeem a nation and civilization they do not understand and which they have been taught to abhor, others assuming their feelings are the only criterion of excellence, attainment and even truth. They have become not literate citizens but institutional foot soldiers in the cultural revolution. As Jordan Peterson remarks, they are bent on cleaning up the world, but their rooms are a mess.

The same goes for their cortical rooms. Many would regard people like me as relics of a defunct tradition or as intellectual fascists and patriarchal oppressors to be denounced, doxxed and “terminated.” Barring a miracle or a change in cultural sensibility, it would be more difficult than ever to persuade them to attend anything like my weekend symposia. And quite probably pointless. Seeing no need for study, reflection and conversation about the great books, the structural elements of language and the delights of true learning, their writing would remain inoperable, their thinking rote-based and primitive, and their speech halting, empty and cliché-ridden, speckled by the irritating phatic “like,” a semantic evasion that signals cerebral absence. It would appear the “little grey cells” have been adversely affected.

This is where we have arrived. As Jesse Watters, host of Watters’ World on the FOX News channel, has abundantly demonstrated in his roving video interviews of university students, tyro stupefaction is epidemic. Owing nothing to what came before, which would have afforded them the opportunity to gain a genuine education in a world preserved for them at great cost, today’s “empowered” students are purportedly sufficient unto themselves. The “goods” of our civilization, the belief in the rule of law, respect for tradition, reverence for life, intellectual development, and the moral norms of communal existence mean little to them. Untutored and self-satisfied, subject, as Thaddeus McCotter laments in a critical essay The Murder of Wisdom, “to a deluge of inanity and narcissism,” they cannot write and they cannot think. Like the Roman centurion who slew Archimedes – an archetype for our times – they have no respect for intellectual curiosity and accomplishment.

Where we have arrived: As documented in Jesse Watters’s (top and bottom left, holding the microphone) Watters’ World, students’ ignorance and obliviousness have become near-ubiquitous. Coupled with arrogance and perceived self-sufficiency, their minds are rid of both gratitude and responsibility. In the author’s view, they are akin to the Roman centurion who heedlessly slew Greek scientist Archimedes in 212 or 211 BC. (Source of two left screenshots: The FOX News Channel)

Worse, it appears they know everything they basically need to know, as influential progressivist educator John Dewey affirmed 120 years ago in such works as The Child and the Curriculum and Democracy and Education, no doubt influenced by William Wordsworth’s idea in his famous “Ode” of the child as “best philosopher” and “seer blest” who comes “trailing clouds of glory” into the world. Ignorance was dogmatically construed as innocence and even virtue.

Traditional modes of instruction were just force-feeding. The child or student needed only to be stimulated or primed to discover the wisdom he or she already possessed (though at the same time was rendered susceptible to mentorial indoctrination). Dewey’s child-centred and “progressive” revolution in public pedagogy led to the present moment in which the academic cartel, in both public and university education, has traded honest teaching, academic rigour and merit-based instruction to cater to the young person’s incendiary ardour for change. A generation of petulant Greta Thunbergs emerges from the pedagogical crèche.

Root of the problem: William Wordsworth’s (left) idea of the child as “best philosopher” was fused with progressivist John Dewey’s (right) educational theories to revolutionize public pedagogy into the child-centred or “progressive” model widely in use today. (Source of right photo: The United States Library of Congress/Wikipedia Commons)

The current regime entails “social justice,” politically correct groupthink, LGBTQ+ promotion, post-colonial theories, critical race theory (CRT), toxic masculinity studies, “gender-inclusive biology,” and anti-white and anti-Western passions, blazoned as “racial reckoning.” The discriminatory profiling of such forcememes is assiduously advanced by a malignant institutional narrative fixated on “social engineering,” allowing for what Concordia University professor Gad Saad in The Parasitic Mind calls “idea pathogens” to circulate and take root.

We note that the plan to entrench CRT in Canadian schools is gathering momentum, unfortunately with only sporadic resistance. As Candice Malcom writes at True North, CRT proponents “teach trendy leftist concepts like ‘white privilege’ and ‘white fragility’ and they tell children that Canada was built to ‘serve the interests of white people.’” This is the fundamental belief held by those pushing CRT, a modern version of classic Marxism and its core principle of awakening class consciousness to ignite a social revolution. Students are the new proletariat.

The present-day education “diet” includes instructions on toxic masculinity, critical race theory, LGBTW+ promotion, “gender-inclusive biology,” and various anti-white and anti-colonial notions. (Sources of photos: (top left) Sundry Photography/Shutterstock; (top right) GrandAve/Shutterstock)

I confess to moments of quiet despair but continue to believe against the tide that, to cite Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem,” “There is a crack, a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” We must try one way or another to broaden the ray, although my form of advocacy will be regarded by the “experts” as an expression of mere idealism, a romantic excursion into the realm of rosy dreams and diaphanous nonsense. Admittedly, the realpolitik of the situation seems almost irreversible. One thing is for sure. Not only will much of the current crop of students not achieve language competence, some degree of mental lucidity and any detectable usefulness to society, they will likely never experience Neatby’s “joy of achievement,” and that is the shame of a generation.

Is there any hope, or is hope merely unrealistic, the last ill in Pandora’s Box? Thaddeus McCotter concludes his essay by quoting Edmund Burke’s First Letter on a Regicide Peace: even when wisdom and knowledge “seemed plunged in unfathomable abysses of disgrace and disaster, they have suddenly emerged…and even in the depths of their calamity, and on the very ruins of their country, have laid the foundations of a towering and durable greatness. All this has happened without any apparent change in the general circumstances.” This seems a stretch. Change can come only from concerned parents, real teachers, true scholars and enlightened administrators, if you can find them.

British philosopher and economist Edmund Burke believed that even when wisdom and knowledge “seemed plunged in unfathomable abysses of disgrace and disaster, they [could] suddenly emerge…on the very ruins of their country, [laying] the foundations of a towering and durable greatness.”

There is no substitute for an authentic liberal education. As Joseph Epstein pointedly asserts in A Literary Education, “Without it, we shall no longer have a segment of the population that has a proper standard with which to judge true intellectual achievement…or what in life is serious and what is trivial. The loss of liberal arts education can only result in…the vaunting of the second-and third-rate in politics and art, the supremacy of the faddish and fashionable in all of life.” And more: liberal education is a good in itself. It enriches, strengthens and matures the individual; its loss hurts not only those who are thereby deprived but, over time, degrades and weakens civilization itself. Higher education, as Epstein says, has gone into a “steep decline”; it is really “lower education.” The gated and insular academy, dedicated to the mantra of diversity, inclusion and equity rather than to competent and responsible instruction, is intellectually bankrupt and morally deciduous.

It is not inconceivable that some, perhaps a growing number, of students might respond favorably to a new redemptive strategy, seeing themselves as a fellowship of pioneers (another noble term recently discarded for the contemptuous “settler”). My former students retained a sense of privileged camaraderie. Several wrote that they stay in touch with former classmates. One figures he escaped the university debacle in the nick of time, thanks to “unanticipated events,” a generous reference to our parietal sessions.

The question is: Where to begin anew? How do we embark on a deprogramming exercise? Rectenwald stresses that our “efforts must be accompanied by positive recommendations,” by a new ethos that fosters reading, study, patience and mindfulness. Similarly, Joseph LeDoux in his groundbreaking Synaptic Self urges the pressing need to prudently allocate “cortical resources,” involving an “executive shift of attention,” to books and reading, which help us to activate memory and thought “in order to be yourself…to remember who you are,” and to develop and maintain a rich and healthy personality.

Perhaps we begin with small, incremental initiatives. Perhaps with brave individual practitioners devoted to learning and teaching, in love with the craft and who are masters of their disciplines, although at present they can only be a hen’s teeth minority. Perhaps with patriot parents challenging their woke schoolboards, a phenomenon that in just months has mushroomed into a major political force in the U.S. and is clearly terrifying the Democrat establishment. Or with more widespread home schooling and Charter schools. Perhaps with start-up, online universities like Jordan Peterson’s new venture. Perhaps with the gradual emergence of more liberal brick-and-mortar institutions like Hillsdale College, Grove City College and St. John’s College in the U.S. and Trinity Western University in Canada. Perhaps with all or many at the same time.

Perhaps, as Burke observed in a different context, it is already quietly occurring without any observable change in the general circumstances. Indeed, the new University of Austin in Texas should serve as a model and harbinger for future development, treating of topics – aka “Forbidden Courses” – that most universities frown upon or censor. “We are done waiting for the legacy universities to right themselves,” says inaugural president Pano Kanelos, “and so, we are building anew,” willing to engage in “spirited discussion about the most provocative questions.” Liberal education is predicated on “a certain metaphysical understanding of human beings,” namely, “the idea that the best way for human beings to seek flourishing is to do so in an environment that provides freedom of thought and freedom of speech.”

The beginnings of change? To “de-program” younger generations will take Herculean effort, including direct engagement by millions of parents, more homeschooling, and selecting alternative but classically liberal institutions like those that, according to president of the University of Austin Pano Kanelos (bottom right), lead “spirited discussion about the most provocative questions.” (Sources of photos: (left) Patrick Breen/The Republic; (bottom right) Youtube/The Ramsay Centre For Western Civilisation)

My seminar students would have enthusiastically approved, as if our weekend get-togethers had been amplified and installed on an official basis. This is a giant step for academic-kind: teaching outside the box, learning outside the system. Lagging behind many of their American counterparts, Canadian public schools and institutions of higher learning that are invested in woke ideology and still going further down that awful road should pay close attention.

Each foray or iteration in genuine education reform represents an alternative to the system still in place, together forming a growing challenge to the cultural decadence that has corrupted the farcical collective of contemporary education. There is a long way to go but hopefully still time to pursue and realize a pedagogical and curricular Mission: Impossible, offering real courses and focusing on the needs and personality of the student, the toothing stones of proper educational practice. Which is to say, getting a cappuccino machine in here instead of the soulless, institutional apparatus that has effectively destroyed the adventure of education in the progressivist West.

David Solway’s most recent volume of poetry, The Herb Garden, appeared in 2018 with Guernica Editions. His manifesto, Reflections on Music, Poetry & Politics, was released by Shomron Press in 2016. He has produced two CDs of original songs: Blood Guitar and Other Tales (2014) and Partial to Cain (2019) on which he is accompanied by his pianist wife Janice Fiamengo. His latest book is Notes from a Derelict Culture, Black House Publishing, 2019, London.

Source of main image: Shutterstock.

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