Timothy D. Sullivan
This article grew out of a participation in a college level program intended to acquaint students with the heritage of Western civilisation. Teams made up of members from different departments gave the lectures, usually in their own subject areas but not always. At the same time, the topic of an educational crisis was ongoing, and a crisis in formal education held out the possibility that formal education is no longer an education. Whether the problematic status of education was to be understood of curricula, staff, or students, or some combination of these, was not a prominent topic, and so I thought to distinguish the weight of each, and their relation in the functioning of formal education.

Since institutions require change and some form of renewal, the functioning of formal education could be expected to undergo crises; but at another level, the justification for formal education presented a more "careful" problem. Is there more than one justification; if the same justification is applicable overall, do all require the same formal education? Beyond poor test scores, questionable curricula and instruction, beyond conflicting functions and problematic justifications were the civilisational changes which inevitably affect formal education, and which include the part played by the international economy. Since extensive treatment of the individual elements would be out of place, it is the intent of this article to concentrate on the polarity which is present in the functioning and justification for formal education; and present also in the contending notions of excellence.

Structures and Quality

Whenever education is in crisis—which has been the case for longer than the decades of the 1980s or 1990s—the "usual" questions have to do with the curriculum, the quality of teaching (secondary and tertiary), the training of teachers (secondary rather than tertiary), improving basic skills (secondary usually, but often a problem in tertiary institutions), the need for more investment in education and for higher salaries, which questions are largely ones of effective functioning. What is not so often in question is the justification for the existence of tertiary and secondary institutions. The justifications of their enterprise include, but are not limited to, simply an education, or a well-educated work force, the two not being identical.

Functions at the tertiary level are scientific and intellectual training, but also technical and vocational. The functions are carried on at different levels. At the tertiary level there are the most selective of their student body, the highly selective, very selective, selective, and everybody else. There are, too, the most expensive, the less expensive, the expensive, the inexpensive, and the "free," with the two hierarchies being not necessarily congruent. There has even been a status register of tertiary educational institutions. Just as in secondary education where one can find pupils progressing through the college course at an (a) advanced placement, (b) honors, (c) or college level, so at the tertiary level the "quality" of the student body determines the level of instruction, and not the other way around. For this to take place, education at the tertiary level will be administered to an institutional standard, as distinct from the standard one would expect of a specific discipline or science. The managers who make educational decisions make institutional rather than content decisions, but were an institutional and departmental (individual) standard to clash, there is weight in the institutional standard. This bureaucratization of education can take the educational standard out of the hands of teachers, instructors and professors. It makes possible a college education suited to the level of an individual institution, and therefore makes possible several layers of a college or university education. Education in America has presented itself in the market place with all the diversity of other goods and services.

With these distinctions in mind, the "yes and no" of the title are not just concerned with the success or failure of education. They have a triple import: is what takes place education; is what takes place that which is purported to take place; how accurate is it to speak of education in a univocal sense? That the question of education's success or failure is most often emphasized is repetitive of what happens as regards the economy. When the economy's functioning becomes problematic, the questions raised are how to restore its "direction," reinvestment, growth, productivity. Included in this is the concern for jobs, the standard of living, and stable personal and family life. What is not often included are the justifications for economic activity, and the relation between the society and the economy. The focus as regards the troubled economy is usually too narrow to refer to the fundamental assumptions. Troubled educational systems are examined, or mis-examined, in a similar way. To this parallel we will return. What then about the import of the title?

If we ask our first question, namely, is what takes place an education, then we find in it a series of questions. For example, is a correspondence between formal education and the intellectual and social world assumed? If it is, then formal education and contemporary society form reciprocating relationships. If it is not, then formal education is not integrative in function, and education is about something other than the social, intellectual and "practical" world within which it is carried on. There are certain instances of formal education where this is at least partly the case; one example being the education of religious societies wherein meditation, prayer, reflection on a sacred text, are not finally circumscribed by their time or place.

This should warn us of the difficulty in deciding if what takes place is education. We do have a valuable clue, however. If education can be defined in "other-worldly" and "worldly" ways (and in this latter case there are distinctions, notably, practical and liberal, for example), then it becomes apparent that education is defined according to a cultural norm. For example, in ancient Greece according to an aristocratic arete; or, a university education in the Middle Ages; or, education by multiversity in the twentieth (and presumably twenty-first) century. They are not reducible one to the other. We know, therefore, that a judgement on what is an education, or what is not, will be a function of a culture, but also of a philosophical anthropology; and to anticipate our second question, we may add that even if we assume agreement on cultural and philosophical matters, it may still be the case that education is not taking place. For by any definition it may simply fail to achieve its practical, liberal or "other-worldly" goals. It may fail to achieve these objectives in part or in whole.

To the second question, is what takes place, for example, in tertiary institutions what is said to take place in them, our answer will in no small way depend upon the answers to the first series of questions. If education is defined in a utilitarian manner, then what is taking place can be measured by its correspondence to (a) a labor market, (b) a market need, (c) the level of formation of enterprises. Should utility not be regarded as the critical measure of education, then possibly a liberal or humanist criterion would be such a measure. In that case, the person formed by such a training is the measure both of what is taking place and whether it is that which is said to be taking place.

Finally, our third question, is it accurate to speak of education in a univocal sense? Obviously there are ways in which all formal education is both similar and different. Of the difference: the circle of nobles who accompanied Agamemnon to Troy were educated men; clerics in the Middle Ages schooled in Augustine and the Church Fathers were educated; today, individuals schooled in liberal arts institutions, then trained in professional schools, count this as their education. Of the sameness: a knowledge of the past, of a people's accomplishments, of their literature—oral or written—a facility in speech, to read and to write (given an alphabet), to sing and compose, and physical training, remain constitutive of education and a formal curriculum. If we speak of education in a univocal sense, how adequate this may be is a question.

In order to give at least a preliminary response to these knots we can examine them historically, for they are not novelties; and the debates occasioned by them are traditional. Because of that, much wisdom has already been evidenced in attempting to find solutions. What we should like to draw from this experience is the precise definition of our questions, the consequences of choices made in response to the questions, and how urgent is the need to acknowledge the reciprocal relation between our educational crises and our civilisational crises.

The Original Polarity

For Western civilisation, education has a primary source in the Sophist's introduction of the study of grammar (the rules of language), rhetoric (oratory: the power to sway and convince), and dialectic (the laws of thought), identified by Jaeger in <Paideia>. Instruction in gymnastic, music and mathematics was no longer to be joined to the noble tradition of the "castle"; it was replaced by the "school." And the <arete> of aristocratic family life, with its breeding of excellence in the next generation, encountered another ideal, namely, instruction by the Sophists.

The Sophists were restructuring education. Not only rhetoric, but linguistics and literature would be a part of a curriculum suited to the social, economic and political structures. Their interest in man in place of the early Ionian interest in the "stuff" of the universe made them originators of a humanist tradition. The Sophists, too, have been acknowledged as the founders of the theory of democratic education, since noble birth was not necessary to acquire the skills they taught, "upward mobility" could be acquired for a fee. In practice it was the sons of the aristocracy—namely, the oligarchs—who most often benefited from instruction. Theoretically, however, it remains important that reason could be considered the possession of all, for that meant the "masses," in principle, could be educated.

Protagoras was first among the Sophists. He could not say if the gods did exist, or if they did not, nor could he find in opposing statements that one was true and the other false. Between two such statements both could be true. But the truth of one was to be preferred to the truth of the other. And, of course, there is his statement that man is the measure of all things, which has not ceased to be a source of disputed interpretation.

Where the Sophist position allowed for the relativity of truth in religious and moral questions, it was the judgement of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle that truth and falsity are discerned through the identification of contradictions. Since the good and the true are not relativistic, choices are required which carry moral authority. This tradition asserted that there were definite reasons for rejecting some actions. And if man is the measure of all things, he is so because as mind he is united to all things. Socrates (whose methods were not always discernible from the Sophists), Plato and Aristotle, were as opposed to metaphysical and moral relativism as they were to impiety; and these three are considered a mainstay of Western intellectual life. At the beginning of the Western educational ideal the dichotomy is present. It is never more impressive than in Plato's dialogues where we encounter Socrates' reservations, even condemnations (he was not the first to make such judgements) regarding parts of Homer, the poets and dramatists (themselves included in the corpus of Western cultural tradition). To Socrates and Plato the use of rhetorical devices in poetry and plays, in addition to their use in political oratory, was manipulative; it was for that reason they were considered ignoble. They saw the treatment of religion, of the gods, in intellectual critiques and in plays as equally indefensible. This division over education, intellectual activity, and literature, was occurring by the middle of the fifth century in Athens.

For his part, Protagoras argued for the fluctuating nature of the concept. This meant there were no stable essences, thereby undermining epistemic certainty and universal value; but he also assigned to the soul the task of mastering experience both natural and social, for it is on the individual's experience that education must impose a formal understanding. It is an educational task, but also an ethical one; it is, too, a political task, the state being the great teacher. But the ethical and political virtue inherent in the effort are based on a reason not guided by nature. Truth and virtue, for some of the Sophists, are the function of a consensus.

Socrates, Plato and Aristotle attacked this position as vitiating truth and morals. Both Plato and Aristotle, however, are also broadening the older aristocratic <arete> (honor, courage, nobility of character) to an arete of the intellectual and moral virtues. Intellectual life could be speculative and scientific in act, and noble and moral in performance. But for Plato and Aristotle virtue and excellence are the perfecting of man within the framework of realities which are greater than man: truth and value are discovered; they are not the result of human will or "consensus." For Homeric society, and later Plato and Aristotle, this excellence was worthy of its reward.

Whatever Protagoras' intent, later Sophists saw wealth, power and possessions as the sign of one's excellence. In Periclean Athens excellence became established on the basis of possessing the "reward." The fact that excellence and reward are intimately related in both traditions has made it possible for the reversal in their relationship to be passed over. This division has accompanied the literary and intellectual heritage of Western culture, and it arises, then, as now, out of a confusion of means and ends. With this in mind, education—the breeding or instructing of individuals—is divided between the goals of perfection, excellence of character, and the acquisition of the skills which are the means to possession and status. But in addition, there is the responsibility of indicating the priority among these tasks.

The Economy and Education

Lester Thurow wrote that U.S. education from kindergarten to grade 12 graduates pupils who, at the age of eighteen, know less than others their age in the industrial world.1 To improve that record he cites two necessary changes. The length and number of school days, which are greater elsewhere, would be increased. Second is the need for a quality standard, one set by someone other than the "local teachers," since that arrangement no longer works. If it were working at least one of the tens of thousands of school boards would run a system with achievement levels equal to those in Europe. Even the best of the nation's private schools do not accomplish so much.

Thurow's article is a commentary on the "accomplishments" of the schools, but its focus is on their relationship to income; the specific topic of his article is the depression in wages between 1973 and 1990. At the end of 1990 weekly wages were seventeen percent below the 1973 level. This is true of about two-thirds of the work force (the U.S. Labor Department refers to them as non-supervisory workers). The source of this depression in wages lies in a world economy where the American worker is not more skilled than workers at lower wages elsewhere. Wages in America, therefore, go lower, or firms or jobs go abroad. To reverse this continuing decline in earnings, which will continue in the 1990s, education shall have to undergo "major changes"; and the point where these comments intersect with our topic is in Thurow's emphasis on education as a "skill acquisition system."

When Robert Reich spoke to the World Affairs Council in San Francisco during April 1991, he cited the economic success of those who are manipulators of symbols. Symbolic analyzers obviously benefit from the "best" education. Their skills in problem solving, for example, avoided the decline in income cited above. But there is a rift between these earners and others, and the rift begins in the schools. Education is a part of the American infrastructure; it is being left to the fate of bridges, roads, water and sewer lines. One fifth of the educational "system" functions as a premier skills acquisition system. After that is the second tier. Reich argues, in effect, that eighty percent of American education is a "throw-away." True, the United States has some of the best universities in the world. But it has others which are not of that quality.

Thurow argues that those high school graduates who go on to tertiary educational institutions will "catch up" during their college years. Whether the "catching up" is to secondary levels elsewhere, or tertiary levels elsewhere, is not clear. There is in the article, I believe, a presumption that tertiary education is an effective skill acquisition system.

Reich's comments concerning educational "throw-away" are an assessment, evidently, of the secondary system. But an eighty percent rate means that the percentage of secondary graduates entering tertiary education who are not prepared, poorly prepared, or lacking basic skills, is high. If 50 out of 100 high school graduates enter tertiary institutions, only 20 of the 50 are graduates of educational institutions which are not a "throw away." The other 30 are from "failed" secondary institutions. Since that latter 30 constitutes sixty percent of the tertiary student population, sixty percent of undergraduates (and what number of colleges and universities) are engaged in a marginal education.2

Economists and political economists find it necessary to comment on the crisis of American education since it is intertwined with the American and global economy. We can recall the comment, made near the beginning, regarding parallels between the functions and justifications of education, and the functions and justifications of the economy. It has been said of market economies that left to themselves they will separate the economy out from society, then have the society "dancing" in attendance upon the economy. Education does not escape this fate; it, too, "waits" upon the economy and is evaluated by means of criteria which can measure the economy. The resultant criticisms are often more immediately cogent than critical appraisal centered, for example, on <arete>, excellence or virtue. Such criticisms in isolation could result in an education which is illiberal (the term is Plato's). They have no justification for education beyond that of the acquisition of skills, and what is implicit in that, namely, the prosperity of the community, without which communal life is degraded; but prosperity is not the essence of communal life. If education were defined as "skill acquisition," a personal, intellectual and cultural "poverty" may accompany prosperity, and may even be widespread: materially rich, culturally poor. And at the moment, material success may be fading. These comments do not reject the validity, however, of criticism based upon per capita income. Such criticism is apparently justified, and therefore necessary. But it is a criticism of education defined in only one of its senses.

The Other Crises in Education

Though much is being said and written, perhaps more written than said, about the crises in American education at the secondary and tertiary level, not much of it is without precedent. When one reflects, it would be more surprising if American education had been through a century of approval and acclaim. Why should all the other social unities, the family, the community, the church, be in difficulty, but not education? Criticism is directed at both secondary and tertiary institutions, but beyond the professional journals the crisis in secondary education is more the subject of publicity, though it is not possible that the crisis at the secondary level should disappear at the level of the colleges and universities. While all secondary pupils do not attend tertiary educational institutions, all students at the latter level have prior studies at the secondary level. In effect, academic faculty for the most part have also been instructed in the same crisis characterized secondary institutions. Therefore, the questions are unavoidable. Are colleges and universities qualified to educate, and to educate in what sense? If some are qualified, how many are not?

If education requires the transmission of Western culture, then the content of instruction must embody languages (linguistics too), rhetoric (problems in speaking and writing at the tertiary level have led to remedial courses for both of these activities), dialectic ("critical thinking, informal logic, logic), gymnastic (where physical education is to achieve a harmony of body and spirit, in order that one may be disposed to "receive" the tradition), and philosophical discourse (which is integrative of science, the performing and plastic arts). In order for that type of instruction to take place at the tertiary level some preparation is necessary at the secondary level. But that is not happening.

At the tertiary level, the Great Books curriculum is one response to this particular crisis. It has staked out a claim to transmit the intellectual and cultural content of a civilisation and has a number of formats. Sometimes it occurs in one year, sometimes in two. The curriculum may be interdisciplinary and lectures given by various departments. There are a few institutions whose undergraduate programs are centered on the Great Books over a four year period. With the exception of the four year program, the Great Books curriculum is a remedial program.

Part of the crisis is the question of the "particularities" of America, and the place of the "nations" in America. Peoples from other countries continue to arrive in the U.S. As part of American society what is to be their education? If each people brings their own culture into educational institutions, one supposes that it would be the humanities curriculum which would be transformed; the natural and mathematical sciences are "universal" by design. The transformation could be within the limits of Western civilisation, or it could go beyond that civilisation. In the first instance one would emphasize a heritage and a culture which were not that of the new homeland, but were still in the continuum of a Western identity. In the second instance, Western civilisation as a legacy constitutive of an identity would be displaced. Beyond a most important obligation to help persons prepare for their material and economic responsibilities is the responsibility to identify a people's relation to the past and to the present—particularly if that present is in a new country. There is no pedagogical reason to ignore diverse cultures, or to promote, on the other hand, cultural balkanization. Formal education, in general, and public education in particular, do not have to be uniform throughout any "human" aspect of the curriculum. It is both a matter of right and responsibility to prepare persons by formal education to transmit cultural identity; it is equally a matter of right and obligation to prepare persons for the responsibilities of citizenship. To emphasize the former only would ignore what is owed to the actual homeland; to emphasize the latter only is to put the person, as a person, secondary to the political structures, and possibly to the status quo, and to those who may most benefit by it.

This last conviction has added venom to the crisis. For some time the liberal arts have been more appreciated than pursued, but their marginalization, and the attack upon what is described as the "canon," is not only a forgetting or an act of indifference. They have also been rejected. In the case of the canon, they are rejected for not allowing cultural diversity, for being a form of cultural imperialism, and a means of class oppression. These assertions are based on a judgement that the canon is in the "grip" of an elite or a dominant class with the result that the canon becomes an instrument of cultural perspective which is identified with class power. Comparisons are made between the state's (or establishment's) influence in formation of curricula, and a penal institution's control over the lives of inmates. The prison and the state, it has been suggested, share a similar power of oppression. That the canon is a preserve for whites, and white males, therefore is prejudiced towards cultures of color, has been said too. In these views the literature of the West is not the transmission of a treasure. Hesiod, Virgil, the Graeco-Roman and Middle Ages, do not undergird a civilisational continuum which defines the present. Rather such literature is reduced to one part of culture, and a class dominated, racist part of culture.

From this point of view the crisis in the marginalization of "traditional" studies is an opportunity, not a crisis; multiple cultures can become part of the curriculum. In that case a knowledge of Western civilisation must be one particular choice among others. No one tradition would be seen as actuating a contemporary civilisational identity. There is a serious pedagogical question in such a choice. The assumption that diverse cultures can be "translated" into our first-world (international) languages, and are then class room communicable, ignores cultural "distance." (MacIntyre has argued this convincingly.) There is a great difference between bringing the student to a culture, and bringing the culture to the student. The latter choice loses the "difference" by ignoring the problem of "translation." Indeed, its practitioners seem oblivious to the existence of the problem; it is an extension of the problem present already in imparting the Great Books or the canon. Namely, most of the professors engaged in these courses of instruction are incompetent. Bok, President of Harvard University, made this judgement in his annual report to the University trustees for 1990.

Formal education, with these problems, reverberates to the civilisational crises of industrial and then post-industrial, society. These societal transformations have come to include public education's rejection of religious and metaphysical traditions that had been the bases for the institutional formation of each generation. At the same time, the curriculum may be thought to be in balance only if it reflects multi-cultural or ethnic diversity. This is meant to acknowledge all contributions to American culture (where it is not merely <ressentiment>), but given the absence of an intellectual "horizon," namely a religious or metaphysical framework to unify all knowledge, it is not methodologically possible in this effort to avoid eclecticism. Successive visions of education, as a result, follow one another. Obviously an education which defines its purpose as the transmitting of a cultural identity, in such conditions, will fail. If individual culture and identity, however, are considered distinct from formal education's imparting of skills, then the failure to define a cultural identity may be ignored. This combination of a school population, K through 16, with a curriculum which neither supposes nor proposes a vision of what is a human education, means formal education has become mass education: a formation with less and less reference to tradition and identity.

The Same and the Different

It is modern to think of these developments as original. There is a great deal here, however, which is the "same." In the fifth and fourth centuries, Greece percolated with societal changes which equally were civilisational changes: war, revolution, political and economic transformation, naturalistic and rationalistic critiques of religion. Education felt every wind of change. Had it been aristocratic? Now it would be democratic! Were objective educational standards hierarchical, rooted in "breeding" and "blood," and capped by absolutes? Now they would be levelled down; each would be his own measure. Faced with the social trauma of sweeping societal change in the fifth century, Pericles had sought to make the state the great teacher. In order that the pursuit of wealth should not put an end to virtue, and too, to inhibit the reversal of excellence and reward, he transferred the qualities constitutive of excellence from the individual citizen to the polis. One might describe it as "saving the appearances," but those appearances could preserve the cultural continuum.

At present, national and cosmopolitan interests contest each other's primacy. For the economy and politics it is in the polarity of nationalism and internationalism; for education, divergence over the liberal curriculum focuses on the conflict of the "traditional" and the cosmopolitan. In the past, if Socrates' political and educational outlook were "local" that of Protagoras was cosmopolitan. Sophists (and Stoics) asserted the ideal of a global citizenship in place of parochial ideals and while Socrates preferred to die in Athens as opposed to living in exile from his polis, the Sophists were itinerants for whom the city-state was a "base." The polarity here is original, perhaps even primordial: Socratic-sophistic, objectivist-relativist, aristocratic-democratic. In effect, contemporary divergence over quality, excellence and purpose, continue the earlier duality, and do so by the very nature of the issues involved. If we have had conflict over the ideal of education as between the clergymen and the laymen, the generalist and the specialist, between <arete> and success, the unity underlying the divergence has been the heritage of Western civilisation itself. But there is also present in the crisis a novel element.

Greek playwrights in the fifth century utilized elements from much earlier literature as vehicles for the presentation of contemporary dilemmas. Later Latin writers linked themselves to that same Greek past. Not to forget the sweeping emulation during the Renaissance of classical sculpture, architecture, and, too, the revival of Platonism. But with the modern period has come an effort to abandon part or all of this past. At first a formalist reason was to be the instrument of such change. Today, the promotion of all cultures, in so far as Western civilisation would be an "option" as opposed to being "one's own," would achieve a similar result. Since the West owes its present definition to its past, this is a curious intellectual posture. Too, it places in relief the cultural self-knowledge of those who promote such change. In the classical doctrine of the virtues (justice being the specific virtue) such a posture would be called ingratitude, for we owe more to our parents, our homeland, our culture, than we can repay. Of course, a cultural strain which would "remove" the past has some precedent as well. The atoms and void of Greek cosmology meant a world devoid of finality, and therefore of purpose. Greek civilisation harbored its own meaninglessness. It had, too, a saving grace in this regard; without a creed, the polis promoted cult, which established "concord" for the citizens. At present, legislation and court rulings produce effects in educational institutions; but the state promotes no cult.

The state is still the great teacher but now mass education institutionalizes an ethical and religious relativism. It is a novel element that goes beyond the original polarities. Mass education devoid of any culturally unified vision—for political or pedagogical reasons—and willing to abandon its own civilisational identity, or, to preserve it in the absence of a public vision (concord), indicates a change in social, political and economic institutions. The family, the state and the economy are transformed in their relationships to one another, and in themselves. We pass to an age which is not solicitous of its cultural or spiritual losses, and in the transition education has no fixed paradigm. How, then, are the community and the individual to impose a form upon their experience? Formal education has no answer.

Excellence in such circumstances is indifferent to questions of skepticism and relativism, and virtue has no recognizable public status, only a private one. Therefore, excellence in education and personal <arete> (namely, the intellectual and moral virtues and the moral beauty manifested by them) are not synonymous. Virtue's extension is greater than that of excellence. The result is a formal excellence divorced from virtue. Or, if formal education is as failed a venture as the recurring crises suggest, there is little formal excellence, and less, or no more, private virtue.


One final look at the questions which prompted this article. Is what takes place education? Education defined in relation to "reward" is taking place. But if education is measured in that way, there is less education now than two decades ago. Witness the decline in wages. If education is measured by the skills acquired, then we recall the comparative ratings of U.S. secondary graduates and those of other industrial nations, and the judgement will be the same. If education is defined as general education, exposure to a core curriculum or to the humanities, with its justification being "the kind of person you become," which is to say, the type of community we wish to be, then excellence and <arete>—given the marginalization of these studies—are also problematic fruits of education.

One can argue that education is taking place in institutions which have defined what tertiary education is to be for them, and have aligned their tasks and goals accordingly. Institutions focused on the Great Books would be an example. Education is taking place, too, in the scientific training institutions, for formal education is not a univocal activity. Different individuals have different talents; their interests are diverse. Consequently most experience various forms of limitation in formal education, and benefit more from one curriculum than from another. The Greek notion of excellence, too, was always excellence in something: shipbuilding or sculpture, gymnastics or horsemanship. Apparently, even good soil had its arete. To benefit from a formal education, liberal, professional or technical, is to achieve an excellence. This excellence, of course, would have recognized virtue. Certainly then we can say that formal education is taking place. But based on the "reward" criterion, or an economic perspective, education costs and "return" are not always in synchronization. On occasion there may not be any direct relationship between them.

As to the question of that which takes place in formal education being that which is purported to take place, we recall the percentage of high school graduates in the tertiary student population who are unprepared or unqualified for either the job market or further formal education, and only surmise is left as to what may, in many places—both secondary and tertiary—be taking place. That undefined disparity of standards in formal education is one root of crisis. For it means that it is not in secondary schools alone that standards are irregular, but that in the sciences and humanities the authority of educational institutions is engaged in granting degrees of unequal worth to people of unequal abilities. Since excellence in formal education, even narrowly defined, assumes standards of competency, formal education is corrupted.

One of the institutions to retain some local identity in mass society has been the city or district school department. It is now the object of a critique which bears directly on its standards. If national standards are a result for the secondary schools, tertiary education may meet a similar critique. There are, of course, models for national curricula, with teachers trained to national standards, just as there are models for national university standards for students and faculty. In attempting such a reform, the state will assume a role of central importance. Any guiding vision of education, however large and accommodating to the communities it serves, will reflect the state's general assessment of the body politic. To date, its assessment shows no radical dichotomy with that of formal education generally. If that were unchanged reform could possibly lift standards and skill levels, which would be an achievement; it would not touch the societal (or civilisational) question of the religious or metaphysical framework for formal education. In other words, one root of crisis would be dealt with, namely reform based on a utilitarian justification for education, leaving untouched the problematic of what is an education. It is likely it could form abler workers.

Timothy D. Sullivan holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Louvain, Belgium. He currently works for the Cleveland Board of Education.


1 "The Boston Globe," 12 January 1991.

2 The percentage could be higher. According to the Department of Labor, "Three-fifths of the High School Graduates of 1990 Enrolled in College," USDL 91-264, 6 June 1991, about 1.4 million of the 2.4 million youth who graduated from high school in 1990 were attending college in October.

This article was taken from the Spring 1994 issue of "Faith & Reason". Subscriptions available from Christendom Press, 2101 Shenandoah Shores Road, Ft. Royal, VA 22630, 703-636-2900, Fax 703-636-1655. Published quarterly at $20.00 per year.

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