The New Order: On a Revolution in Education

by J. E. G. Dixon (April 2015)

The following is an excerpt from F for Failure: A Critical Examination of the Ineradicable Defects of Canadian Education available on Kindle now.


To the modern mind the Middle Ages stand for all that is most backward, reactionary and superstitious. The very word medieval is used as a term of abuse by people who thereby seek to gain a moment of cheap superiority. This commonplace misconception of a distant epoch in man’s upward striving towards civilization is a graver indictment of the modern mind than it is of the civilization of the Middle Ages.    

I use the term "civilization" advisedly, consciously, and knowingly; and I would go so far as to venture the opinion that the term is more fittingly bestowed on the High Middle Ages of Europe than it is on our contemporary North American society. Indeed, no one in Canada and the United States even talks any longer in terms of "civilization"; and if they did they would be hard put to it to give a half-decent notion of all that it implies, being steeped as they are in a pervasive and corroding materialism. So let us by all means talk a little about it—and especially about the Middle Ages. 

We now jump ahead. It is probably fair to say that the most illustrious legal document in the world—or at least in the Western world—is Magna Carta. This legislation, signed under duress by King John in 1215, was confirmed voluntarily by successive kings of England in 1225, 1297, and 1341.         

In the following centuries, among the most sublime buildings in the world we count the ancient cathedrals of Europe. And the 12th and 13th centuries are illustrious for the founding of universities at Bologna, Paris, Oxford and Cambridge, which still, after eight hundred years, are esteemed creative centres of higher learning.

Those illustrious names are, of course, synonymous with education. The Middle Ages laid down the foundations of a sound secular education. They established sound priorities in learning, and their intellectual pursuits, their learning, were informed by the highest standards; and because they insisted, first, on the essential tools of learning, which they called the trivium, the three ways. Mastery of the trivium was followed by an advanced course of learning called the quadrivium—a term coined by the philosopher Boethius—in the belief that “it was impossible to achieve the summit of perfection in the disciplines of philosophy unless one approached the noble wisdom by a kind of fourfold way."1

The quadrivium comprised arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy; and they, together with the trivium, comprised the seven liberal arts, which were the indispensable “propaedeutic to philosophy,” which alone constituted the proper goal of study, and which were held to be intimately related.

I said at the outset that the Middle Ages were the creator of the trivium, or the three ways of learning. They are concerned with the acquisition and perfecting of the skills of reading and writing and critical discussion, skills essential to all subsequent studies. It is important to elaborate on them.

In 1946 a famous English writer of crime stories, Dorothy L. Sayers, who was also, and principally, a highly respected medieval scholar and translator of Dante, gave a lecture at Oxford which she entitled: “The Lost Tools of Learning.” She said of them in part:

The interesting thing for us is the composition of the Trivium, which ... consisted of three parts: Grammar, Dialectic, and Rhetoric, in that order.

Now the first thing we notice is that two of these “subjects” are not what we should call “subjects” at all: they are methods of dealing with subjects. Grammar, indeed, is a “subject” in the sense that it does mean definitely learning a language... But language itself is simply the medium in which thought is expressed. The whole of the Trivium was, in fact, intended to teach the pupil the proper use of the tools of learning, before he began to apply them to “subjects” at all. First, he learned a language; not just how to order a meal in a foreign language, but the structure of a language, and hence of language itself—what it was, how it was put together, and how it worked. Secondly, he learned how to use language, how to define his terms and make accurate statements, how to construct an argument and how to detect fallacies in argument. Dialectic, that is to say, embraced Logic and Disputation. Thirdly, he learned to express himself in language, how to say what he had to say elegantly and persuasively.

At the end of his course he was required to compose a thesis... and afterwards to defend it against the criticism of the faculty. By this time he would have learned... not merely to write an essay or paper, but to speak audibly and intelligibly from a platform, and to use his wits when heckled. There would also be questions, cogent and shrewd, from those who had already run the gauntlet of debate.

Once a child has learnt the rudiments of reading, what are he and she to read? The short answer  is: stories. The teacher is going to read stories to her pupils; and the pupils are going to read stories on their own. Yes, the same stories. What then? Why, the teacher is going to lead discussion of what they have read, to ensure that they have understood what they have read: plot, character, relations between characters and between plot and characters, and yes, various aspects of language such as words used. Thus will a child begin to learn the rudiments of literary appreciation. Among the best stories, accessible to children at a very early age and which lend themselves to these discussions, are Aesop’s fables.2

What other kind of stories are to be read? The classics, the children’s classics, until they have, individually, reached the state of development of appreciation of maturer classics, advancing from stage to stage. Only stories? No; of equal importance is poetry. Poetry is language and story in rhythm. Children respond eagerly to rhythm. We may live in an anti-poetic age, but to have children recite poems and to write poems are lessons that will serve to form their taste and their appreciation of literature.

Participation is of the essence of education, participation on both the individual and the class levels. What is the best way in which to encourage participation? Why, to introduce topics and themes with which they are familiar or with which they can identify. I am going to suggest there are two ready-made sources of ideas which our pupils can understand at even a very early age. They are proverbs and superstitions.

Proverbs encapsulate the homespun wisdom of ordinary people’s daily experience of life. “a stitch in time saves nine.” - “Honesty is the best policy.”- “A fool and his money are soon parted.” - “It’s no use crying over spilt milk.” - “A cat may look at a king.” - “A  penny saved is a penny earned.” - “Good fences make for good neighbours.” - “Every stick has two ends.” - “Mighty oaks from tiny acorns grow.” - “More haste, less speed.” - “You may lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.” - “The love of money is the source of all evil.”

Children may be introduced to many dozens of proverbs from the earliest years and they will begin to learn not only the pithy use of language but also the rudiments of philosophy which they will be introduced to later.

Superstitions arise from a combination of a fear of the unknown, coincidental events, and an attempt to ward off future dangers.

Why do people say “Bless you!” to someone who sneezes? Why are some people afraid of Friday the 13th of a month?  or of the 13th floor of a building? Why do some people insist on leaving another’s house by the same door as they entered by? Why does breaking a mirror herald seven years of bad luck? Why is it unlucky to open an umbrella in the house? – or to lose a mop at sea? - or to spill salt? - or to see a black cat? People no longer cross themselves when seeing an evil omen such as a magpie, but they still, even in this rational scientific 21st century, cross their fingers to ward off bad luck. Or when they are about to tell an untruth.

The pupils will be invited to introduce proverbs and superstitions into class for discussion. They are endlessly instructive. Moreover, since they are universal and common to all peoples, their discussion carries in addition this important lesson, that all people are essentially endowed with the same human nature throughout the world and throughout the centuries.

It is rumored in our Canadian schools that studies such as literature are considered to be, shall we say, "effeminate"? (Study the life and writings of Dante, Cervantes, Boethius or Bunyan!) Literature, a living, imaginative literature, is the memory, the conscience, and the heritage of a people. A people without a literary tradition, be it written or oral, is a people without soul or spirit, or without a future. The history of the literature of every people renowned for their literature, from the Hebrews to the Greeks and the Romans, up to and including a thousand years of French literature and English literature, gives the lie to such a monstrous distortion perpetrated by people in our midst who call themselves teachers or educators, and who, heaven forbid! might even be parents, and who are in fact philistines with a chip on their shoulder, with a chip made of base materials.

Reading is an art that is acquired only by learning its skills, as we noted above. It is not enough to be able to say afterwards what a piece of writing was about, that is to say, the story narrated or the characters who play roles in it. The reader must try to enter into the mind of the writer by asking himself questions as he reads: what themes emerge from the events? what motivates the characters? how are the characters, the events and the themes related? is the author trying to manipulate the outcome or is he invisible? is the author trying to put across a particular philosophy or view of life or of mankind? how does he accomplish this?

In particular, we put ourselves in the place of the characters and judge their actions, and ask ourselves how we would have acted in their place. Over the years we learn to strengthen our own character and develop principles that serve us throughout our lives. 

Literature is the heart and soul of what we call Humanity. It is more than that even. It is a sad fact that the Humanities have been crowded out of their once central place in any course of studies called Education. It has been elbowed to the periphery of our institutions of learning by callow upstarts called sociology and psychology. They have also been edged out by the natural sciences. Once, a man became educated before he became a scientist. Today people train as scientists before becoming educated, or even without becoming educated. I have met many a biologist who has never read Darwin’s Origin. To read Darwin’s Origin is an education in itself, partly because he was an educated man before he became a scientist. The Origin is not only a great work of science: it is also a great work of literature. It has to be, for the author’s objective was to persuade—to persuade readers who were encountering novel ideas. 

Our pupils will also learn to write. Writing has two aspects among others: what to write about, and how to write. As to the former, it would be quite wrong to have them write about themselves, and especially about their families. They must be introduced to the worlds they live in—the natural world and the man-made world—and to write about what interests or impresses them. At this stage, the important thing is to stress sentence construction and vocabulary. Spelling is relatively unimportant. Teachers like to dwell on spelling because it is easy to mark right or wrong; whereas the choice of words and syntax are more personal things. Spelling only assumes a slight measure of importance later, when distinguishing between homophones such as: council and counsel; principal and principle; stationary and stationery; current and currant; flier and flyer, hangar and hanger, berth and birth, complementary and complimentary, and yes, even humorous and humerus.

We have seen that the trivium comprises three types of learning: Grammar, Dialectic, and Rhetoric, in that order. I venture to disagree: to my mind it is necessary to learn the skills of rhetoric before dialectic. We have dealt, briefly, with Grammar and Rhetoric, that is Language and its written and spoken forms. Dialectic is the art of Persuasion. Persuasion is achieved by discussion and debate.

Children, we must stress, need to be introduced at an early age to the arts of discussion—of forming an opinion, of defending one’s opinion, and of entering into a well-mannered discourse with others who have different opinions—yet opinions which are and recognized to be equally valid. There is a fine French expression which goes: Du choc des opinions jaillit la lumière. (From the clash of opinions springs light.) I will add a commentary in the words of the French writer André Gide:

I consider that the mind would be perverted if it listened to, or were allowed to hear, only one of two voices of [a] dialogue—a dialogue not between a political right or left, but, much more vital and profound, between secular tradition, submission to recognized authorities, and free thought, the spirit of doubt and examination, which works towards the slow and progressive emancipation of the human mind.3

The next skill that pupils will need in life is called, simply, mathematics. Mathematics, at the early stage, boils down to arithmetic; and it lends itself to all kinds of appealing games and puzzles; of course, calculating machines will be forbidden; and children will be required, once again, to memorize the multiplication tables up to 25.

Elementary arithmetic comprises, to begin with, addition and subtraction, and multiplication and division, both short and long. Then come fractions and decimals and percentages, and calculating their equivalents and relations. The world’s currencies make for an interesting study, and the conversion of one to others. Finally the pupil learns how to calculate square roots and, if really interested, cube roots. Pupils who show an aptitude for or interest in other branches of mathematics will be introduced to the study of algebra, geometry and calculus. Today, many decades later, I can still calculate the height of an object above ground level if given the angle of the summit from the observer; and it is a matter of a minute or two to calculate algebraically at what temperature the scales of Fahrenheit and Centigrade meet.


Earlier I introduced the topic of games for the obvious reason that they will play an important role in the education of our young pupils. The games I have in mind are, especially, bridge and chess. Their intellectual, and educational, merits need no defence. But they teach more. They teach that the plays are open for the contestants to see, and that skill alone will carry the day. In bridge, the competitors’ bidding methods must be explained to the opponents; so that, in the event that a certain convention bid by one player is not understood by the opposition, the latter has the right to ask his partner to explain the convention.

Bridge introduces the competitive spirit; and is a wonderful training of the memory. It teaches more. Since it is a partnership game which calls for cooperation of a kind requiring close mutual understanding, and the occasion to make mistakes, it also offers frequent opportunities to blame the partner for them. To play well, therefore, demands the disciplines of control and of self-examination before attributing mistakes to one’s partner. One’s emotions must be kept tightly in check, and reason must prevail. There can be few more important lessons for life: hesitate, and look within, before blaming another.

Chess is the most rational of all games, and requires above all other qualities that the player keep his emotions in check. It is said of chess that the successful player needs to be able to think several moves ahead. On the other hand, one grand master said that he found it necessary to see only one move ahead—the right one. But to hit on the right one called for the skill to see many possible moves, and the judgement to select just one of many. The complexity of the game is readily appreciated when you realize, if we are to believe Kasparov, that: “The total number of positions in a game of chess is greater than the atoms in the universe.” I don’t know how he figured that out; and I am not sure how it advances our ability to play successfully or for that matter to succeed in anything. Chess is an open game which allows the players to see, and to anticipate, every move of his opponent. So it is that he must be playing both hands at the same time, always trying to forestall the opponent’s next move or two.

Tradition has it that it was conceived as a game designed to train leaders in the art of war, for to be sure it teaches the fundamentals of strategy and of tactics. Be that as it may, it is easy to see that a skilled chess player will make a good leader in many fields of human endeavour. Above all, it teaches the little understood and less practiced skills of patience, of playing the waiting game, of appearing to do nothing while calmly setting up the coup de grâce. And surely, there must be much to be said for it if it is opposed by all the current and recent past ayatollahs and the Taliban and the present imams of Iraq.

Why should they oppose it? Consider. A holy man can only move in one direction, and he can be knocked off by a simple peon. The most powerful player is a woman. Above all, each player has his appointed role, is powerful one moment and vulnerable the next, and cannot be enslaved, dictated to or brainwashed. All team games, whether the teams comprise two or fifteen players, properly coached and played, have the power both to instill patience and understanding of one’s partner’s mistakes, and to induce admiration of one’s opponents’ skill. Players will always strive to improve their skills, and there are few more effective ways of improving than to play with better players than oneself. Indeed, is that not a lesson of life? and of education?


One of the major aims of all these studies is the development of our pupils’ intellectual faculties. It is well that we should spend some time on discussing them, for they are a crucial part of their education, one which teachers seem united in neglecting.

Of the various intellectual faculties that we associate with the function of the brain, that is, with mind, perception is perhaps the first that we become aware of. It is the power to perceive through the exercise of the senses. All that we experience in our material lives comes to us through our five senses. But perception carries with it a risk as well as the obvious blessing. Each individual is a unique being; and often the same event or person or scene is likely to be perceived differently by other observers. Not all are right, or wrong. Indeed, even to say "right" or "wrong" about a perception is to misjudge. They are simply different. It is wise to make allowance for personal differences in others. It is the first lesson, and one of the most important lessons, in life: we are all different; we must make allowances for our differences; and learn to value those differences; and if possible teach ourselves to see things from others’ perspectives. Memory is the second gift we consciously exercise, and, perhaps unconsciously, call upon for service at every waking moment of our lives. Memory is the store-house, the encyclopaedia, the cornucopia, of facts, faces, events, scenes, ideas; and it is moreover, inexhaustible, indefatigable. It is essential to train the memory from the earliest days of school and throughout our lives, for it is only what we consciously make a point of remembering that we can later recall at will.

Yet a warning is in order! The memory can be a fickle blessing, for it can play tricks on us. It is subject to error. Indeed, everyone is familiar with the experience of "remembering" a person or event which we have in fact never seen. Hence it is all the more important to take measures to actively train it. Imagination is the power of the mind generally associated with and attributed to artists. One wonders where we get to feel, or to realize, that the world we live in, and the people we associate with, are endowed with flaws? Or who make mistakes? In other words, we experience suffering, be it of a physical nature or a psychological. The world is not as it should be. Other people are not as we would have them. (Of course, there is nothing wrong with us!) But what is the origin of good and bad, or right and wrong? And how do we come to such ideas?

Perhaps from our earliest infancy, when our physical existence was not instantly satisfied, so that we experienced discomfort, or pain? In any event, imagination was born, and we learnt, or rather, taught ourselves to visualize, to perceive within our minds, a state of affairs which did not exist and which we aspired to. To imagine a better world is one thing: to imagine a perfect world is to fly in the face of reality, and to court disaster. Songs such as John Lennon’s “Imagine” and Michael Jackson’s "There Must Be More To Life Than This" are pitiable in their childish escapism. And their followers who call for, not a better world but a perfect one, remind me rather of the sort of thing that kindergarten teachers feed into their kiddies’ minds. Isn’t that what Don Quixote was after, seeking out wrongs to right with the view to making a better world? And Cervantes was right to have him subjected to all kinds of misfortune and mishap.

Another thing: the imagination has a way of running away with our minds! We imagine disturbing scenes with family or friends or work associates. We may even imagine unpleasant scenes in which we are beaten up or misfortunes afflict our loved ones or friends. We may imagine awful accidents or disasters...Stop! These fantasies have the power to set your pulse racing, to cause sweat in your palms, and other physical discomforts. They can also lead to heart problems. Stop it! Control your mind! I do not know the secrets of yoga or contemplation, but you can teach yourself to control your own mind, and thereby to learn what the Greeks called ataraxia, or serenity of mind. It is not easy: but the secret is more readily learned once you realize that none of the misfortunes you imagine will ever take place! Intuition is, I suspect, related to imagination; yet, while imagination is very much a conscious function—even though it often runs amok—intuition is like a brain-wave, a sudden revelation, which comes out of the blue. Scientists, and revolutionary scientific discoveries, owe much to intuition.

How did Copernicus, in the teeth of one thousand years of authoritative Church teaching, come to think that, on the contrary, it was the Earth that orbited the Sun? It was a kind of revelation—but not, of course, of the kind that is attributed to a personal communication with a divinity. Far from it: there was more substance to his revelation than the kind produced by a vision or other hallucination. Reason had nothing to do with it. Reason is powerless to arrive at such earth-moving discoveries. Reason is the power of logic, of criticism, of judgment. It is a faculty totally under the conscious control of its owner. We smug humans claim that it is the instrument enabling us to discover Truth, and Justice, and Beauty. For two thousand years Reason has been in conflict with Faith. Reason is slowly gaining ground, but it must recognize both its powers and its strict limitations. Faith has had to concede that woman was not born of a man’s rib; that the Earth does revolve around the Sun; that the Earth is not the centre of the Universe. On the other hand, reason does not supply the answers to the riddle of man’s existence. It has no answer to the problem of war and man’s inhumanity to man.

Reason is also in conflict with our emotions. Generally it is the emotions that prevail, if only because we let them run loose and make no effort to restrain them or to train the reason. We have the unenviable reputation of flattering ourselves by pretending the opposite. We claim, for example, that we have a "reason" for doing this or that. Nothing can be further from the truth. We act only under the impulse of emotion: that is, we are "moved" to do it; or we have a motive. And we call it a "reason"! We conclude this discussion of Reason by adding that there is deductive reasoning and inductive reasoning. To simplify grossly: Deduction is reasoning from the general to the particular. For example, observation tells us that day follows night; therefore you may be confident that tonight will be followed by day tomorrow. Induction, on the other hand, is reasoning from the particular to the general. For example, if you fall and hurt yourself, experience tells us we would be wise to avoid falling again in the future.

Yet how impoverished we humans would be without our emotions! Of course, emotions are of two kinds: destructive and creative. I am not sure, of jealousy and envy, which is the good one and which the bad; but I do know that the bad one eats away at the very soul and destroys you from within; whereas the generous one says: “I envy you your beautiful new coat, or your promotion, and I am so happy for you!”

Likewise the passions, which are strong emotions: ambition, anger, hatred, gambling, lechery, egoism, greed, and the worst of all, lust, for example; they possess and consume and destroy their victims. They are not to be confused with the misnamed strong enthusiasms, such as a passion for stamp-collecting or fishing.

We cannot leave our extolling of reason without saying a word about criticism. Like so many old and well-defined terms, "criticism" has undergone a change by taking on new accretions of meaning. It does not, properly, mean "finding fault." It comes from the Greek kritikos, "able to discern and decide," and is a cognate with krites, "a discerner, judge, arbiter," with the implication of excellence. Hence criticism is the art and the practice of judging the degree of excellence what? In art. And in literature. Indeed, in any human activity that falls short of a given standard. And what are those standards? And how did they come to be established? The answer is given by Matthew Arnold, who wrote that criticism is:

”disinterested endeavour to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world."4

Criticism is therefore justly applied not only to the cultural creations of mankind, but to his social and political activities. Criticism, thus conceived and practiced, is one of the five essential pillars of Civilization.

What is understanding? Understanding is the intellectual grasp of a theme or event or phenomenon sufficiently thoroughly as to enable you to explain its origin, history, and consequences. Example: what is sunrise? It is easy to say, in a few words, what it is. But can you explain clearly and fully, to another person who is eager to learn, what the Earth and the Sun are, their relationship, their motions?

I have just referred to "objective investigation." What is meant by the term, the concept, "objective"? I will call it, for the purpose of this essay, detachment. We saw in our discussion of perception, that we all, and individually, experience events and scenes and other people in different ways. In different ways, because we are all different, each from the other, and each is unique. But—and it is to our everlasting credit that we do so—we realize that certain events in our natural world appear the same for all peoples, at all times, in all places. Gradually people start recording natural events as they recur repeatedly, until it dawns upon them that there exists an external reality independent of our own personal, circumscribed lives and experiences. This capacity, this intellectual achievement, we call detachment. It is the power to observe independently of the narrow confines of one’s own personality. Finally, it gives rise to the realization that laws may be formulated to account for the observed events. And that perhaps we may thereby come to an understanding of such abstract concepts as Truth. And of course, of Justice. 

Our final intellectual faculty is Will. By will we mean, of course, will-power, or free will. We will engage in the question of free will only to the extent of dismissing out of hand the notion held by misguided people who claim, sometimes stridently—for the larger and emptier the drum, the louder the noise—that no one has free will. What they mean is, they have not discovered their own will, or they are frightened by the prospect of having to take responsibility for their acts. Cervantes was, perhaps, one of the last people whose own life and experience would  have taught him he was a puppet of external forces; yet he would assert with all the confidence in the world that “there are no spells in the world that can control a person’s will, for our free will is sovereign and there is no herb or enchantment that can control it.”          

Earlier we decried the regrettable circumstance of social conformity, insisting that one of the goals of education is to encourage dissent. This goal is all the more important when we realize that a supine conformity, a slavish adherence to the opinions and fads of others, especially of one’s friends, is the surrender of one’s unique personality. (Some psychologists even profess a doctrine called Behaviorism. It claims, and perhaps even approves, that individuals are readily subject to conditioning by certain manipulative techniques, and thus virtually deprived of will, much as dogs salivate as soon as they hear their food being dished up.) The sages down the ages have confirmed that we are all endowed with Will. It is the power to say Yes or No; to Agree or Disagree; to do Good or to do Harm. Was Man not evicted from Eden for asserting his will and disobeying God? Yes; and there’s a warning there for all who assert their will: it will get you into trouble. For asserting one’s will is to flout authority; and Authority, whether divine or military or civil, is imbued with the virus of vindictiveness. Moreover the conforming majority will choose to side, safely, with Authority. Yet we are endowed with Conscience; and conscience is our highest law. We labour “to keep alive in our breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.” It tells us that each person is a sovereign being. There is no power that can make us do what we will not; or stay us from doing what we will.

The will is free;/Strong is the soul, and wise and beautiful;/The seeds of godlike power are in us still. Gods we are, bards, saints, or heroes, if we will!

Freedom, most especially intellectual freedom in all its manifestations and expressions, is only for the courageous. Yet, despite all that we read and hear in praise of freedom as the birthright of all who are born or who live in a society that calls itself a democracy, and as indispensable to life as the air we breathe, it is on the contrary as rare a quality as courage. For the two, freedom and courage, are soul-mates, inseparable twins.

Let us sum up our discussion of Will and Mind, and I will let you into a deep secret. You can control your thoughts. Indeed, it is the only real freedom that you have: the freedom to control your mind. Try it. It will run away. Drag it back; concentrate your thinking on a single object, or person, or idea. Ah, there it goes again! Drag it back again. And again. Train yourself constantly, at every idle moment, to control your mind. Let us call it Concentration. It is a function of the Will— of the Free Will. It is a lifelong exercise; and practice makes perfect. Whether you like it or not, agree or not, the truth is that you and we all are responsible for our minds. Sadly, most people prefer the lazy way of thinking and living according to others’ prescriptions.


We now need, finally, having prepared the ground, to talk about "subjects."

We will begin by quoting a delightful little ditty by Rudyard Kipling, Rudyard Kipling called “Six Honest Serving Men” :

                                    I kept six honest serving men,
                                    They taught me all I knew.
                                    Their names are What? And Where? And When?
                                    And Why? And How? And Who?

The important thing in education, as in life, is to know what questions to ask. The basic questions—or proximate questions— are What? Where? When? and Who? They prompt immediate answers. Yet, as we have learnt already, the answers are not necessarily the same from different people. However, once we have settled on satisfactory answers, even if only provisionally, we are faced with the most searching of questions: How? and Why?—the ultimate questions, according to Ernst Mayr. 

The urge to ask questions is impelled by curiosity, a desire to know and to learn. It is the pre-eminent impulse of scientists. But it should be born in us. As a matter of fact, it is. Infants exhibit an insatiable desire to explore and to learn. When do we lose it? I suggest it is driven out of us most often by parents, who get tired of constantly answering questions, or embarrassed by questions they cannot answer. And it is driven out by our schooling, by the indoctrination that passes for education, instead of its being, as it should be, one of the principal tasks of education to encourage it.

What of parents? Every parent witnesses a miracle unfolding before their eyes, the miracle of infants learning speech from listening to their parents speak, yet do they ever wonder about it and how the infants do it?7

This lack of curiosity, the lack of a desire to learn, and apathy in the face of their ignorance, is the gravest possible indictment against parents, teachers,  teachers’ schools, and education administrators.

We are forced to study various "subjects" at school, without ever learning the relationship between them, or their value or usefulness, either in developing our intelligence, or in becoming an informed and responsible citizen, or in learning a trade or occupation necessary to our making our way in life. Let us take an example and see where it leads. I propose History.

Now, history, as an isolated scholastic subject, is proposed and justified on the ground that without knowing the past it is impossible to appreciate the present, or to prevent future mistakes. One quotes the famous saying of George Santayana’s: “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” What could be more convincing? It sounds so wise, and profound, and true. Only an historian, or a philosopher, could have arrived at such a learned conclusion, grounded in both extensive learning and wide experience of men and events. On the other hand, we must ask, not What? But How? How, exactly, does a knowledge of the past prevent the recurrence of past events? And what does the author mean by "doomed"? Does he see the past as consisting only of events to be prevented? Are no events of the past worthy of being repeated? Again, how? How are happy events to be repeated? How are bad events to be prevented? We are talking of individuals and their knowledge of the past, for whole communities and peoples do not “remember the past” as a single, cohesive entity. When Santayana says “Those”, who does he have in mind? There are only two kinds of people who qualify: a) those in Authority and exercising Power; and b) the rest of us. The people without power, we ordinary citizens, are wise indeed if we can profit from “remembering the past.” But surely the only past we can remember is our own. And we think that that is one of the products of education: to learn from past mistakes. To learn from others’ mistakes, as a study of History implies, is a noble enterprise, and a very private one, albeit one to be shared with one’s fellow-students. The whole point of Santayana’s aphorism, surely, is a warning to People-in-power, and a plea to them to heed the deeds of past rulers as object-lessons in good and bad government.

I’m afraid that the good Santayana failed to understand the nature of Power—and, paradoxically, failed to learn a lesson from History. For Power is its own justification and rationale. Few men and women are drawn to political office in order to serve their people. They are drawn by the consuming passion exercised by the prospect of Power, not of bettering others lives, whatever they may say, but of controlling and directing them.

I cannot refrain at this point from offering a word of advice to readers who may be tempted to judge others. It is the easiest temptation to succumb to, for we are all frail beings who seek to boost our tender egos by scoring points off others. Our sole legitimate targets of judgement—by which I mean, precisely, moral judgement—are People in Power. Who are they? They are Politicians, Preachers, Professors, Plutocrats and Police.


Having demonstrated, as we believe,6 that some of the courses of study inflicted on our pupils have as their aim the overt political intent of inculcating in them an acceptance of views and "values" which a) have no place in a school curriculum, and b) should at most be extracurricular topics of open debate; and having posited that the vast majority of school subjects have little relevance to an understanding of the world we live in or their part in it; have no role in the training of the mind; and are not designed to prepare or equip the pupils for subsequent professions or occupations, we are necessarily under an obligation to propose an alternative, and preferable, course of studies. We propose turning the current curriculum upside down ; that is, instead of cramming our youngsters’ heads with a varied assortment of unrelated "subjects" and later allowing him to choose a single special field of study, which itself may unrelated to anything he has studied before, we propose that they begin with a single topic or subject-matter, which they will pursue as long as they wish. Let me say that again, and emphasize it, so that you will have a clear idea of what I am saying: As soon as they have mastered the trivium, our pupils will choose a single topic or subject-matter or field of interest or hobby or trade and devote themselves to it exclusively for as long as they wish.

You are uncomprehending? Good. Shocked? Better.

Our pupils will be offered a free choice. I do not mean that they will be presented with a vast selection of courses or subjects to choose from. I mean that they will be asked—no, not asked, required—to create and design their own course of studies. Or study. They may decide to devote their entire school years to the study of architecture, or geography, or dance, or Tibetan literature, or stamps, or cooking. Or they may, ill-advisedly, choose a plethora of "subjects" and dart backwards and forwards from one to the other, picking up a little here, a little there, and waste their time, as they do today. Every person has certain potential talents or interests or skills waiting to be recognized and developed. If a youngster exhibits a precocious talent for the violin, as some are, it would be a sorry waste to require him or her to do anything else.         

When such a youngster arises—and it is not an uncommon occurrence—it would be inflicting a grievous injustice on other children who felt bent on pursuing a passion or marked aptitude for or interest in, say, aircraft design or carpentry or the sea or birds. Or anything under the sun.

Let me here emphasize that the work of thinking and the work of doing are of equal importance. I know a man, a municipal employee, whose work is collecting refuse. He is a happy married man with children who are doing well at school and who takes his family on vacation regularly once a year. I know another man whose father, a doctor, persuaded his son to follow him in his profession. Being bright he had no difficulty in passing the examinations. Though successful in the crude material sense, he is desperately unhappy. The fact is he has a passion for photography, and in his soul he is withering away. To be an amateur and part-time photographer is not enough. He is forced to spend most of his days and years doing medicine, and treating people he cannot pretend an interest in.

I sought the views of some friends on these two new ideas. One of them wrote: “Among other difficulties with this order of things one stands out: how will you recognize a subject when you see one? Furthermore, how will you know what is not a subject and is therefore to be retained?”

I replied: “My answer is easy: whatever turns a pupil or student on is a subject, i.e. an interest or passion or talent. But of course I am not calling them subjects for that very reason. A "subject" is whatever a teachers' union or bureaucrat or minister of education decides it is, e.g. "social justice," hence OUT.

My friend came back with this question: “As for an interest or passion or talent...What about the student whose major interest is in brassiere fastener mechanisms?”

I was tempted to rebut this suggestion as introducing a note of flippancy into a serious discussion, and to remind him of the occasion when Huxley and Bishop Wilberforce debated Darwin’s theory of evolution before a large audience at Oxford on June 30, 1860, just seven months after the publication of the Origin of Species.7

But I came to my senses and asked myself: If students are invited to propose a field of study, and they come out with all sorts of unorthodox or strange or otherwise original suggestions, as they are almost certain to do, who am I to veto them? Well, veto, no; but certainly discuss. For that is what education is about, among other things. If a student digs in his or her heels and insists, he should be given his head. For who knows where the inquiry may lead? And if it turns out to be a dead end, he will still have learnt something. As we have seen, failure is not to be feared, and is often the key to later success.

A further objection will be raised that excessive specialization is a danger to be avoided at all costs. The objection is only superficially valid; but in this proposed scheme over-specialization will never be a risk. Since the benefits to the individual of such an educational opportunity as I have proposed are so numerous, and not immediately manifest, it is worth the trouble to spend a little time on them. The pupil will learn the methods of research; and he will acquire the habit of self-discipline. In addition, and of special importance, he will inevitably be led into other areas of learning and inquiry directly related to his main study. It is easy to give examples.

The person who is intent on becoming a pilot must learn everything about the plane he is going to fly. He must then learn navigation; and the navigator must study geography and topography, clouds and climate and stars. There is in fact no limit, no end, to the reaches of knowledge that open up before the student who sets out on a voyage of discovery which begins on a single-lane road. Indeed, it is not possible for any avenue of learning to remain a single, narrow, path: it cannot but branch out, and lead to further enriching discoveries—much as a symphony will announce its opening with a single instrument, and bit by bit grow and swell until the whole orchestra is committed. But it is equally important not to be seduced into attractive and sterile by-ways, and to learn the difference.

A third objection will be raised here—and it is a reasonable objection—that such a study program isolates students from each other, so that they are alone much of the time. A valuable part of school life lies in the very opportunity it offers for friendship and companionship. My answer is that students will be invited—nay, required!—to meet together frequently to discuss their discoveries, and to share ideas. A cross-fertilization such as would ensue would confer considerable intellectual benefits on all.8 Then, of course, it is quite likely that two pupils or more would opt for the same course of study. If they were of different ages, that would be all to the good, in that such a relationship would confer benefits on both.

A fourth objection, and an equally important one, is the possibility that this proposed free-for-all in the selection of fields of study will not lead to the education or training of our young people in the trades and professions that contemporary society requires. It is indeed possible that no one will choose to be a brewer or a welder or a mental hospital nurse or a prison warden. My answer is that our present school system does not either, and it has been in effect for untold years.9 Moreover, precisely because of the narrow limits of our contemporary schooling, thousands of our youth are directed into work for which they have no aptitude or taste. It is also an inescapable fact of life that the capacity for prolonged study and the level of human intelligence and human skills vary to a great degree within every population.

Given these limiting factors, we must also recognize that every individual is a unique personality. It is their most solemn duty in life and to themselves to develop their unique personalities to the fullest of which they are capable. It is the solemn duty and work of education to devote itself to that task. It is a form of heresy to try to force all children into the same mould, in the name of conformity and subservience to the state, as decreed by Authority. As we will see, Authority is to be challenged and questioned wherever it exists, on firm grounds.

We stressed earlier that we are each of us responsible for our own minds and thoughts. So we are responsible for the course of our lives. At the end of our school years we will find that we have reached such an advanced state of learning in our chosen field or fields that we are in a position to meet prospective employers secure in the knowledge that we go out into the world with something valuable to offer them—instead of adopting the attitude, all too common today, that employers are duty-bound to give work to all currently-minted graduates.

I am standing the curriculum on its head. Today the pupil is forced by that hydra-headed beast called Authority to study a range of useless subjects until finally, after many wasted years, he is permitted to choose an area of concentration. I say, on the contrary: Choose a single field of study according to your talents and aptitudes as early in life as possible and follow it into all the rich pastures it leads you to.



     1 Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy (Penguin Classics, 1969) p. 13, Introduction by V.E. Watts.

     2 A lady volunteer who spends hours every day teaching deprived children to read deserves praise; but she lets her pupils read anything they wish to. A six-year old will read nothing but Garfield, the embodiment of greed, laziness and insolence, and the lady panders to the girl’s taste. Not a good idea.

    3 The Cornhill Magazine, August 1946.

     4 The reader is referred to Arnold’s essay, “The Function of Criticism.” To that I would add: “and done.”

     5 Note to parents: Never talk baby-talk to your infants; and never talk down to them. Always talk to them as naturally and as simply as possible.

       6 This was the issue dealt with in the first section of our essay, not reprinted here.

     6 “Most modern day accounts of the debate include a story that Wilberforce supposedly asked Huxley whether he was related to an ape on his grandfather’s or his grandmother’s side. To which Huxley is alleged to have replied that he would prefer an ape for a grandfather to a man who employed his faculties and influence for the purpose of introducing ridicule into a grave scientific debate.” (Ref. Http:// In point of fact, it has been shown that this exchange was apocryphal, and originated in a statement made later by Huxley that that is what he would have replied if the question had been put to him.

     7  This isolation from others is the major disadvantage of, and the compelling argument against, distant and online learning—except for students who are necessarily house-bound.

     8 Today, after years of mismanagement, government is forced to accord accelerated immigration to skilled workers.


 J.E.G. Dixon's latest book is The Literary Culture of France (New English Review Press, 2013)


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