In “Against the Sophists,” the ancient Greek philosopher Isocrates argued that character should be king in education. Isocrates believed that education is primarily about the development of the learner’s character. Isocrates did not oppose the development of technical skill. But he argued that skills should always be in the service of character. For Isocrates, the learner should refine and develop her skills not primarily for material gain, but for the public good – to encourage and to foster the development of character in the public domain.
Character, too, was the concern of Jewish and Christian education over technique or skills acquisition: “Train up a child in the way he should go,” wrote the Sage. Education might well give its holder an enhanced ability to earn a living. But his education was in the service not of himself, but of God, family, church and of the public community. “Character” and “service” were the watchwords of the professions. Guilds were formed to support and protect journeymen, but also to school apprentices in workmanship of the highest quality, in the service of their communities.
Sometime in the 1800s, however, there was a shift in understanding of what education was for. Instead of education’s being in the service of character, education was put in the service of “the utility principle,” also known as “the greatest happiness principle.” As the 19th-century philosopher John Stuart Mill argued, “Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain and the privation of pleasure” (Utilitarianism, 1863). Instead of education’s being about character, now education was to lead to pleasure – for both the person and the public.
It didn’t happen overnight. It took some time for the commitment to character to be overtaken by the utilitarian commitment to pleasure. But where once teachers collaborated with parents in the development of children’s character, now many parents’ primary concern is that their children acquire a marketable diploma or degree that will get them a good job – one that pays well.
Where once a failing grade may have indicated a child lacking in a work ethic – failing a learning disability or problems at home – now, a poor grade is taken as a teacher’s being too tough in her grading of a child’s work. And when a parent goes to battle with a teacher, without good reason, to insist that his child deserves a higher grade, how might that affect the character of the child concerned? How might the threat of recriminations from a principal or a parent over grades affect a teacher’s ability to hold students accountable, let alone grading practices?
The shift has affected parents whose primary concern is their children’s character. Instead of teachers and parents’ collaborating, some teachers undermine parents’ hard work of cultivating the virtues in their children. Instead of its being celebrated as God’s gift for marriage and the responsibility called for, all too often children are taught that “sex” is merely a source of pleasure.
Does education encourage a work ethic? Does education call for reflection on what is good, true and beautiful? Does education instill the virtues? Does education direct toward a life of service?
Does education call for teachers to collaborate with parents or to undermine them? Does education elevate the calling and profession of teaching? Or demean it?
Does education suggest to students that they are commodities in a job market? Or does it ennoble them toward the image of their Creator?
Education is surely more than the acquisition of skills. Learning to read can be a wondrous, almost magical, gift. By it, one can think the thoughts of the great essayists and novelists and playwrights and poets and philosophers and scientists and mathematicians, with them. Learning to write is to discover the delight of organizing one’s thoughts, making them coherent to others. To be schooled in the fine arts as a competent artist or an intelligent appreciator is to be transported by a musical phrase, brush strokes on a canvas, or an “impossible” dance move. To play organized sports is to challenge the mind and body and learn the ethos of teamwork.
The world needs more bankers, journeymen, professionals and, yes, teachers for whom “character is king;” whose technical prowess serves character and the public good and whose understandings of these are directed toward the image of God.