Old School – Part Two: Education on the Rocks.

Reflections on Books and Barbarians by L. E. Taylor

Words mean things.

Words are fragments of thought that can work magic: kindness, wisdom, friendly persuasion.

With care, we can combine words into thoughtful questions and seek the truth we need to navigate our lives. But when the answers we receive are perverted by wrong words, either maliciously to deceive us, or baffling to us for want of schooling, we may find ourselves adrift on a dark sea of ignorance and error, and end up either on the rocks or grounded in the swampy muck of some hostile shore.

Education is a lifelong quest for the light that will guide us safely from port to port.

Young Plato tells us this is how old Socrates ran his classes. So for a couple of thousand years it’s been known as the Socratic Method, a way of accumulating smarts based upon seeking answers to questions. That’s what makes it a quest.

Each month I receive a publication called Imprimis, a six-page reprint of one or two public addresses or formal class lectures sponsored by Hillsdale College. The January 2014 issue is on my desk as I write this. Its content is excerpted from remarks delivered last October by the college president, Larry P. Arnn, titled “A Rebirth of Liberty and Learning”.

Dr. Arnn contrasts the assumptions of traditional Western education with the current American establishment’s rejection of the Socratic style in favor of a quicker, less disciplined fix. Dr. Arnn says,

There is a proper way to educate and there is a proper way to govern, and they are both known. Today we do these things in a different way, which presents a serious and perhaps fatal problem for our country…

The word “education” comes from a Latin word meaning “to lead forth.” And if you think about it, “forth” is a value-laden term. Which way is forth? The Bible tells us to “raise up a child in the way he should go.” But which way should he go? How does one come to know the answer to that? After almost 14 years as a college president I’m an expert on young people between 18 and 22, and I can tell you that if you ask a young person today which way is the right way to go, more often than not he or she will answer: “It depends on which way you want to go.” Young people today give that answer because they’ve been taught to give that answer. But it’s the wrong answer, and the activity of getting from there to the right answer—the activity of coming to know which way is the right way—is education. Thus “to lead forth…”  - Dr. Larry Arnn, October 9th 2013

Western thought is generously recorded in books full of English words. These are answers to questions. Your questions.

People who reject the recorded history of our culture in favor of their own shallow answers to their own narcissistic questions are the new generation of Barbarians.

In our last essay, Old School – Part One, I recalled my public high school years, learning at the knee of the taskmaster, Mr. Rosecrance. His faux harshness, replete with personal japes upon one’s self esteem, made him a stock villain – he even resembled the old B-movie scoundrel, Basil Rathbone.

But the great majority of his students, though dreading his caustic wit, respected the value of his results. Many of us remember those encounters as the boot camp that informed our worldview.

His snide bluster was a caricature, an act so good that no one caught on. He kept students at a distance, always off balance, goading them to try harder with each paper to achieve the impossible: a glimmer of approval from their Zen master, Old Man Rosecrance.

Years later, as a young father of two young kids, with two college degrees in a drawer somewhere and a demanding business to conjure with, my high school days were well behind and out of mind. Then one day word got to me; a young thug had accosted the old scholar in the hallway outside his classroom. With one cowardly sucker punch an era ended. The assault was symbolic of a culture change, fed by the very ignorance and sloth that was beginning to rip the beating heart from the breast of a once great City.

The fact remains, gentle reader, that a generation of young people from the East Side of Detroit made it to college, or chose another productive path, better equipped than they might have been but for the dogged perseverance of Jackson Lancelot Rosecrance.

And, of course, Old Socrates.








  1. Plato, The Republic
  2. Imprimis, www.hillsdale.edu.

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