Educating the Whole Child

David Stow began his work in education in his Glasgow Sunday school in 1816. He was strongly critical of the education of his time. He stressed that effective education must be about much more than instruction. It must be concerned with the whole man. With apologies for the sexist language:

Man is not all head, feeling, or all animal energy. He is a compound being, and must be trained as such….The most influential and successful mode of cultivating the child is, therefore, the daily and simultaneous exercise of his intellectual physical, and moral powers.

Ahh, the old-timers knew what they were talking about!

Still the Best Guarantee

The single best guarantee of ensuring a successful, fulfilling life for a young person is still a rigorous, well-rounded liberal arts education. That is a bit miraculous, given the scale and pace of the current social, economic, and technological changes we are witnessing. But it is true.


A brief rationale: knowledge remains the key to academic and professional success nowadays, but not in its pure form. As they say, it’s not what you know, it’s what you can do with the knowledge. But that is precisely the goal of a quality liberal arts education: to teach young people “The best which has been thought and said,” as Matthew Arnold described the cultural canon, and simultaneously to familiarize them with the ways in which educated people think about, discuss, critique, and generally engage with the ideas and issues that have formed civilization. There can be no greater task and challenge for both educators and students, there is no conceivable cognitive, aesthetic, emotional or social capability or sensibility that a truly excellent liberal arts education cannot provide.

Does the classical paradigm need to be brought into the 21st century? Absolutely. Far more women, people of color, the voices of the common people and dispossessed…all must be put firmly into the core of the canon if the liberal arts are to retain their relevance in modern times. And some heartfelt mea culpas would not be inappropriate either. Just as importantly, the humanities need to explore new ways to respond to the digital age. It very well might be that the age of print is behind us: so what shall lovers of Dickinson and Flaubert do, hide away in libraries waiting for the world to end? Young people today are more in need of the insights and experiences of history’s greatest writers, thinkers, and artists than ever before. The question is how to get them interested in slow, subtle and deliberate thinking and feeling when their devices are leading them in precisely the opposite direction.

Above all, we should never forget the shining core and promise of a genuinely deep, broad humanistic education: to ‘educare’ , “lead out”, from every learner, in consonance with the contours of the most profound ideas, art, and language of our civilization, their intellectual and aesthetic best. Education is for eternity, not just to get a job.

Teaching the Insistent Now

Schools have traditionally been far too focused on the past. Alfred North Whitehead referred to the “insistent present”, and he reminded us that the present world we are living in is all that exists. The primary purpose of school is to prepare young people to live in the current age and the near future, which they will have to survive in. This does not mean that history or classic literature are not valuable; they are.  But they derive their fundamental worth from how they prepare us to understand and thrive in the modern world. Educators, including those responsible for creating educational policy as well as administrators, have not sufficiently understood this fundamental truth. All students should be afforded the opportunity to study current events, global challenges such as the climate crisis and socioeconomic inequality, and modern movements and societal and technological trends such as AI and automation that promise to profoundly impact their lives in the very near future. To reiterate: this should be considered a basic human and generational right of young people, not to be infringed upon for any reason.


What Should We Teach First?

Schools should work on instilling values and character first, which leads to positive dispositions and attitudes, which produce good learning habits, which in turn result in the desired knowledge and skills. To begin later in the process is to skip the deepest, most generative aspect of schooling. Both moral and intellectual character traits must be fostered. By intellectual character is meant such qualities as integrity, curiosity, open mindedness, intellectual courage, persistence, belief in reason, etc.


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Super book….

What Schools Should and Shouldn’t Do

Although a considerable degree of uniformity in what is taught and how it is taught is both necessary and good, our children do not give up all of their intellectual or human rights when they enter the formal school system. Learners should always be respected as unique individuals who deserve some measure of autonomy. The intellectual, aesthetic, emotional and social fulfillment of every child must absolutely be held as a core responsibility of everyone involved in the educational enterprise. As J. Zaccharias wrote, “Children come to school different and it is our job to make them more different.” This can absolutely be accomplished while at the same time ensuring that our schools provide a challenging, high-quality and coherent curriculum that will provide a focusing and integrating force in society. To press this point, schools should be about human development and not selection. It is regrettably true that a truly equal, democratic society in which all students have received the same life chances doesn’t exist and perhaps never shall. Yet I strongly feel it should be our goal as a society to attempt to at least ameliorate existing inequalities. Schools should never exacerbate social and economic divides. Look at the current situation across the nation and ask yourself if we are on the right path.


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On the Dual Mission of Schools

The fundamental mission of schools is twofold: to allow civilization perpetuate itself, and to maximize the life chances of every young individual who darkens a school door. These two aims are not always perfectly in alignment, and the former goal has often been emphasized at the expense of the latter.


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