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The Educator's Secret and Modern Stupidity

The Educator’s Secret and Modern Stupidity
by Daniel Grego

Since no two children are identical, there cannot be one best way to educate all of them.

Several years ago, a distraught mother who knew I was an “educator” called me in tears. She had just come from a parent/teacher conference where she had been informed by her son’s kindergarten teacher that he was “four months behind.” (In kindergarten!) She imagined her son’s future possibilities slipping away and hoped I could give her some advice, or at least some sympathy. “Is there anything I can do for him?” she wondered.

I told her what her son’s kindergarten teacher should have known: that no two children are alike; that each child develops in his or her own mysterious way; that a child who is “four months behind” when he is five might be “two years ahead” when he is seven.

I told her that when Albert Einstein was her son’s age his teachers thought he was slow and simple-minded and that Thomas Edison was expelled from first grade because his teacher thought he was retarded. (In Edison’s case, we can have some sympathy for the teacher. It was probably difficult to assess his school work in the dim light.) “I’m sure that with a concerned parent like you,” I told her, “your son will be all right.”

This kindergarten teacher was probably not being malicious. She was probably doing what she had been trained to do; what she thought her job required her to do. How can we explain such an absurd situation?

In The Art of the Novel, the Czech writer, Milan Kundera, claims that one of the greatest ills facing the contemporary world is “the modernization of stupidity.” In pre-modern times, stupidity implied ignorance, “a simple absence of knowledge, a defect correctable by education.” In its modern form, however, stupidity is something else. It is “not ignorance but the nonthought of received ideas.”1

Modern stupidity is closely related to what Ivan Illich called “modern certainties,” ideas that have become so ingrained they are almost never questioned because we are hardly aware of having them. “Nonthought” also underlies the “modern superstitions” that Wendell Berry has criticized, for example, in books like Life is a Miracle.2

Ironically, the field of education is as rife with this “nonthought” as any other. One example of modern stupidity is the superstitious belief that there is such a thing as an “average child,” whom a five-year-old could be “four months behind.” In succumbing to what philosopher Alfred North Whitehead called “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness” – that is treating an abstraction as if it were a concrete reality – educators start their work in the wrong place.3

In his book Citizenship Papers, Wendell Berry recounts a conversation between a well-known, highly respected horse trainer and someone curious about his methods. “How do you train horses?” the latter asks. The former replies, “Which one do you have in mind?”4

If such a response makes sense for horses, then surely, given the complexity of human development, the answer to the question “How do you educate children?” must be “Which one do you have in mind?”

Instead of beginning with the pernicious abstraction of the “average child” and tracking students into the “gifted and talented” at one end of “the bell curve” and those needing “special education” at the other, we should try to free our approach to “education” from modern stupidity. Since no two children are identical, there cannot be one best way to educate all of them. And we should certainly stop frightening parents with pronouncements about their children’s status compared to some abstract and arbitrary standard.

“So, ‘education’ is not a thing that people get, nor a commodity that people purchase; it is not an end in itself. It is the means by which a community maintains its health. The true purpose of ‘education,’ then, is not career preparation, or even to ensure that people gain knowledge, but to help them use what they know wisely, responsibly, carefully, charitably.”

What might an approach to “education” look like that began with the uniqueness of each individual child? Aldous Huxley sketched the outlines of an alternative model in his “utopian phantasy” Island, published in 1962. The main character of Huxley’s novel is a newspaperman named Will Farnaby who is shipwrecked on an island in the South Pacific. While he is waiting to be “rescued,” Will learns about the island’s culture, including how children are educated.

During a tour of one of the schools, Will questions the principal about the philosophy of education that informs the practice of the educators on the island. The principal begins by explaining that students are “helped to experience their transcendental unity with all other sentient beings and at the same time they’re learning…that each one of us has his own constitutional uniqueness, everybody’s different from everybody else.”

“When I was at school,” Will recalls, “the pedagogues did their best to iron out those differences, or at least to plaster them over…” He then asks the principal how he and his colleagues proceed from the premise that each person is unique.

“We begin,” the principal says, “by assessing the differences. Precisely who or what, anatomically, biochemically and psychologically, is this child?...And how does he do his thinking and perceiving and remembering? Is he a visualizer or a nonvisualizer? Does his mind work with images or with words, with both at once, or with neither? How close to the surface is his storytelling faculty?”

The principal tells Will that on the island they ask themselves: “How can we educate children on the conceptual level without killing their capacity for intense nonverbal experience? How can we reconcile analysis with vision?” And he goes on to list some of the dozens of other questions they ask about each particular child, such as: “Does he show signs of having a talent for music, for mathematics, for handling words, for observing accurately and thinking logically and imaginatively about what he has observed?”

“Well, you certainly ask plenty of searching questions about your little pupils,” Will acknowledges. “What do you do when you’ve found the answers?”

“We start educating accordingly.”5

A second modern superstition is the belief that knowledge, in and of itself, is a “good.” However, knowledge is a means, not an end, and cannot be considered a “good’ without taking into account the character of the person who uses it. As Elie Wiesel has pointed out, the designers and perpetrators of Dachau and Auschwitz were among the best “educated” people on earth – engineers and doctors, scientists and graphic artists. What was wrong with their “education”? According to Wiesel, “It emphasized theories instead of values, concepts rather than human beings, abstraction rather than consciousness, answers instead of questions, ideology and efficiency rather than conscience.”6 In other words, it emphasized what we think can be measured on standardized tests!

Our susceptibility to this superstition is partly the result of a confusion about the nature and purpose of “education,” a theme Wendell Berry took up twenty-five years ago in an essay entitled: “Higher Education and Home Defense.” He began by observing, like Wiesel, that there is an ongoing assault on the health of local communities being perpetrated by an “educated” elite:

“A powerful class of itinerant professional vandals is now pillaging the country and laying it waste. Their vandalism is not called by that name because of its enormous profitability (to some) and the grandeur of its scale. If one wrecks a private home, that is vandalism, but if, to build a nuclear power plant, one destroys good farmland, disrupts a local community, and jeopardizes lives, homes, and properties within an area of several thousand square miles, that is industrial progress.”7

These professional vandals achieve their power and status by benefitting from a system that has equated “education” with “career preparation” and reduced it to a commodity. Much of the current concern about the quality of “education” in North America comes from business elites who are worried about not being able to compete in the “global economy.” They want schools to do a better job of providing students with the commodity of “education” so more of them can become “economically productive.” Berry noted the danger involved in this reduction:

“To make a commodity of [education] is to work its ruin, for, when we put a price on it, we both reduce its value and blind the recipient to the obligations that always accompany good gifts: namely, to use them well and to hand them on unimpaired. To make a commodity of education, then, is inevitably to make a kind of weapon of it because, when it is dissociated from the sense of obligation, it can be put directly at the service of greed.” 8

In this same essay, Berry offered a definition of “education” to which I have returned again and again, whenever I have been tempted to succumb to modern stupidity (at least as far as “education” is concerned). Berry wrote:

“Education in the true sense, of course, is an enablement to serve – both the living human community in its natural household or neighborhood and the precious cultural possessions that the living community inherits or should inherit. To educate is, literally, to “bring up,” to bring young people to a responsible maturity, to help them to be good caretakers of what they have been given, to help them to be charitable toward fellow creatures.” 9

So, education is not a thing that people get, nor a commodity that people purchase; it is not an end in itself. It is the means by which a community maintains its health. The true purpose of education, then, is not career preparation, or even to ensure that people gain knowledge, but to help them use what they know wisely, responsibly, carefully, charitably.

In a healthy community, everyone will be engaged in the educational process (it takes a village to raise a child) and it will be as much an art as a science. And that leads to a third modern superstition I would like to examine. Educators contend that they have a scientific understanding of learning and that “earning is something that can be chopped up into units of instruction.

How much of the belief in this superstition is the result of the way the structure of schooling has evolved? Because we segment the school day into class periods, were we forced to “discover” that learning could be conveniently fragmented to fit our syllabi? And does the dominant structure require a “science” that justifies the teaching profession? Educators repeat the phrase “teaching-and-learning” as if the words were inextricably linked. Russell Ackoff and Daniel Greenberg expose the fallacy of this connection:

“Most of what we learn before, during, and after attending school is learned without it being taught to us. A child learns such fundamental things as how to walk, talk, eat, dress, and so on without being taught these things. Adults learn most of what they use at work or at leisure while at work or leisure. Most of what is taught in classroom settings is forgotten, and much of what is remembered is irrelevant.” 10

Ivan Illich was even more to the point when he said: “It is really an alienation to believe that learning is the result of teaching.” 11

The “science” upon which the structure of schooling rests is flimsy at best and certainly out-of-date. Roger Schank, the Director of the Institute for the Learning Sciences [sic] at Northwestern University, summed up the latest research about the approaches to “learning” used in schools this way:

“From elementary school to college, educational systems drive the love of learning out of kids and replace it with the “skills” of following rules, working hard, and doing what is expected…We all learn in a very specific way, and the method schools use in antithetical to this learning model.” 12

After reviewing the various claims educators have made for the “scientific” basis for their theories of “learning,” Bruce Goldberg concluded:

“There is no such thing as educational science. When the views that have been offered as scientific are examined closely, they turn out to be not scientific at all but rather a combination of personal taste and simplistic, distorted versions of philosophical theories about how the mind works.” 13

I think the obsession with science itself must be questioned. Philip Sherrard and others have shown that the assumptions upon which modern science is based inevitably dehumanize people.14 Scientists investigating human nature are confronted with a dilemma: Either human beings can be reduced to observable, predictable energy and matter, or we must remain unknowable to ourselves. And, as Wendell Berry observed, if we accept the reductive premises of modern science, we get caught in a paradox:

“Reductionism…has one inherent limitation that is paramount, and that is abstraction: its tendency to allow the particular to be absorbed or obscured by the general. It is a curious paradox of science that its empirical knowledge of the material world gives rise to abstractions such as statistical averages which have no materiality and exist only as ideas. There is, empirically speaking, no average and no type.” 15

There is no such thing, for example, as an “average child,” which brings me back to the anxious mother of the boy in kindergarten. When she had calmed down, I decided to take a risk and to share with her “The Educator’s Secret.”

Professional educators, at least those trapped in what Richard Mitchell (and Flannery O’Connor before him) called “educationism,” keep the secret because they want gullible people to believe their services are indispensable.16 They realize that if the general public knew about it, the entire project of compulsory schooling, which costs more than $500 billion each year in the United States, would be threatened.

“If you love your son and feed him,” I confided, “he will grow up.”

“And who knows?” I added. “Someday, he may come up with an idea that will light up the world.”


1. Milan Kundera. The Art of the Novel. New York: Harper & Row, 1988, p. 163. Kundera credits Flaubert with first identifying this problem.
2. Wendell Berry. Life is a Miracle: an Essay against Modern Superstition. Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 2000.
3. Alfred North Whitehead. Science and the Modern World. New York: The Free Press, 1967
4. Wendell Berry. Citizenship Papers. Washington, D.C.: Shoemaker & Hoard, 2003, p. 184.
5. Aldous Huxley. Island. New York: Harper & Row, 1962, pp. 237-241. I’ve quoted just excerpts here. The chapter is full of ideas about helping children grow intellectually, socially, emotionally, and spiritually. And this was written long before Howard Gardner introduced his “theory of multiple intelligences.” There is a caveat, however. I want to thank my friend, Dick Westheimer, for pointing out that as insightful as this chapter on “education” might be, one still gets the impression that Huxley believed in the modern superstition that children “need” school. Apparently, he was unaware of (or unwilling to acknowledge) “The Educator’s Secret.”
6. Remarks before the Global Forum in Moscow in 1990, quoted in David W. Orr. Earth in Mind: on Education, Environment, and the Human Prospect. Washington, D.C. Island Press, 1994, p. 8.
7. Wendell Berry. Home Economics. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1987, p. 50.
8. Ibid, p. 52.
9. Ibid.
10. Russell L. Ackoff and Daniel Greenberg. Turning Learning Right Side Up. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Wharton School Publishing, 2008, p. 3.
11. Quoted in David Cayley. “Part Moon, Part Traveling Salesman: Conversations with Ivan Illich”. Ideas. CBC Radio, 1989.
12. Roger Schank. Coloring Outside the Lines. New York: HarperCollins, 2000, pp. xiii-xiv.
13. Bruce Goldberg. Why Schools Fail. Washington, D.C.: Cato Institute, 1996, p. 3.
14. See, for example, Philip Sherrard. The Eclipse of Man and Nature: an Enquiry into the Origins and Consequences of Modern Science. West Stockbridge, MA: Lindisfarne Press, 1987; Bryan Appleyard. Understanding the Present: Science and the Soul of Modern Man. New York: Doubleday, 1993; and Huston Smith. Beyond the Post-Modern Mind. Wheaton, IL: Quest Books, 1989.
15. Wendell Berry. Life is a Miracle. p. 39.
16. Richard Mitchell. The Leaning Tower of Babel. Pleasantville, NY: The Akadine Press, 2000; and Flannery O’Connor. Mystery and Manners. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1961, p. 137.

* * *


Recently, the same woman who called me all those years ago seeking advice about her five-year old son contacted me again. Her son is now a senior in high school, will graduate in June, and has been accepted into college where he plans to study criminal justice with the idea of going into law enforcement.

She told me a wonderful story about her own mother’s response to the pronouncement by her grandson’s kindergarten teacher that he was “four months behind.”

“That’s ridiculous,” she said. “He’s just not interested yet in what they are studying in school.”

The boy’s grandmother was an avid bird watcher and from then on, every time he came for a visit, they would sit together and watch for birds checking a field guide for information about each one they spotted. Before long, the boy became an expert birder who could identify dozens of species by song and by sight and could describe the distinguishing features of the males and females of each one.

Soon, he was reading as well as anyone in his class. The interest must have stuck with him because today he plans to study jailbirds!

Some people will be tempted to say the boy was fortunate to have a grandmother who could be an extra teacher for him. But, I don’t think the boy’s grandmother was being his teacher. I think she was being his grandmother.

This essay was published in Life Learning Magazine in 2010. Daniel Grego is Executive Director of TransCenter for Youth, Inc., a nonprofit agency that operates four high schools in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Dr. Grego has been a guest speaker for many organizations like the Centre for British Teachers and the Children’s Defense Fund, and at numerous forums focusing on education issues. He has taught in the Education Department at Alverno College and the Philosophy Department at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee and been a consultant for the Institute for the Transformation of Learning, the Helen Bader Foundation and to Wisconsin’s Governor and Legislature in the drafting and revision of Wisconsin’s Children At Risk statute. He is a founding member of the Alliance for Choices in Education (ACE) in Milwaukee. In addition to Life Learning Magazine, his writings have appeared in Encounter, the CYD Journal, Out of the Box, the Milwaukee Journal/Sentinel, America, the George Wright Forum, Education Revolution, Vitae Scholasticae and other periodicals and anthologies, including the book Life Learning: Lessons from the Educational Frontier. One of his main interests is exploring the confluence of the ideas of Mahatma Gandhi, Ivan Illich and Wendell Berry. He lives on a small farm in the Rock River watershed in Dodge County, Wisconsin.

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