The Ruricolist is now available in print.


I shudder whenever I hear of a new method in education. In the hands of a good teacher, who understands and shares its aims and principles, any method can succeed. In the hands of the rest, the shape and color of the prod do not matter: they will find a way to draw blood with it.

In the classroom of Procrustes there are standards. Those who are below the line may hope to be lifted up to it; those who are above the line must expect to be trimmed down even with it.

(Provided that it is peaceful and prosperous, I suspect that a country in which many minds fall below the line, will have unusually many minds above the line. This has been one of the reasons for America’s success. But unless the majority of people are close to the line, a country shall be neither peaceful nor prosperous.)

Sometimes a new method dredges the silt of habit. Sometimes it solves a problem; sometimes it shows up a problem in need of solving. But all methods try to reduce the teacher to catechist or technician. It is beyond reformers of education to acknowledge that good teachers are good, because they have good instincts. They have use for any method only if they can, when necessary, set it aside. When governments or school administrations enforce a particular method, they waste the best and excuse the worst.

The most basic question of method is whether to teach knowledge or critical thinking. But not even this question makes sense. I once read the difference analogized in the terms of computer programming – whether program or data is more important? It is a good analogy only because it shows how misguided the question is. The distinction of data and program is not essential or fixed. In the most sophisticated computer languages what is now data may become program, and what is now program may become data.

There is no skill of critical thinking, no capacity to learn, distinct from knowledge. You cannot learn to think, or learn to learn, without actually learning. Classroom critical thinking, when it is the ritual abuse of carefully stuffed straw men or the circling of out-of-reach questions, can only stop at inverting every statement into a question or cavil. That is the opposite of understanding; it is active ignorance.

Nor is knowledge absorbed directly. Words are symbols, and what symbols represent symbols cannot be. You learn not by absorbing thoughts from another mind, but by private analogy. Beginning with what you already know or have experienced, you recombine by aggregation and dissection until you meet what is shown to you. You build outward and inward, year by year, from the experience of the cradle – to the soul and the stars. But minds are not as different as their differentiating experiences. The building and building up of analogies, beginning in the isolation of the individual, converges on what is shared, what can be communicated – that is sanity.

Because it cannot be made into procedures, we neglect the basic truth: all education is self-education. Teaching cannot be brainwashing or downloading. No regulation and no method can do more than bring the teacher to the halfway where they must meet the student. No stake on any test and no drug can do more than bring the student to the halfway point where the teacher should meet them.

The mind is a fire, not an attic. You cannot burn anything without fuel, and you cannot fuel what is not burning. It takes a good teacher and a good student to set the fire; and it is the sign of good teachers to understand that whatever method does not serve the burning mind will smother it.