“This Story Shall the Good Man Teach His Son”: How Most Modern Education Fails Students and How I Respond

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. Although the ancients and a host of more recent soldiers and thinkers—including George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, C.S. Lewis, Ronald Reagan, and veterans—as well as average citizens, have agreed with Horace’s statement above, most modern students will only ever encounter these words by reading Wilfred Owen’s poem with this title. That poem, though it justly emphasizes the ugliness and disillusionment of World War I, is ultimately a superficial treatment of the subject because it is only concerned with the visible and felt aspects of death in war. However, limiting students’ encounter with World War I, or with any instance of suffering, to Owen’s poem and its philosophy that our view of suffering should be determined by its visible effects, gives students a false and soul-embittering view of human life.

The popularity of Owen’s poem in modern education highlights four flaws in modern culture that are readily reinforced by modern education: a focus on the immediate, the practical, the relative, and the physical. Modern culture and education entices students—and school authorities—to meet their own needs as quickly as possible and to toss patience to the pigs. Such a mindset leads students to prioritize Google searches over memory and SparkNotes over reading hard copies with pen in hand. Similarly, modern education stresses practicality, “college and career readiness”, and physical and intellectual comfort; as a result, the value of a student is determined by his ability to earn a high wage, and he is directed by “trigger warnings”, not by virtue. Thirdly, modern education emphasizes the relativity of all moral standards, which are deemed “social constructs”; this means that students become incapable of discerning truth, goodness, and beauty and are discouraged from rising to the challenge of living virtuous lives. Lastly, modern education is preoccupied with the physical, tangible, and visible, and denies the existence and importance of the metaphysical. As a consequence, students are seen merely as workers or statistics, rather than as eternal souls.

My philosophy of education is to counteract these four principles in both the method and content of my teaching. The methods I use in the courses I have developed oppose the flaws of both immediacy and practicality by the use of whole works, relevant art and music, cumulative exams that require remembrance of the most important ideas in the course, and essays demanding argumentation. I emphasize mastery of written communication and model the habit of continued learning and research to expand intellectual life and enjoyment. Students spend one month at the end of each semester preparing essays which they present and field questions on before their fellow-students and parents. My teaching opposes the flaw of moral relativism because all assignments, discussions, and lectures are based on the premise that truth exists, and that we should work to discern moral absolutes, virtues, and beauty. My courses also oppose the flaw of overemphasis on physicality because students are assigned to read, discuss, write about, memorize, and present on all kinds of intangible themes such as virtue, beauty, honor, fellowship, and liberty.

Course content also opposes the flaws of immediacy, practicality, relativity, and physicality because it is intentionally selected to direct students’ minds beyond the weaknesses of our culture toward what is ultimately good. Students read works of the highest quality and of key historical influence. While any accurate study of history and literature requires the study of evil, false, and ugly ideas, as well as the failures of key historical figures, these ideas are presented in the context of the effects those ideas have had on the lives of people, and the flaws of historical figures are taught as reminders that everyone is a “mixed bag”—historical figures who have been powerful influences for good are praised for their efforts instead of being reduced to their flaws. As much time as possible is spent on ideas and works that are uplifting and that depict an accurate view of evil. Finally, I work to emphasize the sacrifices of heroes in war and in peace. While modern academia generally considers heroism an illegitimate topic for serious study, individuals who risk or give their lives for others—as the Greeks defined heroism—still deserve recognition.

My philosophy of the method and content of education is focused on counteracting four key flaws of modern culture and education: the overemphasis on immediacy, practicality, relativity, and physicality. A modern education emphasizing those principles will restrict itself to teaching Owen’s poem, not Horace’s ode, and to locating Arlington on a map, not to telling why the soldiers buried there died. A true education will acknowledge that, while our bodies will be, to borrow the phrase of Prince Hal, food for worms, our actions may become, to borrow the phrase of Henry V, the stories that the good man shall teach his son.

Image: Interior of the Chapel at the American Cemetery, Cambridge, UK