By John von Heyking, August 9, 2010 in Pedagogy and Teaching, What is Education?
Educators today are frequently slaves to the new, either by slavishly embracing every innovation in educational theory and technique, or by groaning under the burden of unwanted innovations imposed upon them by administrators who absurdly regard themselves as channeling the zeitgeist.
Eva Brann reminds us that innovation is the very meaning of modernity, taken from the Latin, “modo.” No one needs reminding of how much our culture embraces “change.”
Yet, change is paradoxical. Does it mean a complete abandonment of the old? Or is the new merely a refashioning and rearranging of the old? Consider the innovators themselves: all the founders of the U.S. republic were classically trained, and all of them, by varying degrees, sought to liberate their generation from the classical tradition. For them, and for modern philosophers from whom they learned, the “tradition” had become a pile of accreted words that bore little relevance to the things to which these same modern thinkers turned their attention. Thus, the modern preference for studying things instead of words.
Yet, this modern turn produces a problem for modern thought and for the republic that was inspired by modern thought. It is not only slightly hypocritical that the education that made Madison and Jefferson so great will now be denied to subsequent generations who benefit from their liberation. One thinks here of the claim Francis Fukuyama made of Lenin and his revolution – that it took Tsarist Russia to breed Lenin, and the revolution he led was meant to prevent future Lenins from arising.
But the problem of innovation runs deeper. Brann observes that this spirit of innovation and liberation, which views the old as obsolete, ends up obscuring the meaning of the founding of the republic itself. This happens all the time in the sciences, where the originating thoughts that transformed the meaning of science (i.e., Galileo, Bacon, etc.) get ignored. For scientists, this does not become such a big problem until scientists start making unwarranted claims for scientific knowledge (a common phenomenon, especially in the last 50 years or so). However, the ignorance of originating thoughts is perhaps a problem more acute for political ideas, especially those that constituted the republic.