"Subjects" of some kind there must be, of course. One cannot learn the theory of grammar without learning an actual language, or learn to argue and orate without speaking about something in particular. The debating subjects of the Middle Ages were drawn largely from theology, or from the ethics and history of antiquity. Often, indeed, they became stereotyped, especially towards the end of the period, and the far-fetched and wire-drawn absurdities of Scholastic argument fretted Milton and provide food for merriment even to this day. Whether they were in themselves any more hackneyed and trivial than the usual subjects set nowadays for "essaywriting" I should not like to say: we may ourselves grow a littleweary of "A Day in My Holidays" and all the rest of it. But mostof the merriment is misplaced, because the aim and object of the debatingthesis has by now been lost sight of.
The national system of Indian education, including both off reservation boarding schools, reservation boarding schools and day schools, continued to expand at the turn of the century. In the Pacific Northwest, Chemawa Indian School became the largest off reservation boarding school and drew pupils from throughout the region and Alaska. Chemawa had originally been located at Forest Grove, Oregon, but was moved to Salem in 1885 after officials determined that the original site lacked adequate agricultural land. By 1920 Chemawa enrolled 903 students from 90 different tribes, nearly a third coming from Alaska.
The goal of Indian education from the 1880s through the 1920s was to assimilate Indian people into the melting pot of America by placing them in institutions where traditional ways could be replaced by those sanctioned by the government. Federal Indian policy called for the removal of children from their families and in many cases enrollment in a government run boarding school. In this way, the policy makers believed, young people would be immersed in the values and practical knowledge of the dominant American society while also being kept away from any influences imparted by their traditionally-minded relatives.
Seeking to educate increasing numbers of Indian children at lower cost, the federal government established two other types of schools: the reservation boarding school and day schools. Reservation boarding schools had the advantage of being closer to Indian communities and as a result had lower transportation costs. Contact between students and their families was somewhat restricted as students remained at the school for eight to nine months of the year. Relatives could visit briefly at prescribed times. School administrators worked constantly to keep the students at school and eradicate all vestiges of their tribal cultures. Day schools, which were the most economical, usually provided only a minimal education. They worked with the boarding schools by transferring students for more advanced studies.
In the Pacific Northwest, treaties negotiated with the Indians during the 1850s included promises of educational support for the tribes. For example, signed by members of the Nisqually, Squaxin, Puyallup and Steilacoom Tribes on December 26, 1854 called for the establishment of an agricultural and industrial school "to be free to the children of said tribes for a period of 20 years." The expenses of the school, its employees and medical personnel were to be defrayed by the federal government and not deducted from annuities. A similar clause appears in the Treaty of Point Elliott, signed by representatives of tribes living in the central and northern Puget Sound region.
I would draw your attention particularly to that last sentence, whichoffers an explanation of what the writer rightly calls the "distressingfact" that the intellectual skills bestowed upon us by our educationare not readily transferable to subjects other than those in which we acquiredthem: "he remembers what he has learnt, but forgets altogether howhe learned it."
Let us now look at the mediaeval scheme of education--the syllabus ofthe Schools. It does not matter, for the moment, whether it was devisedfor small children or for older students, or how long people were supposedto take over it. What matters is the light it throws upon what the menof the Middle Ages supposed to be the object and the right order of theeducative process.
It’s not surprising that it took me so long to discover the extent of my miseducation, because the last thing an elite education will teach you is its own inadequacy. As two dozen years at Yale and Columbia have shown me, elite colleges relentlessly encourage their students to flatter themselves for being there, and for what being there can do for them. The advantages of an elite education are indeed undeniable. You learn to think, at least in certain ways, and you make the contacts needed to launch yourself into a life rich in all of society’s most cherished rewards. To consider that while some opportunities are being created, others are being cancelled and that while some abilities are being developed, others are being crippled is, within this context, not only outrageous, but inconceivable.
I’m not talking about curricula or the culture wars, the closing or opening of the American mind, political correctness, canon formation, or what have you. I’m talking about the whole system in which these skirmishes play out. Not just the Ivy League and its peer institutions, but also the mechanisms that get you there in the first place: the private and affluent public “feeder” schools, the ever-growing parastructure of tutors and test-prep courses and enrichment programs, the whole admissions frenzy and everything that leads up to and away from it. The message, as always, is the medium. Before, after, and around the elite college classroom, a constellation of values is ceaselessly inculcated. As globalization sharpens economic insecurity, we are increasingly committing ourselves—as students, as parents, as a society—to a vast apparatus of educational advantage. With so many resources devoted to the business of elite academics and so many people scrambling for the limited space at the top of the ladder, it is worth asking what exactly it is you get in the end—what it is we all get, because the elite students of today, as their institutions never tire of reminding them, are the leaders of tomorrow.
It is, of course, quite true that bits and pieces of the mediaeval traditionstill linger, or have been revived, in the ordinary school syllabus oftoday. Some knowledge of grammar is still required when learning a foreignlanguage--perhaps I should say, "is again required," for duringmy own lifetime, we passed through a phase when the teaching of declensionsand conjugations was considered rather reprehensible, and it was consideredbetter to pick these things up as we went along. School debating societiesflourish; essays are written; the necessity for "self- expression"is stressed, and perhaps even over-stressed. But these activities are cultivatedmore or less in detachment, as belonging to the special subjects in whichthey are pigeon-holed rather than as forming one coherent scheme of mentaltraining to which all "subjects"stand in a subordinate relation."Grammar" belongs especially to the "subject" of foreignlanguages, and essay-writing to the "subject" called "English";while Dialectic has become almost entirely divorced from the rest of thecurriculum, and is frequently practiced unsystematically and out of schoolhours as a separate exercise, only very loosely related to the main businessof learning. Taken by and large, the great difference of emphasis betweenthe two conceptions holds good: modern education concentrates on "teachingsubjects," leaving the method of thinking, arguing, and expressingone's conclusions to be picked up by the scholar as he goes along' mediaevaleducation concentrated on first forging and learning to handle the toolsof learning, using whatever subject came handy as a piece of material onwhich to doodle until the use of the tool became second nature.
For we let our young men and women go out unarmed, in a day when armorwas never so necessary. By teaching them all to read, we have left themat the mercy of the printed word. By the invention of the film and theradio, we have made certain that no aversion to reading shall secure themfrom the incessant battery of words, words, words. They do not know whatthe words mean; they do not know how to ward them off or blunt their edgeor fling them back; they are a prey to words in their emotions insteadof being the masters of them in their intellects. We who were scandalizedin 1940 when men were sent to fight armored tanks with rifles, are notscandalized when young men and women are sent into the world to fight massedpropaganda with a smattering of "subjects"; and when whole classesand whole nations become hypnotized by the arts of the spell binder, wehave the impudence to be astonished. We dole out lip-service to the importanceof education--lip- service and, just occasionally, a little grant of money;we postpone the school-leaving age, and plan to build bigger and betterschools; the teachers slave conscientiously in and out of school hours;and yet, as I believe, all this devoted effort is largely frustrated, becausewe have lost the tools of learning, and in their absence can only makea botched and piecemeal job of it.