“The most discouraging difficulty about this discussion, however, is that apparently it cannot lead to any so-called practical conclusion; certainly not to any conclusion, as far as I can see, which will at all answer to the general faith in machinery as an effective substitute of thought, and the general reliance upon machinery alone to bring about any and all forms of social improvement.”theory of ed


Recently I had the pleasure of reading another classic by Mr. Albert Jay Nock: The Theory of Education in the United States. This book originated with a series of lectures Mr. Nock presented at the University of Virginia in 1931. The educators of that time were not happy with the results of the current system of education, and invited Mr. Nock to speak on the subject as part of the Page-Barbour lecture series. It’s hard to imagine he would receive any such cordial invitation to speak at a university campus today. Nock did not mince words, stating his case plainly that no amount of “tinkering with the machinery” would produce satisfactory results because the problem was that the educational system was based on a flawed theory which produced a flawed design, flawed practice, and unsatisfactory results – i.e., graduates who, after undergoing the program from grade school to college, were not educated. The theory was this: that all citizens are equal in ability to learn, that education should be democratic, and that universal literacy would make for a better society.

In 2013, our educational system still operated according to the same basic theory as were in 1931, and we are still generally unhappy with the results. Since my children and I and nearly everybody I know have all gone through the same program, I could not help but find this book interesting; also enlightening, embarrassing, scathing and, as with all Nock’s writing, utterly delightful. When reading Nock’s ideas about education, I thought it might be helpful to put together a little glossary of sorts.

A Short Glossary of Nockian Terms

The Great Tradition The traditional curriculum for formative education used for many centuries in western civilization. Bargain-counter curriculum Program of education based on many choices and oriented toward preparing students to perform a job in society.
Education The formation of the mind and character through a sustained program of classical languages and literature and mathematics. Training Instruction aimed at functioning as part of society – i.e., doing something or getting something.
Scholar An educated person dedicated to continued deep study who may allow interested and promising students to study under his or her guidance. The responsibility for learning however, lies entirely with the student. Pedagogue A person, either educated or trained, whose job it is to instruct students in body of information. The responsibility for the transfer of knowledge to the student lies primarily with the pedagogue.
Educable A person with the intellectual firepower and force of character to undergo The Great Tradition. Ineducable A person unwilling or unable to benefit from The Great Tradition.
Literate A person who is able to read, comprehend, and critically analyze high-quality writing including news, literature, and scholarly writing. Able to decipher words A person who can read well enough to follow instructions or obtain basic information or propaganda from the written word.
Formative Describes education geared to proper formation of the student’s mind and spirit. Instrumental Describes training geared toward teaching the student skills or imparting knowledge to enable him or her to perform a job.

The Great Tradition

Traditionally, up at least to the university level, education was formative. Formative means that the purpose of the curriculum was to develop the student’s mind and character, rather like you would gird and prune a tree so that it could yield the maximum fruit. This would equip the person for lifelong learning and render him well-suited to apply himself to the profession he chose. All education below university level was basically the same: Latin, Greek, mathematics, some rhetoric, history, mostly classical history.

“The intention was, moreover—and this is most important—that the character of this progress through the schools and the undergraduate college should be fixed, invariable, and the same for all participants. There should be no elective studies.”

The basic framework of the Great Tradition was roughly as follows:

Primary: The 3 Rs plus basic Latin and Greek

Secondary: Latin & Greek, mostly grammar and vocabulary, mathematics, geography, some readings in classical history and mythology.

Undergraduate college: Greek and Latin as literature – read for content rather than form as by this time the student has mastered the mechanics of the languages, some rhetoric, some history, perhaps higher mathematics.

University or professional school: Student learns specifics of chosen profession or technical career: Law, Medicine, Theology, or Letters (Literary scholarship usually with some specialty). Student could also opt for a technical career in science or engineering, agriculture or architecture. The point was, these specialties were approached only after the student has completed a formative education.)

* * * * * * * *

In the Great Tradition, Nock says, “Instrumental knowledge of the sort which bears directly on doing something or getting something, should have no place there; it should have as strict an instrumental quarantine raised against it as cities raise against plague.”

Apparently in the 19th century when the notions of democratizing education took hold, the educational pioneers first attempted to expose everyone to The Great Tradition, and found that this attempt did not work: “Our theory assumed that all persons are educable; our practical application of it simply showed that the Creator in His wisdom and in His loving-kindness, had for some unsearchable reason not quite seen His way to fall in with our theory, for He had not made all persons educable. We found to our discomfiture that the vast majority of mankind have neither the force of intellect to apprehend the processes of education, nor the force of character to make an educational discipline prevail in their lives.”

So having discovered that The Great Tradition could not be applied to educating the masses, they discarded it and replaced it with a new program designed to train people for a role in society, a program that seemed to work better with the theory.

“In the course of this procedure there came to pass the complete obliteration of a most important distinction which several writers have of late tried to revive—I dealt with it in a brief essay published three years ago—the distinction between training and education. As we have observed, very few people are educable. The great majority remain, we may say, in respect of mind and spirit, structurally immature; therefore no amount of exposure to the force of any kind of instruction or example can ever determine in them the views of life or establish in them the demands on life, that are characteristic of maturity.”

By maturity, Nock means all the pieces are in place in mind and spirit to receive understanding of the nature of things to the level ordained by God for fully human understanding. Each creature by nature has a scope of understanding beyond which it cannot extend. A dog can understand many things within its scope—including the presence of a favorite treat, the emotional state of its people, the smell of prey—but a thing like the finer points of algebra are outside of its scope and no amount of reading algebra books in its hearing will cause the simplest algebraic concept to take root in its mind.

With human beings it seems to be a bit different; not all human beings are endowed the same scope of understanding. Unfortunately this fact is not compatible with the concept of equality as generally applied to our current educational system. Herein lies the confusion. The theory tells us that any two children are capable of learning and understanding the same things, but a little observation will show that this is not the case, especially when it comes to the traditional areas of formative education such as languages and mathematics. Go into a public high school and tell me what percentage of the students are sincerely interested in the fully understanding the literature of say, Shakespeare. How many of them pass the Hamlet test based on Cliff Notes and how many of them ever think about Hamlet again after the test? The problem, however, is not with the students. Nor is it with the teachers. The problem, according to Nock, is that we have based a giant complicated system every more expensive system on a theory that is not true.

At the time Mr. Nock delivered these lectures the new system had been in practice about 35 years, long enough to observe its effects on its participants and on society and long enough for Nock to need to try to explain to his university audience the value of what was lost:

“The literatures of Greece and Rome comprise the longest and fullest continuous record available to us, of what the human mind has been busy about in practically every department of spiritual and social activity; every department, I think, except one—music. This record covers 2500 consecutive years of the human mind’s operations in poetry, drama, law, agriculture, philosophy, architecture, natural history, philology, rhetoric, astronomy, politics, medicine, theology, geography, everything. Hence the mind that has attentively canvassed this record is not only a disciplined mind but an experienced mind; a mind that instinctively views any contemporary phenomenon from the vantage-point of an immensely long perspective attained through this profound and weighty experience of the human spirit’s operations.”

Educating a person in The Great Tradition requires a certain understanding of what a human being is. You cannot teach or partake of this approach if you hold a materialistic conception of the human, if you see humans as animated organisms whose only purpose is to perform their part in the machinery of society. To understand the value of formative education you must understand yourself and others as spiritual beings whose primary value is beyond physical functionality, appearance, and material worth on the world. If you cannot understand human beings in this light, then training for a role in the material world is probably your best option.

* * * * * * * *

So to summarize, the gist of The Theory of Education in the United States is that a system built on a the idea that all people are educable and that everyone should be “educated” has led to the necessity to redefine the meaning of education and change schools to a training-based curriculums, but still call it education. It seems that our ideas about how to educate the masses really took hold in the late 19th century. I will need to do a some research on the pioneers of our educational system to find out more about how this took place. I know that in the early 20th century it was not assumed that everyone would finish high school. My grandfather, born in 1911, only went to school up to 6th grade and then went to work in the coal mines, and I do not think that was unusual. He was literate and could and did read and learn on his own as time and economics permitted.

As with all of Nock’s writing, The Theory of Education in the United States is a delight to read, as pleasant in tone as it is scathing in content. I have a feeling his ideas wouldn’t go over well at an NEA convention, but I’d sure love to be in that audience!

love reading1

Next on my list: Jefferson by Albert Jay Nock.

One Response to The Theory of Education in the United States by Albert Jay Nock: Review and Brief Summary

  1. Leslie says:

    I like your writings, please keep up the good work!

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