The overwhelming emphasis in education today is on diversity.
No, I’m not just speaking about the ideology of diversity so often attacked by conservatives.
In this post, I’m principally speaking about the diversity in teachers and materials. The modern ideal is for students to switch out teachers each year—and beginning in middle school or high school, to switch out teachers every period—in addition to being exposed to as great a variety of authors as possible during their time in school.
I don’t wish to argue here that we should dispense with this model. Nor do I wish to maintain that it’s not without its advantages. No student wants to be stuck with an incompetent teacher or a disagreeable author for longer than necessary. Plus, in later grades, the model allows students to learn under specialists (or sometimes, athletic coaches) in respective fields.
However, this almost sole emphasis on diversity misses out on a key characteristic of a true education: apprenticeship.
That’s right: Traditionally speaking, the model of apprenticeship was not only something applied to the learning of a trade. Those who wanted to be scholars also undertook something like an “apprenticeship in knowledge” under noteworthy scholars.
Such was the case in the ancient world, where students of philosophy, for instance, would seek out a particular philosopher and not only study under him, but live amongst him. As the historian Henri Marrou notes:
“The personal tone of the old education, which I have stressed again and again, here comes out particularly clearly. The philosopher was expected to be much more than a teacher; he was expected to be ‘guide, philosopher and friend’, and the essence of his teaching was imbibed, not from the lofty eminence of his chair, but in the common life that he shared with his disciples: more important than his words was the example he set, his inspiring virtues and living wisdom.”
Such was also the case in some of the medieval universities (where students would begin studies much earlier than the age of 18). B.B. Price, in Oxford’s multi-volume History of Universities, writes:
“The phases of a university student’s training reflect a general similarity with any other kind of apprenticeship. The first phase of intensive training is undertaken, like that of an apprentice, under an authorized senior master; in the intermediate phase the student, now a bachelor, still serves under a master as a pupil-teacher, life a craft journeyman or assistant.”
Unfortunately, the opportunity to undertake an apprenticeship in knowledge exists in very few places today. You may recognize vestiges of it in Ph.D. programs, where students eventually choose a professor to direct their dissertations. However, most Ph.D. candidates will tell you that their dissertation directors are not very generous with their time, and what was a hoped-for apprenticeship turns out to be a struggle to merely get the director to respond to one’s emails.
Nevertheless, one can still take on a form apprenticeship in knowledge today through choosing one author (or two) that captures one’s admiration, and reading just about everything written by him. In this way, one can study under the tutelage of a master for several years, and often for a lower price-tag than tuition at today’s schools.
In modern schools, we are provided with numerous information, facts, data, and questions. But we are often left completely alone when it comes to the work of putting these parts together into a coherent whole.
Choosing one author and reading him prolifically, however, helps us in this work of putting together these pieces of our learning. In the course of one’s reading, one comes to develop a relationship with the author and participate in the life of his mind. One slowly begins to see how he views the world and the connections he makes between various things.
What is more, one begins to be able to make similar connections. People who come to be very close report knowing what each other is thinking before it is ever spoken. In the same way, reading an author prolifically can allow one to anticipate how he would think about an issue—one he may have never even considered.
And this, I submit, is what the process of knowledge is supposed to look like. It’s not only about accumulating facts; it’s also about being taught how to apply them. It’s not only a means to learn about the world; it’s also a means to learn how to view the world. It’s not only about being schooled; it’s also about establishing living relationships between persons.