What Public Education Can Be
By Jeremy Hausotter
April 30, 2022
Note: The opinions expressed in this article are my own alone and not of my employer’s.
Public education is a controversial subject for a variety of reasons. Between the problems concerning curriculum, staff, finances, and politics, public education is riddled with controversy. Whether it is poor teacher salaries, teacher unions holding districts hostage like what occurred in Chicago, where the teacher unions closed the schools over their refusal to begin in-person learning, or the debates over the inclusion of LGBT and critical race theory within school libraries and curriculums.
My public school experience as a student was borderline a joke. The STEM courses were the best ones I took, whereas most of the liberal arts courses were mediocre at best. We had to make do with what we had, for it was a small school in a rural county. When I say rural, Walmart was 40 miles down the road and the nearest thing resembling a mall 80 miles, and a real mall even further.
When I lived in Montgomery, Alabama, I saw first-hand the failure of public education, even though I worked at a private school. The public schools at the time suffered from gang problems, violence with daily fights, drug abuse, teen sexual promiscuity, and of course poor education. The graduation rates, curriculum, and student performance were miserable, such that the state was looking at revoking the district’s certifications. The school districts failed their students. It was an institutionalized failure oozing from the top down.
In San Antonio, I see many of the same issues within the district schools. When I was teaching a catechism class for high schoolers, I learned to my dismay that the students do not read any books in their English classes. Many of them had not read a book in years. Weirdly, many appeared to lack a sufficient attention span to track and follow discussions. They struggled to comprehend the contents of a basic video. These were students who never learned how to engage in difficult material and were clueless about what to do.
And these are not isolated observations. I have many teacher friends, knowing teachers across several states including Oregon, California, Alabama, Pennsylvania, and of course, Texas. Education in the United States is facing a growing crisis, and these are all symptoms manifesting themselves. Teachers online through social media such as Reddit have been increasingly speaking out against the abuses in the field.
Another significant concern is the fact that students are becoming more violent. One teacher in Oregon I know has been over the years slowly switching to lower grades because her students were too violent with the punching, kicking and biting. She is not an isolated incidence either. A superficial Google search will reveal many astonishing stories of students being violent, even at an early age. It was just a month ago or so that a five-year-old murdered his teacher at school in the classroom. This is of course an extreme cause, but, nevertheless, a manifestation of the same virus.
A similar concern is suicide. In the five years I’ve taught, two students committed suicide. A friend of mine told me recently that at his high school a student committed suicide every year. In Texas suicide is the second highest cause of death among teenagers.
Given all of the problems, I wish to defend public education. I am a public school teacher. There is certainly something here to defend that is worthy and noble, and that is a free education. The gift of an education in one’s formative years is indispensable. To educate, however, first requires a teaching philosophy; and philosophy, of course, raises the question of truth itself. Education requires a particular attitude towards truth, and once that proper attitude is removed from education, education ceases to exist and becomes a mutant tyrant.
Education begins with the fact that each human is not merely a homo sapien, but a living, unique human person, the image of God. The task of the educator is to be the midwife assisting the student to birth the truth, so to speak, to help the student discover and encounter truth. This of course presupposes that truth exists and is something that the teacher and student both can seize and possess. Truth is not something arbitrarily created, but encountered through discoveries and insights about the nature of reality.
Truth is unchanging. The fact that 2+2=4 is a truth that will never perish nor go away, no matter how much one may wish. One cannot dispense with it nor the truth of the law of noncontradiction, or other necessary truths. The encounter with truth is the encounter with reality, and when education no longer seeks to expose students to the truth for the sake of the truth itself, but for some other cause or purpose, then education becomes propaganda, diverting both the teacher and the student from reality itself. Education as a craft is the right ordering of self and student towards the pursuit of truth and obtaining knowledge of reality.
Our world and the reality of it is a reality seeped in truth, soaked in truth, permeated through and through with truth, because the fact that the world exists is itself a truth. Reality is composed in such a manner that it is ordered, made in a way conducive to man’s pursuit of the truth. Reality and the universe are truth manifested and yet hidden, demanding our investigations through the various fields of knowledge. Reality is truth manifested and education is the art of revealing that truth to the student in the manifold fields of study. The teacher is not the secret revealer of gnostic knowledge, but an apostle in the name of reality and truth.
Education requires a rightful ordering of self towards reality. We cannot demand reality to conform to our ideas and conceptions; rather, these must instead conform to reality. We must have a spirit of humility and reverence towards truth and reality. When we forget these virtues, we begin to impose our arbitrary demands upon truth and reality. We begin to construct a fantasy around our ideals, a fiction that has lost its anchoring in reality. And once this is completed, we relativize truth and start seeking truth in illicit ways, such as through occult practices and the pursuit of hidden, gnostic “truths”. We make ourselves the master over truth and reality, with flows from an original act of pride. The irreverence towards truth and reality is the defiance of pride, of saying “I am lord and master” instead of “I am a servant and apostle for the truth”.
When we forget these basic truths, we forget about the purpose and goal of education. Education is a meaningless, nonsensical enterprise once truth is no longer the theme. This is the core issue. If we demonstrate meaninglessness towards our students, what conclusion should they deduct but the false proposition that life and reality are meaningless vacations out of nothingness and to which we return one way or another?
When mathematics becomes a mind game, a psychological feat of riddles and puzzles to tease out and create, we have forgotten what is mathematics itself. When history becomes merely whoever can come up with a more compelling interpretation and argument at the cost of the historical facts themselves, like the New York Times 1619 project with its debunked “history”, history becomes fiction. The historical becomes a historical fiction writer possessing the power and authority over the historical facts themselves, instead of the other way around. Relativism breeds absurdism and nihilism, for they are her bastard children.
When literature is reduced to pointless exercises of article readings to inflate state testing scores or to depraved language, morality, poor writing technique, and discussions of such drivel transition to becoming the mere projections of student whims and spontaneous interpretations because they are interesting or shocking or controversial, then literature, language, and dialogue all become lost arts. The art of argumentation itself becomes nonsense, for the straw man becomes the preferred dialectic in addition to ad hominem and two-bit, postcard-slogan grandstanding.
Science suffers the least, for it is hard for one to argue against direct quantifiable observations, but we humans still try. Some after all argue dinosaurs never existed or that the earth is flat. Some in the name of race and justice will go so far as to even state that science and medicine are Western constructions and colonization of black Africans, and argue that the restoration of the cultural heritage of the African nations requires the rejection of both science and medicine. These individuals advocate for returning to magic and shamanism as the proper scientific and medical pursuits of black Africans.
When we abuse truth, we abuse ourselves and our capacity to live within reality. When we educate ourselves in our abuse, the self-inflicted wounds take years to stop bleeding, and it takes a miracle to stop the internal hemorrhaging. But truth is patient and readily awaits with gauze and bandages, for man is a truth seeker.
Man can either make truth his betrothed or become an adulterer and abuse her. Either way, he cannot live without her. He must decide one way or another how he will treat her. Will he ignore her for bureaucratic pedantry, play the part of the profligate, be indifferent, or treasure truth as a bride ought to be? The choice is his and his alone, and we all choose a path and attitude towards truth.
A public school education should strive to bring students to encounter reality and instill in them the proper habits towards truth, to act according to truth, and when education accomplishes this, students and teachers encounter both the goodness and beauty of reality. Truth and reality are both beautiful and good. When we abuse truth, we disfigure beauty and blind ourselves to what is good. If we pervert one, the other two are likewise profaned and humiliated.
Truth, goodness, and beauty. These are the task of education, the pursuit of this trinity. When students encounter them, he or she starts to discover the meaning of reality and that there is something significant worth living for, and even to defend and die for. The specter of relativism obscures this significance and presents instead the lie that only one’s pleasure is worthwhile. Truth, beauty, and goodness are demanding, they demand that we live in a certain way that becomes ennobling and virtuous, and this is not an easy life. The specter of relativism readily offers the easy way out to gratify our whims, personal passions and desires.
Education becomes an ugly and evil thing when truth is abused, and this is the status many schools and districts are in. The key is the philosophical takeover of reality and to recenter these schools in what is real, to ground them in the real.
The school I teach at holds these three ideals as the philosophical cornerstone of its education framework. Put into practice, the school has a classical curriculum. Students actually read books, several a year and they discuss them in seminar format. All students learn physics and calculus. They study Latin and a second language. They perform Shakespeare and music. Education is sought after over the minds and hearts of the students, to challenge them academically and psychospiritually towards the real and cultivate the habits of virtue. In doing such, my school closed the achievement gap and the students' scores on national tests are higher than the national average. These are the consequences and results of the right teaching philosophy. When a poor teaching philosophy is in place, then we see the above symptoms as outlined.
When we challenge our students to seek the real and be faithful to reality, we change them for the better and slowly also change our culture and society. One of the major problems of being an educator today is that many parents see schools as free daycare and treat it as such. Teachers then play the double roles of being both the educator and a second parent disciplining the child. It is no wonder teachers get burned out when we work long hours, nights, and weekends, only to be abused during the day by children for low pay. This problem will slowly correct itself as we steer society towards the real. Students become apostles for reality and become a challenge to their parents, neighbors, friends, and, hopefully, their future children.
A free public education that can bring one to encounter reality is a national treasure for all generations. Public education is as good or bad as we decide it to be. Parents decide through their choice of where they send their children to school, involvement in their schools, and curriculum. We the public have the collective power to make public education great. I say this as a parent too with my own children in mind. If parents want their children to read Dante, Dostoevsky, Augustine, Locke, and others, it is in their power to make the choice. Why not have such become a regular curriculum at a high school? What is stopping us other than our own inaction, immobility, greed, and fear?
Many schools already offer such curriculums, but these are those which follow a classical curriculum. Districts in general do not adopt a classical education model. One has to look either to homeschool, a private school, or a public charter school such as the one I teach at.
We have the power to transform our society for the better. We do not need to be defined as a ghetto gun-slinging nation, but we choose to be when we allow the symptoms of institutionalized mediocrity and philosophical rejection of the real to dominate our education systems. The reason is due the fact that when we lose sight of reality, we lose sight of our moral status as personal beings endowed with dignity and that we have the vocation to live rightly. A school roiled by violence, drugs and sex is an institution that has lost its sights on reality, it has forgotten this basic duty of reverence towards the real.
Public education can become such that when one enters a classroom, he or she sees 20 students actively engaged in a conversation about the derivation of the volume of a square-based pyramid using integrals. One would normally think that a student was a nerd or weird if he or she said that calculus was his or her favorite subject, but such is not the case here. In a public school where everyone is accepted, dressed the same and takes the same curriculum, there is no easy copout to describe this phenomenon.
Public education can become such that when one enters a classroom, he can see 20 students actively discussing the virtue theory of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, or the views of William Harvey, Galileo, Copernicus, Einstein, Newton, Jane Austen, Frederick Douglass, Locke, St. Thomas Aquinas, etc. in the mutual quest and pursuit of the truth of reality. Truth is a roaring lion prowling about. The sound of it is fearful and we are often tempted to hide from it, but when we encounter it, we behold its majesty and access the sublime light reality shines beams forth.
Public education is the task of the citizen, of each and every one of us, and we decide whether it is successful or a failure through our choices and decisions. We decide for or against truth with every action of our lives, and how we live affects our society and culture, and this inevitably winds up in the classroom when the educator must encounter the children of the citizens and work with their decisions. Teachers often must work with students from broken homes, abused by parents, suffer the effects of divorce, drug abuse, and other human tragedies.
Education systems must recognize that each student is a gift from above, a shining example of Imago Dei, a unique gift and challenge for the educator, a call and demand to show the way to truth. When the education system fails to do such, that system has forgotten its vocation to educate and has institutionalized failure for its students. The gift of each human person places the demand upon the educator to seek their excellence and growth in recognition of that gift.
Instead of dumbing down curriculum to make it understandable to the masses, give everyone equal access to the cream and fruits of Western Civilization. Each human person cannot drink the same amount, but give every person the same cup to drink out of. When we reduce curriculum and education to a low common denominator, we eliminate the task of education itself, for truth is something to be encountered on its own terms. We are meant to be provoked and challenged by it. There is nothing provocative in mediocrity, nothing interesting to be had in pursuing it. Its function is rather to restrict the free intellectual movement of the person from obtaining the lofty heights of truth. Truth is dangerous, and when it is unshackled, institutions and careers are endangered, threatened by its ferocity. Equal access to the cream and fruit of Western thought has proven, for my school at least, to eliminate the achievement gap, and this is only one of the amazing outcomes an education steeped in perennial philosophy can obtain.
Public education can be a magnificent thing, as my experiences have shown me. It is when it is grounded in the real that the true transformation of lives takes place. I have witnessed such repeatedly over the years. Living in accordance with truth and reality is transformative and empowering. We only settle when we believe there is nothing better or if one’s circumstances are good enough. Some will undoubtedly even accept the mediocrity and label it as excellence. We decide, as parents, educators, voters, and citizens, the fate of education in the United States.
For more information on how public charter schools are transforming Texas, check out the following link on Texas Public Charter Schools Association’s website. Le Nouvel Esprit is not affiliated with Texas Public Charter Schools Association.
Night: Mediterranean Coast Scene with Fishermen and Boats by Claude-Joseph Vernet Wikimedia Commons