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A reader writes . . . By Randy Carson

January 21, 2001

Frank Ashburn, who was the headmaster of a boys' school in the 1940s and 1950s, was fond of quoting the Bible verse, "The bond are free, and the free are bond." He was famous, in fact, for his interpretation of this verse — saying that "bond" meant "bound" and that the message of the verse was this: When you develop discipline, you become a free person. If you don't develop it, you will suffer a blighted, narrow and constrained life.

You might say that a boy was free who never had to do any learning at all. But he would be free in the same way that an animal tied to a stake is free. He would have more time on his hands, but he would be limited by his own lack of experience and culture.

You cannot read and write without the bondage of having learned to read and write. You cannot play football without the bondage of giving time and energy to train and to practice.


What is training? Training is preparing yourself to be able to do what you can't count on having to do. In a football game, physical training is what keeps your muscles from giving out when everyone else's wind is gone. Training of the mind is not that which allows you to handle the problem you've already been over, but that which allows you to handle the problems you've never seen before. Training of the heart is that sort of conditioning that keeps you steady when you might otherwise be sick with fear, or bewildered by strangeness, or hurt and bruised by your emotions.

In Ashburn's view — and in my own — there were four fields of study that ought equally to comprise the core of any school curriculum. The first is communication, or drama, literature and composition; the second is the physical world, or science and math; the third is the social world, or history and anthropology; and the fourth is the spiritual world, or religion, philosophy and morality. By the end of the educational process, these four fields must merge into one unified body of knowledge, just as the four legs of a table must work together to support the top. When this happens, we may then say a student has experienced the essence of a liberal arts education.

The Norman Rockwell view of America revolved around a friendly neighborhood barber shop, or grocer's shop, or soda fountain where customers not only bought their staple goods but also where, on Friday nights and Saturdays, they could find lively, informed debate on the most important issues of the day. Ordinary citizens still gather to discuss important questions, but they are less well-informed and less able to support their arguments. One reason is that they aren't being taught the full spectrum of a liberal arts education in the schools.

Indeed, schools have moved so far away from the basics of a liberal arts education that their curricula merely dabble into a plurality of special interest that water down the real-life heroes around us and that skim the stories and accomplishments of the generations that made America great. To undo this trend, we must recapture that part of American history and world history that inspires awe and wonder. We must recapture the art of communication, both spoken and written. We must recapture our sense of place in the universe, as well as within the physical world around us. We must turn again toward a shared morality, and we must cultivate an understanding of what freedom means and what our obligations as citizens entail.

There are still many good schools run by good teachers and supported by good parents and good communities, but for the last several decades the general system of education in the U.S. has been floundering. If educators — and citizens — are to find their way, one of the first things we need to do is reevaluate our basic curricula in light of two issues that underpin and support the entire edifice of society: human nature and experience.

By definition, human nature does not change. That isn't to minimize the effects of culture, circumstance or individual differences; but what is important to recognize is that the basic instincts of the human animal are constant. On one level, this is cause for optimism. No matter how complicated our domestic problems are, no matter how tense our relations with other nations are, we can always be sure that, deep down, there is some spark of humanity, some urge to do what is right, some level of interaction at which both sides can find common ground.

On another level, this is cause for pessimism; for there is an equally unchanging darker side of human nature that seeks domination over those who are weaker and that drains energy from an otherwise productive relationship. This side of human nature can only be tempered by the lessons of experience. Without law, without the institutions of civil society, without religion, without the shared values that promote rather than discourage self-restraint, then that darker side will prevail.

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