One Great Truth

Posted on November 2, 2013


The first three paragraphs of an essay called “Education Without Instruction” by Jacques Barzun, from his book The House of Intellect (1959):

Clearly, the blame for much that is lacking or painful in our manners can be laid upon our education, individual and collective. The same cause will also explain what is wrong with our politics and ways of business, with our press and public opinion. Indeed, whatever is wrong is the fault of the schools, for is it not there that we learn to become what we are? This common indictment overlooks but one point, which is that the schools are run by adults–and run to suit other adults in political, intellectual, or business life. The schools are thus as fully the product of our politics, business, and public opinion as these are the products of our schools. It is because the link is so close that the schools are so hard to change.
They are, for the same reason, hard to describe, showing as they do the diversity and elusiveness of culture itself. Because it is thought of as a sheltered place invaded by worldlings, the school is often forgiven for resembling the world; it is always possible to say, ‘That is society’s doing, not the school’s.’ But this only proves that the best of schools can be no more than half-innocent. They work with spoiled materials: teachers marred by the ugly world and children already stamped with the defects that their parents condone by habit or foster on principle.
From these facts one great truth emerges: there is, there can be, no such thing as a good school.

I have written pages of reflection on these paragraphs. But I’m not going to attach them here. Rather, I’ll just let this sit here in the open for you, the two people who will read this, to reflect upon on your own. I will tell you that in the ten-ish years during which I’ve carried this book around I’ve come to see Barzun’s view here as a challenge to reframe our discussion of school away from a good/bad opposition toward more useful and descriptive binaries, such as coherent/incoherent, transparent/opaque, expressive/repressive. Et cetera. Onward.

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