A colleague recently asked for my help in translating the Latin expression at the beginning of Silence Dogood's fourth letter, which she was using with her English class. If the name Silence Dogood sounds odd, it was the pseudonym Benjamin Franklin used to publish a series of letters that exposed the follies and absurdities of contemporary New England life, and in the fourth letter, published May 14, 1722, he took aim at schooling.
[A]s I pass’d along, all Places resounded with the Fame of the Temple of Learning: Every Peasant, who had wherewithal, was preparing to send one of his Children at least to this famous Place; and in this Case most of them consulted their own Purses instead of their Childrens Capacities: So that I observed, a great many, yea, the most part of those who were travelling thither, were little better than Dunces and Blockheads. Alas! alas!
I reflected in my Mind on the extream Folly of those Parents, who, blind to their Childrens Dulness, and insensible of the Solidity of their Skulls, because they think their Purses can afford it, will needs send them to the Temple of Learning, where, for want of a suitable Genius, they learn little more than how to carry themselves handsomely, and enter a Room genteely, (which might as well be acquir’d at a Dancing-School,) and from whence they return, after Abundance of Trouble and Charge, as great Blockheads as ever, only more proud and self-conceited.
That is rather strong stuff for our modern sensibilities that are so easily offended, yet he is right, and nothing much has changed in nearly three hundred years. School is no more suited for everyone than is the varsity football team or the concert orchestra, but because we have made of the diploma and the degree objects of worship, Franklin was correct in labeling the school a "Temple of Learning," and no parents want their children left in the outer darkness where there is much weeping and gnashing of teeth.
What matters most, of course, and what people truly want is education, and education is attainable by any who want it from the company of those who know, and this need not always occur within a school. In fact, because the minimum requirements are the desire to learn and a source of knowledge, education can be gained by a solitary person surrounded by the best minds of humanity as they have expressed themselves in books, and indeed this has been the way many have acquired their education across the centuries. I would argue that the experience is better and more delightful and the resulting education deeper and richer when it takes place in a community of learners, but even this does not necessarily mean a school.
Take, for example, an observation by one of the fourth century Cappadocian church fathers, Gregory of Nyssa. He notes that at that time, everyone was discussing matters of the deepest philosophy and theology everywhere.
"For all parts of the city are filled with such things, the alleys, the crossroads, the marketplaces, streets, the clothes merchants, the money lenders, and those who sell food. If you should ask anyone the price, he would philosophize about the nature of the begotten and the unbegotten. If you inquire about the cost and value of bread, he says that the Father is greater and the Son subject to Him. If you say that the bathhouse is open, he states his opinion that the Son does not exist from things that already exist." (De deitate Filii et Spiritus Sancti, Patrologiae Graecae, tomus xlvi, page 558B, translation mine)
To be fair, Gregory does not think terribly highly of this, but consider for a moment what he has described. Normal people are discussing some pretty heady stuff in the midst of everyday life. Yes, they had to have heard of such ideas somewhere, and that somewhere would have been the church, but these were not scholars at the academy. They were regular, likely unschooled, folks.
The point is this. Education is vital, for it equips a person to lead the richest possible life. Certain topics, or certain levels within such topics, are best approached in a formal training environment like a school. Yet not everything of value needs to be learned there nor is always learned best there. Poetry, philosophy, theology, history, art, music, and the wonder of the sciences and mathematics, can be experienced and explored in other communities, even if that community is comprised of one living person and a great cloud of witnesses from across time in the pages of books. While we would be, rightly, loath to call students today dunces and blockheads, we would do well to help our children find the environment where they can best attain a true education, recognizing that it may not be in a school.