Mind-Changing Books: Paideia

Which books influence us the most?

Sometimes they are books that grab our interest initially and hold it firmly until we have finished the last sentence—and we then tell others about the book and, before too long, we re-read the book and discover far more than we had initially believed to be there. (Recently many young people, as well as others across the age span, have had that experience with the Harry Potter series.)

Sometimes they are books that we sense are important—though we are not quite sure why—and as we return to the books, we find that our initial intuitions were correct. That was my experience with Moby Dick. (Of course it can work the other way as well—sometimes the seduction is immediate but turns out to be superficial and transitory.)

There’s another, profound way in which we can be influenced by books. Occasionally, we encounter books that are so powerful that they become our way of apprehending the world. And precisely because they have that “world making” power, we may actually forget the book or minimize its importance—the so-called “anxiety of influence” that make poets repress recognition and acknowledgement of their most powerful models. When I was in high school, I read and was profoundly affected by the writings of American historian Richard Hofstadter, particularly his essays in The American Political Tradition. A few years later, when I was in college, I read and re-read many essays by the American critic Edmund Wilson. (Indeed, I even invited Wilson to dine with students at Quincy House at Harvard—and I’ve saved his handwritten declination.) I did not repress the names of Hofstadter or Wilson. But I did not fully appreciate their influence until I myself began to write essays and came to admire their exquisite talents—plunging the reader directly into the topic and conveying powerful and often difficult ideas in concise and evocative prose.

Though I have been involved in education for decades, I recently read two books that have generated considerable reflection on my part. One book I had known about for many years. Indeed, I had scanned it twenty five years ago but did not study it until the summer of 2016 (this is an example of a publication whose importance is initially sensed but not understood until a later time). The other book, read early in 2017, is by a friend and colleague of many years; it serves as an example of a work whose significance is immediately grasped. Both books have catalyzed me think more deeply (and, I hope, more trenchantly) about education.

In this and in the succeeding blog, I describe these influential writings.

I begin with Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture, a three volume study published in 1930s and 1940s by the German classicist Werner Jaeger. This formidable achievement details how, over the course of a few centuries, the Greeks invented education as we have come to know it and, in many cases (including my own), to cherish it.

At first blush, it may seem aberrant to talk about the “invention of education.” Haven’t human beings always educated the young? In fact, don’t other species also engage in rearing and in modelling desirable and discouraging inappropriate behavior on the part of the young? And if we look at other great civilizations (the so-called “axial civilizations” that emerged in the millennium before Christ), do they not also educate? Aren’t The Ten Commandments themselves a powerful educational vehicle and recipe?

Jaeger asks us to step back and consider the contents, the aims, and the means that characterize what the Greeks accomplished in a brief span of time. To make this concrete, we should think about the achievements of Socrates, Aristotle, and particularly Plato. The Greeks thought about education quite explicitly: they pondered the ultimate aims of education, both for the broad range of young people (males, to be sure) and for those who would presumably become leaders of the society. They described institutions—in Plato’s case, an Academy—in which such education should take place. They devised methods (prominently, the Socratic method of asking questions which are often definitional, enigmatic, or paradoxical and reflecting on the appropriateness and validity of the various answers that were proposed). Perhaps most importantly, they envisioned education as a lifelong process in which one probed important questions about the meaning and purpose of life, what it means to lead a good life, how to launch well and continue to grow and deepen the body, the mind, and the spirit. When Socrates interrogated himself and others about what makes a society just, or what it means for a statement to be true, or what virtues to cultivate, and how, and why, he was engaging in cherished human activities—which at least on an explicit level—had not been pursued before.

Let me now edit the statement that I made earlier. When I speak about “education as we know it,” I am actually talking about education in the West, and particularly that part of the world that was influenced by classical Greece, classical Rome, and the societies that emulated them in succeeding centuries (monastic, medieval, and especially Renaissance). It is certainly possible to have a different kind of education—one based on obedience, or on repetition, or on rewards and punishment, or focused on military might, or, less grandly, on hunting, fishing, gathering, or tending the field. But I am targeting education that involves young people sitting around a (literal or metaphoric) table, typically led by an older and more knowledgeable person, in which nutritious and weighty questions are raised; different opinions are solicited and elicited; some kind of tentative conclusion or synthesis is sought and sometimes achieved while at the same time new sluices of thought are opened up for contemplation.  While the class or seminar is finite, the process is not—it’s assumed that new questions will arise, new problems will be identified, various responses will emerge, and the conversation will continue and perhaps deepen, even over the generations.

This process will be familiar to readers of these words. And yet, if you are the way that I was, you will not have pondered how this process has come about, what is needed to do it well, how to sustain it, and why it might one day disappear—and at what costs. Indeed, a first order of business for autocrats and totalitarians is to shut off these marks of a liberal arts education—as indeed the citizens of Athens did with respect to Socrates, around 399 B.C. (If you are now thinking about contemporary America, you are not alone.)

As one who had known peripherally about Jaeger for some time, I’ve become curious about why his work is not better known and more discussed. This is a particularly provocative question because Jaeger had considerable influence on two great historians of American education—the historian of colonial America, Bernard Bailyn, and the historian of pre-collegiate education in the United States, Lawrence Cremin.

I suggest three answers: 1) The three volumes are large and quite technical, filled with Greek phrases, and may well be seen as contributions to classical studies, rather than to education; 2) Jaeger was a German national whose original volume was published in Germany early during the Third Reich, and while he (and his Jewish wife) moved to the United States in the late 1930s, and Jaeger became a respected university professor in this country, the stigma of having been reared and having taught in Germany may have unfairly cast a pall over his works; and 3) Perhaps Jaeger overemphasized or misrepresented the uniqueness of the Greek contribution to education as we know it. At any rate, in English, there is virtually no secondary material on Jaeger or his remarkable accomplishment.

Just as Jaeger’s Paideia opened my eyes to the proposition that “education in the Western tradition” was essentially invented on a few islands in the Mediterranean over two thousand years ago, my contemporary David Olson has alerted me to the kinds of assumptions that highly literate people routinely make and indeed take for granted but which are not accessible to those without such an education—resulting in a gulf that can be very troubling.

In the next blog, I discuss Olson’s powerful book The Mind on Paper.

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3 Comments on “Mind-Changing Books: Paideia”

  1. Kathryn Keene May 23, 2017 at 12:12 am #

    Thank you for this post. My favorite book of all time is Lawrence Cremin’s “Popular Education and Its Discontents”…so I was pleased to see you mention him here…thank you for your work, Dr. Gardner. You have changed my life.

  2. Barbara Hastie May 23, 2017 at 10:15 am #

    Look forward to following!


  1. Introduction to “Life-Long Learning: A Blog in Education” | Howard Gardner - May 15, 2017

    […] first post in this series, titled “Mind-Changing Books: Paideia,” is available by clicking here. The blog will be posted on this website under the category “Life-Long Learning: A Blog in […]

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