What is Really Going on in Education Today?

From the Bring Back Reason series.

There is widespread agreement that our current system of education is in need of substantial improvements. Many educators are rightly concerned that too many students fail to meet certain benchmarks in reading, math, science and other subjects. Others see a deeper problem in students failing to rise above a superficial entertainment culture where screens and sound bites dominate to the detriment of reading, critical thinking and creative thinking. They rightly note that without the moral strength to forego entertainment students will never adequately foster the inner silence necessary for the life of the mind.

But there are outstanding students who work exceptionally hard, often studying late into the evenings and waking up early. And there are elite schools that foster a culture of high achievement. On the secondary level such schools typically are found in wealthy areas and are often selective private schools or public magnet or charter schools. The most selective colleges and universities both attract exceptional students and foster a striving for excellence. Those who are fortunate enough to be part of this educational elite have avoided the first problem of failing to meet educational benchmarks; indeed, they excel on standardized tests and have impressive transcripts. They also have enough moral strength to set aside screens – particularly social media and video games – at least when it is time to focus on academic work.[1]

There are other problems in education today that are widely recognized but perhaps less well understood. Education today has become specialized and fragmented; modern education lacks unity. People from different disciplines do not communicate enough. There is a need to foster dialogue between scholars in the humanities and the empirical sciences, striving to find a way to integrate knowledge from such different disciplines. Facts and correlations, especially those known by the methods of the empirical sciences, are too often seen as the only objective knowledge. And in this context many are rightly concerned that the humanities are marginalized.

Some recognize that this disunity in education is related to other societal problems. We are rapidly losing the ability to adequately discuss deeper human questions in the public square, such as ethical matters or the meaning of human suffering and love. There is uneasiness today about how we will use the tremendous power that has come with scientific and technological advances. Not only do we fear mass destruction from nuclear or biological warfare, we are concerned about how technology increasingly interacts with the human person, and whether we are really able to humanize the advances in computer-human interfaces of which smart phones and virtual reality devices are likely just the beginning. How can we adequately deal with the knowledge and power we have today if we cannot figure out how to do so in a human way?

I would like to suggest that the disunity in education, specifically the unhealthy separation between the humanities and the sciences, points toward the need to restore realism in education. By realism I mean first and foremost a recovery of the full scope of human reason, reason that is open to being in all its dimensions. Realism is a school of philosophical thought that goes back at least to Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. It is aptly called the perennial philosophy, as it has been the bedrock of western culture from ancient Greece and Israel, Rome, Medieval Europe and to even today. Realists understand the world to be basically how it appears to us, how most people commonly understand things to be. What we perceive a tree, a mountain or a horse to be is basically what they objectively are. We are, for the most part, accurately apprehending reality as it really is.

As a philosophical system, realism begins with natural philosophy and culminates in a high-level metaphysical defense of common sense. Today most well educated people do not understand what natural philosophy or metaphysics are, and thus have no idea how they can contribute to a complete education. This is not surprising since the very word “metaphysics” has connotations of that which is “supernatural,” “other worldly,” even “related to the occult.” If a bookstore even has a book on metaphysics (probably not classical metaphysics) it is likely to be placed near books on mysticism, ghosts, and the paranormal.

This caricature is not at all what metaphysics really is. Rather, metaphysics is a science, a field of study that follows rigorous methods to reach objective truth about its subject matter, which is nothing other than being. Metaphysics is the study of the ultimate cause and the first and most universal principles of existence. It is the science that studies being as being. It includes such topics as essence and existence, act and potency, substance and accidents, a comprehensive look at causality in all its dimensions (material, formal, efficient and final) and the transcendental aspects of being: the true, the good and the beautiful. Realist metaphysics is particularly indebted to Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas.

Though realism itself has been under fierce attack since early modern times, the predominant system of education has been more or less classical and informed by realism until quite recently. The attack on realism was originally carried out by a small group of intellectual elites. This attack gradually spread into different areas of culture and finally more widely into education, especially through 20th century progressivism supported by reformers such as John Dewey. Currently in the United States and in other parts of the world there are significant ongoing mainstream educational changes that are strongly working against realism and the classical education that supports realism. These changes have also awakened a growing appreciation for and renewal of authentic classical education.

Realism is the key missing element in education. If we restore realism in education we will be working to form the human person in a way that will ultimately serve to properly order world affairs. There is a story of a father who was interrupted by his son while doing important work in his study. As a way to occupy the young lad the father took a page out of a magazine that displayed a map of the world. The father tore up the map into small pieces and told his son to try and put the world back together. In a few minutes the boy came back to his father with the puzzle completed and the world intact. The father was surprised that his son had done this so quickly and asked him how he was able to do it. The boy replied that it was easy, since there was a picture of a man on the other side; all he had to do was flip the pieces over and put the man back together. When the man was restored the world followed.

It is the same with education. If we restore realism we will be properly forming the human person as one able to think in an expansive way. The humanities will again be able to be about the real world, they will have access to being again and not just be about the subjective inner world of human experience. Rather than division between the humanities and science, a unified synthesis will be possible. We will restore order to the intellectual life, allowing the human person to be at home in the world, rooted in creation, appreciative of technology and understanding what it is, desirous of culture and oriented towards transcendence, toward what is truly good and beautiful.

This series attempts to explain the problem of the absence of realism in education. In doing so it inevitably deals with some fairly difficult intellectual material. But the focus is practical. How can parents and educators educate for realism? Those who want to reflect on their own education and strive to pass on what is best to the next generation will find in these pages some ideas to begin the great adventure of educating for realism. It is my hope that this will be of service to parents and other educators so that we all may deeply acquire the habits of mind, the intellectual virtues, that enable us to know reality in a complete way, a way fully open to being, and pass this perspective on to the next generation.

Michael Moynihan

About the author:

Michael Moynihan


A native of Rochester, NY, Michael Moynihan earned B.A. degrees in history and science pre-professional studies with a concentration in the Honors Program from the University of Notre Dame. He graduated Summa Cum Laude and was a member of Phi Beta Kappa. After teaching for one year and earning a master’s degree in theology from The Catholic University of America, he joined the faculty of The Heights School in 1995. He has taught chemistry, Advanced Placement chemistry, eighth grade science, ethics, math and religion, has coached The Heights’ cross-country team and founded The Heights Mountaineers program. Michael was named Head of the Upper School in 2002. He and his wife, Angela, have eleven children, with four sons here at the School.

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