Small is Beautiful, pt. 4

[previous entries in the series: part 1, part 2, and part 3]

Not content to offer mere diagnosis, Schumacher dedicates considerable space in Small is Beautiful to concrete proposals for reform. Recognize the importance of education, technology, and social organization (here, he is primarily thinking of large scale organizations, corporations, government, etc.) to modern society, he focuses on those areas. We therefore begin with education:

If Western civilization is in a state of permanent crisis, it is not far-fetched to suggest that there may be something wrong with its education. No civilization, I am sure, has ever devoted more energy and resources to organized education, and if we believe in nothing else, we certainly believe that education is, or should be, the key to everything. In fact, the belief in education is so strong that we treat it as the residual legatee of all our problems. If the nuclear age brings new dangers; if the advance of genetic engineering opens the doors to new abuses; if commercialism brings new temptations–the answer must be more and better education.


Small is Beautiful , 84

I don’t think you need to be a particularly sophisticated reader to note the subtle critique here, but whether the modern fixation on education is ridiculous or not, serious reform is necessary. In another work, Christopher Dawson sums up the problem in terms I believe Schumacher would agree with:

In the modern world the average man can go through his whole education without becoming aware of the existence of this elementary and essential spiritual factor either in the individual psyche or in the life of civilization.. Whether he studies the liberal arts or science and technology he is given no inkling of the existence of any higher principle which can be known and which can influence individual behavior or social culture. Yet, as I have said, all the great historical civilizations of the past recognize the existence of some spiritual principles or ends of this kind and made them the key of their interpretation of reality and their concepts of moral order. Hence a system of education like that of the modern secular state which almost totally ignores the spiritual component in human culture and in the human psyche is a blunder so enormous that no advance in scientific method or educational technique is sufficient to compensate for it.


Small is Beautiful, 203

That final line is an important one and hearkens back to a point made by Schumacher and noted in the second post of this series. Namely, that one of the characteristic mistakes of our age is expecting a technical solution to solve a problem rooted in the illegitimate predominance of techne. In concrete terms, this means that reforms that propose to solve the problem of education by adding computers to the classroom or developing some innovative teaching method not only will not help the situation, but are in fact concrete manifestations of what’s gone wrong in the first place. It is precisely the idea that we need only to stumble upon the right method, some neutral set of processes, and then allocate the proper resources to it that is the problem. Endlessly tweaking the method is a waste of time at best and quite often an active harm as this tweaking saps the momentum of centuries in favor of novelty.


What education needs instead is a re-orientation toward what actually matters, namely how to live:

To do so, the task of education would be, first and foremost, the transmission of ideas of value, of what to do with our lives. There is not doubt also the need to transmit know-how but this must take second place, for it is obviously somewhat foolhardy to put great powers into the hands of people without making sure that they have a reasonable idea of what to do with them….More education can help us only if it produces more wisdom.


Small is Beautiful, 86 (my emphasis)

It’s remarkable how purposeless education is today. Think, what is the point of an education? To make it simpler, let’s restrict our focus to the university, what is the purpose of a college education? If it is to prepare you for a job, then it is a horribly constructed institution, imparting almost no practical skills and compartmentalizing career services into an optionally (and rarely) explored corner of campus. Those exalting the utility of the liberal arts for work conveniently ignore that this utility is entirely accidental. You might end up using some insight from Dante in your job at a fancy non-profit, but your study of Dante was certainly not directed toward that end.


Thus, education cannot be directed toward work (and if it is, ought to be wholly reconfigured and begun again), nor, thanks to the denial of spiritual ends noted by Dawson, can it be directed towards some moral or metaphysical purpose.1 A university education cannot be aimed at making you a better person (as in the classical conception of the liberal arts), because the possibility of moral truth is denied by virtually everyone. That this denial is contradictory nonsense, leading not to a neutral, tolerant system that facilitates the glorious free-flow of ideas, untrammeled by illogical prejudice, but rather a schizophrenic mush of objectively asserted and practiced moral claims that refuse to subject themselves to rationality under the guise of not being claims at all (and thus becoming far less tolerant and more totalitarian than anywhere that dogma is explicitly pronounced) is simply ignored.


So what’s the point? “Critical thinking”? What does that phrase, so often bandied about, even mean? And, come to think of it, how often are “thinking” skills actually taught? How often is a student required to read Aristotle on logic, Cicero on rhetoric, or any book that’s actually about how to persuade and argue rationally? Instead, students are expected to discern how to think critically by (best case) analyzing history and literature and writing papers about them. I confess, this doesn’t make much sense to me. To bring about any real reform, we need to actually articulate a purpose for education and work coherently toward that purpose, which, of course, requires rejecting the abandonment of metaphysics and attendant denial of human nature.


Examined from a different angle: There is no such thing as a neutral space of ideas, no education without some metaphysical grounding. Any assertion to the contrary is a flat lie that utterly destroys any possibility for true education (again, people today are generally only educated by accident and momentum). Moreover, since we are, at our very root, metaphysical beings, education without a coherent metaphysical grounding is profoundly anti-human. It is worse than pointless:

Whether the subjects taught are subjects of science or of the humanities, if the teaching does not lead to a clarification of metaphysics, that is to say, of our fundamental convictions, it cannot educate a man and, consequently, cannot be of real value to society.


Small is Beautiful , 98

Thus, we must, to reform education, abandon the pretense of neutrality, abandon the anti-human ideologies of the modern era, and re-orient education towards the metaphysical, recovering the true purpose of an education: to make us better.

Our reason has become beclouded by an extraordinary, blind and unreasonable faith in a set of fantastic and life-destroying ideas inherited from the nineteenth century. It is the foremost task of our reason to recover a truer faith than that.


Small is Beautiful , 98
  1. “The most powerful ideas of the nineteenth century, as we have seen, have denied or at least obscured the whole concept of “levels of being” and the idea that some things are higher than others. This, of course, has meant the destruction of ethics, which is based on the distinction of good and evil, claiming that good is higher than evil.” (Small is Beautiful, 105)
    Since Schumacher is worried a great deal about environmental degradation, recall that I’ve previously argued that any coherent environmental ethic must be predicated on a hierarchy of being.
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