What is the defining myth of our times? I've heard our culture described as materialistic, but we don't seem to love the material world all that much. I've also heard our philosophy labeled as "the myth of fact." Although I do see the academic world mad in its pursuit of facts, all carefully defined and counted, I think more simply that we are devoted to the myth of things.
We pride ourselves on the things we possess, and we go to school to learn things. The things we learn are all sorted out and grouped together: We learn mathematical things and scientific things and even psychological things. When I taught at universities, one of the problems I ran into -- and no doubt one of the reasons they didn't give me tenure -- was trying to create thing-type exams for material that was not reducible to things. It isn't easy to adapt philosophical and religious issues to a multiple-choice exam.
At school, students cram for an exam. "Cram" means to fill up or stuff. Well, if you're stuffing yourself for an exam, you must be filling yourself with things. That's how we imagine education: filling our minds with stuff.
The Greeks of old had a different idea that they called paideia. This was education conceived as creating a cultured person who would be a mature citizen and leader. Imagine if our focus in education was on the person rather than the things studied. We'd be concerned that a student grow up and learn how to deal with life and help others deal with it as well. This education has two purposes: self-ripening and leadership.
In a thing-centered culture, we believe that our job is to teach the young what they need to have a job and support themselves. Students are left on their own for learning how to cope with life's existential challenges, how to relate well to others, how to lead maturely in business and government, how to raise children and how to be married. How to develop taste and values and come to grips with human mortality and make a contribution to world culture--these are largely left alone by educators with the hope, apparently, that people will find their way unconsciously.
It's a false hope, and the quality of our leadership in business and government, with some notable exceptions, betrays the failure of that hope. Some things have to be taught, and eventually we discover that the most important things aren't things at all. They're qualities of character and hard-won values and matters of taste. The reason we have so many tasteless things in our society is that we don't teach taste, and the reason we confuse moralism with ethics is that no one taught us the difference.
There are many items we assume can't be taught that will simply fade away if we don't teach them: manners, civility, good language, mature love, good art, self-awareness and reflection, intelligent reading, responsible travel, care of one's home and belongings, a sense of the beautiful, intelligent spirituality and empathy for our fellow citizens on the planet. This is a small part of a much longer list.
Who should teach these things--parents or teachers? Obviously, both. And not only parents and teachers, but brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, neighbors and friends, managers and CEOs, mayors and senators, movie stars and janitors. As members of society, each of us has a role to play in teaching the values and wisdom we've somehow acquired.
One way is not to treat the material we teach as things. I've used mythology in much of my writing, and frequently a reader will say to me, "I never knew that mythology had anything to do with my life." Most people could say the same about many things they have studied. I didn't know literature had anything to do with me. I didn't know that science had something to say about my life. I didn't know that I could sort out moral issues by reading poems.
The "thingification" of education has cost us an immeasurable loss of values and insight. We build great machines, but we don't know how to use them for human edification. Many have studied the natural world as a collection of things of which we are the absent landlord. We grant Ph.D.s to people without knowing if they're ready to be creative and responsible citizens of the world. As long as they know certain things...
Maybe it's time to restore subjectivity to the subjects we study and to redefine our very idea of education. We could guide people as they learn not only things of value but also how to be.