The Ancient Modern
Three Stories of Education / Joshua Alan Sturgill
Thoughts offered at a conference of local educators,
Wichita, KS, February 2021
Since we’re gathering to discuss the purpose or direction of Education, it seems most necessary that we first ask ourselves what exactly we mean when we use this word. “Education” means many things to many people these days. And not least among our differences is the ongoing debate whether Education is an end in itself or a means to some other end.
One of the difficulties is that the “question of Education” is really a series of questions, moments, needs, opinions, hopes and frustrations.
This dilemma is not unique to our time. Tension surrounding education is, along with government and religion, one of the defining characteristics of every civilization—especially of those civilizations that encompass many conflicting world views. The ancient Romans, Hindus, Chinese, all faced similar conflicts when their sheer size and multiplicity made the question of Education as urgent to ask as it was difficult to answer.
And as a way to stimulate our discussion this evening, I’d like to bring something of those other, older civilizations all the way here to Wichita, Kansas.
I’m a student of world literature, and I’m interested in ways of thought both East and West, both ancient and modern, and whenever a common theme comes up in widely diverse places or times, I pay special attention.
The three stories I’ll share with you have no direct influence on each other; they appear in widely diverse settings. Yet they all show that for their respective times and places, Education and Wisdom are inseparable, and that the fully educated person is known by his or her union with Truth, not simply with memorized propositions, credentials or skills.
The first comes from India around 800 BC, a fairytale-like story recorded in the Katha Upanishad:
A wise son has been cursed to death by his ignorant father, and Death, bound by the authority that fathers have over their sons, comes to take the son away. But the son surprises Death by showing no fear, instead asking a series of very astute questions, which Death respectfully answers.
One of the questions has to do with what makes for a truly educated man. The Son asks about what path leads to wisdom, and Death says:
The True Good is one thing; while the merely gratifying is quite another.
Both are binding on a man, but they lead him to different goals.
Good things await those who choose the Good;
But one misses the goal, if he chooses the merely gratifying.
Both the Good and the gratifying present themselves.
The educated man assesses them, notes their differences
and chooses the True Good.
In this story, Education has to do with establishing discernment. Both the good and the gratifying “present themselves.” Both the Good and the gratifying “bind” a person. But the wise, the educated or informed soul, will choose the Good.
A second story takes us forward 500 years to a very different place, to the Warring States period of China in 300 BC. During this time, China was fractured into a collection of competing governments, violence was commonplace and virtue scarce. Nevertheless, there were some who kept ancient learning alive and tried to instill wisdom despite the despair and confusion of that Age.
Mencius was one of these. A Confucian, living in the 4th generation after the great sage. Mencius travelled widely, often called by one ruler or another to give counsel. But Mencius refused to answer questions about how to conquer other kingdoms or find success in business. He rarely spoke of politics—only about truth.
On one occasion, a king asked him how he should educate his son and heir, but Mencius did not discuss particular subjects or a curriculum. He merely said:
The purpose of education is for a man to recover his lost heart.
In other words, education is not measured by anything external, but by integration & wholeness, virtue and personhood. Needless to say, the king was disappointed at this answer and it isn’t likely that Mencius was asked to stay at court for very long.
A final story is from the Orthodox Christian tradition. Leap forward again several centuries to the later Roman Empire with its new capital in Constantinople. Christianity has recently been legalized, and though it is not yet the official religion of the Empire, many people are drawn to its power, beauty and simplicity.
The collected sayings of the Desert Fathers recounts this episode from the life of St. Arsenios, a wealthy nobleman who left his position in the Roman government and travelled to the Egyptian desert to learn from the Christian hermits the teachings of their Faith.
Arsenios arrived at the cave of one particular monk known for his holy life, sat at the monk’s feet and began a discussion with him.
The servants and attendants traveling with Arsenios were disgusted. They saw Arsenios’ fine clothing compared to the monk’s patched robe, and heard Arsenios’ elegant speech compared with the monk’s poor accent.
The attendants said to Arsenios, “What are you doing here? You know Greek and Latin. You know philosophy. You have a good job and plenty of wealth. You have nothing to learn from this ignorant old man. Let’s go home.”
But Arsenios scolded his servants and said to them: “Yes, I know philosophy and I speak Latin and Greek. But this man has the grace of Christ, and I haven’t even learned the alphabet of his language.”
History has preserved these stories and scholars have carefully translated them because they tell us there is a universally recognized connection between education and becoming fully human.
You have at your tables a list of questions to help stimulate our discussion. I’m sure they’re questions you are already asking, because you are here to honestly address our current cultural moment, both nationally and in our communities in central Kansas. The list is headed by what we think is the overarching question we want to consider in our short time tonight:
Is education ripe for adaptation?
The words “ripe” and “adaptation” suggest both naturalness and flexibility. The young son in the Hindu story was “ripe” to receive education, but his father didn’t recognize his son’s capacity. Mencius had wisdom to spare, but the Chinese ruler was not ready or not able to receive it. Arsenious the nobleman later became Arsenios the Saint because he was willing to adapt when he found a kind of education that superseded his own.
Is our American educational system ripe for adaptation? This is a huge task. To begin it, maybe we need to ask if we are ripe for adaptation ourselves.