We wrapped up the discussion part of the semester yesterday with a conversation about John Milton’s treatise “On Education.” As I usually do when I teach that fun little text, I started by having the class list all of the things Milton would have Englishmen learn by the time they’re 21 years old. One class came up with 46 things, the other 48. Take a look at the treatise, and you’ll see that these are not simple things: Milton would have us all know trigonometry, agriculture, sword-fighting, Aramaic, metaphysics, medicine, and law among others.
But the overall aim of the piece is more ambitious yet:
The end then of learning is to repair the ruins of our first parents by regaining to know God aright, and out of that knowledge to love him, to imitate him, to be like him, as we may the nearest by possessing our souls of true virtue, which being united to the heavenly grace of faith makes up the highest perfection.
That’s right. Education, properly done, ought to come pretty darn close to reversing Original Sin.
We talked about the significantly less-ambitious aims of our own university as an introduction to the portfolio’s reflective essay, in which each student will attempt to articulate what exactly happened since August 16.
Since the part of the semester in which I lecture is over, I’ve been doing some thinking about the course of things. First of all, if I do freshman comp next fall, I’m almost certainly doing Plato again; the text just begs to be taught to eighteen-year-olds. Second, I’m going to do some fiddling with WebCT and write a series of quizzes to keep the little boogers honest. Requiring discussion questions assumes that I’m going to take class time to check them (which I didn’t); if I set up quizzes on WebCT, the honesty check should take care of itself. Finally, I’m going to ask the class whether the reading load was too heavy. If not, I might just teach Machiavelli’s Il Principe alongside Plato’s Republic as an introduction to all kinds of moral questions. But I’ll ask my classes first; I wouldn’t want to presume a greater importance for my class than what the class warrants.