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A Theory of Educational Reform

Every turning point in European history has been associated with a change in education or a movement of educational reform. We are today in the presence of one of these turning points of history and consequently the time is ripe for a new movement of educational reform.

Christopher Dawson


ABSTRACT: This theory calls for shifting the emphasis from analytical thinking to creating conditions that encourage and facilitate the process of enlarging one’s vocabulary of ideas. Its success depends on the truth of the following assumptions:


Ideas, when articulated in clear sentences which are termed “idea statements,” can be learned in somewhat the same effortless and efficient manner as the vocabulary of our mother tongue—providing we acquire them in a similar way.


The idea statements which best lend themselves to being acquired in this way are those which, to the degree they are organized into a intellectual structure, constitute a liberal education.


The cause of liberal education is best served when analytical thinking is subordinated to (and comes after) the acquisition of idea statements.

Despite its astounding success in the realm of science and technology, the analytical method should be treated with both caution and scepticism where the humanities are concerned. In fact, the analytical habit of mind can easily undermine not only the attainment, but the very idea of a liberal education.


To the question “Does analysis mean falsification?” I believe the only correct answer is “Yes, if you don’t know what you are doing.”

Alan Wood

Someone who can write [or remember] aphorisms should not fritter away his time writing essays.

Karl Kraus

No one doubts that it is possible to learn to speak a language fluently without ever having studied or thought about its structure. Moreover, this learning is rapid, efficient and accomplished without a painful and tedious effort of memorization. When the need for self-expression arises, we do not scan mental lists of vocabulary. Nor do we consult the rules of grammar. Yet, quicker than thought, the words and sentences we need come to us. This is what it means to “acquire” a language. The miracle of language acquisition may be explained by Noam Chomsky’s hypothesis that language is an innate mental faculty that develops when brought into contact with one of the world’s varied languages. According to Chomsky, we don’t learn a language so much as language grows in us like a physical organ.

Knowledge that is acquired is typically learned through a natural and effortless process that combines repetition with the need or desire to know. This kind of learning is very different from either memorization by rote, or from what is called cramming. Knowledge that is memorized by rote is retrieved with difficulty and fades with time. Crammed material has an even more tenuous foothold in the mind. Most of it will be forgotten within days or even hours of dumping it for some temporary purpose or emergency, such as an exam. But barring a stroke or a severe head injury, acquired knowledge is permanent and instantly available for use.

Modern systems of state sponsored education are predicated on the assumption that learning is the result of an institutional process managed by the educator, and therefore is scarce and costly. Yet it is universal human experience that the most essential learning happens naturally, and that even intentional learning is often not the result of programmed instruction. Language, as we have seen, is the most obvious example. Normal children learn their first language casually, although faster if their parents pay attention to them. Most people who learn to speak a second language fluently do so as a result of odd circumstances and not of sequential teaching.

In our quest for a theory of educational reform, let us experiment with the hypothesis that human beings are born with an innate capacity for ideas and belief systems that is somewhat analogous to our innate capacity for language. From this hypothesis it follows that we should try to recreate in our educational methods and institutions the same conditions that existed when we acquired our mother tongue.

As children we learn language piecemeal, with common words and sentences establishing themselves in what we will call “recognition memory.” As we start to use these words and sentences for our own purposes they move into another kind of memory—let’s call it “command memory.” Once we have accumulated a critical stock of words and sentences in command memory we rapidly develop the mysterious ability to generate an endless number of new sentences that we have never heard before. Moreover, these sentences are, to a remarkable degree, consistent with the rules and structure of the language we are acquiring.

Proceeding on the hunch that acquiring a “language of ideas” is similar in some respects to the process of acquiring our mother tongue, I would like to propose two analogies. First, let a word be analogous to a clearly articulated definition, perception, or proposition. An example of a definition might be: Love is a union of persons under the condition of preserving one’s integrity and individuality; of a perception: Technology produces more technology whether it makes sense or not, whether it is wanted or not; of a proposition: There exists a supreme being that possesses such characteristics as intelligence, will, creative power, and protective love. From now on, a statement that falls into one of these categories, and or into a category of a similar type, will be referred to as an “idea statement.” (Though often a single sentence, a statement may consist of multiple sentences, as implied by the phrase, ‘In his closing statement the lawyer. . .’) Idea statements should not be confused with concepts, which are often represented by single words—for example, the word justice stands for the concept of justice, and the word truth stands for the concept of truth—and, like words, are neither true nor false. Idea statements by contrast, though rarely true or false in an absolute sense, typically possess some degree of truth value. An example might be: Justice is truth in action.

Second, let a sentence be analogous to an argument. Here is an example from George Bernard Shaw: Whoever admits that anything living is evil must either believe that God is malignantly capable of creating evil, or else believe that God has made many mistakes in His attempts to make a perfect being. Unlike this one, most arguments will involve more than one sentence. A sustained argument (or thesis) might be the length of a book, for example, Das Kapital by Karl Marx, or The Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant. But for our purposes the distinction between a long and a short argument is of no significance. What is important are the two analogies, which can be reiterated as follows:


words   -->   ideas statements

sentences   -->   arguments


Having supposed that idea statements can be thought of as “words” in the “language” of ideas, it follows that idea statements are the “vocabulary” of this language. And just as words are the building blocks of sentences, so idea statements are the building blocks of arguments. Now it just so happens that it takes relatively few words to construct an almost infinite number of sentences. If we trust our analogies, we might be led to suppose that it takes relatively few idea statements to construct an almost infinite number of arguments. However that may be, our theory certainly suggests that an impoverished vocabulary of idea statements will tend to impede the formulation of truthful or significant arguments, despite the almost endless number arguments that could be formulated. This state of affairs corresponds to the limitations imposed by an impoverished word vocabulary on the production of clear, precise sentences, despite the enormous number of grammatically correct sentences that are readily available.

If it is true that reality, though complex, subtle, and mysterious, has a definite shape or character, then thought about reality is severely constrained. However, the number of arguments that can be formulated by someone with even a modest vocabulary of idea statements is much less constrained. Does it then follow that people who possess a narrow vocabulary of idea statements, even when intelligent and conscientious, will tend to produce arguments which are deficient in truth or significance? Bryan Magee, author of Confessions of a Philosopher, was intimately familiar with the intellectual currents at Oxford during the heyday of linguistic philosophy during the 1950s. Though not a professional philosopher, he had a deep personal interest in the subject and was on friendly terms with Bertrand Russell, Karl Popper, and A. J. Ayer. Here is what he has to say on the problem of significant utterance:

In ordinary life one knows that it is possible even with the best of intentions to utter words and yet say nothing . . . empty utterance is the order of the day throughout the mass media, including the so-called quality press. Given that speaking without saying anything is compatible with both high intelligence and good intentions, how are we to distinguish between statements that really do say something (true or false) and statements that say nothing at all?

According to the proposed theory of educational reform, the answer to Magee’s question is simple and straightforward: Enlarge and broaden one’s vocabulary of idea statements, for only in this way can one gain the experience needed to be a good judge of ideas. There is no guarantee that such an approach will lead us to the truth, if truth there be—anyone familiar with modern philosophy is well aware that there is a crisis in truth in Western intellectual culture—but at least we will learn to recognize which statements are significant and cohere with other such statements.

The number of words in standard, non-technical English is large, but manageable. If there are 14,000 words in your vocabulary you will almost never see a non-technical word on the printed page that you don’t recognize. The surprising thing is that the number of idea statements—at least for the purposes of a liberal education—is also manageable. Perhaps this is because most idea statements fall into a limited number of categories, and you need only acquire a modest number from a given category to gain an intuitive familiarity with everything that belongs there.

The same, however, cannot be said of arguments. As with sentences, there is no end to the number of arguments. Moreover, it often requires a great deal of time and effort to understand an argument well enough to be able to pass a fair judgement on it. However, a few additional idea statements in one’s vocabulary will often make it possible to dismiss many long and sophisticated arguments without having to fully comprehend them. Why expend all that intellectual energy on an argument that contradicts or ignores some widely held perception or proposition? An example of a widely held perception might be Aristotle’s, He who wishes to learn must believe; while a similar example of a proposition would be: There is nothing inherently improbable in the belief that the Creator might make a revelation of Himself to His creatures. It is quite possible, of course, that a widely held perception is erroneous, or that a widely entertained proposition is implausible. Nevertheless, to quote Jane Austen, ‘Where an opinion is general, it is usually correct.’ In other words, experience teaches us that arguments which ignore or contradict the settled conclusions of mankind are likely to be little more than self-contained worlds of words, mental exercises without the taste or substance of reality.

Consider the following idea statement from M. Scott Peck: To put it in a rather crass way, falling in love is a trick that our genes pull on our otherwise perceptive mind to hoodwink or trap us into marriage. At the very least, it is a proposition. It is also a common perception, though not necessarily a true one. But irrespective of the kind or degree of truth it conveys, we can see that it possesses two characteristics. First, it can be evaluated and placed on a true-false scale, though where it is placed will undoubtedly be a matter of opinion. Second, it is not trivial. The statement, The cat sat on the mat is trivial. So is, The moon is not made of green cheese. There are vast numbers of true statements that are trivial, since the word ‘moon’ could be replaced by every star in the astronomer’s catalogue, and every statement would be equally true and equally trivial. Being able to assign truth-value to a sentence does not ensure that it will make a good idea statement, but triviality will definitely disqualify it.

Thus, to qualify as a good idea statement a sentence must possess truth value—which it has even if you think it false—and it must be inherently interesting. More often than not, of course, the interest quotient of an idea statement will be a matter of legitimate disagreement. The same goes for how much and what kind of truth it expresses. Ultimately, the test for both attributes must be a matter of consensus, though not merely a democratic one. The settled opinion of the human race is that William Shakespeare is a great playwright, even though most people have never read him. He is a great playwright despite the fact that three great literary men, Voltaire, George Bernard Shaw and Tolstoy despised him. It would seem, therefore, that the consensus must be formed by those who are not only interested and informed, but, in some way that is not easy to define, sympathetic. Despite the obvious objections, I believe that the creation of collections of idea statements capable of winning broad acceptance as core idea vocabulary are possible.

Here is an example of how the theory would be applied in the classroom. Instead of being asked to read a classic, such as Machiavelli’s The Prince, to be followed by a test or an essay, the students would try to acquire a dozen or so idea statements of their own choosing from a set of ideas on government, politics, and power. They must not be restricted to the set. Nevertheless, because of the time and tedium involved in collecting all one’s own material, previously selected material is a necessity. The set may be arranged by subject or theme. Using the theme approach, ideas can be grouped into smaller sets, each with a title and connectors that suggest a relationship between successive statements. The organization of ideas in this way, rather than simply by subject, is the preferred method, since the additional organization provided by the small sets, titles, and connectors also serves as a memory aid. However, it should be made abundantly clear that the students are free to change the connectors, the order, and the material—which they can author—to suit themselves. Here is an example of a small set from the theme “Government, Politics & Power”:




Government comprises a large part of the organized injustice in any society, ancient or modern.

Every decent man is ashamed of the government he lives under.

H. L. Mencken

I work for a Government I despise for ends I think criminal.

John Maynard Keynes

Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable evil.

Thomas Paine

Our effective choice is never between good government and bad government, but between bearable government and unbearable government.


The students would be encouraged to acquire two or three such sets in preparation to discuss (in groups of three or four) either the entire subject of “Government, Politics and Power,” or a more specific question suggested by the teacher, or decided by themselves. Each student would be provided with a compact booklet containing perhaps a thousand idea statements, including a selection relating to the current topic. As well as being used to stimulate discussion when necessary, the booklet could also serve as a primary source of idea vocabulary. Note that there is nothing in this approach to discourage a teacher from highly recommending The Prince. But it shouldn’t be required reading. In fact, the student should be advised to learn the art of skimming books and of dipping into them here and there. Above all, both teacher and student should employ every conceivable strategy to avoid boredom, for boredom is the nemesis of the educational process.

Few things can be as engaging as the search for understanding or clarification, and the enjoyment of writing when the search has been successful is the reward for intellectual perseverance. If, however, the search has not been successful, or, as is more often the case in an educational setting, there is no motivation to persevere, then the task of writing a paper is more than merely unrewarding. It is often excruciating. To say that prose is not the language of ordinary speech is an understatement. Ordinary speech is associative and any child can do it. In prose, however, each sentence must follow out of its predecessor, either logically or rhetorically. It is a highly sophisticated, highly skilled form of writing, and most people do it badly and with considerable discomfort. Even recognized masters, such as Samuel Johnson or Hilaire Belloc, never pretended to write for the pleasure of it. As Johnson famously remarked, “Nobody but a blockhead writes except for money.” Prose is a strenuous intellectual exercise, and to force it on the student who hates every minute of it because he has nothing to say is of dubious educational value. It may even be counter-productive, insofar as the unpleasantness of the experience may weaken the desire for liberal education.

From time to time, however, a student who has thoroughly thought through something that interests him will be seized by an impulse to crystalize that thought in clear prose. Such a student should be strongly encouraged to make that effort, for that is the individual taking on the responsibility of educating himself at the most demanding and rewarding level. Needless to say, the teacher is honour bound to read it and comment on it. This policy would spare the student the pain of writing an essay merely as a grade requirement, and it would spare the teacher the ordeal of reading it. Teachers, too, deserve consideration. Why should they waste their time and energy reading a lot of barely intelligible rubbish that the student wants no part of—and with good reason—the moment he receives his mark?

Real knowledge is always acquired in the pursuit of real goals. Thus it is vastly expensive, and often futile, to try to teach people things they are not motivated to learn. Under the present system only a few students seriously seek understanding and self-development. What most want are the credentials that make them eligible for the better paying jobs. They are therefore destined to forget most of what they’re taught, and taught at huge expense by an enormous state-financed industry. (Industry is the only appropriate word now.) But suppose the average student was able to acquire five hundred or so idea statements over the course of his formal education. And suppose that during this time he or she was afforded numerous opportunities for discussion and self expression that the student judges to have been intellectually fruitful and remembers with pleasure. How would that kind of success compare with the results produced by our education system as it now stands?

For liberal education in practice click HERE.