A Little Learning is a Dangerous Thing

Question:  What does Boko Haram, the Nigerian terrorist organization, have in common with Western educators?  Answer:  Both think that Western education is sinful.  Fortunately, Western educators will not burn down your church or school with you inside as Boko Haram does to those who persist in their Western ways.  Unfortunately, the type of education provided by Western educators will leave you totally unprepared for the likes of Boko Haram.

Roughly translated, “Boko Haram” means “Western education is sinful.”  So there’s little doubt about where it stands.  But in what way can it be said that Western educators believe the same thing?  I don’t know if any educators have actually declared that Western education is sinful, but it’s not unfair to say that contemporary educational theory in the West is built upon a rejection of traditional Western education.  Beginning with Rousseau’s Emile (1762), Western intellectuals began to challenge the Judeo-Christian view of the child and along with it traditional ideas about how children should be educated.

According to the earlier conception, one which still endures in some corners of our society, the child is born in original sin and, therefore, a good part of his education should be devoted to helping him overcome his natural tendencies to laziness, selfishness and pleasure-seeking.  The goal of such education was the transmission of hard-learned cultural lessons through the study of history, literature, scripture and science.

According to the Romantic tradition which began with Rousseau and which by the late 1960s had become the dominant philosophy in American education, the child is born in a state of original innocence with trustworthy impulses that should be followed, not denied.  Romantic thinkers believed in nature with an almost religious fervor; in their view, man had fallen not from a state of grace but from the state of nature.  Sin was a product of civilization, and if there were such a thing as evil, it lay in placing unnatural constraints on the child’s natural spontaneity and wisdom.

The Romantic emphasis on the child’s inner wisdom led to a corresponding de-emphasis on the acquisition of factual knowledge.  Learning was thought to be a natural process and the child could therefore be trusted to learn what he needed to know by following his natural instincts.  Consequently, book-learning came to be looked upon by Romantic poets and philosophers as an unnatural imposition on the child’s natural development. Take Wordsworth’s poem, “The Tables Turned:”

Up!  up!  my Friend, and quit your books;
Or surely you’ll grow double:
Up!  up!  my Friend, and clear your looks;
Why all this toil and trouble?

The third stanza extends the anti-book argument a bit further:

Books!  ‘tis a dull and endless strife:
Come, hear the woodland linnet,
How sweet his music!  on my life,
There’s more of wisdom in it.

In short, why bother with books when you can find all you need to know in the book of nature?  That is the basic principle of Romanticism.  For a very long time, most educators ignored this highly unrealistic approach to education.  Wordsworth, Emerson, Whitman and other Romantics were taught in schools, but they were celebrated for the beauty of their poetry and prose, not for their anti-bookish prescriptions.  Eventually, however, these ideas about natural learning came to exert a powerful influence on the imagination of educators—particularly those of the American variety.  By the 1930’s, under the name “progressive education,” the Romantic theory had spread to teacher’s colleges throughout the U.S.  By the late 1960’s, it was the dominant philosophy in American classrooms.

The triumph of natural schooling theories did result in significant change—for the worse.  SAT scores began a long decline and the U.S. students soon ranked near the bottom of developed countries on international assessment tests.  The progressive movement did, however, produce a number of catchy slogans such as “holistic learning,” “child-centered schooling,” “at their own pace,” “self-esteem,” and “critical thinking skills.”  Those were the terms of approbation.  On the other hand, teachers were warned to avoid “memorization,” “rote-learning,” “mere facts,” “textbook-learning,” and “culturally biased curriculums.”

The progressives failed to realize, however, that you can’t think critically unless you have something to think about.  But, having been deprived of “mere facts,” students have very little material with which to “construct knowledge” (another popular piece of educational jargon).  How, for example, can students think critically about World War II if they’ve never heard of Roosevelt, Churchill or Stalin or if they have no idea where Germany, Japan, Poland and France are located?

What, you may ask, does this have to do with Boko Haram?  Just this.  Boko Haram is one of the more violent manifestations of the global resurgence of Islam in our times.  Although it is marginally more brutal than other jihadist groups, it is not untypical.  There are dozens of such groups all over the world that seek by force to restore Islam to its former dominance.  The problem is, today’s anti-knowledge curriculums do not prepare students to think critically about what is happening in the Islamic world and what it means for the rest of us.

The disparagement of “mere facts” ensures that today’s graduates will know very little about the history of Islam.  And the Romantic elevation of non-Western traditions means that they will know even less about the bloody nature of that history.  Although American students will hear a great deal about Western imperialism, they are not likely to realize that Islam was one of the great imperial powers of all time.  At one time, the Islamic Empire stretched from Spain, across North Africa, and all the way to India.  The Empire was created by conquest, but high school and college texts tend to avoid that word in favor of euphemisms such as “the spread of Islam” or the “expansion of Islam.”  And how was this expansion accomplished?  According to one widely used high school history text, “The persecuted people often welcomed the [Muslim] invaders and chose to accept Islam.  They were attracted by the appeal of the message of Islam which offered equality and hope in this world” (Modern World History, McDougal-Littell [2007], p. 270).

Indeed, many accounts of Islamic history in American textbooks look like they could have been written by the Saudi Ministry for Propaganda and Whitewash.  Many world history textbooks, for instance, take great pains to inform readers that jihad has little to do with holy war but rather is best understood as “overcoming immorality,” “a personal inner struggle to achieve spiritual peace,” or a “striving … to achieve personal betterment.”  Moreover, in line with the Western habit of romanticizing non-Western cultures, textbooks present a highly romanticized (some would say, largely fictitious) portrait of Islam’s “Golden Age” in Spain and Baghdad.  According to one widely-used college text, “The Muslims created [in Baghdad and Cordoba] a brilliant urban culture” where libraries abounded and where “judges, merchants, and government officials, rather than warriors, were regarded as the ideal citizens.”  Meanwhile, over in the Christian Carolingian Empire, “Both gluttony and drunkenness were vices shared by many people…. Everyone in Carolingian society, including abbots and monks, drank heavily and often to excess” (Spielvogel, Western Civilization:  A Brief History [2011], p 170-171, 160).

There is nothing romantic about Boko Haram, and the facts concerning it don’t fit into the rose-colored narrative that is fed to our students about gentle Islamic expansion, interior spiritual struggles, and a library on every corner. If anything, the Nigerian terrorists seem closer in temperament  to those immoderate folk who populated the Carolingian Empire during the so-called “Dark Ages.” Absent knowledge of Islam’s 1400-year history of jihad, the Boko Haram campaign to exterminate Nigerian Christians must seem like an aberration—something completely unrepresentative of the true Islam.  And so will the attacks on Christians in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Pakistan, the Central African Republic, Kenya, and elsewhere.  They will be perceived as discrete, disconnected events that have “nothing to do with Islam” because American citizens are largely unfamiliar with the historical pattern that would help to make sense of these supposedly senseless actions.

What does that pattern look like?  Islam scholar Raymond Ibrahim provides this brief description of the European experience with Islam:

Among other nations and territories that were attacked and/or came under Muslim domination are (to give them their modern names in no particular order):  Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, Sicily, Switzerland, Austria, Hungary, Greece, Russia, Poland, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Lithuania, Romania, Albania, Serbia, Armenia, Georgia, Crete, Cyprus, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Belarus, Malta, Sardinia, Moldova, Slovakia, and Montenegro.

It seems well past time to wake up from the romantic dream and reacquaint ourselves with that once-familiar, now forgotten pattern.

Editor’s note: The scene pictured above depicts the aftermath of deadly explosions at one of several Christian churches in Nigeria on Christmas day 2011 that resulted in over 40 deaths.

William Kilpatrick


William Kilpatrick taught for many years at Boston College. He is the author of several books about cultural and religious issues, including Why Johnny Can’t Tell Right From Wrong; and Christianity, Islam and Atheism: The Struggle for the Soul of the West and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Jihad. His articles have appeared in numerous publications, including Catholic World Report, National Catholic Register, Aleteia, Saint Austin Review, Investor’s Business Daily, and First Things. His work is supported in part by the Shillman Foundation. For more on his work and writings, visit his website, turningpointproject.com

  • Sarano

    I am a rather progressive atheist and I must say that I agree with every single point. Unfortunately, education is now reduced to learn by hearth a bunch of limited information. It no longer provides the tools for learning more, for common sense development, and for critical sense.

    ‘Positive thinking’ usually means ‘Go with the flow and never question what your superior tells you’. Any critical thinking is now too easily dismissed as ‘negative’ or ‘offensive’, regardless of how accurate it can be. It’s so comfortable to see children as angels, or to see Islam as a stylish, exotic art de vivre.

    Today, when some facts are disturbing, ‘disturbing’ takes precedence over ‘fact’. And no, it wasn’t always that way.

  • Mack

    Yes, but it’s not as if either of you ever voted in your local school board elections. YOU are the government, and thus YOU are western education. But you don’t educate; you just complain about those who are trying to teach despite your failures to support western civilization and your incessant carping.

  • Tony

    The rise of Islam has to be regarded as one of the great calamities in the history of the world. The Muslims, largely under the influence of the Greek-educated peoples they had vanquished, had a relatively high intellectual culture, in places like Baghdad and Cordoba, for a long time. BUT — that high intellectual culture was already in place! The question is, “What would the world have looked like, if the Greco-Roman culture that stretched from the borders of Persia to the Atlantic Ocean had been left to develop in a natural way?” When you ask that question, the Muslim achievement does not look particularly impressive. They produced very little great art, some great poetry, some great philosophy which, however, was thwarted by its obvious incompatibility with the Koran, a good lot of mathematics and astronomy and medicine; but in the end, there is no reason to believe that those things and a great deal more would not have been developed by the Greco-Roman Christians, since there was no reason intrinsic to Islam that would have encouraged these things.

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  • Howard

    “Western educators think Western education is sinful” is a lie of the same kind as “Priests are rapists.” Please refrain from crayon thinking in which every member of a class, profession, or vocation is identical in his beliefs and actions. Would it really have killed you to say “many” or even “most”?

    • Tony

      I think that Professor Kilpatrick was assuming that we could tell the difference between a universal statement and a general statement of broad application. For instance:

      Heads of libraries these days do not like books.
      Teachers of English in primary and secondary schools do not know English grammar.
      Sociologists combine ignorance of the humanities with a desperate desire to be taken seriously by scientists.
      Scientists are intelligent people with narrow educations, who think that only they possess ‘real’ knowledge.
      Girls aren’t very good at pull-ups …

      • Howard

        Like I said: thinking in crayon.

        • Art Deco

          There’s nothing wrong with his statements, and you’re not in a position to be condescending.

          • Howard

            1. This is as good a position as any.
            2. If you want to jump into the conversation, please read the exchanges below and jump in at that point.

            • Art Deco

              I am not interested in what you say generally, just in your remarks to Dr. Esolen. Buzz off.

              • Howard

                Thanks for sharing about your interests. I know we all wanted to know what they were.

        • Micha_Elyi

          Tell us more about yourself.

      • Howard

        Sorry, that last statement was a bit harsh. Understand, though, that this is the justification for every stereotype, from the stereotypes you list to all our favorite racial, ethnic, and religious stereotypes.

        • Augustus

          You seem to be purposely misinterpreting what he meant by taking one sentence–admittedly a provocative one–out of context. He is talking about a particular school of thought that is dominant today in the education schools for the purpose of comparing it to Boko Haram. I’m sure he would agree that not every single educator in the West thinks this way.

          • Howard

            By “misinterpreting” you mean taking his words at face value. What he said was hyperbole — deliberate hyperbole no doubt, since he himself was an educator in the West and probably still thinks of himself as one.

            The problem is that he is feeding a stereotype to an audience that can be expected to lap it up uncritically by people who find it reaffirms what they want to believe and who have no firsthand knowledge to temper the stereotype.

            • redfish

              Yes, but I would be willing to bet his opinion of “Western educators” comes from having been one and having to deal with academic culture.

              Let me turn it around. People uncritically accept that “White Southerners in the 1950s were racist.” That may be simplistic and an overgeneralization. In fact, it hides a diversity of viewpoints and isn’t a very broad picture of what was happening. Do you often take a very hostile tone to people who say that?

              • Howard

                Yes, but I would be wiling to bet that my opinion of “Western educators” comes from being one right now and having to deal with academic culture. I teach physics at a state university. What’s your excuse for having an opinion?

                I fully expect to lose my job one day because of political correctness. In the meantime, I get really tired of being told that I am part of the problem. You see, I have relatives who might just believe something like this without qualification. I go to church with people who read this sort of thing and might accept it as written. Frankly, sloppy writing like this can actually cause real problems for me — it has in the past, and it no doubt will again in the future. I have enough trouble in my life without this.

                • redfish

                  Not currently an educator, but I’ve dealt with academia. I’m not saying the author has the right approach, I’m saying I don’t think picking on grammar is helpful.

                  I think, in fact, conservatives have taken a very harmful approach in talking too much like they’re victims and trying to settle scores in politics instead of trying to change the academic culture.

                  • Howard

                    It’s more a matter of style than of grammar, just to nitpick further. Of course what happened was he hit a sore spot of long standing at a time when I’m feeling a bit grumpy. I still think it could have been phrased better, though.

                    I agree with your 2nd paragraph entirely, although I fear it is too late. These trends pick up momentum and are not easily reversed; I am not at all sure a real crisis can be averted at this point.

                    • redfish

                      And notice that I just made a general statement about conservatives 🙂

                      Actually, I disagree a lot of with substance of the article, so I just kind of felt picking on the style was a distraction. I think the argument itself is hyperbolic. I’m sure you’re feeling a lot of the heat from culture war politics; I feel it enough just talking with people I know, since I socialize with a kind of diverse crowd.

            • Augustus

              I don’t think you give Crisis readers enough credit. It may be hyperbole but it’s not everything he said; by dismissing his argument based on one sentence you too are guilty of misrepresentation. It is undeniably true that the education system produces teachers who are hostile to their own cultural achievements, including older philosophies of education. You may want to dismiss the author’s critique of the education establishment but many of us know from personal experience his objections are not baseless.

              • Howard

                Anyone with an internet connection can get to this page. Please also read the exchange below.

                • Basil

                  No one likes stereotypes.
                  But no one will deny that there are “types”.

                  • Howard

                    Maybe no one will deny that there are antitypes, either, but that doesn’t seem to be relevant. I’ll assume you meant “typos” and illustrated it with a typo.

                    • Basil

                      “that doesn’t seem to be relevant”
                      To whom?

                    • Howard

                      A typist?

                    • Basil

                      “I’ll assume you meant,,,,,,,,,,,”
                      Apparently, you assume a lot of things, Howard.
                      Sorry to see that Physics professors at certain state universities have tons of time on their hands.
                      Good Luck to you in the future.

                • Augustus

                  If you (or anyone else) read beyond the first paragraph, you would have gotten to his thesis which is this: “I don’t know if any educators have actually declared that Western
                  education is sinful, but it’s not unfair to say that contemporary
                  educational theory in the West is built upon a rejection of traditional
                  Western education.” So, the author qualifies his statement and states his thesis clearly, then proceeds to make his case. This is not an argument beyond the pale. Working in the belly of the beast may cause you to be hypersensitive to criticism of your profession but your objection is not a rebuttal to his thesis. I know many academics who would agree with the author and feel that they are a distinct minority who can not speak their mind for fear of losing their job. You yourself admit that this is a possibility in your case. The problem will not be remedied by pretending that it does not exist.

        • redfish

          And the notion that making general statements leads to bigotry has been used to unfairly do race mongering, brand people racists, publicly humiliate them, and ruin careers. So I think there’s an equal possibility of social harm in what you’re doing and what the author is doing. Just different types of social harm.

          Of course, if there’s no harm, there’s no foul. The author was speaking rhetorically. If you think he’s over-representing the degree that Western educators believe this, that’s another issue entirely and certainly subject to an argument.

          • Howard

            Your first paragraph really makes no sense. “The notion that making general statements leads to bigotry” — well, it would, wouldn’t it, if it were believed uncritically? But beyond that, how exactly has it been used to “unfairly do race mongering”, etc.? General statement: “Black people are uneducated.” Is it really unfair to say that would be a racist statement? Such a statement would, at any rate, surely be offensive to blacks. Statement that does not paint everyone in the group with the same brush: “The dropout rate for blacks is more than double that for whites.” It makes a difference how things are stated! That is particularly the case when too many people simply swallow without nuance whatever supports what they want to believe.

            • redfish

              Supposing people are stupid and accept statements uncritically, yes. That’s a supposition.

              General statement made in the 1800s: “Black people are uneducated.” Racist? No, a lot of people would have said, precisely, and its the fault of slave owners who prevented slaves from reading.

              • Howard

                You are very fortunate if you do not have to deal with people who are precisely that stupid. I suspect they are an absolute majority — and for evidence, I give you the correlation between campaign spending and votes received. Apparently there are many people who really will vote for whoever they see on TV the most.

                • redfish

                  I’ve seen people who stupidly over-generalize about different types of things, whether its on party lines, or on personal habits, or whatever else. I just can’t really accept that its a grammar issue 🙂

                  And I do think some general statements are harmless, and even useful, and its not really appropriate to make that an issue in itself.

              • TheAbaum

                I think the racist statement of the 1800’s would have asserted people of African descent as ineducable.

                • redfish

                  Yea, there were two competing theories of race at the time, one which said racial characteristics were cultural and one which said they were biological. Racists tended to believe that blacks had biological limits. Eventually this got merged with Darwinist theories and led to bad places.

        • Tony

          My experience, and that of a good friend who is a librarian, is that librarians are not actually fond of books. They seem to be agitated about space, above all else. I and some of my colleagues in the English department rescued hundreds of books that one of our librarians was dumping — I mean that literally. They were headed for the dumpster. Over spring break, when nobody was looking, thousands and thousands of them did end up in the dumpster. Among the books I saved was Facciolati’s definitive dictionary of medieval Latin. And no, we do not have another copy of it in the library…

          My experience with social “scientists” is that they too have fallen for number mysticism, and have ceased to do the hard old-fashioned anthropological and humanistic work that characterized somebody like Johan Huizinga.
          And girls are notoriously bad at pull-ups. Apparently, the Marines — the Marines! — cannot find any who can do more than two or three of them, if that. The arms aren’t strong enough, the small hands make things even tougher, and the low center of gravity doesn’t help, either. That may go a long way toward explaining why women’s softball is played on fields that are the size of the boys’ Little League field in Williamsport. The women’s softball fields at my school and at Rhode Island College down the road are actually somewhat smaller than that Little League field. Oh, sure, I’ll bet you can find plenty of exceptions, but most of ordinary human life is based on ordinary human experiences.

      • Art Deco

        I haven’t noticed that social researchers are too concerned with what natural scientists think of them. The problem with sociology and anthropology and American history nowadays is that the capacity of these disciplines to make sense of the world is damaged by a truncated (or trick-mirror) understanding of what constitutes a social problem or a social anomaly worthy of study. When 97% of the people in your professional subculture are Marxists, multi-culti fetishists, tree huggers, and Eurotrash social democrats, there are a broad mass of questions which can never be asked (or will never be asked). Re Johnathan Haidt, these people have trouble comprehending their opponents in any way but as cartoons (see hombre111 for the vulgar version of that).

    • Tyler

      Howard, I think the Catholic church under Pope Francis is moving back to a more nuanced approach to all theological questions. It has been refreshing. Pope Francis even recently spoke out about the importance of primacy of conscience, a teaching that has been asserted by Aquinas, Newman, and Vatican II. Despite this, it was not so long ago that we were being told that a properly formed conscience could never disagree with a papal utterance. There are many who thrived on moral absolutism. I am sorry you are being attacked, but it might help you to understand if you know the extreme orthodoxy and rigidity many Catholics have been exposed to for several decades of their lives.

      • TheAbaum

        “it might help you to understand if you know the extreme orthodoxy and rigidity many Catholics have been exposed to for several decades of their lives.”

        Clearly there are alternate universes and somebody just wandered in from one.

  • Thomas

    As an educator for over three decades, and as i see it, CURRENT educational practices since the Rousseau-Romantic-Progressive school captured American public education, our educational system IS sinful. I can tell you the damage it has done to our children. Each generation is more susceptible to being rendered helpless against tyranny.

  • Honor Student

    Between checking my white privilege using a worksheet I got today in my Catholic Identity class at Central Committee Catholic High School, and checking Facebook for the latest promposals, I have no time to read this. Is it important? Will it be on the test? Thx.

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  • Bedarz Iliaci

    “Boko Haram” means “Western education is sinful.”

    Now “Haram” is just the Old Testament word “herem” meaning “Ban” or “forbidden”. But does “Boko” mean “Western education”?

    Wikipedia says that “boko” comes from English “book”.

    Thus, Boko Haram means “book forbidden”.

    And why do you think they mean classical books of Western learning and not modern pornographic American books? Perhaps they oppose the things that we ought to oppose.

    • Augustus

      Boko Haram means different things depending on the language you are translating it from. The author is more informed than you give him credit for. Your statement is confused: You deny that the name refers to Western education then proceed to support their supposed opposition to it. Whatever Boko Haram believes, it does not justify killing Christians. I recommend you not rely on Wikipedia: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-13809501

  • Bernonensis

    To the list of countries attacked by the sons of the “Prophet” one might add Ireland. North African pirates landed near Skibbereen in the early seventeenth century and enslaved a number of the inhabitants. If memory does not fail me, they capped this missionary activity with a church burning.

  • Another good article!
    Western education ignores the Islamic threat because, imo, academia is largely in the hands of the Left who side with enemies of Western civilisation. Also, because of the growing investment of Arab/Muslim money in places of higher education. You do not normally bite the hand that feeds

  • Gary Adrian

    I have to say I agree with Boko Haram in this case, but in reference to MODERN western education. Classical western education brings about enlightenment, modern western education brings about laziness, selfishness, and relativism.

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