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Notes on American Education

The great American universities are, on the whole, the best in the world, and any European who comes to teach in them is sure to be impressed by the liveliness and enthusiasm of many American students.  However, there are drawbacks that are bound to be noticed quickly by someone whose academic subject is the literature and religion of Greece and Rome and whose politics, unlike those of most academics in our time, tend to be conservative.

It is not easy to know the Greek and Latin languages, or indeed any foreign languages, well, unless you start early.  I have no direct experience of primary education in this country, but I have the impression that many private as well as many public schools waste the precious years when the memory is at its best.  The pragmatist philosopher John Dewey encouraged educational theorists to despise the memory, on which all human knowledge in the last resort depends, and to exalt the learning of manual skills.  That kind of theory well suits fond parents who wish to save their darlings from having their brains strained unduly by having to work hard.  In many schools, learning takes second place to processes supposed to promote “social adjustment”; I remember the head-mistress in Nabokov’s novel Lolita, who tells Humbert Humbert that the most important subjects in her school are the three D’s—Dancing, Debating, and Dating.  Many schoolteachers...

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