Saving Civilization, K-5 Edition: An Address at Great Hearts Academy

Peter Wood

NAS president Peter Wood gave a version of the following address to over 900 teachers and administrators at the Great Hearts Academies’ annual Summit on August 1, 2014 in Phoenix, Arizona.

I’ve been invited to speak on the ideal form of the grammar school and the fundamental importance of K-5 education in forming well-educated souls. That topic is a stretch for me, as I deal mostly with the unhappy state of contemporary higher education, and my experience with grammar school is mostly a matter of having been a student in a grammar school in suburban Pittsburgh during the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations.  

I will thus be speaking from a perspective compounded of my academic profession, which is anthropology; my work as a would-be reformer of colleges; and my gratitude to my own teachers over the years. Great Hearts is an exceptional place—a great venture in renewing the great traditions in educating children from their first introduction to the classroom to the cusp of their adult lives. To teach here is a great privilege and you should revel in the experience.


Let me begin with a few light comparisons between today’s situation and what I encountered as a child. In those days, charter schools had not yet been invented. Public school teachers unions had begun to organize but were not yet a force to be reckoned with. The Soviet Union’s successful launch of Sputnik, the first artificial Earth satellite, had riveted the nation’s attention to the weaknesses of American schools in teaching math and science. And virtually all the teachers up through the high school level were women.

That last point is especially important. The teachers tended to be very smart and highly capable women, because smart and highly capable women who wanted or needed to work didn’t have many other career options. They weren’t especially well-paid but they stood high in public esteem.

Today, of course, public school teachers loudly lament that they do not get the respect they believe they deserve. They are, in many parts of the country, highly paid, but it is a profession now held in low esteem by the general public. One reason is that teachers are, apart from charter schools, members of aggressively combative unions. They have gained a reputation as self-serving whiners, and they are now under legal assault. In June, a California Superior Court judge ruled in favor of a group of student plaintiffs that the state’s teacher tenure laws had “deprived them of a decent education by leaving bad teachers in place.”[1] A similar case is proceeding in New York.

Today, 84 percent of American school teachers are women—which represents a remarkable rebound. In the heyday of feminism, in the decade from 1970 to 1980, only around 68 percent of teachers were women; now women are reclaiming the profession. But the turn-around in numbers isn’t the whole story. The academic achievement level of students entering schools of educations fell very low in the 1960s and has remained there. Collectively, students entering schools of education as undergraduates have SAT scores 50 points below the national average, and students graduating from schools of education have by a wide margin the lowest scores on the Graduate Record Exam, LSATs, and GMATs compared to other college majors.[2] Taken as a whole, the cohort of public school teachers is very far from the best and brightest.

We have, of course, been through many Sputnik-style episodes since the original in October 1957. The nation has been repeatedly declared “at risk” from mal-performing public schools, and we have had wave after wave of national reform movements. The widespread adoption of charter schools is the product of that ferment.

The developments I have cited are real and important. In my role as the president of the National Association of Scholars, I’ve seen over and over the importance of mastering the history of institutions and the complex interchange between the larger culture and the specific concerns of schools and colleges. But having driven that historical stake in the ground, I am going to turn in these remarks to the much larger and in some ways anthropological picture of what grammar school education is, does, and should be.

I mean the picture that includes grammar school before Sir Isaac Newton taught us that apples fall rather than float; before Johannes Gutenberg turned his Legos into movable type; before anyone thought of using chalk on a blackboard. When I think as an anthropologist about what grammar school does, four rather simple things come to mind:  

First, every day we leave our parents for an extended sojourn with an unrelated adult and the company of other children who are not members of our family.

Second we make friends and occasionally find adversaries among these other children.

Third, we learn things that our parents didn’t teach us.

And fourth, we gradually take in the idea that we will be rewarded with praise if we take the trouble to learn and met with disappointment if we don’t.

These simplicities, however, are not as simple as they first sound. They are, from the perspective of the anthropologist, revolutionary.

Summerian Grade School

If you think about it a moment, you realize that most of humanity for most of pre-history and history too has been without a grammar school education. Grammar schools don’t exist by an edict of nature. They are an invention. Specifically they are an invention of civilization. They go along with a variety of other inventions. We might think first of the invention of writing, but writing came into the picture in the ancient middle east only after other even more basic steps in the development of civilization: domesticated animals and plants, irrigation, cities, and—less benignly—kings, taxes, armies, large-scale warfare, empires, and so on.

Writing we know was developed by merchants and tax accountants, not poets or philosophers, and definitely not by textbook publishers or the commissars of the Common Core—though I might add that the Common Core commissariat seems pretty eager to get us back to the days of Sumer and Uruk, when writing served strictly utilitarian ends. But I get ahead of myself.

Writing was a practical thing in the city states of the ancient Middle East. Some of the earliest texts that have survived say provocative things, like the 5,000 year-old Babylonian text that declares, “840 sheep inspected this morning, 540 sheep inspected in the evening; altogether 1,380 sheep inspected by the chief accountant.” From this we can infer that the chief accountant not only knew how to write, but also how to add. And we can suspect that he acquired these skills in Babylonian grammar school.

We can also say that writing developed first to serve people engaged in trade, and perhaps simultaneously the people who facilitated and taxed trade, the city’s rulers. Money and power came hand in hand, and not long after, royal boasts, collections of aphorisms, myths, and prayers to the gods. The hymn to Nibru opens with what might be called civic mindedness: “City whose terrifying splendor extends over heaven and earth, whose towers are exceptionally grand: Your power reaches to the edges of the uttermost extent of heaven and earth.”[3] But lest we think of the Sumerians as all brag, consider their proverb, “The poor man does not strike his son a single blow; he treasures him highly forever.”  These sayings recognize human limits, “No one is tall enough to reach up and touch the heavens.” And are touched by mortality. A man reflecting on his white hair, “My black mountain has sprouted white gypsum.”[4]

A literary tradition became possible with the advent of writing, and grammar school became something more than an efficient way to teach cuneiform and base-twelve math. It opened the eyes of the young—or at least some of the young—to the abiding values of a civilization. Students were initiated into a social world beyond the nursery. They learned to be awed by the gods, to take pride in those grand towers of sun-baked mud bricks, and they acquired the empathy and fellow feeling for humanity without which a social order is impossible.

We don’t have to guess about these schools. They were called “tablet houses”; they charged tuition; the school day was sunup to sundown; they had headmasters called “school fathers” and teachers called “big brothers.” They assigned homework, held recitations, graded penmanship and grammar. Students were disciplined for grammatical mistakes and infractions such as wearing dirty clothes. A Sumerian school with mudbrick benches has been excavated by archaeologists.[5]

Today we have better seating, but not much else has changed. From the beginning, the grammar school did the four things I described. It gave children a daily extended sojourn with an unrelated adult and the company of other children outside their own families. It gave children a chance to make friends and find adversaries among their peers. It taught things parents couldn’t. And it shaped students to be learners with a system of psychological rewards and punishments.

What of the substance of the curriculum? Sumerian grammar taught grammar-and writing and math. It also taught patriotism, piety, and social skills.  

As I noted, humanity can exist perfectly well without grammar schools, but that essentially means existing without civilization. And that is the heart of what I have to say. The grammar school is the engine of civilization.

But this certainly requires more explanation. The word “civilization” itself has fallen under a shadow. Once it was used too glibly to justify unjustified attitudes of superiority. Joseph Conrad’s short novel, Heart of Darkness, explores the savagery in the hearts of the supposedly civilized, and a thousand, thousand writers since have crossed the same terrain until the educated man or woman in the West of today is willing to speak respectfully of non-Western “civilizations” but treats our own civilization more or less as a criminal conspiracy. Hooray for the Aztecs, in their bloodthirsty magnificence.  But as Ezra Pound, writing in the aftermath of the Great War, indelicately put it, the West is “an old bitch gone in the teeth…a botched civilization.”[6]

The word “civilization” has become so entangled in modern and post-modern discontents that it is hard to remember that it actually stands for something positive.

The Hand-Ax

I don’t have the time to lay out the whole case for the West. We have had some very good books about this recently, perhaps most notably Niall Ferguson’s Civilization: The West and the Rest. Rather, I will offer a concrete reminder of civilization’s success in dealing with our physical frailty. Among many other things, civilization stands for dentistry, anesthesia, antibiotics, vaccines, eyeglasses, and longevity. Those are accomplishments that didn’t arise from nowhere. They are fruits of several thousand years of discoveries that built on one another; of knowledge that was written down and transmitted generation to generation, and not just as knowledge but also as a striving to improve the lot of humanity. Civilization creates the condition for progress that differs in fundamental ways from what happens in non-civilized societies.

We anthropologists have a benchmark for this. A member of our genus, Homo, learned how to make a simple stone chopping tool about 3.4 million years ago. His descendants kept on making the chopper for the next 1.7 million years—making it with no discernible improvements in form or manufacture. Then about 1.7 million years ago, other human ancestors learned how to make a bi-faced stone tool we call a hand-ax. Their descendants kept on making bi-faced hand-axes with only slight improvements for the next 1.3 million years. We can pride ourselves that our ancestors didn’t lose track of this valuable knowledge, but we have to notice they were not especially adept at holding on to the insights that the occasional caveman Edison or Einstein might have contributed to making a better bi-face. Why not? What made material progress so excruciatingly slow for our ancestors?

That’s what comes from skipping grammar school. I could put this in more scientific language, but the basic point is that even when we had brains big enough to support higher levels of accomplishment, we humans did not have yet have a way of organizing ourselves to give the coming generation a running start. We conserved precious knowledge and skill from generation to generation but for eons we ventured no further.

Civilization is by no means a sure path to improvement, but it is better than the alternatives. I mentioned examples of medical technology as the easy case for why civilization isn’t entirely a bad thing. Rather than multiply examples, let me turn to the larger principles. Civilization is about a vast expansion of the division of labor and a concomitant increase in the scale of society. Civilization allows us to specialize. We have not just dentists but dozens of different kinds of dentists. We have not city-states, but states that span continents. But when we speak of civilization, of course, we mean more than social organization and technological prowess. The concept of being “civilized” is as also a matter of attitude, knowledge, moral commitment, and self-consciousness.

When modern humans burst on the scene about 70,000 years ago, they made themselves known by an incredible acceleration in the pace of innovation. Almost every new archaeological site gives evidence of new tools, new tools for making tools, and new applications. We don’t know exactly what caused this, but there are clues that suggest that the explosion in innovation came at the same time as the emergence of human language in the form we now know; and that language leaped forward because of a specific mutation in the gene called FOXP2 or the factors that regulate it. Be that as it may, civilization was still a long way off.   Humanity, however, was on fire, and on the move. Civilization might be thought of as the disciplining of that fire to create, to innovate, and to speak.

The Uncivilized

Here we enter a fraught subject. No one today wants to say that uncivilized people are lacking in humanity or fellow feeling. So what kind of distinction, if any, are we justified in making between civilized and uncivilized people?

The fastest way I know to make the distinction is unpleasant, but it is probably necessary to make it anyway. Margaret Mead in her celebrated book Sex and Temperament in Three Savage Societies, tells us about a tribe in the Sepik river region of north New Guinea, a people called the Tchambuli, whom she praises for their artistry. Some of that artistry comes from decorating human skulls, many of which were acquired by purchasing captives from neighboring tribes. The captives were often executed by Tchambuli children who were taught how to run them through with spears. A Tchambuli boy was initiated into manhood by thus murdering a bound captive.

That pretty much captures what we mean by uncivilized. The Tchambuli had their attractions, but they were savages devoid of a sense of humanity and eager to turn their children into killers. The Tchambuli have since mended their ways, but we can look around the world and find plenty of contemporary instances in which societies have descended into barbarism.

And while we might pride ourselves on having forever left behind that human baseness, that would be a foolish conceit. The capacity for rapaciousness and barbarism is always there in humanity. The line that keeps it at bay runs straight through the grammar school classroom.

Our teachers are the first guardians of civilization. They introduce the child to the wider world beyond the family and they embody what it means to be part of a civilized order. This is to say that those who argue that we should strive for education that allows students to develop as they “naturally” would are arguing for folly. Natural development would leave us chipping out the hand-axes made by thousands of generations of our ancestors, and adding beaded decorations to the skulls of our enemies. Mathematics, literature, history, and religion do not come naturally. They are won through the hard work of civilization.

Between civilization and another dark age stand several things: literacy, science, the rule of law, the power of markets, and people who see the stakes and are determined to hold onto the precious legacy of civilization. And behind all these are the teachers who capture minds, imaginations, and character at the moment when we human beings are truly teachable.

Grammar school substitutes for some of the nurture and instruction that children would otherwise receive from mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, and older siblings. It takes over from the family the family's fundamental role in bridging early childhood and adolescence. But what then should grammar school teachers actually teach?


I fear I don’t have especially helpful answers. What I have are strictures.

We are on the verge of what might be called a post-civilization. Real literacy, by which I mean the capacity to read and comprehend a book, is in sharp decline. We have specialized to the point at which mutual incomprehension is a growing problem. Our public culture has been coarsened and vulgarized and the public is by and large happy with the results. Our knowledge of history, even our nation’s own history, is thin and getting thinner. Our interest in learning foreign languages other than Spanish was never large but is vanishing. We have become proud in a way about our ignorance. Post-civilization can be entertaining; perhaps it is primarily bent on entertainment. But it is aimless. One of its chief entertainments is conjuring visions of a world-wide apocalypse and imagining the lives of the survivors, battling zombies, apes, or overlords.

So my first stricture is to make a conscious choice to teach why civilization matters. Shape an ideal, not as I have done by describing the appalling opposite of civilization, the Tchambuli inside us waiting to get out, but by presenting the civilization worth striving for. I don’t have the words to convey this to first and second graders. But you do. And the words to convey this to third and fourth graders. By the time your students are reading The Brothers Karamazov, they will understand the stakes. Folly and foolishness can never be banished but we can strive to make the world a more civilized place.

Nearly a century ago the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead penned a short essay titled “The Aim of Education.” Whitehead was responding to aspects of English public school education that he disliked, and he offered a counter-vision. Reading his 1917 essay today, I was caught by how wrong-headed much of it seems. The aim of education, Whitehead wrote, is “to stimulate self-development.” He spends much of the essay inveighing against what he calls “inert ideas,” by which he means ideas that the child cannot immediately use. Whitehead doesn’t favor “teaching small parts of a large number of subjects,” and urges schools to teach whatever we need “to equip us for the present.”  

This may not sound to you on first hearing as wrong-headed, but I think a century or so of progressive education imbued with the spirit of Whitehead’s vision has shown us what a profound mistake he and others of his generation set in motion. Self-development should be a byproduct of education, not its primary goal. The real aim of education is to help boys and girls along a path to civilized maturity, a path that combines intellectual and moral formation. The “self,” the idol of modernists and the plaything of the post-modernists, can be shaped for the better. But the self unleashed to its own development is often or perhaps usually overwhelmed by its appetites. It seeks pleasure, recognition, and its own satisfactions.

Surely we do want students who are ambitious in the right ways, but those “selves” are the result of an education that pushes back against the natural egotism and appetites of children. So my second stricture is: push back. Push back gently, firmly, and intelligently. Pushing back is not a call for tyranny; it is a call for an un-Whiteheadean recognition that the child must be drawn forward, and active teaching is necessary. When Whitehead puts down “inert ideas,” he likewise goes too far. Almost all ideas are initially inert. Typically you have to learn something before you learn why it is important or what use you can make of it. A mystery story that gives away the ending on the first page is hardly worth reading.

This is surely not a call to indulge in teaching random lists of things, but I doubt any teacher really feels tempted to. Teach what we will, our minds are constructed in such a way as to seek connections, and part of the teacher’s job is steer students away from false connections to better ones. In that sense, we do need to learn a little about many subjects, and we should not be obsessed with equipping students for the present, or as we later learned to say, to make learning “relevant.” Relevance is a false god. No one knows in advance what particular thing will matter. Knowing Plutarch could be far more valuable than mulling the wisdom of Toni Morrison. If we are to be guided by any larger concern, I’d say stick with what civilization has winnowed out of the myriad possibilities. The pursuit of relevance will lead you only to the fashionable and the ephemeral—in short, the irrelevant.

There is my third stricture: Root yourself in the timeless. Or if not the timeless, our best approximation of it. We are mortal, not just as individuals. We speak mortal languages and live in mortal cultures. All mortal things will pass away, but we can strive to see and to name those that last the longest and come closest to the eternal. Tradition is an aid in figuring out what these are, but it is not an unerring aid. We have false and misleading traditions too, and there is no shortcut to wisdom.

I have used Alfred North Whitehead here as a representative of wrong thinking, and it would be unfair to leave it at that. Whitehead in the same essay wrote that education is “a patient process of the mastery of details, minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day.” He rejected the path of “brilliant generalization.” This I judge to be entirely right, if a little too haunted by that ticking clock of minutes, hours, and days. My fourth stricture is: Teach your students your own patience. They can supply all the impatience they will ever need, but the discipline to slow down, listen, observe, and revel in the moment is something that must be learned. Patience is also needed to accomplish some of the work at hand: the patience to memorize things to furnish the mind: poetry, math, the patience to learn a musical instrument, and the patience to persist in the face of difficulty.

Your students, whatever their age, are your closest observers. They will spot your mannerisms and joyfully capture your foibles. But they will also notice your own commitment to learning. They need to see that you regard your own education as ongoing: that you are still asking questions, discovering your own mistakes, and reading persistently and with an open mind. This isn’t something limited to adolescent students. Children in grammar school will get the message as well. Learning isn’t drudgery imposed on the young; learning is lifelong pleasure and fulfillment. My fifth and last stricture is: Let your students see you as someone who actively pursues your own education.  

My five strictures, alas, are not likely to be entered in the books of eternal wisdom, much less to get past the gatekeepers of any up-to-date teachers college. When I review the list, they sound like the preenings of a Victorian school master:

Make a conscious choice to teach why civilization matters.

Push back against the natural tendencies of children.

Root yourself in the timeless.

Teach your students your own patience.

Let students see you pursuing your own education.

These could have been, but were not, plucked from a page from Thomas Hughes’ classic tale, Tom Brown’s Schooldays or from one of Matthew Arnold’s dustier essays. While my strictures sound older than old-fashioned, there is still a need for education that seeks to reconnect to an older tradition of education as forming the souls of children and shaping their character.

Reaching Back

I have exhausted my small store of strictures but I have a bit more to say on this broader topic. American education is pulled relentlessly towards addressing whatever appears to be the immediate problem. When I was growing up the little beeps of Sputnik were amplified into a school reform movement that pushed science and math to the forefront. It wasn’t the first such panic attack. Diane Ravitch subtitled her book Left Back, “A Century of Battles over School Reform.” A century ago, writes Ravitch at one point, “Faced with the choice between a liberal education for all and a differentiated curriculum based on social class, educators began a stampede toward a differentiated curriculum.”[7] We must reject the stampede. In much of the country, the attempt to stamp out the embers of liberal education continues. The current banner for this movement is “social justice,” and its current institutional form is the Common Core K-12 State Standards. The latter is an application of good old American utilitarianism, which is in favor of “whatever works.”

The trouble with utilitarianism is that it shuns the question, “For what end?” The Common Core seeks, as it puts it, to make students “college- and career-ready.” It would be nice if it could do that, but the goal itself neglects the deeper purposes of education. We teachers are stretchers of souls who are preparing our students for travails larger than either college or career. On our work hinges the fate of our civilization. We need a curriculum that makes students not just college- and career-ready, but civilization-ready.

The Sumerian scribe warned us, “No one is tall enough to reach up and touch the heavens.” But the heavens do stretch all the way down to the smallest child, and none of us is so tall as to prevent us from kneeling down to help that child. The work of a teacher is a great calling, and all the more so in a time when post-civilization is drowning so many in its cheap blandishments and excuses. You are called to hold the line against profound cultural decay. The “City whose terrifying splendor extends over heaven and earth, whose towers are exceptionally grand,” we should recognize by now as the city of destruction. Our hope for something better resides with you.


Image: Public Domain


[2] See also John R. Silber, “Roadblocks to Education Reform.” Seeking the North Star: Selected Speeches. David R. Godine, Publisher. 2014. Pp. 207-208.




[6] “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley.”

[7] Diane Ravitch. Left Back: A Century of Battles over School Reform. New York: Simon & Schuster. 2000. P. 80.

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