by Richard K. Munro

I agree with the Greco-Roman philosophers that wisdom is, eventually, chief among virtues. However, wisdom is a virtue which comes later in life and slowly. Wisdom is a slow growth. It is not, then, first among the virtues we can hope to impart or encourage in the youth.

Cicero said: “Beginning with the bonds of affection between family and friends, we are prompted to move gradually further out and associate ourselves firstly with our fellow citizens and then with every person on earth.”

So what is early education? Child rearing (or breeding) is the product of one’s personal associations in the home, in one’s neighborhood, one’s community and one’s school. Rearing or bringing up the youth presupposes properly coordinating the habits of the young and subordinating the wild, the unhygienic, the selfish and the baser instincts of our single but riven race. A people, a nation or a civilization must have its moral education, its code of civility and norms as well as its time of formal instruction or schooling.

There is a Spanish saying of which I am fond: “Para la virtud, la educación; para la ciencia la instrucción” which means “First teach virtue, manners, good habits and civility; then school for knowledge.” This saying has long fascinated me because it implies that formal education (instruction; schooling) must be preceded and accompanied by what we used to call “breeding” or “upbringing” or training in manners, socially acceptable behavior, politeness, or civility.

In America and the English-speaking world there is much confusion today as to the role of parents, community and school in the rearing, training and education of children and youth and this confusion is reflected in our opaque, modern usage with silly and synthetic expressions like “parenting”, “empowering” etc. which are cut off from the Aristotelian concepts which were once the basis of all Western schools.

In the division favored traditionally by the French and Spanish, we can clearly perceive the influence of Thomistic and Greek philosophy (particularly Aristotle and Plato). So in Spanish one can say without any irony that one’s grandparents were bien educados (polite, generous and courteous) but sin instrucción alguna (without formal schooling -even illiterate).

Himmler was formerly schooled, a wise Spanish nurse said to me, but muy maleducado (without social graces, without a moral conscience, boorish and rude, in short, a barbarian).

Haim Ginott made a very wise observation in his wonderful book Teacher and Child :

On the first day of the new school year, all the teachers in one private school received the following note from a principal:

Dear Teacher:
I am the survivor of a concentration camp. My eyes saw what no man should witness.
Gas chambers built by learned engineers
Children poisoned by educated physicians/
Infants killed by trained nurses.
Women and babies shot and burned
By high school and college graduates.
So I am suspicious of education.
My request is: Help your students become human.
Your efforts must never produce learned monsters, skilled psychopaths, educated Eichmanns.
Reading, writing and arithmetic are important only if they serve to make our children more humane.

Ginott is saying that moral and character education (what the Spanish know as ‘”educación”) is really more important even than academic achievement or excellence because it is what makes people respectful, merciful, decent and fully human or humane.

The Spanish language makes it very clear that education is a process of socialization and ethical development which is accompanied by and followed by “aprendizaje” (which means learning but also “apprenticeship”) which leads to a higher intellectual development called formal education or instruction (formación o instrucción).” The French have the same concept and a similar vocabulary and speak of ‘bonne éducation’ (good manners) or “politesse et civilité” (politeness and civility) as important virtues. Formal schooling is sometimes called “education” or “études” (studies) but especially “instruction et formation” (schooling and academic training). Language helps shape our ideas and our perspectives. It for this reason I believe the well-educated person will have training in one or more languages besides English. There is no question that foreign language study sharpens the mind as to the nuances and shades of meaning of words.