Cotton Mather, Me, and Education

Cotton Mather has never been one of my historical heroes.  He was one of the characters who appeared to take delight in the Salem witch trials while doing what he could to preserve restrictive Puritan discipline that had begun to fade from popular favor.  Nevertheless, I’ve been reading excerpts from his works that have reminded me about how poorly educated I am.  He peppered his texts with long passages in Greek and Latin, while indicating that he had read every classical text available to him, as well as the works of most philosophers and theologians contemporary to his time.  It could be that he was making an extra effort to convince Europeans that a Puritan rube from the colonies should be taken seriously as an educated intellectual of their equal.  He may have been a pompous ass, but he was a well educated one.

Supposedly, I also am a well educated man, at least in my own mind.  But, I have only the most rudimentary knowledge of Latin and Greek, and none whatsoever in Hebrew.  It’s a good thing I’ve got enough dictionaries to help me through when I have to dig into a word or phrase.  Moreover, while I have cursory knowledge about many of the ancient classics of the Western world, and have read some of them in their English translations, I cannot compete with the bibliography Mather referenced with what appeared to be intimately familiarity.  Have we lost something important?

In my defense, and possibly yours, what constitutes a thorough education has changed.  Mather was a product of colonial 17th century Puritan New England.  Not many were well educated, but the few who were, were well grounded in English, Latin, Greek, and enough French to get by.  Their texts were the classics of Greece and Rome.  Filling in the gaps were the latest writings of reformer theologians, and a few heretic philosophers just to keep an eye on them.  With relatively few adaptions to include an expanded geography and a bit of science, a good university education in the earliest decades of the 20th century was not very different from his.  Then things speeded up.  Rapid application of new technologies to everyday life pushed education in new directions.  The push became an explosion following WWII.  Two world wide wars; the dawn of the “Atomic Age”; antibiotics; prosperity for the masses; fast, inexpensive travel to anywhere; popularization of psychology; global commerce;  the advent of computing; it changed everything.  My education, basic as it is, included a far broader range of subjects and experiences encompassing the entire earth and its many cultures and traditions.  Some smattering of familiarity extends from subatomic particles to the dark matter of the universes, and everything in between.  Education has been overhauled and redefined in my lifetime, with the old classics assuming a minor role.

For Mather, Europeans, especially the English, were the sole arbiters of all that was true and right.  Ancient Greeks and Romans, Calvinist reformation theologians, and the bible; that’s what one needed to know and it was enough.  As for the New World, the New England wilderness was a free, open, unpopulated land that God had prepared for Protestant settlement.  The natives were recognized as present in it the same way deer and elk were present – a wild species to be moved out of the way of settlement, and utilized until utility gave way to disposal for the sake of convenience.  Freedom for him was freedom to worship as Puritans in a theocratic society that prohibited any other form of worship or polity.  The nascent democracy that he treasured, and we celebrate, existed only to facilitate right organization and discipline of a religiously orthodox society.  In other words, as big as the New World was, his writings describe a small, tightly circumscribed world protected by sturdy ideological walls.  We live In a much larger world, and while we have an abundance of ideological walls erected to protect our preferred world views, they are quickly assaulted by others, and often crumble almost as quickly as they can be built.

Education appropriate for our larger world requires disciplines foreign to Mather: psychology, sociology, economics, political science, and organization and management theory, math in all of its complex forms.  Like others, I’ve been exposed to a lay person’s understanding of relativity, subatomic physics, chaos and game theory.  Thanks to the Internet I can log into news about any part of the world, and do at least superficial research on any subject.  As a well educated man of my time, the extent of what I can claim to know is much broader than anything Mather could imagine.  Yet I cannot claim as deep a knowledge in any one of them as Mather could in his.  My friend Bill Hess, recently deceased, would have loved a visit with him.  Bill was a classicist familiar with all the ancient languages, and well read in the classical literature of Greece, Rome, and Europe.  But Bill was flummoxed by the modern world and unhappy with rapid technological developments.  He felt that modern education has lost something important.  It has become adept at knowing the present, but it has lost an understanding of from whence it came, and thus is ill prepared for the future, so Bill believed.  What do you think?

It isn’t slowing down.  For our youngest grandchildren, a thorough education does not include but begins with computer science; something for them as basic as the alphabet and counting to 100.  Last Christmas we played a trivia game with a group of of very intelligent college students, each attending a top college, and each studying at advanced levels in difficult subject areas.  The trivia game was heavy with questions about history, geography, and the cultures of the world.  They didn’t stand a chance.  We routed them.  I’m not sure it was a good thing.

1 thought on “Cotton Mather, Me, and Education”

  1. Not sure that the current direction of education is good. The Humanities are being sent to the locker room so that STEM and other 'career' path courses can get in the game. I'm afraid, like your friend, that our connections to our past are being frayed to the point of breaking.

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