Five hundred years ago, a child was ready to start his life at the age of 12 or 13. The Virgin Mary was about 13 or 14 when God considered her capable of making history’s greatest act of human moral freedom.

As early as 100 years ago, the average young person was ready to begin life at the age of 15 or 16. Most schools did not teach beyond this age; a 16-year-old could be qualified to be a midwife, to teach elementary school, to be the owner of a small business.

Sixty years ago, adulthood began at 18 or 19. Our grandparents were ready to go and fight in World War II as soon as they reached legal adulthood. Many of them left behind young wives who already had children, and who took over most of the “men’s” work until the soldiers returned.

Today, many simple jobs require university or college education, and increasingly young people are not ready to set out on their own, start a family or begin a career until they are 24 or 25. Among the university-educated, it is not uncommon to find people in their 30s who are still unmarried, childless and waiting to “start” their lives.

Most people tacitly assume that the proliferation of formal education is a sign of social advance. Democratic theorists have always agreed that a working democracy requires an educated adult population, which is why the universal franchise and universal schooling appear at a similar time in the writings of social philosophers. It is less than useless, however, to have a heavily schooled population if students emerge from 13 or more years of school without an education.

There are five essential areas of education that need to come together to make a responsible, complete adult. A quick survey of them should suffice to tell us that there is a crisis in modern schooling that goes well beyond the literacy crisis and the problems of sexual education.

First, an educated adult should have knowledge of the world that he lives in.

This is particularly important in a democracy, where every citizen is expected to be involved in the political life of the country. A basic understanding of the political process, of the history of one’s own country and of the world, of basic geography and a working knowledge of global economics are all essential. These ought not to be the province of a specialized few, and they are easy to teach.

A kindergarten child, for example, can be taught in approximately 10 to 20 hours to identify every country in the world on a map, yet this is material that is not taught at any level of public school in most jurisdictions.

Without it, world history is incomprehensible, and even the day’s newspaper can’t possibly be deciphered meaningfully.

Second, an educated adult should have a working knowledge of the intellectual basics: not only reading, writing and arithmetic, but also logic, reasoning and critical evaluation.

The ability to follow an argument, detect a false premise, tell whether a conclusion is being drawn erroneously, and recognize the difference between a rational argument and a sentimental appeal are all essential skills.

Unfortunately, while students are expected to engage in argument and write essays, the mechanics of rational thought are usually not to be found in the curriculum. This state of affairs leaves children and adults alike open to manipulation by advertising, political sloganeering and journalistic propaganda. It produces a population unable to work out truth and able to think only in premasticated sound-bites.

Third, education involves not only the intellect, but also self-knowledge: the emotions and the interior life.

Self-knowledge is often given a nod in school classrooms, but it is covered simplistically and sporadically.

Instead of learning to examine their consciences and recognize both their faults and their strengths, students are given aptitude and personality tests. These break kids down into a small number of psychological stereotypes and generally give the impression that a single part of a personality (intellect, emotion, will-power, etc.) is sufficient to form a complete identity.

They sort kids according to the way that they would like to think of themselves, not according to their actual strengths and weaknesses, and they end by congratulating everyone on being naturally great, leaving little impetus for real self-knowledge and improvement.

Fourth, a good education should inculcate in its students a strong sense of meaning and morality.

If a student emerges from school with the sense that all meanings are self-constructed toys that distract us from the meaninglessness of existence, that morals are arbitrary rules designed to keep things relatively orderly and that the best you can hope for is to have some fun before you die, then everything else is going to fall apart.

It is no wonder that, in the absence of a solid moral foundation, schools are awash in apathy and student misbehavior. Everything from the epidemic of “attention deficit disorder” to the much lamented “literacy crisis” can essentially be traced to a lack of moral foundation.

Why should a child learn the self-discipline to pay attention to lessons if he can’t see any reason or purpose in doing so? Why should he bother learning to read if it takes hard work and he can get away with just watching the movie?

Finally, a student should emerge from education able to do something.

Healthy societies function because everyone has unique talents and abilities which they bring to the communal table. These allow people to make their livelihoods in a way that respects and honors their dignity, which reveals their creation in the “image and likeness of God” and that allows them to craft their lives as a “work of art” in which every element supports all of the others.

The fact that so many people lead fragmented existences, where work is divided from family, and family from entertainment, and where the whole never amounts to anything more than a tedious succession of parts, is the highest proof that there is something wrong in our education system.

Indeed, this is the primary matter that leads to the perpetuation of childhood: We cannot joyfully accept the responsibilities and challenges of adult life if we do not know who we are or what we have to offer.

It is not difficult to teach these skills. However it does require a particular attention to individual students; it requires that teachers be allowed to harness their own strengths and abilities, that school be a lively and organic place in which children play at being adults, in order that they may be ready to enthusiastically assume the mantle of responsibility.

This cannot be achieved by standardized testing, standardized curricula and standardized teaching methods, but only through a web of relationships between the teacher, the student and the parents, so that children graduate as fully formed adults, not frightened or confused, confident in where they are going next.

The fact that there is a great divide between what education ought to be and what it actually is suggests that there is someone who is benefiting from the status quo.

In the next segment, we’ll take a look at who that is, and how it is that they got their fingers into the minds of our kids.

Melinda Selmys is a staff writer