Thursday, December 13, 2012

Practical Purposes of Education

I'd like to start with a provocative claim: There is only one "practical" use for education, and that is to help the educated individual call "bullshit" when they see and hear it.

Now, despite the fact that this is an endlessly useful and applicable purpose, many may balk and begin a laundry list of much more practical uses for education.

We must first then define terms, for when I speak about education, I am speaking of a much more rarefied thing than we might ordinarily think of.

Therefore, it seems to me useful to separate "Education" from "Training."

We will define training as instruction on how to do things. Reading, writing, arithmetic, and all of the "skills" that fall under study and personal responsibility are, in their essence, training. It should be obvious that most of the arguments for the practicality of education actually refer to training: it will aid you in further study, it will help you get and maintain a job, it will allow you to manage your finances, etc.

I want to define education in a much more stringent way. For me, education involves the changing of understanding. Either students gain new understandings, deepen their understandings, or change their understandings. In other words, memorizing facts, reading a book, or learning a math formula have nothing to do, in and of themselves, with education. Owning certain facts may very well lead to new understandings, but this is by no means taken for granted.

My goal in separating these two is not to denigrate training, but to establish a cause and effect relationship. Training gives students the tools, skills, and resources that lead to education. My concern is that, in general, we appear to place far too much emphasis on the value of training, so much so, in fact, that the matter of education can be ignored altogether.

One possible reason for this lack of attention may be that all of that stuff about forming and changing understandings of the world around us seems to stubbornly resist transformation into marketable commodities. And it's essentially impossible to measure in any concrete way. It tends to be crammed over into conversations about the Liberal Arts, which we all know are highly suspect. Ideas are, in America, a bit too abstract to be really valuable.

I myself have no problem with the impracticality of education. That it is not easily commodified and given a dollar value is rather a sign of its intrinsic value. And the ability to recognize and respond to "bullshit" is in no way a minor benefit.

The irony of my claim is that schools, our chosen tool for educating the masses, are loaded down with so much bullshit that it makes actual education not only difficult but actually dangerous to its very structure. We have given ourselves over almost completely to the idea of "training" children rather than educating them, and if there appears something insidious about the term, something less than human, that is in no way coincidental. Training is intimately tied up in relationships of authority and coercion.

I don't necessarily subscribe to Gatto's view that this system is all an elaborate conspiracy to "dumb us down." I find it much more likely that this almost absolute shift away from education in our schools is a result of 1) the best intentions of teachers and 2) Draconian legislation focused on "accountability" that takes it for granted that learning can be measured as a concrete score on a standardized test.

A colleague recently shared a reflection that jibes perfectly with what I know of the perils of school instruction. She explained how she always starts out with this big picture idea that she wants them to understand, and--in accordance with best practices--she start planning the scaffolded lessons that will get them there. Then, somewhere in the middle of the struggle that is learning, in the remediation and reteaching, in all of the formative assessment, she discovers that she has lost sight of that end goal. It's just too much. That end goal, of course, is the understanding we hope our students will form.  

Add to that a national system of accountability based on standardized tests that, almost by definition, do nothing to measure students understanding, and we see how quickly schools are transformed into training facilities designed to give students the "basic skills" they need to progress, though we can't really articulate what they might be progressing toward.

This is a long way to say that it is not, as we hear so often, a question of what we want education to do. It's a question of whether we want education at all.

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