Monday, July 20, 2015

What is education for?

 The bankruptcy of American culture is vividly illustrated by our debate about education. Everyone is moaning about the shortcomings of the American educational system. Students do not learn enough. They are not prepared for the demands of the workplace. Education is too expensive. Educational results are very unequal. Here too the obstacles confronting the children of the poor are much greater than the difficulties encountered by the children of the middle class.

All of these complaints are justified. Our educational system does not teach students what they need to know. It charges too much for what it provides. The prevailing inequalities are only intensified by the schools and colleges our children attend.

In the midst of all this fretting, no one asks the question that should surely be first, namely what should be the goals of our education? You cannot criticize a set of institutions plausibly unless you begin with a clear idea of what you expect those institutions to accomplish.

The  bulk of the complaints we hear, however, have an implicit answer to the question about the goals of education. Everyone assumes that the function of education is to train people to take jobs in American business.

That seems all right, but we do need to ask whether preparing young people to take jobs is the only or even the main function of education. When we think of our college generation, young men and women just setting out on their lives, what matters most for them? What do we hope for them as their parents, as their uncles and aunts, as their friends? Are we prepared to tell our children that what is most important in their lives is that they do a good job and earn a good living? Why did we expend a great deal of effort to teach them to be honest, to be respectful of themselves and others, to live their life thoughtfully? Why did many of us want out children to grow up into good citzens?

When our children are as old as we are now, how do we hope they will summarize their lives? Is it enough for them to say 'I was good at my job and made a good living'?

Here is what I would hope my children will say when they are old – not necessarily in this order: I want them to believe that their life was interesting, and that one of the sources of interest were there many connections with other people's lives, with other families and the children raised in them. I am want them to be proud of what they learned over the years about many different things. I want them to look back with satisfaction on what they accomplished together with their neighbors to improve the place where they lived. I want them to bask in the respect of their neighbors for their contribution to the common life. I want them to be proud of having been good citizens.
I want them to remember fondly the many people they loved well and the love they received from their family and friends.

I want them to acknowledge frankly their failures, their acts of cowardice, their avoidance of opportunities to be decent persons.

This is only a partial list and different people might draw up very different lists on what makes a life a good life, a life well lived. But what is amply clear is that doing a good job at work and making a decent living considers other people merely as employees, as people one might hire for one's business. It is not considering young people as human beings preparing to live human lives.
Someone might agree that there is a lot more to life than earning a living, but also assert that none of those other accomplishments can be promoted by formal education.

But that is obviously false. A good education takes a person in their late teens who knows the world in which they grew up and introduces them to a much larger world by teaching them history and introducing them to matters political, by transmitting to them the pleasure of reading, or of the arts. Our young people, many of them prospective parents, can acquire a much more sophisticated sense of the process of growing up which they will be directing when they have children. We would want them to learn that adult life is also a continuing process of change, of learning, of adjusting to the demands of different ages.

When we think about education, just as when we think about many other things, we have been conditioned to think of ourselves only as cogs in the great capitalist machine. We have lost sight of the many wonderful possibilities that human lives present. We have allowed ourselves to be terribly impoverished.

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