Home > Uncategorized > What Kind of Education?

What Kind of Education?

I was in a local suburb over the weekend, doing a little shopping, and I happened to drive past the local high school. In front, as is often the case, there is a message board. Usually, these contain some sort of motivational message, or an administrative reminder. This particular board sported a message that I assume the school was proud of, although why they would be, I’m not sure.

The sign proclaimed, “We produce collaborative workers.” Now mind you, this was not a vo-tech school, or even a high school in blue collar town, where job skills might be an important focus. This was a high school in an expensive Chicago suburb. The kind of suburb where the soccer-moms drive Mercedes, Lexus, and BMW sport utility vehicles. They are almost universally white, blonde, and sport those insect-looking sunglasses. The moms, not the vehicles. The children all have cell phones, computers, and an air of indifferent superiority combined with an attitude of entitlement that would have shamed the French royalty.

So I was surprised to see that sign in that suburb. I’ve had an interest in education ever since I had kids of my own. Not just in the immediate sense of making sure my kids made it through a dysfunctional system, but in the broad sense of how to fix the system, and what the goals of the system should be. And that sign shocked me because it graphically announces to the world why the schools have failed, and continue to fail, the youth of America.

We have all heard, almost ad infinitum, the stories about what our children don’t know. Half of high-school students can’t locate America on a globe, two-thirds don’t know their home address, ninety percent can’t tell when to use whom. But those are the little things. That’s not to say knowledge is unimportant. I believe in Santayana, good grammar, and a functional command of mathematics. But they are little things in the scheme of what education means, and what its goals should be.

There are, apparently, two schools of thought about what the nature of education is. There is what I call the economic school. This group believes that the goal of education is to provide economic advantage to the student, the community, or the country. They believe that education should be aimed at training students to be productive workers. This is the group that our current president belongs to. Obama’s White House web site says, “Our nation’s economic competitiveness and the path to the American Dream depend on providing every child with an education that will enable them to succeed in a global economy…” Or this, from the same source, “President Obama will reform America’s public schools to deliver a 21st Century education that will prepare all children for success in the new global workplace.”

Then, there is the second school of thought. I’m not sure what to call it, perhaps the human school. This group believes that the goal of education is to develop a fully human person. This group believes that economic considerations are unimportant, by that I mean whether an education will produce economic benefits, and that what is important is developing a person who is as fully human as possible. This school of thought also believes that economic advantages will flow from such an education, but that it is a corollary effect, much as a healthy diet produces a corollary effect of a good night’s sleep.

These groups hold fundamentally different positions about not only the nature of education, but about the nature of human beings, which is really the critical issue.

The first group, which, by the way, includes the National Education Association, sees human beings as a means to an end. They see the individual as merely as implement to be used to create wealth. An asset, or perhaps a collaborative worker, if you like. We see the results of this mindset throughout society. What in business used to be called Human Relations became human resources, now asset management. We see an ever-increasing importance placed on consumerism as the engine that drives the economy. Buy, they exhort us, so our economy can prosper. We wind up with people who know the cost of everything, yet the value of nothing.

The second group believes that each and every human being has within himself the capacity to become more that an instrument of commerce. No longer must men and women be merely commodities, serfs, or possessions. To borrow the words of a man who belongs squarely in this second group, every human being is the repository of an irreducible dignity. It is the purpose of education to take this repository, and help it become as much as it can. Not measured in economic terms, but in human terms. Throughout history, it has been products of this second group that have made the greatest strides in bettering the human condition.

We would do well to heed the words of Epictetus, who said, “Be careful to leave your sons well instructed rather than rich, for the hopes of the instructed are better than the wealth of the ignorant.

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. A Teacher
    March 15, 2010 at 5:08 pm

    Another problem with the first group as you labeled them is that unless a student fits into the ‘able to succeed according to society’s high expectations’ paradigm that student feels horribly unsucessful and by adolescence has lost the motivation to attempt success of any sort. If a child has any handicapping condition that interfers with learning in a traditional way, the paradigm as defined by the first group is unable, nay unwilling to teach beyond the bare minimum. After all, someone has to do those sad, menial jobs.
    On the other hand, the second group tends to approach all facets of education with an open mind and heart. They’re not disabled…they’re differently-abled! Unfortunately that’s not always realistic. It’s unfair to say that “Deaf Kids Can Do Everything Except Hear” as they say in the school where I teach because as far as I know children who are Deaf cannot become air traffic controllers or join the Army. As technology changes perhaps the employment outlook will too but for right now, there are some things they simply cannot do.
    So who’s right? I believe, as with most things in life, there is value in both groups. Being taught how to be a hard worker is not a bad thing. Understanding what that means: responsibility, promptness, neatness, accuracy, as well as the economics involved; all of these things are essential for success both personally and professionally. Being taught kindness, respect and civility are also essential. My answer is compromise, another lesson needed for success in today’s society.

    • March 15, 2010 at 5:44 pm

      Almost all true, and I agree with almost all of your comment. The virtues you mentioned, responsibility, neatness, accuracy, etc., are all inculcated by adherents of the second group as a necessary concomitant of academic success. But then again, I have always been a believer of education for education’s sake, and that economic success will follow the well educated.

  2. Helen
    April 16, 2010 at 1:07 pm

    The sign may as well have read: “We produce good little taxpayers, but we’re not too concerned with what they actually know.”

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