26 January 2007


Education, what is it good for?

I had a brief but enlightening discussion over the subject of education with a fellow student whose mother is a public school teacher. What occurred to me during this discussion is what I will now share. She did not have any idea what education is for.

The topic of discussion centered around the idea of how to teach, namely whether it was better to teach to the highest students and demand excellence or high standards, and risk the self-esteem and standing of some less motivated or poorly qualified students or whether to teach down to the lowest students and risk alienating the best and brightest. The dividing line does not take full effect in many schools until middle schools and this division allows some flexibility in how this is done in better school districts, fortunately. But really what I realized the discussion was about was the basic purpose of education. It seemed clear that the concern is that abandoning or washing out the academically challenged among us was a dire concern. I appreciate the fact that there are some who do not benefit from good schools or healthy home environments to explore the premises of learning.

But the basic purpose of an education is not what she claimed was important here. It was not the self-image and esteem of the individual that should be in question. It is likewise not the premises of imparting specific fields of study and knowledge, which the various standardized tests claim are important. Really what we are looking for in education is the possibilities it offers us. Learning is the central and most specific aspect of education, not math, not history. We are going to school to study learning. At our earliest age, this is difficult to do in unique and distinct ways because our minds are not usually psychologically prepared for the ideas and concepts. Very few people demonstrate the prodigy quality and even then it is usually in things centered on patterns, music or mathematics. At our young age, yes, education is about imparting specific skills and a few ideas. Adding, reading, perhaps an exposure to sciences, in some places a love of country or God is slid in there for some reason.

But something happens as we age. Our skills become more and more defined, more and more specific. Some of us even have a good idea of what we want to do. I didn't know too many of those people personally, but they do exist I'm told. The importance of education as our lives continue beyond elementary schools is not the continuing 'download' of specific skills and knowledge. It is the idea of learning itself. Somewhere along the line we are not studying history or algebra, we are learning how to learn. There are distinct differences in the many branches of academic study in how learning is approached and this provides us a with different avenues of understanding. History for example can be very different from organic chemistry. Philosophy very different from computer science, and so forth. Thus what becomes clear is that the specific fields we are learning about are secondary to the actual purpose of education. Simply having the knowledge imparted to us is meaningless without the discipline of learning and the requisite understanding to make use of it in later life.

This central argument was completely missed by someone who has direct links to the educational system itself. The entire focus seemed destined to concern itself with how we treat failure. While this is in itself an important lesson of life, it is not the central purpose of a proper school system and its curriculum. The most central example I can think of is Jaime Escalante, who taught inner-city kids Calculus. Pushing forward and demanding more and more is how we get more out of our education. Dumbing down so we feel better or get better graduation rates is not what the mission is. Fearing failures is ludicrous when we examine this versus our central mission. At our core in educational pursuits we are imparting the idea of learning and how to approach any new endeavour with vigorous interest in understanding it. It is this goal that should be in mind because this goal allows us the capacity to change, to grow and expand into the new challenges of every day life throughout our lives. I like hearing about how a teacher gave a child hope or a dream, that's great too. But making kids like us is not what teaching is. There is a difference between kids liking us and teaching them, giving them hope and dreams through the miracle of learning. Making them feel good is what parents or friends are for.

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