Monday, February 21, 2011

The Education That Isn't

Last month, the President of the United States called for a better-educated populace. If you missed that speech, don’t worry, it expressed the same sentiment presidents have been expressing in speeches for the last few generations. Obama, Bush, Clinton, Bush, Reagan, and Carter have all insisted that the future of America depends on our schools steeping students more deeply in the essences of math and science. Of course, we all understand that when our presidents insist on more math and science, what they’re really asking for is more financiers and engineers. And the reason we all understand this is because we all also understand that, in America, the word “education” is really just a euphemism for some job training you must go into debt for before you’re allowed to actually apply for a job.

Another thing we all know, but don’t really understand, is that, despite all these calls for a better-educated populace, Americans have become increasingly more poorly-educated. And this is what’s wrong with euphemisms. Sure, it sounds better to say “education” instead of “job training that companies can’t be bothered to do themselves anymore,” but if you keep saying it long enough, you might start believing that it’s really so. And, then, you might just end up with an education system that doesn’t even try to educate and not even be able to recognize it. Listen to Neil Postman, a chairman at NYU’s School of Education, describe the average American professional as someone who “barely has even a superficial knowledge of literature, philosophy, social history, or art ... and is not expected to have such knowledge.” Remember, Postman isn’t describing the average American, he’s describing the average American with a graduate degree and a professional license, presumably one of the best and brightest members of our society.

If you’re not bothered by even our best and brightest knowing nothing other than how to do their jobs, then you should be, because a healthy, robust society requires a populace which is a lot more than just a collection of workers hoping to earn wages. Thomas Jefferson, for instance, believed that the purpose of education was to provide everyone with the ability to engage in intelligent debate on the issues which affect their society. John Locke believed education should produce a civil, and literate, populace which wouldn’t be so short-sighted that they would spend their time trying to sabotage each other. Jean-Jacques Rousseau believed education should free people from the habits instilled by corrupted institutions. And we, well, we believe education should prepare us for a job at ACME. See what’s wrong?

What’s wrong is that we didn’t say no when companies decided that they didn’t want to be bothered with the expense of job training anymore and insisted that our education system pick up their slack. After all, they had the jobs to offer, so we went along with their rules. But their rules had consequences far greater than just producing higher profit margins by pushing job training costs onto the public. And their rules had consequences even greater than producing generations of student trainees saddled with decades worth of college debt for skills that no longer matched the current employment market. The real consequence of their rules was the creation of a populace which could no longer see education as anything other than technical training, a populace which would accept more rigidity, more testing, and more stringent qualifications for work and school, and a populace which would insist on an ever more specialized, disjointed, and narrow notion of what an education is.

This populace has scoffed at the humanities because who’s going to employ a social studies, philosophy, rhetoric, history, or literature major? But these are exactly the studies that epitomize a useful education. These are the studies which bring context and meaning to life. These are the studies that provide understanding, inform discourse, spur creativity, and solve problems. When we ignore, or even throw away, those studies which could create a genuinely-educated populace, we also ignore and throw away our chances for meaningful discourse and progress. We face serious problems in economics, ecology, and politics, none of which are going to be solved, or even understood, by people trained solely for engineering or finance, yet we pretend that training people for these jobs will insure that everything will turn out okay.

As Heather Wilson, a former congressman who has also sat on the selection committee for Rhodes scholars, put it, “Our universities fail ... the nation if they continue to graduate students with expertise in biochemistry or mathematics” but are “less able to grapple with issues that require them to think ... or reflect on difficult questions about what matters and why.” We shouldn’t be surprised that our public discourse sounds more like a Three Stooges film than a Socratic dialog when our students are never even told who Socrates was, other than some Greek philosopher who killed himself by drinking too much hemlock.

If we really want a more educated society, then we’ll need to recast education as something other than a prerequisite for profit-making. We’ll need to recognize that education is a precursor for a civil society. Employers can train employees. Schools must educate citizens.

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