The value of an education… is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think something that cannot be learned from textbooks.
~Attributed to Albert Einstein
A wise woman once complained to me that the problem with the education system in the United States is that we no longer have an idea of what education is supposed to be. We try to measure the success of schools and students in so many ways, some contradictory. Having had some education myself, I find this topic endlessly fascinating… as well as intensely frustrating.
For now, let’s base our nominal definition on the etymology of the word. In Latin the verb educare—meaning “to bring up” or “to educate”—comes from its more literal relative educere, “to lead out.” To bring up children, then, is to lead them out of something, presumably into something better.
From that, let’s talk about education as something that all children should have as they’re becoming adults. That seems to be a common consensus; no one argues that we should drop the whole idea of education. It’s goals and method, however, have been questioned for thousands of years. Let’s take a look at some of the differences currently plaguing us.
Goals of education
What is education for? What goal is it trying to achieve? One side, represented most recently by the Common Core initiative, places emphasis on “shared goals and expectations for the knowledge and skills students need in English language arts and mathematics at each grade level so they can be prepared to succeed in college, career, and life.” An opposing opinion, which I will call the liberal education movement, states that “liberal education (Latin, libera, free) provided the traditional tools of learning that equip students to act in a free, intelligent, and responsible manner. This formation aims to make them free from the interior confusion of scattered experiences and opinions, free to think logically and express themselves clearly, free from manipulation.”
The difference in the goals of these two factions suggests a difference in their priorities.
The first wants children who are equally educated “regardless of where they live” so that they have equal preparation for success. This will help them become productive members of society, able to get good grades on tests, look good on resumes, and eventually get a high-paying job. Under this philosophy, a parent has brought up their child when he attains a “successful job”.
Nothing wrong with that, right? Except there’s so much more it’s missing.
The second stresses the importance of freedom, freedom to think through the “confusion of scattered experiences and opinions”. This is an education that helps us to understand ourselves and our fellow men. It has an eye to the order behind facts and not their quantity. It mentions nothing of aiming for “success”, that golden word that hopefully comes with a six-figure income. Instead, it aims at freeing those children who want to be full, integrated humans.
I suppose I gave myself away there. I’m sort of into being human. I guess it’s my liberal arts background.
Methods of education
At graduation this weekend, one of the speakers, Fr. Paul Scalia, made the distinction between information and truth. The opening quote, attributed to Einstein, highlights that distinction between learning facts—having information—and learning how to think—coming to know truth.
Since the dawn of search engines and Wikipedia, that distinction is even more clear. The internet is stuffed with information. It can hold and keep that information better than we can. What the internet can’t do is think.
And yet, our education system seems more and more to cherish information, giving children lists of words and their meanings to memorize rather than looking to the truth behind them. Why should human beings memorize the capital of Albania? So they can win a free drink at trivia night? However, if you tell me stories about Albania and talk about Albanian culture, I might just remember something important.
Teachers understandably dread the question, “Why are we learning this? Will I ever need to know it?” Why is it such a hard question? Because we’re constantly trying to measure up to these two opposing standards.
Our culture is undecided about what we try to achieve by education. In the end, many children come away from school agreeing with this quote. It is often credited to Einstein, but actually cited by him as from an unnamed “wit”:
Education is what remains after you forget everything you’ve learned in school.
In the end, human beings have a remarkable way of gaining education despite the confusions they are subjected to by their elders. Because we’re not integrated as a country, many don’t even realize the problem. It’s a pity we can’t help rather than hinder in this endeavor. But we’re working on it!