JSmith Photo
Photo Credit: JSmith Photo

Frankly, our country is in no place to be reforming education. I don’t speak from a fiscally conservative view point but rather from a practical one.  That is, we as a nation have not even settled on a sufficient definition of that word.

The title of this post has the distinction of being the only phrase to truly enrage me. I’m a pretty mild mannered person, but upon the verbalization of those words I had to excuse myself for a good ten minutes for fear of saying something regrettable. They were spoken to me by a doctor who had married a lawyer. They had three children. The oldest was a doctor, the second a lawyer, and the third was being groomed for one of the only two acceptable occupations, in the parents’ minds. All five of the people in question had attended a private religious university with great public name recognition. The doctor has just finished relaying the details of his children’s primary education from very expensive private pre-school through even more expensive private high school. He abruptly turned to me and asked which high school I had attended. This struck me as an odd question, but with a hint of confusion intertwined with my answer I told him. Unsurprisingly, as he lived in Indiana and I had grown up in Kansas, he didn’t recognize the school. He asked, “Is that religious?” “No, it’s public.” “Oh! You do have that look about you.”

To be clear, my anger did not come from his comment’s inherent insult. If that were the only nerve he had stuck, I’m confident I would have shed it with the same, cool sarcasm I usually do. Instead my reaction was rooted in, what I believe to be, the source of most educational short comings in America. This doctor was expressing the idea that the quality of one’s education is directly proportional to the quality of educational institutions one attends. After all, you get what you pay for. Certainly, the business of universities hinge on this concept.

But I would argue that quality of education one receives has to do with the individual and not with the institution. The Oxford English Dictionary seems to have my back in this point. It defines ‘education’ as: “The process of bringing up a child; the culture or development of personal knowledge or understanding.” In fact, the OED makes the point that education stands “as contrasted with the imparting of knowledge or skill.” This definition is much more holistic and much more personal than what most people envision any school setting to be. The quality of education any one person receives relies more on their willingness to be educated, then on who does the educating.

Think for a moment about what an educated person is. What do you mean when you label one person as educated and one person as not? Typically, to call one educated means that a person is willing to accept degrees of possibility; to fairly measure what they believe against new information; to readily challenge their preconceptions. Someone who is uneducated, by contrast, usually believes that their preconceptions are correct no matter what. They tend to staunchly oppose any new thought or idea that, in their eyes, threatens their established world view. Someone who is uneducated lives in a black and white world.

If we accept the idea that education is the ability to readily allow one’s ideas to be challenged and to see the world in shades of grey, our entire system of educating children begins to look rather frightening. We have one person stand in front of a room of other people and tell them how the world is, what the author means, and what the experiment says. More recently, with the rise of state and national standardized tests, we have ventured into even more dangerous territory. The message has now become “you must learn that this is right and this is wrong because the machine that grades your test won’t see it any other way.” We are telling them that the world is black and white. Granted, this view of modern education is probably unfairly simple. There is social agreement that reading, writing, and math should be done a certain way. To try to go contrary to that social contract would most certainly be disastrous. But even so, this view of our schools does raise a troubling question. Are we, in our attempts to give kids a foundation of knowledge, really reinforcing a methodology that we may later label as uneducated?

Now I am by no means saying that we have a bad system. Compulsory education in the United Sates has only existed since 1918 (nowhere before 1750) and the past hundred years have been a really good run for not only America but for the world in general. Clearly something is working. But the system can be better. We can invest more intellectual capital, building a system of education that is based on discussion and debate, as opposed to the lecture. Especially in secondary education, introducing a topic and then opening it up for every student to give their opinion increases the chance that education, not just learning, will take place. While the topics of elementary learning are harder to organize in this fashion, exposing children to this Socratic type of education as early as possible should be a central drive of reformists.

Someone told me as I was graduating high school that, while everything prior had been teaching me what to think, college would be about teaching me how to think. The more I considered the statement, the sadder this statement became. Was this why I was raised in a culture that said I had to go to college if I wanted to be somebody? Had I not yet learned how to think? Why can this concept of teaching someone to think not be applied from the very first day of kindergarten? We have come to accept that the reality of compulsory education is mostly binary; right and wrong. But is that really what we want kids to learn? It would seem that the most radical reform of all has nothing to do funding or student teacher ratios. It has to do with teaching children how to be educated, not just getting them to restate facts with higher accuracy.

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