Felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas. – Virgil
Happy is the man who can understand the causes of things.
I was not until near completion of my undergraduate studies that I discovered what education truly entailed. I now regret I chose a field as vocational as “systems engineering management.” When I first showed interest in philosophy, English, or history, I would receive gibing answers of “what are you going to do with that degree?!” And so I chose my major based on the shallow appraisal of how much money I would earn. I lament, as I have learned what I have not learned.
My intent is to make clear the curious affair of the university and how education is a curriculum based on experience and the empirical – to be “cultured,” in the original sense. I believe that the students’ mind should not be made up for themselves. Their attitude should be “looking away from first things, principles, ‘categories,’ supposed necessities; and looking towards last things, fruits, consequences, facts” (James 29). Moreover, I think it prudent to recognize this essay, with sufficient leisure, ought to be a much larger work. The following pages, I confess, do not give the matter adequate attention but enough, I hope, to provoke the reader. I write as a student, not a scholar, and so have scant right to pronounce verdict on education or part company with great minds of the past. Nothing original was brought to the task, other than what some may call a discombobulated reconciliation of competing ideas, but to my own defense this work is for my own betterment. Lastly, I am somewhat dogmatic in my criminal brevity, and I can only beg the reader’s pardon.
“The only thing that interferes with my learning is education.”– Albert Einstein
Poor education creeps up on us. We have grown accustomed to the stale originality of education, taking little urgency to fix the problem. Instead of continually moving our minds toward the zenith of self-examination, we have, in fact, fallen toward the nadir of self-validation. Nowadays students graduate without so much as touching the hem of mental elegance, merely yawning at the senseless drudgery and checking the box. Education has impoverished our culture and, parenthetically, tarnished our politics. Politicians wield the word with certain verve and proffer laddish promises of “No Child Left Behind” and agendas like “Race to the Top.” When compared with the rest of the world, American students’ rank 48th in math and science and near the bottom of industrialized countries for reading (Klein 1). More than 38% of American students say they dislike school, ranking second in the world for finding school boring (OECD). Indeed, statistics confirm our intellectual ditch. The populace hears the word education, and unfortunately thinks what Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote almost 150 years ago: “this word Education has so cold, so hopeless a sound. A treatise on education, a convention on education, affects us with slight paralysis and a certain yawning of the jaw” (“Emerson on Education”). We ought not to cast a caustic eye and mindlessly grasp technical standards as a measure of ourselves. For education “is so important in each of us is not a technical matter; it is our more or less dumb sense of what life honestly and deeply means” (James 7).
Education once entailed rigorous instruction of the Greek and Latin languages; classical immersion in the magistrates of ancient Athens, the emperors of Rome, memorization of Greek and Roman poetry, then learning about the English royal dynasty, about Chaucer and Shakespeare. I do not believe a classical education is a necessity or perhaps the only one worth having – I do believe education is a curriculum of ideals for creating the better citizen. We learn to become better. The Roman Emperor Vespasian styled the best educators as those who “train the souls of the young to gentleness and civic virtue” (Winter 23). Or, metaphorically speaking, education builds the furniture of our mind rather than leaving empty convictions unaware of the world beyond our superficial experiences. Knowledge, in and of itself was not of primary importance of the classics but liberal education sought to polish and refine. This, I believe, is the fundamental purpose. Instead, we find education – the ambiguous and formal word for what goes on in our schools – as a trinket for social planners and snake oil peddled by the half-educated and over-degreed intelligentsia.
In the early 1850s, Henry D. Thoreau set out on a social experiment of self-reliance. Alone in the woods for over two years, Thoreau lived and wrote on the shore of Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. In his memoir, Walden, Thoreau takes to criticizing the university much like it is today. “The mode of founding a college is, commonly, to get up a subscription of dollars and cents, and then follow blindly the principles of a division of labor to its extreme” (50). Even now, the dollar-signs have not left their eyes. In the past 30 years, tuition has increased more than six fold under the guise of technology, government regulation, and tenured professors (Archibald 1). Professors are concerned with their own specialties, advancing their own fields where rewards are on the side of professional distinction. Students are left to navigate among teachers emancipated from the original intent of the university, pushed towards careerism as the fruitful centerpiece. The undecided student laments, as American philosopher Allan Bloom observed: “I am a whole human being. Help me to form myself in my wholeness and let me develop my real potential” (339). Colleges turn a blind eye and prescribe a cafeteria style curriculum tailored to ease and a one-size-fits-all approach. Despite finely sifted experiences teachers claim to impart, profit trumps the rigorous courses of study worth knowing. Technical know-how has replaced imagination and critical thinking; the university now is a visage of careerism.
T.S. Elliot, poet and passionate critic of education, said the university is now “licensing the opinions of the most foolish, by substituting instruction for education, by encouraging cleverness rather than wisdom, the upstart rather than the qualified, by fostering a notion of getting on to which the alternative is a hopeless apathy” (Frohnen 279). Our schooling, as Elliot pointed out, is vocational training. Said differently, learning how to do, make, and change things is not education. It does not form the mind or instruct the intellect itself. Creativity is lost when we idly memorize which levers to pull and buttons to push. In 1931, philosopher Albert Jay Nock delivered a series of lectures on education at the University of Virginia, quaintly appropriate given Jefferson’s strong resentment to the vacuity of the public mind. Nock’s task was to light a path “clear through” the debacle of our school system and to reestablish the age-old difference between education and training (Simmons 152). The formal qualification of an educator, for example, is no more than a ticket bought and paid for:
A candidate is certificated — is he not? — merely as having been exposed satisfactorily to a certain kind of instruction for a certain length of time, and therefore he is assumed eligible to a position which we all agree that only an educated person should fill. Yet he may not be at all an educated person, but only an instructed person. We have seen many such, and five minutes’ talk with one of them is quite enough to show that the understanding of instruction as synonymous with education is erroneous. They are by no means the same thing (Nock).
Modern education allows us to recline and feel good about ourselves, earning a posh certificate to validate our fledgling efforts. Rather, our efforts should quicken us out of the sense of our “innate unfitness and incompleteness, to climb above what we are and rise which we might become” (Simmons 154). The question, now, is how?
Classic philosopher Allan Bloom, in his radioactive book The Closing of the American Mind, posits the only solution to the modern university’s founder is the “good old Great Books approach” (344). Reading the classics, says Bloom, and letting the student dictate what questions and methods to approaching the invulnerabilities of Achilles or the categorical imperative is boundless (344). Though great books may foster “a good program of liberal education that feeds the student’s love of truth and passion to live a good life,” I say it is not the sole solution to ascribe intellectual virtue (Bloom 345). I do not doubt reading classics is of great benefit to the mind, but the ancient past is not the only fragment of history to share articulated brilliance. “[W]hy should we grope among the dry bones of the past, or put the living generation into masquerade out of its faded wardrobe? The sun shines to-day also” (Emerson, Nature).
Thoreau, during his time away by Walden Pond, provoked a stab at some lost common sense: “Which would have advanced the most of the end of the month, – the boy who made his own jackknife from the ore which he had dug and smelted, reading as much as would be necessary for this, -or the boy who had attended the lectures on metallurgy at the Institute in the meanwhile, and had received a Rodgers’ penknife from this father?” (51). Even agreed upon by ancient and most modern teachers alike, experience marks on the indispensable wisdom of life’s most valuable lessons. They say life does not need to be learned the “hard way.” It is better for the student “to survey the world through a telescope or a microscope, and never with his natural eye; to study chemistry, and not learn how bread is made, or mechanics, and not learn how it is earned; to discover new satellites to Neptune, and not detect the motes in his eyes, or what a vagabond he is a satellite himself” (Thoreau 51). That is not to say a complete reversion to the likes of the Montessori Method, but the current university does not have enough material to justify keeping students tied down for four years. Their focus is preparatory training, and the most difficult natural sciences require specialty training less than that of a modern undergraduate degree. “The rest is just wasted time or a period of ripening until the students are old enough for graduate studies” (Bloom 340). Filling the vacuum with decorative packaging with programs like international exchange, cultural immersion, study abroad, etc., shades the school as shameless profit driven institution, when instead the student should be sent out to experience the real world. Knowledge is not the exclusivity of gnostic matter in the sterile classroom, but the sum of contemplated experiences. “[B]ut the conclusion is not to educate apart from the environment, but to provide an environment in which native powers will be put to better uses” (Dewey 261). I can think of no better environment for a student to apply his “native powers,” than the real world.
Identified as the epitome of liberal reformers, John Dewey was perhaps the last influential academic in education. He sought to establish education as the intertwining relationship between nature, men, and things – education as a constant and cooperative manifold. Our disposition towards nature, men, and things cannot be independent of one another. Dewey’s progressive attitude and idea of reform could not, however, be at greater odds with the traditionalism of Allan Bloom. Dewey championed the student’s nature; their “waxing and waning of preferences and interests” as the pedestal of education (260). Conversely, Bloom harked on corrupt human desires and a prescription of the great texts of philosophy would cure the wandering mind and distinctive temperament. Both were criticized in their own right, but each put forward, in the words of Sir Richard Livingston, “an intellectual attitude to life” (C.B.).
Education, by its own difference among individuals, cannot be measured by any tangible method. Any conceived benchmark is likely to be rotten with misconception, and if such subjective numbers are applied to the student’s capacity, then the entire aim of education has gone adrift. Measuring a student’s educational worth – the deviation in our educational compass – “destroys the special bent and leaves a dull uniformity” (Dewey 260). ‘Teaching to the test,’ as said in the vernacular, treats students with an equal ability and conditions them without thought to what is even written on the paper. Students are left without imagination. As a professor, Dewey formed a strong distaste towards the fashionable “standardized testing” that has become rampant in the modern school system. He, instead, advocated the individual broadening of human interests. Teachers subjecting equality is not the intent of education. To put it in Dewey’s words: “what is sometimes called a benevolent interests in others may be but an unwitting mask for an attempt to dictate to them what their good shall be, instead of an endeavor to free them so that they may seek and find the good of their own choice” (261).
If we are to reconcile vocational training and the determinants of education, we first must turn to social efficacy and culture as aims to education. Dewey believes that education consists of cultured temperament and social efficacy as the purpose of individual function. Since “capacities bud and bloom irregularly; there is no even four-abreast development;” education cannot be subjected equally across the public mind for students inherently progress at different rates. The intricate web of society cannot be severed from the “diversity of goods which life may afford to different persons” (Dewey 262). Educating the individual, however bright or hollow they may be, fashions an organic social union, for if the social factor is removed the student is left only with an abstraction. Dewey writes:
To prepare him for the future life means to give him command of himself; it means so to train him that he will have the full and ready use of all his capacities; that his eye and ear and hand may be tools ready to command, that his judgment may be capable of grasping the conditions under which it has to work, and the executive forces be trained to act economically and efficiently (Dewey 230).
Technical training and the social implications, as important as it to civilized humanity, is all that is emphasized anymore. “What can I do with that degree?” is the question so commonly asked. Students are concerned with demands of the industry instead of the needs of their minds. The “eye and ear and hand,” may be well equipped in whatever flavorless career the student turns to, but the mind, the greatest faculty, is left unattended. Social efficacy must correspond to culture of the mind, as well as the hands, if the student is to be advanced. We may recognize the value of education, but the definition of cultivation has fled us. Cultivation, or the essence of education, requires those civilized extras and – and not information alone. Emerson, once again, said “Let us not forget that the adoption of the test ‘what is it good for’ would abolish the rose and exalt in triumph the cabbage” (West 47). And man cannot live by cabbage alone.
Culture. What is meant by this mushy word? Merriam-Webster defines it as a particular society, or tastes in art/manners, or acculturation. The definition appears a bit sterile. The meaning, if any, has cracked like an egg: culture and counter culture, ethnic culture, and then further into an assortment of subcultures. Culture is now ubiquitous – everyone has culture: African-American culture, Chinese culture, corporate culture, organizational culture – where does it end? Let us first shave off its high-flown commentary and delve down to its etymological roots. Around 45 B.C. Cicero first spoke of cultura, “to speak of the cultivation of the mind.” Later, in the seventeenth century, Samuel Pufendorf said the Ciceronian notion of cultura animi is by which humans “overcome their original barbarism and, through artifice, become fully human” (Velkley 15). Culture is of higher achievement. Dewey said culture is “something cultivated, something ripened; it is opposed to the raw and crude” (262). When we read a book or watch a movie, pose a question to a friend, or write a blog, we do not only entertain ourselves, we ripen ourselves to our own betterment. It’s about cultivation of our minds; about refinement; about what makes one thought or act of expression better than another. In all modes of belief and behavior, culture is not conceived of one dimension, but “the implication is that the raw substance of the creature has been turned over, plowed, and seeded with good germs” (Barzun).
The aim of education is both culture and social efficacy – as Dewey said – but the dualism cannot be weighed down by one or the other. A fine balance between the conservatism of Allan Bloom and the progressivism of John Dewey is needed to strike the major chord of education. The university furnishes a diminished harmony of culture and social efficacy, augmenting the social piece as the lone criterion. Solidified truth is thought to be taught in schools, even in the face of experience, and to change our truths or opinions would be socially obnoxious. To “flip-flop” means to lose your ground; to not stand for what you believe. On the contrary! Any change in idea “upon which we can ride, so to speak; any idea that will carry us prosperously from any one part of our experience to any other part, linking things satisfactorily working securely, simplifying, saving labor; is true for just so much true in so far forth, true instrumentally” (James 30). We are afraid to change. We grow content with rigid hierarchy of fixed ends, and look not to our own experiences but to the absolutism and inflexibility of the university. I admit that the fervent entreaties of the earliest philosophers are not thinner, less taxing ideas in the present day, inasmuch as classics still can buffer us from the squalid tendencies of the public. I do not mean to eschew the brilliance of Plato and believe he should be heaved out the window to be replaced with the wishy-washy, unexamined mind. Rather, I submit we keep a malleable mentality that marries the ideas of the past to the meaning of our present experiences. Then, can we conscientiously lift ourselves from savagery and progress the mind.
If modern education is claimed as such an artifice, why is the United States the leading country in research and technological development? In 2008, the United States and European Union – both roughly the same size in GDP – accounted for about the same share of journal articles published worldwide in science and engineering (28.1% and 33.1%, respectively). But the United States takes the lion’s share by 51.6% of most highly cited and thus path breaking articles, while Europe accounts for a measly 29.6% (Rajan 92). It may appear that the governance and design of our research institutions are the construct of a sound educational scheme, and perhaps the “production of knowledge,” as christened by academics, is not broken. The apparent discrepancy; however, does not void my argument. Michael Barone, in his book Hard America, Soft America: Competition vs. Coddling and the Battle for the Nation’s Future, asks why it is that American twenty-year-olds are so inept compared to many of their foreign counterparts, while American thirty-year-olds are far superior workers than their foreign counterparts of the same age. His argument is that America, for all its public educational failures, has a competitive market economy that is not afraid to let people stand or fall based on their own efforts (Zimmermann). Laziness is not rewarded. While the educational requite of capitalism is beyond the scope of this essay, no less than a hat tip should be given to the misunderstanding of intellectual output and the educational system. The triumph of our nation’s success cannot be credited by our diluted academic requirements; schools are bastions of downy when the hard, real world of competition forges greater thinking.
My conclusion, as sterile as conclusions often are, is to leave the reader knowing that nothing worth having comes without hard work. Education is the laborious climb to the “good life,” as Plato would prefer, and while the climb is steep and often forbidding with few reaching the summit, it is the climbing that counts. Yes, “we must say that those taken with an ardor of scientific and technological knowledge and achievement must be allowed to go their own way,” and they are called to do so. “The world needs them” (Simmons 238). The greatest fault we make in the university is wasting the student’s time and mental energy. Let the student climb.
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