Why Education Is So Difficult and Contentious” by Kieran Egan
Read the whole piece at the link, but here’s the abstract and some concluding graphs to whet your interest:
This article proposes to explain why education is so difficult and contentious by arguing that educational thinking draws on only three fundamental ideas — that of socializing the young, shaping the mind by a disciplined academic curriculum, and facilitating the development of students’ potential.
All educational positions are made up of various mixes of these ideas. The problems we face in education are due to the fact that each of these ideas is significantly flawed and also that each is incompatible in basic ways with the other two. Until we recognize these basic incompatibilities we will be unable adequately to respond to the problems we face.
. . .Consider this scenario: Let us say you are a movie fan and enjoy going out to a cinema once each week But the government imposes a new requirement on cinemas. As you come out of the cinema, you will be required to take a test on the movie you have just seen. You will be asked the color of the villain’s car in the chase scene, or the adequacy of the motivation of the leading woman’s sister, or the gist of the alien’s speech before it transmogrified, or the name of the brother-in-law’s pet dog, and so on.
Your score on the test will determine your salary for the next week, when you will face another test and another salary adjustment.
Consider for a moment how such tests and their consequence would likely influence your watching movies. At the very least, they would change what was carefree entertainment into anxiety. You would also spend a lot of effort watching movies trying to second-guess the kinds of questions you are likely to be asked and the focus of your attention would be shifted to fit your expectations of the test.
What does this remind you of? Right. School.
The above absurd scenario creates a social institution &emdash; with, no doubt, huge testing services and solemn officials and entrepreneurs setting up test-coaching companies — which confuses two conflicting aims. There is no problem with having two aims for an institution, except if the aims conflict with each other. If one of our aims for an educational institution is the pursuit of academic knowledge, we will interfere with that in all kind of destructive ways if we then impose a social sorting role on the institution, and use academically inappropriate testing to do that social sorting.
Also the social sorting role would be confused because academic prowess — which we are only marginally testing for any way — is hardly the most important determiner of social value. That is, this kind of undermining of separate and conflicting aims is precisely what we get if we try to make the school an institution that tries both to socialize and implement the academic ideal at the same time. The result is that neither is adequately or sensibly achieved, as, in the cinema scenario, neither carefree entertainment nor an appropriate manner of determining salaries is achieved.
Yet we have created such an institution and keep trying to make it work to realize conflicting ideals. Adequate socialization requires successfully inculcating a set of beliefs, values, and norms of behavior in the growing child. The academic program is specifically designed to enable the growing child to question the basis for any beliefs, values, and norms of behavior. The two aims pull against each other: the more successfully one socializes, the less one achieves the academic ideal; the more successfully one inculcates disciplined academic thinking, the less easy it is to socialize successfully. Socialization requires acceptance of beliefs, values, and norms that the disciplined academic mind sees as stereotypes, prejudices, and homogenization.
Consider this scenario: You are fifty-five and have had a successful career as a lawyer. You have a spouse and two successful children. You are a pillar of the community, active in church, community center, and children’s sports activities. But it has recently become disturbingly clear that you will not remain vigorous forever, and that time is closing in. Something in you is unsatisfied, like a distant echo from a life-path you somewhere missed taking, like a call from another you who was not realized — but still might be. It is a disturbing call, a distressing echo, that grows louder by the day. Increasingly you feel it is a call from the real you, a call from your buried life; from the you who somehow got lost in all those legal tussles and in the social round and the kids’ soccer and ballet and then their colleges and marriages, and now that ghostly you calls to be recognized and brought to life. Well, fortunately, you can enroll in the required government program, ReTRY. ReTRY &emdash; an acronym for Realize the Real You &emdash; is slickly operated by the country’s best and most expensive psychologists. It is mandated by law to assist citizens’ psychological adjustment to later middle-age. Success in the program is measured by the degree to which people return satisfied to their old routines of life.
Hang on. How can an institution designed to help you find the real you measure success by convincing you that the old you is the real you? Shouldn’t you be encouraged to head out yonder to the pearl seas or the South Pacific, or at least take up kayaking or building a Japanese garden? Socializing strives to homogenize; individual development strives to bring out the uniqueness of each person. Hard to aim for both in the same institution and expect success. They constantly pull in opposite directions &emdash; the more you do one, the harder it is to do the other. And we expect our schools to do both successfully.
Consider a third scenario: It is twenty years in the future and the government’s educational authorities have become convinced that the route to the fullest development of each individual’s potential is to design different kinds of schools to support the main styles of learning and kinds of intelligence people deploy. There are twenty-seven kinds of schools, each designed for one of the twenty-seven distinct intelligences now identified by Dr. Gardner at ground zero. Enormously sophisticated testing apparatus and procedures are applied to children to determine which school would most fully develop their particular strengths. Huge amounts of money have been spent on designing the schools, outside and in, to respond to, and stimulate, the needs of the kinds of students they house.
The curriculum in each kind of school is, however, identical. The children follow a rigorous academic program designed to carry their minds from the ignorance and confusion of their originally unschooled condition towards a disciplined understanding of their cultural heritage. There are no electives, until university specialization, because the authorities have also been convinced that the only proper aim of education is to empower children’s minds with the best material human beings have created, and that is precisely what the disciplined forms of understanding provide.
Now such a system would surely be self-contradictory. The academic commitment to shaping the mind by teaching disciplined forms of understanding isn’t compatible with the belief that the minds of different people can be optimally developed by knowledge chosen to suit their particular style of learning, kind of intelligence, needs and interests. One cannot have two masters, especially when both mandate different things. We can’t construct a coherent educational institution using radically different criteria.
But, of course, that’s precisely what we require of our schools today. We require that they acknowledge, and accommodate as far as possible, different styles of learning and different ends of the process for different people. “Education” for one child may have a quite different character from that attained by another; quite different “potentials” might be developed and each be an example of successful education. We require also that the academic ideal be acknowledged, which recognizes education only in the degree to which minds are shaped by progress in understanding the range of disciplines.
The result, of course, is not a coherent curriculum, but one that tries to accommodate both conflicting principles. The result, also, is perpetual strife by adherents of the conflicting principles, fighting about which should have greater influence over children’s education.
We have inherited three foundational ideas about education. Each one of them has flaws, at least one flaw in each being fatal to its ambition to represent an educational ideal we might reasonably sign on to. And the worse news is that each of the ideas is incompatible with the other two. These warring ideas hovered around the cradle of the public schools, proffering their gifts. The schools eagerly took them all, and so education remains difficult and contentious.