Why Education Is So Difficult and Contentious

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.

8 responses

23 07 2008
Elisheva Levin

This was very interesting. However, I was having such difficulty with the format and the intrusive code (&mdash) that I shall have to find a way way to print it out sans code, in order to read it more carefully.

One comment half-cocked:
The socialization piece of the educational triad presented here is even more difficult because of the diverse nature of modern societies. The question becomes whose socialization–that is morals, mores, values, beliefs–shall be taught? And herein lies a significant barrier to the freedom to see these differently as we are enabled to do by the values of the country in which we live! Thus socialization seems to determine that we will produce cookie-cutter children; those who do not fit the mold (sorry–mixed metaphor alert!) will not be successful, and the very human impulse to socialization will likely cause them to question themselves rather than the educational process they have undergone. Thus government schools become agencies of mind-control in very short order, and ignorance abounds!
I believe the only way to avoid this trap is to privately educate children, which gives parents the primary power to determine whose socialization. This means that we must give up on the idea that all children will receive the same education. They don’t anyway, no matter how much we pretend that they do.

23 07 2008

Thanks Elisheva! I’ll see if I can correct some of that on the blog page? Meanwhile, what if you copied it all and then did a “paste without formatting” paste into a word processing program or email shell?

And thanks for your thoughts on the topic, because I think it may be the one underlying issue affecting almost everything we’re struggling with today, from the n-word to the UCF Catholic culture clash (see below for links) — is a transubstatiated communion wafer in a public school student union, the heavenly host present on earth or merely a psychological means of control and power on earth humans have learned to wield well? Both, neither, what are our kids learning about that?

One thing’s for sure — “our” kids are not all learning the same thing, and frankly, I’m not sure any of them are learning what we think we’re teaching them!

“‘Respect the Jeez-its’ Is Sorry Sign of Our Educational Times”

“Six Stages of Moral Development”

23 07 2008

You may want to take a look at this essay, too:
Time We Learned Our Lesson?”

Big Church and Big School are really the same story, did you ever think about that as the thoughtful independent individual you struggle to be through home education, and perhaps fancy you’ve already become?

Governance of all by any One Story, be it sacred or secular, theocracy or educracy, subsumes the individual spirit and power to create its own stories. There is no other meaning or power to this story, however it’s told:

“We the diverse and contentious student body of a recently desegregated public high school, couldn’t agree on which band would play what kind of dance music. . . The one thing it turned out our schooling gave us in common then, was learning that lesson the hard way.”

. . .Bible stories never were told that way in my southern childhood — quite the opposite in fact, with every hair and fallen sparrow counting, prayer being humble and private and personal, different for each Methodist in his or her own mind. Not to mention that my mid-century Methodist role models, who hadn’t even split into separate churches yet, were also united in larger common purpose (never mind whether that label was used) with everyone I knew in and out of church, in and out of school, in so many stories that fit together for all as collaborative good works, rather than competing against each other in some high-stakes power struggle only one Story could win to Rule Them All.

Getting a good public education was supported for us all, and meant learning to understand all the stories and meanings as individuals — but oh well, here we are.

. . .a stuffy, huffy One Story literalist named “Steve” dropped by to define my stories all as completely wrong, because in his story Waves of Reason cannot move the Rock, hence “Freedom without absolutes is no freedom at all.”

We heard Sean Hannity on the car radio last week, ranting about Louis Farrakkan. He was mocking the man for his obviously ABSURD belief that we were created by some beings who arrived in a spaceship, or something like that — I have no idea what Farrakkan’s beliefs actually are — and rhetorically asking his audience how anyone could credit such a loon who would swallow such irrationality. . .

8 11 2008
ESPN: How Homeschooling is Like the BCS « Cocking A Snook!

[…] Why Education Is So Difficult and Contentious […]

8 11 2008
Betty Malone

Smiling, :)…..I just love to hear you talk about your Methodist upbringin’ child! It’s so reminescent of my own…..I still think those old school Methodists really did know how to raise some free thinking children! Now that’s the old time religion I can’t seem to find in my home town anymore. Everyone has become so fractional, so marginalized into tight controlling groups of This Is What We Believe and It’s Right!!

8 11 2008

“I still think those old school Methodists really did know how to raise some free thinking children! ”

Really, that’s the truth! As close as we’re likely to come to truth in these decadent times anyway . . .and ever since I was that Methodist kid at church two-three days a week, new questions have meant more to me than old answers, every time. 😉

9 11 2008
Betty Malone

I see a glimmer of hope for we religious folk of the progressive and moderate ilk, and for the type of serious rational thought and discussion that CS Lewis and my youthful pastor encouraged- question everything and never accept the status quo, especially when it comes to entrenched power.

I just saw Bill Moyers Journal this morning over coffee- and some great discussion about how and if Democrats can solidify some sort of power base from which to operate with justice. Can Obama govern from a serious center…without disgruntling the diverse elements of his coalition? Including those upset with proposition 8 in California…If any leader of our present time can..I think he may be able to show us how. Or is reasonable leadership a myth we cling to? Or kill when it comes our way as a people.

9 11 2008

I see hope of that. The promised dog, for example.
Larry O’Donnell reported the other night that he’d overheard discussion of a creative strategy to escape the problem of which kind of dog to get the girls — the “two-dog solution”! 😉

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