March 03, 2005

Education never hurt me none

I dislike riding the bicycle at the gym. It is boring, it never feels like a workout, and did I mention its boring? The only good thing about riding the bike is that you can do it in place of a real workout if you have a cold (guilty) and if you are too tired to run (again, guilty). Besides, you can read on the bike. That is another grand redeeming virtue. So, I was pedaling away yesterday morning on the recumbent bicycle at the gym and catching up on last week's issue of the Economist when a particular sentence in an otherwise forgettable article on British educational reforms captured my attention so completely that a friend had to touch me on the shoulder to bring me out of my reverie long enough to acknowledge his hello.

Context: Certain people want higher standards , more choice and more competition in the British educational system (hereinafter "BES"). The offending sentence:

That sort of thinking is anathema to people who think the country's main educational task is to use taxpayers' money to eradicate class privilege.

At first, I thought if that is what the BES is concentrating on, no one should invest in the British economy because it will lack trained and educated workers. But that seemed like a very short sighted response on my part and I blame that on the fact that I was reading the Economist at the time and that may have colored my reaction.

But I moved beyond it and, after my first blush reaction that the BES is beyond help, wondered, what is the purpose generally of an educational system?

Is it really to create a class less society and break down class barriers? I'm doubtful.

I think, and here is where I step gingerly out onto the limb, that very broadly the purpose of an educational system is to generally equip a person with: the skills they need to navigate the working world after they are on their own (Commerce); the ability to enrich their own lives after school through the appreciation of literature, music, art, etc. (Art); the tools required to take an active part in the body politic, even if that only means voting (Polis); and, the ability to conduct and participate in civilized discourse with their neighbors (Discourse). Please note the absence of the need to teach children to pull down the structure of beliefs their parents may have. Let me expand on my thinking about the need for education to be about Commerce, Art, Polis and Discourse and what I mean by that.

First, Commerce. You need to live after school is over. You need to be able to pay your bills and earn money, inherited wealth to one side. You need enough education to figure out who to, hopefully, invest what remains after you’ve paid your bills. You need skills and I don’t mean technical skills. I mean analytical skills. An education ought to equip you with the analytical skills to get a job, hold a job, and perform to the best of your abilities in the world of Commerce.

Art. You need not only to feed your body by the money you earn, you need to feed your soul. You need to be educated enough to appreciate art and music, etc. You need this for a lot of reasons, actually, more than I could possibly come up with in the short amount of time I am stealing from my Commerce. So, let’s take it as a given, ok? If not, you know where the comment board is.

Polis. You need to be equipped with the skills and education necessary to be involved in the life of the body politic, to participate in making informed decisions in your community, your state, and your country. You need an education to do that. You don’t need to be taught how to eradicate class differences to get there. Again, a given, in my book.

Discourse. You need to be able to speak to others, to build relationships, to interact. Freedom is constructed from a web of interlocking relationships formed by people sharing a similar commitment to upholding certain traditions and values. I know values is a loaded word, but I’m using it anyway, even though I hesitated. But, if you have not been educated so that you share these common values (e.g., freedom of expression), you can’t have discourse, you just have screaming. Some of this, by the way, is where Art comes in.

Indeed, all of my distinctions are artificial constructs created for my own purposes. In the end, all of these things are interrelated.

Part of me can see why the Brits, or some of them, may feel the need to eradicate their class system. It has been much more static and resistant to change than ours. In our system, people can rise, or fall, on their own merits and the country is full of self made men and women. After all, where you start from in the United States is not guarantee of where you are going to end up. In England, I'm not so sure that is true. Social mobility is still higher in the United States than in England, I think.

The part of me that wanted to laugh at this sentence was quickly sobered when I remembered that we have the same problem in the United States under the name of diversity. King Banion (a great read, by the way) found the following job posting. Tell me this doesn’t smack of the same thing as the British one:

The Campus Climate Coordinator is responsible for facilitating programs that will improve the campus climate and diversity awareness. The candidate will be required to communicate and provide education programs for multiple constituencies. ...The Campus Climate Coordinator will: * Conduct needs assessments and make programmatic recommendations to the University units for campus climate improvements; * Coordinate ongoing diversity efforts generated by the comprehensive plan for faculty, staff, and students in the area of cultural competency and nondiscrimination; * Assist in the creation and development of a Diversity Resource & Curriculum Infusion Center which will focus on diversity training and research for the UW-La Crosse campus; * Develop, promote, and deliver educational programs and training in areas related to diversity awareness (race, gender, disability, homophobia, sexual harassment, etc.) for an increasingly diverse workforce (building individual and team skills)

Once again, not education. Instead, it strikes me as re-education. Welcome to the re-education camp where we eradicate class distinction, which will be important later in life when you are homeless because you have no skills. None at all.

In the end, it strikes me that if you really want to eradicate class distinctions, give somebody the best education you can and watch them ascend to the heights of success so rapidly that it will make class distinctions relevant only to those who can’t profit from their education.

Teach someone to read, write, and think analytically. That is the ultimate in subversion.

Posted by Random Penseur at March 3, 2005 09:26 AM

I think, and here is where I step gingerly out onto the limb, that very broadly the purpose of an educational system is to generally equip a person with: the skills they need to navigate the working world after they are on their own

I agree with your basic assesments, but had the feeling that is what the author meant. Not that we would live in a classless society, but class wouldn't affect the ability to become an independent, self-sufficeint, educated human. That class would not be inherited, but a result of effort. (leaving out those who, because of health issues-retardation etc., are not able to compete).

My take from the reading at least. I could bery well be wrong.

However, I think you are right in terms of the purpose of education.

Posted by: Rachel Ann at March 4, 2005 02:01 AM

Thanks for your comment, Rachel. I was beginning to wonder if anyone managed to get to the end of this long post!

I'm not at all sure that the writer meant what you think. I'll try, later today if I get the time, to cut the article out, scan it, and email it to you so you can see for yourself in full context.

Posted by: RP at March 4, 2005 08:53 AM

I posted my overly long and rampling reply at Zero Intelligence.

Posted by: Jim at March 4, 2005 08:09 PM

I found this post from a link on Zero Intelligence and agree with you. I look at myself and see someone who I think is objectively not highly educated, and then I look at my peers from the "AES" and generally get this sick feeling. There's too much of a focus on building up self-esteem in America, and not enough on building up an education. No one ever seemed to figure that if students got well educated that they'd have a real sense of self-confidence, I guess.

What is funny IMO to do is watch American teachers who try to pull the same reeducation crap in our schools. I have never met a one who'd be even a successful guard at a Soviet Gulag. They're so fun to tweak because they get so mad, especially when they see that you genuinely don't care about their "lofty ideals."

Nothing sends them up the wall faster in my experience than periodically quoting Nietzsche :)

Posted by: MikeF at March 6, 2005 04:42 PM

I'm another random person from Zero Intelligence. *waves*

Mike, they don't like you quoting Nietzsche because he isn't one of the approved philosphers for that set. I mean, you're not supposed to get an education outside of the classroom! That would imply that you know how to do their job better than they do (which may or may not be true, but still).

Posted by: Allanque at March 7, 2005 02:14 PM

Thanks R.P....I would love to see the whole thing. I did perhaps misunderstand the intent.

Posted by: Rachel Ann at March 8, 2005 10:38 AM
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