Three Myths about Education

Myth Number One

Education is books and programs and schools and teachers. Or, in other words, education is money, for all these things cost money. Of the three myths this one is probably the most widely held. This is the  “thinking” behind the belief that yet another increase in this country’s educational budget (now in the hundreds of billions of dollars) will improve the quality of this country’s education. It follows that, where there is little or no money, as in poor, inner city neighborhoods, in entire third world countries, little or no education takes place, and illiteracy reigns. For those who hold to this myth, probably many teachers and parents, and most school administrators, the effectiveness of the schools varies directly with the amount of money spent on the schools. More education, they say, will come with more money spent for books, programs, schools and teachers.

Here, as in all myths as widely held as this one, there is an element of truth. Books and programs and schools and teachers are certainly part of education, although as we shall see, not the most important part, and do cost money.  If they have a place out of proportion to their real importance it is because these are the elements of education that are most easily quantifiable—they, and the money spent on them, are easily counted.

Just the other night on the news I encountered an instance of how widely spread is the belief that education is books. A Charleston high-school student, returning to school after a three week absence caused by the ravages of hurricane Hugo, was interviewed by a correspondent from NBC news. He was asked what had happened to his education while the schools were closed. “Why,” he said, “I lost my book the first day of the storm and I haven’t been able to do anything for three weeks.” (Josée and I looked at one another and smiled, thinking of the Charleston high school teacher who must have heard that one upon returning to his classroom after the storm break—we thought we had heard them all, but here was a new one.) If the young man had come from a real learning environment (not the institution in which he was enrolled), if he had learned something about what learning was really about, the storm and its aftermath would have been in his eyes a much more important learning experience than the book he had lost, let alone the school that was closed. He would have answered the correspondent that these three weeks in his life had been a terrific “school,” and that he hoped upon returning to “school” that the learning awakened by the storm would not come to a halt. In any case he wouldn’t have mentioned the lost book. Now in fact we know that he must have learned more during those three weeks than he would have if he had remained in school, but he didn’t know it. Life and real life experiences were in his mind separate from school and books. He believed in Myth Number One, and he gave what he thought was the correct answer to the correspondent, who, a believer himself, was sympathetic to the young man’s plight, that without a book, in this case a classroom text, one couldn’t learn.

The much more important parts of education— the students’ motivation, the teachers’ interest in their students and their own desire to go on learning themselves, the parents’ attitude toward their children’s education (do they really want their children to learn to think, to play the violin, to speak French—are they ready to make the  necessary effort to help this to happen, do they value these things themselves), the relevance of the learning experience  itself, its impact on the lives of the learners (Hugo vs., the lost book—these are the parts of education not easily  measured, and therefore not easily translated into dollars, and therefore taken for granted or neglected and put aside by  those who create and fashion this country’s learning environments. When the country was young, and when schooling was not yet for everyone, those who were in the schools were apparently richly furnished in interest and motivation; students, teachers and parents held beliefs and values in common, their attitudes, their desire to learn, not the allocation of public funds, were the real ground on which they built their educational structures. The first schools themselves were much less richly furnished in things. Supplies and equipment, classrooms and buildings were not so much neglected as relatively unimportant. But then, within a relatively short period of time, perhaps in the passage of just two generations, one at the end of the last and one at the beginning of this century, schools became compulsory for everyone; by 1940 there was no life outside of school for children aged 16 years and younger.

The impulse behind compulsory school for everyone was a good one. Thomas Jefferson had made it clear one hundred years earlier, that schooling was necessary in a democracy—an uneducated public could not wisely and properly exercise its right to choose its leaders. Consequently, it was with good will and great energy that local school districts (the seats of power in education in this country) set about to build schools for everyone. For the richest country on the earth this job was relatively straightforward, a question of money—the physical structures, programs, numbers of teachers and supplies had only to be multiplied by a factor representing the new school population. A piece of cake for the country of J. P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller et al. The other, much more important ingredients of an educational system, the intangibles, the shared values and attitudes, the interest and motivation of the participants, would have to be increased also, but since there were no wealthy individuals or a government that could bring this about, no money that could be spent that would effect this end, these ingredients were overlooked. Instead, the educators did what they could, they spent money for spanking new classrooms in massive red brick buildings, believing, or wanting to believe, that the rich learning atmosphere of the old one room school house would somehow  come along of itself. Of course it didn’t. The schools eventually became a blown-up shell of their former selves, and the debacle that is now our system of public education, most apparent in our largest cities, is the direct result of a whole, country holding to Myth Number One.

Myth Number Two

Education is the acquisition of skills and knowledge. Probably many of you still believe in this. ‘Teach my kid how to read and write,” you say, “see that his math skills are up to par, make sure he knows something about the history of his own country, about world geography and the natural sciences, have him read the great works of literature.” This is what you want for your children, and probably what, in your eyes, school should be all about. For who could be against the acquisition of skills and knowledge as being the principal business of at the schools—indeed, this is how I spend most of my own time. But the knowledge that I as acquire is the result of my learning, not the reason for my learning. For as I learn I am following up an interest, often a desire, sometimes, even, a passion to know. What I know, as soon as I know it, is put aside as being as unimportant; when I’ve learned something I immediately go on to something else. The usually friendly arguments, between myself and individual parents, especially those who are engineers and whose profession is, par excellence, knowledge based, stem from their believing Myth Number Two, and myself holding an entirely different new of education. (MythNumber 4  See below)

This myth, the confusion between education and the acquisition of knowledge, stems from the fact that, whereas good education will always result in the acquisition of knowledge, the converse is not true—being knowledgeable, doesn’t mean that one is well-educated. (If this were so computers would be the best educated individuals in our society, and robots would gradually replace all of us in all of our tasks—perhaps some of you believe this will happen.) The Japanese public school system is based on the converse, believing that if kids know a lot of information they are well-educated. Therefore, in Japan the principal business of the schools is to see to it that the students know a lot. Not a bad end at first glance. Things go wrong because one can obviously learn a lot more in a given amount of time if one uses the faculty of memory exclusively. As a result in Japan and in other similar school systems memorization takes up most of the students’ time both in and out of school.

Not only in Japan but to a large extent in the elite independent schools and in the top, academic tracks of the best public schools in this country the college preparatory programs including Advanced Placement are by and large based on the student’s memorizing large amounts of material. Since the other mental faculties do not lead as directly to the end of greater knowledge acquisition, these school systems are subliminally encouraging their students not to question, not to interpret, not to evaluate, in short, not to think. Indeed, in a highly competitive social structure such as Japan, or in the elite college preparatory programs in this country, where kids compete with other kids for the same few positions, first in school for places in the prestigious colleges, and then in society for jobs, positions are awarded based on grades, which are based on test scores, which in turn are based far too often on how much material one has memorized.

Learning to think may, for a time anyway, slow down one’s acquisition of knowledge, diminish one’s performance on examinations and thereby interfere with one’s success in the competition for places and jobs. In Japan there are now critics of the system, people who are beginning to point out that the exclusive use of knowledge based examinations is not the best way to arouse the creative faculties in their young men and women, and that, in the long run, it is the latter faculties that will insure their country’s continued prosperity. In this country there have always been critics of the dominance of the faculty of memory in the schooling of the young, but, so far at least, the little respect that the public accords the schools, the little the public expects from the education of its children, the little impetus for change there is among the leaders of the schools, all these factors have not allowed any significant reforms to come about.

Americans, who continually compare their students’ scores with those, say, of the Japanese and Korean students (on the same examination) are showing their adherence to Myth Number Two. When the scores show, as they invariably do, that the Americans know less than students, not only from Japan and Korea, but from most other developed countries as well, the test-watchers conclude that our students are less well-educated than those of these other countries. These comparisons will set off another heavy session of self-criticism. Americans will cry out that we are a nation at risk, that we ought immediately to make the education of our young our top priority, and, if we have not just recently done so, that we ought to thoroughly revise our curriculum and increase our expenditures on education. All to no avail, however, and we continue to slip when measured against the achievement of students from other countries. (At the same time almost no one points out that when American high school students compete in a non-knowledge or non-information based area, such as during the International Mathematics Olympiad, they do extremely well, usually coming out among the top two or three teams. This suggests that there are other, more important ingredients to a good education than the acquisition of knowledge and skills.)

I believe that knowledge is incidental to real education. Let me say again, if one is learning one is becoming more knowledgeable, but one can become more knowledgeable without learning anything at all. Wise men never talk about what they have learned—if that’s what you want to talk to them about they’ll refer you to what they have written, or to a library. They want to talk about what they don’t yet know, what they still have to learn, for the learned man in them is over and done with, history, whereas a man learning, that which they still want to be, is the present moment, alive and exciting.

The lesson for the schools, and for Waring, is the following: The school should concern itself most of all with arousing the student’s desire to learn, then with strengthening that desire, and seeing to it that the student’s desire to learn has a life of its own, away from the teacher and away from the class-room. For if the student’s desire to learn is only in response to the teacher, no important learning will ever take place. Can one seriously doubt that what one learns in a lifetime follows directly from any thing other than the strength of one’s desire to learn? It certainly doesn’t follow from one’s success or lack of success on knowledge based examinations in school. Witness the number of students with top grades in a given subject who just a year out of school “know” little or nothing about that subject.

The real learning, which goes on throughout one’s lifetime, and for which school is only a preparation, must come from within, from the learner’s internal motivation. Other than the learning by rote, that which has a very short lifetime, in some instances only the time it takes to complete the examination, learning cannot be imposed from without. The lesson for the schools is to create an atmosphere in which children will want to learn, for then the children themselves will acquire naturally (incidentally) all the skills and knowledge they need in order to lead successful and happy lives.

Myth Number Three

Education is self- expression, or the freeing of the individual from the inevitable inhibitions and restrictions of family, school and society. A slightly different version of this same myth says that the role of education is to enable each child to realize his or her own uniqueness. This myth is probably less widely held than the other two. Most adults probably do not believe it—they’ve lived too long, (that is, while they believe in the uniqueness of the child, they do not believe that catering to this uniqueness should be the principal business of education and of the schools) but many children and teachers, and too many parents, probably still do. This myth, unlike Myths One and Two, has some basis in biological science, in the theory of organic or natural growth. Unique genetic codes in the cell nuclei (except in the case of identical twins) do “contain” all that an individual is meant to be in his or her lifetime. The process of education may be seen as enabling the unique set of instructions in the nuclei to be realized first in the life of the child, then in the student, and finally in the man or woman. In its extreme form this myth says that each child is a unique individual and must be allowed, during its growth stages, more or less complete freedom in order to realize its uniqueness. Furthermore, since that which each child is meant to be comes from within the child, it obviously cannot be fashioned from without. Each child’s freedom to grow in his or her own, unique way must remain untrammeled by the environment, must take precedence over the inevitable restrictions of the surrounding traditional structures. In other words, don’t put an oak sapling with its own set of instructions in a flower pot and then expect it to thrive and respond favorably to its environment. It won’t, nor, says this theory, will the child flourish whose education is expected to come about within externally imposed structures—the flower pots of family, school and society.

What we are describing is often called the negative theory of education, negative in the sense that all those things that might cramp the child’s growth are to be subtracted from the child’s environment. Whereas not many of us will admit believing in this myth most of us act as if we did. This may be seen in respect to how we monitor our children’s homework assignments, in respect to how much pressure we put on them to do their work. How many of us even know what the teachers expect of our children, let alone see to it that our children live up to those expectations?  How many of us insist that our children keep a sketch book and journal in the way that the art and writing teachers recommend? How many of us insist that our kids practice their instruments daily, that on which the success of the Waring music program most depends? How many of us ask to see our child’s natural science journal, supposedly containing his or her observations of the natural world? How many of us seriously restrict or limit what our children may see at the movies or on the television, may listen to on the radio? How many of us place any severe behavioral restrictions on our children at all? From our answers to these questions it is probably true that most of us do subscribe to some extent to the negative theory of education. Aren’t we obviously afraid of placing restrictions on our children, thinking, perhaps, that such will boomerang—for example, by limiting our child’s music listening at home to the Bach and Mozart they are listening to at school won’t they be apt to become secret, but avid devotees of hard rock? Aren’t we a bit afraid of our children, of what’s in them, of what we may unknowingly be bottling up? In short aren’t we afraid of our child’s very uniqueness? We don’t know how best our child’s uniqueness might be realized, but we do know that we don’t want to get in the way.

I would suggest that a child’s uniqueness, just like the acquisition of skills and knowledge, is incidental to learning and school. Just as knowledge will follow from learning, from the child’s active pursuit of those skills and knowledge important to him, so will a child’s uniqueness be best realized if the child studies the liberal arts along with everyone else, thereby acquiring not those things that are unique to him or her, but those very things that he or she has  in common with everyone else. A school has no business tending primarily to that which is unique in a student. In any case, because it is unique, the school would probably not even recognize it when it did appear. But what about the bottling up of the child’s uniqueness? Inhibiting or overly restricting the child’s freedom to be himself? Need we be afraid of that? No, not if what we are teaching are the liberal arts. For by definition, these arts—literature and history, music, foreign language, mathematics, science and art—are ultimately the dress, the clothes that will enable the child’s uniqueness to appear at all, not necessarily in a school context, but certainly later in the grown child’s, and in the man’s  or woman’s lifetime. By definition these arts are the freedom-giving arts. We need not be afraid of any apparent restrictions that they may be placing on the child, at home or in school.

What, then, is the real business of education, if it’s not the acquisition of skills and knowledge, if it’s not programs and teachers and books and classrooms, if it’s not the uniqueness, the specialness of each child?

Here’s Myth Number 4, the one in which I believe:

Education is the uncovering, the developing, me strengthening within the child of that which he or she shares with everyone else. The goal of education in this sense is the realization, not of the student’s unique nature, but of his or her common humanity. All children and all people have the same nature; they reason, they laugh, they feel joy and sorrow, they communicate with words and other symbols, they have bodies and minds, they have some knowledge, some direct experience of good and evil, they have religious experiences, they sense the reality of truth and beauty. Education should concern itself with developing and communicating and understanding these kinds of awarenesses in children. In other words the schools ought to be helping children to understand their own human nature, to recognize that most of what they are they share with other men and women, and thereby to become more comfortable with themselves and their own experiences. For ultimately the learner’s skills and knowledge, ultimately his very uniqueness, will be less important than his closeness to his fellows. Ultimately one might even say that learning to work together, not just for the individual, but for the common good, is what education is most about.

—Philip B. Waring (Headmaster, Waring School)

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