Talking about education never stops. Why is that? Because there is no general agreement as to what education is, let alone should be.
There are probably as many meanings to the word as there are people alive on the earth. When looked at closely each individual’s life represents a unique educational path. One’s learning is the result of a unique, continually evolving set of environmental and hereditary factors giving form and substance to one’s experiences throughout one’s lifetime.
Then there is school. Probably that which, helas, most people mean by education. A monumental irony lies in the fact that school is no less apt to inhibit one’s education, that is, restrain and narrow it, as promote and further it.
Now much of the talk about education is really about educational or rather school reforms. Today, as always, schools are clearly not successful with all of their students. The talk of change, of reforming the schools, is the result.
It used to be that all school talk, including talk of reform, was local. This was so because in our land the local authorities were to begin with the ultimate arbiters of how schools should be built and structured as well as of what should be taught within them. The Feds were, to begin with anyway, out of the picture. (And some, from both the left and the right, would like to return to that time.)
During the past century the situation changed radically. Why was this? Why did the Federal government become a principal player in our schools? Well isn’t it always the case that when the locals fail to properly handle their responsibilities to those in their charge the Feds are brought in? And this is what happened and is still happening, with no end in sight. Many see a national curriculum as being the next big Federal intrusion into our local schools.
Would we have had the Federal efforts to integrate our schools if the locals had not so easily accepted separate as equal? And would we have had the Federal disability legislation of the 1970s, including the Education of All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, if the local authorities had shown proper concern for the needs of the handicapped? And would we have had the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 if the local school districts had not allowed the achievement gaps between whites and racial minorities to continue unchecked?
So the case has been powerfully made for the still expanding role of the Federal bureaucracy in the local school districts. As in so many other instances of our national life certain corrective actions were clearly called for and the local school authorities were unwilling to take those actions unless compelled to do so.
Now one might ask if the pendulum of primary responsibility for what goes on in the schools has swung too far to the side of central control? I would say it has. Certainly this is so in respect to the three examples mentioned above. The imposed busing solution to segregation in the schools is clearly not working and our schools, many of them, are more segregated now than ever. The disability entitlements, enacted into Federal law, have placed unacceptable and mostly unmet financial burdens on state and local governments. And finally the rigid standardized testing program of No Child Left Behind has not resulted, after some five years, in any of the children “left behind” catching up.
Educators ought to talk less about schools and more about education. For a proper understanding of the nature of education could then bring us to a more effective and compelling Rx for the schools. Of all the things we could say about education here are two that I would put at the very top of my list.
For one, education is constantly going on as we experience our world. It may or not take place in school. It’s not a part of life, but rather it is our life. Education is the brain’s breathing, and over that we may have some control in respect to our own, but not in respect to that of anyone else. Parents take note! Your children will be what they are, not what you would make them.
We have more power to change the direction of a mighty river, to channel the light of the sun into new sources of energy, than we have to shape an individual’s growth and development, that is, his education. For each person’s education is on its own trajectory, the course of which is mainly determined by each person’s own efforts. There’s no way we can completely control anyone’s learning aside from our own, no way we can direct the countless encounters that everyone will make during a lifetime, and most of which do not even take place in school.
This thought of our powerlessness before a life not our own ought to humble the educators among us, keep us from constantly going on about all that we intend to do for the kids in our charge. For how much of what we would do can we do? Not all that much. Do you know, for example, a school or school program that ever turned one or more of its students into good citizens? And yet don’t we talk all the time about our doing just this?
For two, isn’t it true that education results most of all from what people do for themselves? The tragedy is that kids don’t know this and attend school thinking that by their attendance, by some kind of osmosis, by just being there, they will be educated. The schools, of course, go along with this conceit, for that’s their livelihood. But that’s exactly why kids can spend so much time in schools and learn so little. Probably not a few, perhaps most, only learn to learn when the school years are over and they have no choice but to rely on their on efforts.
Hasn’t most everything you now are, everything you now know, come about primarily through your own efforts? All the talk about schools and education really ought to be talk bout how we might best help people to want to learn for themselves. For if they don’t, if they have no learning goal of their own, whatever we might do for them will be of little or no avail.