There are several terms that are commonly misunderstood in most contemporary societies, with devastating consequences. Among these are “education,” “health care,” “employment,” “wealth,” and “happiness.” In this series, I hope to dispel – one by one – common fallacies surrounding these terms and to replace them with truer, more life-affirming understandings.
Education is the first colossally misunderstood term that I would like to address – as misunderstandings of it create massive societal problems where none need exist, and at the same time blind many people to genuine, but oft-overlooked problems.
Dictionary.com defines “education” in several ways:
1. The act or process of imparting or acquiring general knowledge, developing the powers of reasoning and judgment, and generally of preparing oneself or others intellectually for mature life.
2. The act or process of imparting or acquiring particular knowledge or skills, as for a profession.
3. A degree, level, or kind of schooling.
4. The result produced by instruction, training, or study.
5. The science or art of teaching.
Already the multiple possible meanings impart some ambiguity to the term. Clearly, acquiring general knowledge and developing the powers of reasoning and judgment are not the same as attending a school. Many a person has attended schools – even elite schools – and learned scarcely anything at all. While the dictionary writers at least take care to distinguish the different uses of the term “education,” a more commonplace tendency in today’s world is to package all the meanings together and to consider them inextricable from one another.
It is thus that the obsessive emphasis of contemporary societies on formal schooling operates. Abuses of the term “education” lead to a belief that schooling is both necessary and sufficient for learning, as if sitting in a classroom with thirty other similarly ignorant people is indispensable for attaining knowledge, but will also magically impart this knowledge to everyone involved.
I will preface further discussion by emphasizing that I have probably gotten the most out of formal schooling that an individual could hope to get. I was valedictorian of my class in high school and salutatorian in college, where I pursued three majors. And yet, in retrospect, I find that my best learning had always been self-initiated and self-motivated – and that I could not have succeeded in school without the effort I put in to acquire knowledge on my own.
Equating education with formal schooling is not a harmless idiosyncrasy; it is both expensive and costly. The equation of education with formal institutions leads to the demand to spend vast amounts of money on such formal institutions – as if dollars spent could purchase motivation, curiosity, and initiative. Conventional institutionalized schooling also makes substandard use of the most formative time in an individual’s life – the time when that person’s mind forms the habits and connections that shape both learning and character for decades into the future. Literally hundreds of millions of young people spend the vast majority of their time sitting behind desks, walking in lines, and being confined to “restricted areas” within school buildings, when they could much more readily utilize their talents elsewhere.
One problem with the model of Western public schools is that it creates a one-size-fits-all standard to which every student is expected to conform. The teacher can typically only do one thing in the classroom at a time. Teachers generally have no choice but to gauge the average level of knowledge and skill in the class and to teach primarily to that level. The students who know the material already or who grasp it more quickly have their time wasted; the students who do not follow as quickly as their “average” peers are often left behind. And the “average” students – to be quite blunt – generally do not learn particularly much, certainly not enough to justify forgoing twelve to sixteen years of their lives.
The second problem with Western public schools is that they segregate individuals by age groups, separating young people from those who are most qualified to give them an education – their elders – people whose experience exceeds that of the young people by anywhere from a few years to a few generations. Within public schools, and to a degree within universities as well, most young people are barely aware of anything beyond the immediate, pressing concerns of their own age group; few learn to expect the major transitions that are about to come in virtually all of their lives, and few absorb the skills needed to handle such transitions successfully. Within a peer group for which there exist no serious role models who have actually accomplished something, the lowest common denominator tends to prevail. This is, in part, why reckless, self-destructive, and delinquent behaviors among young people are so common in the West today.
The third problem with Western public schools is the manner in which uniform curricula tend to stifle the development of individual agendas of learning and curiosity in general. The teacher is paid to lecture on a certain predetermined subject material; if a student asks an interesting but tangential question, the teacher – even if he favors curiosity – must often suppress the inquiry for fear of lacking the time to do the job for which he was paid. At the same time, other students may not be interested in the same tangential questions, but might have other questions of their own; it is simply not possible to address all the questions and actualize all of the vast potential of every individual within the standardized structure of a classroom.
The fourth and most disturbing problem of public schools arises from the fact that the best children and teenagers are herded together with the worst: the bullies who mercilessly inflict every kind of petty and not-so-petty abuse imaginable on those who are better than they – for the very fact that their victims are better. Bullying creates an atmosphere of fear, stifled ambition, and anti-intellectualism – even among many students who would never engage in bullying themselves. Bullying – both of the physical sort and of the “softer” verbal sort that happens so often via the cliques and popularity contests that emerge in the schools – is the enforcement mechanism for conformity to the lowest common denominator. Its product is the unthinking acceptance by millions of young people of the latest fads, the most careless risks, and a complete unawareness of their future potential.
It is true that formal schooling could work in some cases – where every student is already reasonably knowledgeable, motivated, and respectful of others. A university course where each student desires to delve deeply and earnestly into the subject matter is a good example of this. But even universities today have become populated with students who neither need nor deserve to be there – all a result of government subsidies fueled by a mistaken perception that college and university educations are needed for even the most routine clerical jobs. As a result, the universities are rapidly succumbing to the same kinds of intellectual apathy, lowest-common-denominator teaching, and reckless behavior that have long plagued the public schools. The term “student” no longer carries a connotation of great honor and respectability, as it did even a century ago. Instead, everyone appears to have a Bachelor’s Degree these days, and to have trouble finding work at a fast-food restaurant with one. In an effort to remedy this, the best and brightest are often pigeonholed by public opinion into attending graduate school, even though many of them have little interest in subsequently becoming academicians. By the time they leave graduate school, they are already in their late twenties, almost certainly poor, and likely in severe debt. Misguided overvaluation of formal schooling has prevented aspiring lawyers and doctors from simply taking the bar and medical exams whenever they wished and receiving their licenses if they passed the rigorous exams. Instead, protectionist professional associations – the white-collar equivalent of labor unions – have collaborated with academia to make the expenditure of hundreds of thousands of dollars on formal schooling a requirement prior to even being allowed to take these exams. The ideal of a meritocracy or natural aristocracy of talent has been replaced by the ideal of the pecking order of seniority and pull, where one must grovel and pay in hopes of someday – probably only when one’s health begins to fail – receiving the groveling and payments of others.
At the same time, societal attitudes make formal schooling a virtual requirement for self-esteem. Many bright, talented individuals who could accomplish tremendous feats if they entered a trade in their early teens are pressured to feel inferior and incompetent until they have served their time. In truth, they have nothing to feel substandard about. Formal schooling is not a requirement for knowledge, skill, or good character; it is not a substitute for entrepreneurial insight, creativity, or determination. It cannot make a person a success or prevent failure. It cannot teach a person anything he could not teach himself. It is not needed as a proof of a person’s competency, nor as a requirement to get a job. Most of what a person does for a living is learned through the experience of doing it – and schooling requirements simply serve as arbitrary barriers to deny some the opportunity of getting this experience.
Formal schooling, to be sure, has its uses – especially for training the academicians and other intellectuals of the next generation. But it would only be strengthened in this role if educational institutions did not have to deal with the people who do not need to attend them and whose education can be achieved spectacularly without them.
Read other articles in The Rational Argumentator’s Issue CCX.