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The Purpose of Education

by rdf Thu Nov 20th, 2008 at 03:08:30 PM EST

Recent efforts by conservatives in the US have reopened (again!) the issue of the purpose of education. In keeping with the tilt toward authoritarianism and conservatism over the past 40 years the push has been towards more structured education. This is a sharp change from the development of "liberal" education started by John Dewey at the beginning of the 20th Century. I examine both schools of thought below.

There are two views as to the function of education. Let's call them "knowledge" vs "process".

Education as Knowledge

In this system of thought the role of education is to impart a large number of "truths" to the young. This collection then makes for an educated person. Behind this thinking is the unacknowledged assumption that there is a core of information which is "true" and that those making policy know what it is. Knowledge is thus based upon referencing authority. In addition to important information to be imparted students are to be taught the virtues of obedience, loyalty and tradition. This appeal has also existed outside the classroom as the popular efforts to define the world's "great books" demonstrates. This type of education was the norm until the early 20th Century and is still common in cultures which intermingle religion with governance. Educated men in the UK and the US studied the Greek and Roman classics. There was no attempt to connect such studies with a career. The industrial revolution created the rise of trade schools where one learned a trade, but not trappings of a "gentleman".

Education as Process

John Dewey is credited with starting the movement away from the teaching of a fixed body of knowledge. He emphasized learning by doing and letting students learn from experience. The goal is to create adults who "learn how to learn" and can continue to learn new things on their own throughout their lives. Dewey felt this was especially important in a democracy since only those who could evaluate new information would be able to participate properly as the issues of the day changed over time. The second principle that he espoused was that people should always question received knowledge handed down by authority. Loyalty and obedience are replaced by independence of thought and critical judgment.

Education as a Reflection of Society

Unsurprisingly these two views of the role of education parallel the two principle divisions in how society itself is to be organized. Those who favor the knowledge framing are generally conservative and believe in a hierarchical structure to society. In a democratic state they are conflicted. They claim to support democracy, but work against it when they promote their views over those of the majority. Many adhere to some variation of Plato's philosopher-king or wise ruler, thus deference is to be given to religious, political, business and military leaders. This same group is not opposed to using the electoral process to put their leaders in office, by fair means or foul since the end justifies the means to them. This is the contradiction, they are willing to use the democratic process to subvert democracy.

Those who favor the process framing are more likely to be liberal and willing to examine all sides of an issue and debate them with their opponents. They are baffled when their opponents fail to see the point in this as the questions are settled by referring to authority so debate is pointless. They also get upset when attempts are made to cut short such debate in schools and base the curriculum on fixed information.

Let's take an (over)simplified example - the multiplication table.
In the knowledge setting students are give the "times tables" and told to memorize them. In the process setting students are shown how multiplication is based upon repeated addition and that one can derive the result needed using this formula. Memorizing is promoted as a shortcut which will be useful in speeding up calculations in the future, not just as something to be learned because the teacher demands it. Overdoing this has led to the "new" math which has been ridiculed, most famously in the song New Math by Tom Lehrer - here's a LINK. Which just goes to show that even process can be carried too far.

Reform Motivation

The reform movement (especially in the US) has been a push-back against the Dewey processed-based approach and back toward the authoritarian one. The true motivation has been disguised in a variety of ways. Here are some of the "concerns" which are said to motivate the need for change.

  1. Schools are "failing". Students are dropping out or graduating ill-prepared. Students from lower socio-economic classes are failing to rise above the class they grew up in.

  2. Schools are teaching "secular" or "immoral" values and students are being turned out without the proper grounding.

  3. Schools are too expensive because of waste and inefficiency.

Reform Recommendations

1. School "failure", according to the reformers, is due to poor accountability. The solution is programs like No Child Left Behind (NCLB), a federal program which mandates annual testing of students and evaluation of the school's performance based upon the scores. Schools are supposed to make annual progress in each area. According to proponents it is poor teaching and not making student's accountable that is the cause. The preferred solutions are to eliminate the power of the teacher's unions, especially tenure and to open the public schools to "competition" by subsidizing private schools via vouchers and other schemes to provide tax dollars to them. The real motivation is to discredit public education by setting impossible standards (no school can improve forever) and to shift students into partisan, parochial schools which are based upon an authoritarian model.

"Failing" schools are generally found in areas where the student body is poor and has undereducated parents. The tax base is low because of low property values and the schools are underfunded. These are problems of the general society, schools cannot solve them. Rich suburban school districts have been resistant to any programs which would shift students or funds around to equalize education spending and opportunities. Blaming the schools (or the teachers and administrators) when society at large does not want to address the issues is a red herring.

  1. The issues of "values" comes up most frequently in conjunction with the teaching of evolutionary biology and sex education. In both cases it is the religious right which is raising the objections. Many dogmatic religions have realized that Darwinism calls into question some of their foundational myths and this, in turn, calls into question the infallibility of their dogmas. The way to combat this, in their view, is to prevent young people from learning the science so that they won't question the stories of their elders. Similarly sex education gives the young the ability to evaluate the risk of their own behavior based upon scientific information, rather than the inflexible rules handed down by their elders. Once again authority is weakened in favor of knowledge. Those who have pushed programs such as "abstinence only" sex education are so intent on maintaining their authority that they have been willing to see the young suffer a higher degree of STD's and pregnancies rather than allowing them to be exposed to objective information. This isn't about education, it's about control.

  2. The cost is, once again, a misdirection which is really aimed at breaking the teacher's unions. Even though teaching (which generally requires a Master's Degree these days) is paid at a national level below average rates for such a skill level it is claimed that it is the salaries that are the cost of "high" educational spending. But high spending only exists in wealthy districts. New York spends almost $15,000 per student, Alabama, Mississippi, Utah and eleven other states all spend under $7,000. Salary and wages in New York is $9,000 while in the poorer states it is under $5,000 per student. The difference is that in the wealthier states schools are called upon to provide many other services. This includes breakfast and lunches, and even lunches during the summer for qualifying students, health service, drug and pregnancy counseling and referrals, testing for psychological and learning problems and other social services. Local governments have realized that schools are the one place for contact between the government and children and keep added tasks to the schools to perform since they have the access.


Clams to be interested in "solving" the educational crisis are mostly being fostered by those who want to replace a generally successful public education system with one which preaches their pet ideologies. People on both sides of the political spectrum also don't want to spend the money to benefit those most in need of help, especially if this means increased social spending or having to interact with the lower classes more directly.

A society has the educational system it wants. The US, apparently, has higher priorities than improving education and social services.

Your example of the multiplication table is relevant. I memorized them under the instruction of a sadistic 5th grade teacher. As a result, I know them.

Many of the students in my wife's 7th grade classes today simply do not have them memorized. Therefore it is impossible to teach them algebra, as they get stuck on the mechanics of multiplication instead of working on the new concepts.

The need for straight memorization seems to apply up to at least graduate school in the technical subjects. Learning to learn comes along with it, but you have to memorize the formulas of thermodynamics or electricty...

by asdf on Thu Nov 20th, 2008 at 07:20:01 PM EST
I once very nearly failed a physics exam because I got stuck in the middle of the proof for e=mc2.  In practice I could do it in 15 minutes so it was a sure winner if it came up in the exam as you were guaranteed 100% if you got it right, and were allowed 30 Minutes per question in the exam.  However I hadn't fully understood the reasoning and spent 90 minutes in the exam trying to figure it out - and didn't.

So yes, memorising is important for simple things.  But it breaks down beyond that.  I eventually left college level Maths because the Professor spent several hours proving 1+1=2 and in the process seemed to make so many assumptions I was happier to just assume 1+1=2.  I had difficulty with college level physics in general because I was often not happy I understood or could justify some of the assumptions being made, and therefor never got beyond square 1 of the proof or argument being made.  The essence always seemed to reside in the assumptions.

I ended up graduating in Social Science (sociology/politics) where greater questioning was encouraged.

I think there are different learning styles and one size doesn't fit all - either for the students or for the subject matter.  Education is a mix of facts and critical analysis, of assimilation and of improving our critical faculties analysing what is to be assimulated.  You cannot have one without the other.

Those who favour the "facts only" approach usually want dubious facts to be accepted uncritically.  Those who want critical analysis only sometimes betray a distain for practical subjects or the less gifted students who have to get by on what facts they can pick up.  A good deal of pragmatism and respect for the diversity of students, ways of learning, ways of thinking, and the requirements of a basic mastery of a subject are required.

I don't have a problem with accountability in education per se - every use of public resources needs to be evaluated for efficiency, value for money, and appropriateness in relation to agreed goals.  It is the goals and metrics used that I generally have a problem with.  So much of human development cannot be measured at all - or at least only obliquely.  

Sometimes you have to trust the students and their judgment as to what works for them.  That is the real problem with authoritarian systems.  They do not want to create fully human people at all - they want to create disciplined workers, soldiers, voters and consumers who will all do what they are told and accept advertising and political messages uncritically.  

In that sense a good educational system is always somewhat subversive because it is about creating something new - a younger generation with a more advanced knowledge base than their parents.  They are thus both a threat to and an opportunity for society.

notes from no w here

by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Fri Nov 21st, 2008 at 09:57:33 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Enjoyed your diary, RDF, and I think 7you summarize part of the problem pretty well. However, I am increddulous that you would write the following.
Clams to be interested in "solving" the educational crisis are mostly being fostered by those who want to replace a generally successful public education system with one which preaches their pet ideologies.

Sorry, but that's just not the case.

From my comment of a few days ago:

From Truthdig, Chris Hedges:

     We live in two Americas. One America, now the minority, functions in a print-based, literate world. It can cope with complexity and has the intellectual tools to separate illusion from truth. The other America, which constitutes the majority, exists in a non-reality-based belief system. This America, dependent on skillfully manipulated images for information, has severed itself from the literate, print-based culture. It cannot differentiate between lies and truth. It is informed by simplistic, childish narratives and clichés. It is thrown into confusion by ambiguity, nuance and self-reflection. This divide, more than race, class or gender, more than rural or urban, believer or nonbeliever, red state or blue state, has split the country into radically distinct, unbridgeable and antagonistic entities.

    There are over 42 million American adults, 20 percent of whom hold high school diplomas, who cannot read, as well as the 50 million who read at a fourth- or fifth-grade level. Nearly a third of the nation's population is illiterate or barely literate. And their numbers are growing by an estimated 2 million a year. But even those who are supposedly literate retreat in huge numbers into this image-based existence. A third of high school graduates, along with 42 percent of college graduates, never read a book after they finish school. Eighty percent of the families in the United States last year did not buy a book.

A full one third of Americans who graduate from college will never read another book.

My friend, who was once the chief of IBM's personnel division, told me -twenty years ago- that the fastest growing new job description in the company was one in which the worker would just help applicants fill out the job application, because the applicant's literacy skills were inadequate to that task.

Presidential debates illustrate the changes well:
Using a well respected analytical test, the Global Language monitor tracks a clear trend of deterioration from the current presidential debate levels of 6th-7th grade levels, back to the Lincoln-Douglas debates, where the candidates at least spoke on about a high school graduate level.

Yes, their Biden-Palin results seem weird. In general, a well-respected outfit.

The facts above are well known among educational researchers. They are, in fact, not a bug, but a feature, in the world of supercapitalist plunder.

In fact, it is the literate, questioning, iconoclastic worker who is grit in the bearings of a consumer society.

Viewed in this light, the current "educational" system is a great success.

But--at what?
Creating consumers. And dumbing down the "masses" so they will believe that--it's a life. The only life.

My son's experience with the system--and ours-- is here:
Enterprise Village==or, the future of American democracy.

Capitalism searches out the darkest corners of human potential, and mainlines them.

by geezer in Paris (risico at wanadoo(flypoop)fr) on Fri Nov 21st, 2008 at 07:05:57 AM EST
Egad. For a comment on education, I sure started out on the rough end.
I posted the unedited comment by accident. Please ignore the bloopers.
Point's the same.

Capitalism searches out the darkest corners of human potential, and mainlines them.
by geezer in Paris (risico at wanadoo(flypoop)fr) on Fri Nov 21st, 2008 at 07:08:48 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The degree of literacy in this country in prior times was lower than it is now. The country has always been divided into the "educated" classes and the "working" classes.

Notice that the majority of top politicians and business leaders still come from the educated class, the rare exception is the true (or quasi-) populist like Sarah Palin.

In point of fact most people use very little of what they learn in school. When was the last time that the typical person needed algebra, or chemistry in their work or daily life?

That's why I emphasized the importance of John Dewey's ideas. By working on the process of self learning people can become equipped to deal with the new things they face during their lives. This is also important if one is to be a thinking citizen in a democracy.

The proof that most of what is taught in school is useless can be seen in the TV show "Are you smarter than a fifth grader?" where contestants have to answer questions based upon material in first to fifth grade classes. They are helped in their efforts by actual fifth graders, who tend to know more of the answers.

Is it important that you remember the names of the moons of Mars?

Of course much of education is aimed at training docile workers and easily led consumers, but this doesn't happen if parents demand more. They don't because they don't demand more out of life for themselves, so see no need for their children.

Politicians are always expressing concern that families be able live a comfortable (material) life with a good job and health and retirement security. They never discuss leading a fulfilling life or a creative one. There's no demand.

This is one of my continual themes when I discuss (repeatedly!) the need to transition from a "stuff" based society to a sustainable one based upon other goals - like more community involvement, sports, arts, etc.

I realized yesterday that one can spend hours per day perfecting one's skills at a musical instrument and spend no money at all. Obviously this presents a threat to a society based upon planned obsolescence.

I think I'll take up some of your concerns when I revise my essay for inclusion on my web site.

Policies not Politics
---- Daily Landscape

by rdf (robert.feinman@gmail.com) on Fri Nov 21st, 2008 at 08:44:29 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The degree of literacy in this country in prior times was lower than it is now. The country has always been divided into the "educated" classes and the "working" classes.

Repeatedly, excerpts from high school exams-public school exams, administered to the children of working class and monyed classes 50, 75 and 100 years ago have been compared to current exams at the same grade levels. The comparison is invariably devastating.

In point of fact most people use very little of what they learn in school. When was the last time that the typical person needed algebra, or chemistry in their work or daily life?

Sounds pretty patronizing to me. Perhaps those "typicals" ought to just get their butt off to work, and forget notions above their station.
Jeez, RDF. Exposure to "advanced " ideas like algebra and critical history are what make the intellect live.
Of course much of education is aimed at training docile workers and easily led consumers, but this doesn't happen if parents demand more. They don't because they don't demand more out of life for themselves, so see no need for their children.

Clearly you did not read my diary, "Enterprise Village". Or you consider me one of those people who "--don't demand more out of life for themselves, so see no need for their children."

You waste both our times.

Capitalism searches out the darkest corners of human potential, and mainlines them.

by geezer in Paris (risico at wanadoo(flypoop)fr) on Fri Nov 21st, 2008 at 10:15:45 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I have no idea what got your dander up. I read your essay and wasn't commenting on it.

As to literacy rates here is a link to the US stats.


There are some critics who claim that traditional measures of literacy were inadequate, that's why they now have terms like "functionally illiterate". But whatever the measure educational achievement has gone up in the US over time.

It may have stagnated in the recent past, but the effects of the large increase in immigration would have to be factored in.

In addition kids today know more than did those in earlier periods, their exposure to radio, TV and now the internet means they are more informed than in prior periods. In an earlier age when high school graduation was achieved by the minority it was possible for the curriculum to be more rigorous (although whether this is true is also open to debate, and certainly dependent upon region) schools thought nothing of having students leave before graduation.

Now there is a big push for everyone to graduate from high school. When this is combined with the idea that all students should get an "academic" diploma and that separating students by ability is unacceptable there has been a degree of dumbing down in the school districts with limited resources. Schools with more money figure out ways to get around this by use of enrichment or other supplemental programs. Even if they don't the parents send their kids to SAT prep and other programs.

I've written often on the value of education as an end in itself and as one of those activities which could be undertaken throughout life for enrichment without the need to tie it to job goals. This is another of my post-materialist suggestions.

Policies not Politics
---- Daily Landscape

by rdf (robert.feinman@gmail.com) on Fri Nov 21st, 2008 at 11:35:48 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Great comment - and I followed your link and read your diary for the first time - it was written before I joined here and reminded me of our conversation in Paris.

There are some basic skills like literacy and numeracy which are basic in any education and which must be measured and tested for and which must be remedied - with intensified resources, as required - until such time as the student can progress to the next level.  A functioning democracy depends on them.

Parents, teachers, and administrators who allow illiteracy and innumeracy to persist through schooling should hang their heads in shame.  They are failing in their most basic duty to the young, and to society.

notes from no w here

by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Fri Nov 21st, 2008 at 10:16:53 AM EST
[ Parent ]
But then, in France there were teachers specialised in helping those that were falling far behind on such topics - and their job is being suppressed...

Un roi sans divertissement est un homme plein de misŤres
by linca (antonin POINT lucas AROBASE gmail.com) on Fri Nov 21st, 2008 at 10:33:11 AM EST
[ Parent ]
In Germany, those teacher posts were not created in the first place. What happens is that children who missed some weeks in the early years, say due to an illness, will never learn much, if not their parents (can) help. Nobody seems surprised in the least degree.
Nowadays, fluency in German is identified as a great problem – to be remedied in kindergarten, lest an inconvenient child spoil our perfect plans. No help  intended for older children who enter the school system with less than perfect knowledge of German, like my nephews, who had lived the greater part of their childhood in English speaking countries.
Nor, of course, of anyone else demanding attention, help, common sense, etc.

Besides being typical for the moronic scum who directs our schools, this is also indicative of the surprisingly poor quality of our teaching profession, i.e. even if it is not planned and paid for a teacher should usually be able to help children without much ado, most of the time.

by Humbug (mailklammeraffeschultedivisstrackepunktde) on Sat Nov 22nd, 2008 at 01:37:02 PM EST
[ Parent ]
A very timely diary for the "Anomolous Wave" movement in Italy against the impending Berlusconi reform. I'm travelling off base now and don't see me with much time to elaborate the important issues you've discussed here in ref to the Italian situation. I'll certainly refer to it in future diaries on the movement.

At present the Italian student-professor movement is elaborating a series of proposals which should be voted at the next national meeting on November 28th.


by de Gondi (publiobestia aaaatttthotmaildaughtusual) on Fri Nov 21st, 2008 at 08:52:00 AM EST
I hope you will follow up, the news we get in the US is woefully inadequate, a few shots of street protests and that's all.

I'm always unhappy that I can't generalize my essays to include more examples from the rest of the world and hope that others will supply the missing material.

The issues in France and Turkey need to be explored away from the cultural prejudices and focus more on the pedagogical aspects of students being singled out because of their lifestyles.

Policies not Politics
---- Daily Landscape

by rdf (robert.feinman@gmail.com) on Fri Nov 21st, 2008 at 11:39:34 AM EST
[ Parent ]
What comes to mind is a study on the differences in education between North and South Italy by the Central Bank of Italy.

Learning divides across the Italian regions: Some evidence from national and international surveys

Student performance has been tested by various surveys at the international level in recent years, using different aims and methodologies. On the basis of a comparative analysis, this paper aims to describe the differences in performance between Italian regions, subjects and ages or grades. All the surveys revealed significant gaps in performance across the Italian regions, with students in the South being far behind those in the North in all the subjects surveyed (reading, mathematics, science). This gap is particularly marked in technical ("istituti tecnici") and vocational ("istituti professionali") schools. Also the degree of disparity in scores is higher in the South. The geographical divides increase with grade: the gaps between North and South are more mitigated at the earlier grades and concentrated among students with a low parental background. Student achievement is strongly correlated with the socio-cultural and economic conditions of the family. However, this relationship seems to be sharper at the earlier grades, while it vanishes at the upper secondary school level, when the type-of-program and school effects have much greater impact. Finally, this paper also suggests that marks (or final grades) given internally by schools do not reflect the real levels of proficiency, and do not, therefore, distinguish good students from bad ones.

by de Gondi (publiobestia aaaatttthotmaildaughtusual) on Fri Nov 21st, 2008 at 01:54:18 PM EST
[ Parent ]
An "incidental" effect of the reforms is the growing gap in education quality. Somehow the "competitive advantage" of better education is taken now much more seriously than 40 years ago, when parents' care of schools ended by dropping their kid by its gate. It seems no one really thinks of better education for all. Instead, everyone "understands" that "better" parents deserve better schools.
by das monde on Fri Nov 21st, 2008 at 09:49:24 AM EST
Some general observations:

  1. I am astonished that what I thought was a standard educational system funded at a federal level is in fact funded very variably depending on the wealth of the local community.  The educational needs of the young don't change by wealth (if anything they change inversely with wealth) and the future wealth of the USA, both socially and economically depends on having a good educational system for all.

  2.  I am astonished that even those things which can be measured - e.g. literacy and numeracy - are failing so badly.  I would have thought that a metrics dominated society could at least have gotten those things right. (before we even get into the more qualitative artistic, musical and social skills)

  3.  I am astonished that even conservative politicians/administrators don't see the link betweena good educational system and future success for the society as a whole.

When I went to secondary school, it was generally only the better off middle classes who were able to afford, or were socially conditioned to send their kids all the way through secondary school.  Higher education was regarded as something for the "better offs" and only a small relatively privileged minority went on to third level.

Standards we generally pretty low as many of the brighter kids had already been selected out by economic/social means and there was little competition for places and jobs for the remainder.

However the Government introduced (at least nominally) free education for all at around the same time, and great emphasis was placed on the need for all kids to achieve a much higher level of eduction if Ireland was to pull itself out of the third world backwater it was in at the time.

The numbers in secondary education soared.  Even families with no background in education placed great value on their children "bettering themselves" through education.  Standards soared.  Competition for third level places expanded exponentially.  The third level sector also expanded hugely so that the vast majority of students now achieve some kind of third level qualification.

When I went to school we prided ourselves in our ability to subvert teachers and the teaching process.  "Swots" were ridiculed.  It did not pay to be too clever. The messers were celebrated. Much of the teaching was atrocious.

My kids had to achieve far higher standards than I to reach University.  They routinely complained about teachers who didn't put in enough effort or who didn't challenge their classes to excel.  Generally they enjoyed school more than I did even though they had to work much harder.

25 years after this educational revolution began those that had had the advantage of much more widespread and improved education reached their occupational prime and the Celtic Tiger was born.  Education was perhaps the single most important causative structural factor.  Ireland was transformed from a third world to a first world economy (present difficulties notwithstanding).

The Irish educational system now has a lot of problems, but no one doubts how central it has been to our success.  It is generally compared very favourably to the UK system by those who know both.  Teachers in Ireland are paid some of the highest salaries in the world (€32-62K for a secondary teacher) and that has left many other parts of the system underfunded.

But the history of the past 40 years in Ireland is a tribute to what can happen if you give kids a chance - and the incentive - to excel.  Why has the US experience been do different?

notes from no w here

by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Fri Nov 21st, 2008 at 10:49:05 AM EST
If I may point out what I said in an other thread about the uselessness of metrics if they are not used by people who also care about increasing quality of service...

Un roi sans divertissement est un homme plein de misŤres
by linca (antonin POINT lucas AROBASE gmail.com) on Fri Nov 21st, 2008 at 11:24:04 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Isn't "the canon" the cant term for education as knowledge these days? ;)

It seems to me that there is another set of poles with respect to the purpose of education, which you only touch on briefly in a comment: education as vocational training vs. education for personal enrichment.

In the German public debate, discussion tends to focus on the fitness of students for the workplace (great emphasis on whatever skillsets employees require as a prerequisite for an apprenticeship this week, for example). The knowledge vs. process debate occurs at most on a secondary, and often on an implicit level.

It seems to me that the situation is just the opposite in the US: the overt debate on canon vs. process can be understood as an implied struggle over vocational training vs. personal enrichment. After all, even the conservatives have nothing against competent mechanics and brain surgeons; they just shouldn't be equipped with the potential for heresy.

The fact is that what we're experiencing right now is a top-down disaster. -Paul Krugman

by dvx (dvx.clt št gmail dotcom) on Fri Nov 21st, 2008 at 02:06:34 PM EST
That is a class driven problem in Germany as well though... whilst apprenticeships are ruthlessly pushed towards "employer whims" (if I can put it that way) the medical school system (for example) has ruthlessly defended itself against moving out of an 18th century research paradigm (sort of connected to enrichment, if not quite.)
by Metatone (metatone [a|t] gmail (dot) com) on Fri Nov 21st, 2008 at 07:41:13 PM EST
[ Parent ]
That is a factor, certainly. Antiquated paradigms have persisted in the German medical and university establishments.

But I would be surprised if we did not find this vocational-vs-personal-growth tension if we scratched the surface of the public education discourse in the UK as well.

The fact is that what we're experiencing right now is a top-down disaster. -Paul Krugman

by dvx (dvx.clt št gmail dotcom) on Sat Nov 22nd, 2008 at 04:58:06 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I have no idea whether whatever German apprenticeships are pushed to, it is really “employer whims”. They are indeed ruthlessly modernised, at least by abolishing all the old names of occupation in favour of tasteless      „. . .-mechaniker” etc. There is a certain drift away from apprenticeships towards sub-academic degrees, (i) mimicking America which is a good thing in itself, and (ii) because it is cheaper in the short run for the enterprises. When it is too late, they will not be pleased.

On the whole, the apprenticeship system is endangered not by intrinsic failures, but by the simple fact that the silly OECD statistics that make up for education policy here disesteem apprenticeships in favour of sillyversity degrees.

Regarding medicine, I cannot believe that you would really consider  abandoning the “19th century research paradigm” (I suppose 18th century is a typo; then patients survived in spite of their doctors, as is well known).

by Humbug (mailklammeraffeschultedivisstrackepunktde) on Sat Nov 22nd, 2008 at 12:56:53 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I've been trying to come up with a coherent response to this diary for a while, and I realize that I happen to hold a variety of contradictory views that are not particularly well harmonized in my own head.

At one pole, I have an innate dislike of forcing young people to do things they don't want to do, and all too often school falls into this category.  Sure, there are students who are happy and love learning and doing homework.  In no situation, no matter how positive, does this describe all students.  In some situations, it describes almost none.  The reasons behind this are many, and likely have something to do with family background, something to do with the school, and something to do with inherent personality traits.  But in any case, there are oftentimes large numbers of students who simply don't want to study some things, or most things, or any things, and I really wonder about the efficacy and morality of forcing them to do what they don't want to do - particularly at the secondary level.

How much good does it do a thirteen or fourteen year old to sit in a class against their will, be it math or literature or art?  Is the good any greater than the harm?  Or, how useful is it to force the student who resents his or her imprisonment to continue it?  Is it worthwhile to force the bullied, abused child to continue on in that abusive social situation?  Further, how much damage does it do to the learning environment to have resentful, angry, or abused students in that environment against their will?

This question has great personal significance to me because I was one of those who detested school from the start.  I didn't like kindergarten, I hated elementary school, and I detested middle school.  I have trouble really understanding why I then ended up spending five years in college and seven in graduate school.

So, I don't think people should be forced to do things they don't like just because society thinks it's good for them.  Society is wrong an awful lot, especially when it really doesn't even try to look at the individual.

On the other hand, there are some things that people just should know!  Teaching now in Japan, and confronting firsthand the shocking level of ignorance and insularity in this country (not just at the student level!), it makes me sick.  People should bloody well know something about geography, and at the very least about their own history.  People should know how to read tables and graphs, and how to deal with data at a basic level.  People should know how to read and write coherently, at the very least in their own language if not in a foreign one as well.  People should know how to competently use a word processor, format text for print, use formulas in a spreadsheet, and acquire and manipulate images for a variety of uses.  In a car society, people ought to know a bit about the maintenance of cars, and in a home-owner society people ought to know enough carpentry and plumbing to at least understand the nature of the maintenance problems they might face.  In a society where most people live on their own for a period of time, people ought to know how to cook, how to budget and track expenditures, how to do basic repairs on their clothing, and how to deal with credit and finance.  And everybody ought to be able to raise plants, be they food or decorative.

This isn't about a canon or anything, these aren't about subverting the system, these are basic survival skills.  I don't have all of them, and I feel their absence every time a button falls off one of my jackets or my car starts making strange noises.  I know people who run into problems when they have to write things.  Despite this, many people don't have some, or any, of these skill, and often enough, regardless of class background, they resist acquiring them - it's too bothersome, who cares, I have better things to do, I'll never need that, I'm good enough already, etc.

And, honestly, it requires a fair bit of study and application to learn a lot of those things.  They aren't trivial.  Something like reading and writing well takes hours and hours and hours, year after year, to really master, and frankly most people don't care to put in that sort of time.  But damn it, they ought to!

And thus my inner dilemma.  There are a bunch of things that I can't help but feel that people ought to be required to know, whether they want to or not, yet I can't help but feel that forcing anyone to study anything against their will is inherently wrong.

Putting this burden at the feet of teachers, to be inspiring to everyone and fix their motivational problems and personal difficulties, is like saying that all generals should be Sun Tzu or all basketball players should be Magic Johnson - it'd be great, but it can't happen.  Inspiring the least amongst us is not a normal task that can be left to reasonably competent professionals, and there's not nearly enough magic fairy dust floating around to help out.

So I don't know anything.  

by Zwackus on Sat Nov 22nd, 2008 at 05:49:38 AM EST
I am sure many teachers suffer under this same paradoxical situation: how to equip kids for life when their life seems to have already started, thank you very much.

It seems to me to be very much associated with understanding what 'future' is, when living in a society that supplies endless possibilities for instant gratification and the hell with the future.

My ideal school (indeed my ideal prison ;-) - from 7 onwards would be situated on a farm with gardens, crops and domesticated animals. Shades of 'Being There'. The care of the land and the animals would be the daily responsibility of the kids - increasing in responsibility each year. All teaching (in the usual range of subjects) would relate to the micro-ecosystem i.e. be of practical benefit in ecosystem management. It would be dirty, possibly smelly, and highly sensual.

Such a system would not guarantee the production of hedge funders or even airline pilots. But it might produce a lot more useful people for the planet.

You can't be me, I'm taken

by Sven Triloqvist on Sat Nov 22nd, 2008 at 06:11:36 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I've had similar ideas myself. In any case, training in and experience doing things really ought to be a much bigger part of everybody's experience.  I wish it had been a bigger part of mine, much as I would have fought it when younger.
by Zwackus on Sat Nov 22nd, 2008 at 06:36:16 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I was fortunate enough to live almost next door to a smallholding with a couple of stables, horses, chickens etc. It was great place to play - in return, we had to help the local dairy owner with mucking out etc. I felt at the time that it was a great privilege.

You can't be me, I'm taken
by Sven Triloqvist on Sat Nov 22nd, 2008 at 08:05:54 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Hebridean school to pioneer crofting lessons

"The future is already here -- it's just not very evenly distributed" William Gibson
by ChrisCook (cojockathotmaildotcom) on Tue Nov 25th, 2008 at 05:58:19 AM EST
[ Parent ]
As a starts, see also here.
by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Sat Nov 22nd, 2008 at 07:27:59 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I absolutely agree. A further aspect of this dilemma is that young people need to learn (somehow) that pretty much any interesting or worthwhile endeavor, whether arts, sciences or sports, not just a "regular" job, demands a whole lot of drudgery from those who aspire to it.

The fact is that what we're experiencing right now is a top-down disaster. -Paul Krugman
by dvx (dvx.clt št gmail dotcom) on Sat Nov 22nd, 2008 at 12:20:08 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Very interesting article rdf!
I'd like to share my experience with all of you here...

I just recently graduated with an engineering (Masters) degree from the UK. But before that I had studied all my life in France. I find myself lucky, as I do not come from a privileged background, yet I had the chance to attend a very good lycée (=high school) in Paris. Even more significant to me was the fact that I also came from a minority, so I had ample time to appreciate my fortune. Naturally, I have always kept the educational system of France in fairly high-regard, because of my situation, but also because of the breadth and depth of the teachings instilled.

Unfortunately, in the process, I have also ignored many of its flaws. I realised that there was more than sheer luck to my course: I was not living in abundance, but neither was I experiencing destitution, and in fact my parents had received further education back in their time. Lastly, I may have had facilities in the learning process, both "knowledge", and "process", even though my ability in the former is not as good as it used to be (I don't understand, I could memorise so well and swiftly in the past; not anymore. I am not even 23 yet! Any ideas why? I would like to get it back:) ). Shockingly, it struck me to acknowledge that luck was a much more marginal force than what I thought it initially was.

So now I tend to hold mixed views on education. I still think that many/most of the teaching body strives to give the best to the students/pupils, despite the ever increasing curtailment on budget, but it is just not enough. First, we do not all learn the same way, but we also cannot afford "tailored" education for all. Second, some programmes are ill-adapted to develop the critical mind of its end-users. Last, but surely not least, many sociological factors, with poverty in the vanguard, are forces that have to be dealt with simultaneously! In the end, what we call the "education problem" is a tangled mess that can hardly be unravelled by initiatives aimed at one particular knot.

Finally, (see I have not eluded the question), I would say that the purpose of education is to help shape/transform people so that they can reason, adapt, and assess information (whatever it may be) with a curious and critical  mind. Notice the use of the verb "help": education alone cannot make us complete, we also need a decent environment, love, and personal accomplishments.

I'm a bit young and lacking some further information about the state of the educational system in the U.S.A. or even Britain. But I believe that politicians/lawmakers are reluctant to push for more aggressive reforms on education because, as you pointed out, one consequence could be an increase in interaction with lower classes.
As a result, this would inevitably threaten to unearth other, deeper wounds within the society itself. There is a serious risk of negative domino/ricochet effect that I am sure they are very well aware of.

by Eddie on Sat Nov 22nd, 2008 at 11:26:53 AM EST

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