What is education?

The direction in which education starts a man will determine his future in life.” ~ Plato

The transition into the 20th century was a watershed event for both medicine and education. Over the course of a few decades, medical education and the system of primary and secondary education employed in our nation relinquished their classical roots which dated back to the Greek and Roman systems crafted 2,500 years earlier in favor of a new approach to healing and learning.

The Carnegie Institute funded a study led by Mr. Abraham Flexner in an attempt to reform and improve the system of medical education in the early 1900s. You can read more bout his efforts in my post The Flexner Century is Over. At the same time, educational experts sought a new way to prepare children for productive work in a world reshaped by the industrial revolution. The system of classical education developed by the Greeks and refined by the Romans focused on the pursuit of a unifying principle by which and through which life could be understood and lived meaningfully. The new model discarded that approach, favoring a new output, that is, class after class of uniformly prepared students capable of functioning in a more industrialized world.

This new approach caught like wildfire, and educational reform swept through the schools and universities of the era. Initial results appeared favorable, but over time the approach lost its luster and its effectiveness. The humanities suffered. Even though the United States had a higher percentage of educated citizens than most other industrialized nations, the previously refined and penetrating capacity for critical thinking atrophied significantly.

Consider these statistics compiled by former US Secretary of Education William J Bennett:

  • American 12th graders rank 19th out of 21 industrialized countries in mathematic achievement and 16th out of 21 nations in science.Our advanced physics students ranked dead last.
  • Since 1983, over 10 million Americans have reached the 12th grade without having learned to read at a basic level. Over 20 million have reached their senior year unable to do basic math. Almost 25 million have reached 12th grade not knowing the essentials of U.S. history.
  • According to U.S. manufacturers, 40% of all 17-year-olds do not have the math skills and 60% lack the reading skills to hold down a production job at a manufacturing company.
  • 76% of college professors and 63% of employers believe that “a high school diploma is no guarantee that the typical student has learned the basics.”

What could possibly explain these disastrous results? In a 2009 essay in American Scholar, english professor William Chase explained why his field had been “pushed to the periphery”:

But there are additional reasons for the drop in numbers of students concentrating in English and other subjects in the literary humanities. History, geography, and demography do not explain it all. Other forces, both external and internal, have been at work. The literary humanities and, in particular, English are in trouble for reasons beyond their control and for reasons of their own making. First, an obvious external cause: money. With the cost of a college degree surging upward during the last quarter century—tuition itself increasing far beyond any measure of inflation—and with consequent growth in loan debt after graduation, parents have become anxious about the relative earning power of a humanities degree. Their college-age children doubtless share such anxiety. When college costs were lower, anxiety could be kept at bay. (Berkeley in the early ’60s cost me about $100 a year, about $700 in today’s dollars.) Alexander W. Astin’s research tells us that in the mid-1960s, more than 80 percent of entering college freshmen reported that nothing was more important than “developing a meaningful philosophy of life.” Astin, director of the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, reports that “being very well off financially” was only an afterthought, one that fewer than 45 percent of those freshmen thought to be an essential goal. As the years went on, however, and as tuition shot up, the two traded places; by 1977, financial goals had surged past philosophical ones, and by the year 2001 more than 70 percent of undergraduate students had their eyes trained on financial realities, while only 40 percent were still wrestling with meaningful philosophies.

The world has changed but has humanity? In my observation people still grapple with the failure to develop a meaningful philosophy of life, no matter how much information that amass in their minds or in the visible spectrum of the collective subconscious mind we call “the internet.” Information is necessary, but not sufficient to develop the capacity for critical thinking.

American philosopher, psychologist and education reformer John Dewey made a fascinating statement in Education and Experience that has stuck with me through the years. Consider this:

What avail is it to win prescribed amounts of information… if in the process an individual loses his own soul: loses his appreciation of things worth while, of the values to which these things are relative; if he loses desire to apply what he has learned and, above all, loses the ability to extract meaning from his future experiences as they occur?

Do we need more education reform or do we need to admit to ourselves that the template that our current system is cut from was inaccurate, despite its initial appeal? I am not a classicist longing for the days of yore, rather, I am a father and a citizen, concerned for the future of his children and his country.

Refining our ability to move in the wrong direction is not the answer. Finding our way back to a program of education that results in intelligent, balanced and wise men and women capable of critical thinking – no matter what the subject at hand may be – is, in my estimation, exactly what we need.

11 thoughts on “What is education?

  1. Jordan

    This is such an important conversation to be had and it has obviously stirred thought from your readers. As a current student, I can tell you that our system is immensely flawed. It amazes me to watch students be cheated out of a true education while watching others cheat the system and receive pieces of paper deeming them educated. It is interesting to me how we do not associate “wisdom” with school. Someone may have degrees, straight As, or any other measure of intellectual capability that make them “smart” (and that is if you are one of the those who has found yourself able to benefit from the current system). But being wise is associated with life events, time lived, it is an acquired trait, but in most people’s minds, it is not acquired at school. Why is this so? I agree that wisdom is not something that can be neatly put into a box and written in the words of a text book, but that seems to be our problem in the first place. That too much information and the lessons of life wisdom are sheared off when we try to succinctly fit facts, dates, and equations into text book format. Education needs change- so where do we start?


  2. Kimberly

    There is not a more important subject for the future of our country and I think for mankind as well. The challenges we face today can only be faced by people that can think. Not just regurgitate information, rules, tradition or history but actually be able to rationally look at what the facts are and take action based on vision, imagination, humanity and courage.
    When we vote this should get top consideration. It won’t change unless the voting population see it as “a make of brake” issue. It actually is.


  3. Diana

    Reading, writing and math do not make us adults.  They are the tools adults use to expand understanding, express ideas and develop new innovations.  Understanding, Ideas and Innovation come through creative exploration, supportive community, self confidence, humility, awareness and drive.  Conversely, standardized testing and performance incentives do insure competition, distrust, undo stress and early burn out, just like adults.

    In an attempt to make children into little adults our culture of education has lost perspective.  The illusion that teaching “skills” will insure young adults the tools for quality living and a expanding civilization has consequently forced our youth through a shell of humanities  and a hammering of meaningless skill and drill -and thats just kindergarten!

    Education needs a soul, it needs to cultivate the foundations of great citizenship which will consequently ignite the inner desire for the tools great citizens use.  There needs to be a rush to creative play, respect, shared experience, and meaningful activity.  Students need to learn that they are valuable, creative, responsible, and members of humanity.

    A horse is born and can run within hours, They only have a year to be a yearling.  However, human beings must be held and assisted for nearly a year or more before our first step and are considered children for nearly 2 decades.  Clearly their is a significant design difference.  Let’s get our children off the race track and back into the nurturing arms of human beings, at least for their childhood.  I think we would be surprised how many prize winners that shift could cultivate.


  4. Kolya

    Wow, what an interesting overview of our educational system and how it got this way! It does seem that we’ve wandered from what’s really important and to look at ways that we can improve a degenerating system.


  5. Colin

    The invention of the internet gives us much more leverage in our ability to educate. I am astonished that there has been no worldwide push to change our system of education. For primary and secondary education in the United States, many people think that there is not enough money. Nothing could be further from the truth. There is plenty of money for students, but it is tied up in bureaucracy, unions, political correctness, and standardized testing, to name a few. It’s a bloated system that is buried under its own weight, and there is no accountability or real pressure for it to change. We have so many options for education that could be tailored to each individual student’s learning style. In the modern world, the only reasons to keep education the same are laziness, fear of change (of losing their jobs), or an inability to challenge the status quo.


    1. Gregg Hake

      One of the statistics from Mr. Bennett I didn’t mention supports your thought: “Average per-pupil spending in U.S. public schools rose 212% from 1960 to 1995 in real (i.e. inflation-adjusted) dollars.” If you pay more to get less something is amiss.


  6. Flow

    Well said. Thank you for highlighting this problem. It would be wonderful to have a system in place where children were able to maintain their sense of wonder. The current “outside in” “blend in” atmosphere creates individuals full of fear. If we could provide an educational environment that fosters and develops “inside out” living we might be in position to let this whole world change.


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