Why Do We Educate?

Formal education has many purposes

Posted Jun 01, 2014

The decision to make college level courses available to anyone with access to a computer has provoked a welcome renewal of  interest in the meaning of a college degree, and, more broadly,  the purposes of a formal education.  Several observations are so obviously true they border on the banal. Youth must learn the skills needed for economic survival in their society.  The historical events that replaced the easily acquired talents needed to  produce the  food for a family  living on a small plot of land with the more complex skills required to invent, operate, or repair the varied machines that dominate modern economies meant that  institutions outside the family had to assume responsibility for the instruction.  Every society has to invent a procedure – it helps if it appears fair- that selects the small number who will be responsible for making critical decisions for the majority.  As societies became larger and more complex those who acquired these skills enjoyed a higher status and more material resources.

 Until relatively late in human history most communities recognized that only a small proportion of their youth would  be allowed to learn the necessary, technical skills. Not surprisingly,  most  came from wealthier  families. That fact has not changed.  More than 50 percent of the current CEOs of America’s largest corporations graduated from one of 12 elite institutions, representing  less than 1 percent of America’s non-profit, four year colleges. A  degree from one of these institutions is a mark of dignity,  analogous to the privilege  awarded only to nobility in medieval Scotland to wear silk in public.  The egalitarian ethos that began to sweep across Europe during the eighteenth century motivated  citizens in many nations  to demand that every child had a right to an education  that promised a well-paying job and a fair measure of  respect.   

Although teaching the skills adults need to make a comfortable living is a primary goal of all schools and colleges, an education serves at least five other functions. Educators have a responsibility to help students gain an appreciation of the history of their own and other cultures, a familiarity with the fundamental concepts and methods of the sciences, the ability to evaluate information critically, to  write and speak coherently,  and, what turns out to be especially difficult in diverse societies,  to articulate the ethical values that enjoy reasonable  consensus in the community. This last assignment is replete with controversy in the United States and some European nations because of the extraordinary amount of disagreement surrounding  religious values, the validity of scientific explanations of the origin of the universe,   sexuality, individualism, loyalty to family, and the proper gender roles.  

The increasing availability of college level courses on the internet allows many millions the opportunity to become familiar with knowledge domains that otherwise would remain foreign. But knowledge of facts is only one property of an educated person.  Most facts, if not used or rehearsed, are quickly forgotten. The average college senior can’t remember more than five percent of the content presented in their freshman courses. Seniors are most accurate at recalling the name of the building in which a course was taught and least accurate in recalling the content of the course. 

 It has become so easy to get information on almost any topic the reason for seeking the information often recedes in importance. Before the explosion in information technology it was  often difficult to obtain  a fact that would resolve a  puzzle. Hence, most adults had a question  before they expended the energy needed to find the answer. The contemporary barrage of information is delivered on screens to receivers who did not have a question that the information might resolve. Every bit of information has to be fitted into the proper place in a persons’ sturdy scaffold of beliefs and facts. What should the average citizen do with a headline in 2013  declaring that one in 88 American children has autism if they have never seen an autistic child and are unacquainted with the biological and behavioral properties of autistic children and the strategies professionals rely on in arriving  at a diagnosis?

The place of a fact in a scaffold depends on the question posed. Consider the fact that economic inequality in the United States has been increasing since the 1970s.  That piece of information assumes one form in an argument for increasing taxes on the wealthy, but a different form in a narrative that predicts future civil unrest.  Because all facts are susceptible to being proven wrong, youth and adults need a sturdy collection of premises, beliefs, and facts surrounding an issue so that they know when to ignore a new fact and when to modify the scaffold without destroying it.

I  hope  there is no reason to worry about  the  possibility that, over time, internet courses will emphasize the  knowledge domains  that have obviously correct answers and  avoid  contents  containing  dialectical arguments or  inconsistent facts. A scholar once wrote that the opposite of a great truth is often another great truth. The particle- wave conception of light is an example. For that reason I trust that an internet course on  evolution  will not  state a specific  time interval when the dog evolved from the wolf but tell  students that the interval  when domestic  dogs first appeared  depends on whether DNA or fossils supply the evidence.  For profit companies that prepare digitally packaged knowledge might be tempted to avoid less certain facts and emphasize knowledge that the respected authorities judge as correct. The corporations that produce these courses may not want to risk controversy, and loss of market share, by including facts that might be challenged. Should that strategy emerge, knowledge of the natural sciences will dominate the humanities and social sciences because natural scientists enjoy greater agreement on the facts that are believed to be true at a particular time, and, in addition, these facts are more useful in today’s  economy.

The historian Anthony Grafton is deeply concerned over the British government’s plan to reduce the number of university faculty in history, classic languages, and philosophy because these contents have minimal relevance for the  financial health of the  nation.   The decision to use a college graduate’s future income as a measure the value of  his or her college education, and the institution that provided it,  reduces the totality of a student’s college experiences to  a set of pamphlets summarizing  the facts that define the major disciplines.

It would be unfortunate if the humanities  received less attention in  internet curricula  because historians, novelists, poets, and artists  force youth to reflect on the divergent perspectives on the human condition.  Humanists remind a society of its contradictions, articulate the reasons for inchoate feelings, detect changes in a culture’s values, confront moral dilemmas, and offer explanations  for sudden changes in social conditions. Robert Anderson’s  1953 play “ Tea and Sympathy”  generated a sympathetic tolerance toward  adolescent boys  coping with anxiety over heterosexual relationships.   The memoirs of Frank Kermode, John Updike, and George Kennan, described what it was like to  feel “inauthentic”, an emotion  that social scientists rarely study. Humanists persuade readers that  creative products  require a particular  person in a cultural setting that has an audience   prepared for the original idea.  Early twentieth century Europeans were ready to regard Freud’s hypotheses as possibly insightful;  residents of Beijing and Delhi were not.    

Finally, historians, writers, and playwrights detect subtle tensions in a society whose surface shines with optimism.  North Americans and Europeans in 1958 were enjoying peace and economic prosperity, physicists and engineers were glowing with pride over their contributions to the victory over Germany and Japan, and the public was anticipating the manufacture of the polio vaccine. The surface gleamed with high hopes for the future.

But 1958 was also the year when audiences saw an old, disheveled man slip on a banana peel in the opening scene of Samuel Beckett’s play,  “Krapp’s Last Tape”,  John Kenneth Galbraith lamented over the consumerism of Americans, and youth were talking about the power of  Jack Kerouac’s   “On the Road” to  evoke  nostalgia for a simpler era when most of the town turned out for the July 4th parade and Clark Gable, in the film version of  “Gone with the Wind”,  was the  model for young men wondering how to behave with their dates on a Saturday night. Only a few years later youth were applauding Bob Dylan’s vocal reply to a woman longing for a man to care for her in times of distress: “ No, no, no, it ain’t me babe , it ain’t me you’re looking for, babe.”  Humanists are usually the first scholars  to detect the early signs of a pessimism lurking beneath a shiny surface and to help the public shape a more coherent understanding of the historical era in which they  are trapped.

Educational institutions have an additional, less clearly articulated, but nonetheless critical, purpose. It is to select the next cohort who will  have a responsibility to the larger society. The preferred procedure uses each  youth’s performance during  the first 16 years of schooling to decide who will be allowed to enter the gate to  occupational mobility.   The premise is simple. The  40 year olds who are likely to behave responsibly and wisely when investing another’s money,  caring for the sick, operating on a brain, defending clients in court, designing a  bridge, or running a public agency are those who  had been conscientious in the past. Hence,  educators established a sequence of obstacles, in the form of tests, papers, and projects, that would  reveal those who  perfected their  talents and sustained the motivation needed to meet these demands for  16 to 20  years. This is surely the longest personnel test in human history.   The armed forces rely on a similar strategy to select the few with the courage, personality, and skill to serve as special operation forces.

The graduate students who protest against comprehensive examinations fail to understand that the purpose of the exams is to discover who  was conscientious enough to study for them. Moreover, if students did not exert effort in order to pass the exams they would not value their degree. And if they did not value the degree they might not  be professionally responsible.  No pain, no gain.

The recent move to measure  the value of an education with the same economic metric we apply to consumables is facilitated by a pragmatic  philosophy among many undergraduates who, sensing the stiff competition for admission to a professional school or  a well- paying first  job, became  narrowly task oriented and less interested in history, anthropology,  philosophy  and fields of study that seem to have little relevance for  their career plans.The social conditions of the past quarter century have  generated a skeptical posture toward the traditional assumption that the college years were supposed to persuade youth that they were participants in rituals that  allowed them to appreciate the special meanings of knowledge, truth, and beauty. Too many of  today’s undergraduates  are on a bus tour through a beautiful countryside  in which the primary aim is to keep the bus on schedule.   The  students who pay full tuition at one of America’s large, respected universities  resemble hotel  guests  served by a well- paid faculty who try to please the clients by not  giving anyone a  grade lower than  A-  in order to avoid upsetting them. Harvey Mansfield,  a Harvard professor of government disturbed by this trend,  decided to give two grades to  the students in his courses.  One is his personal evaluation of the student’s level of achievement in the course,  which he  gives to each person  privately. The second is the official grade of A or A- ,  the typical grade in most courses, that he sends to the Registrar. The lack of  embarrassment over the  hypocrisy of  this practice  reveals a confusion over the primary aims of a  higher education.

The pragmatic emphasis in higher education is part of a broader rejection of any claim to sacredness for any institution, group, person, career,  or ritual. It looks like a sizeable proportion of the public in developed nations has absorbed the message physicists, chemists, and biologists have been disseminating for at least a century. The universe and everything in it are accidents devoid of any special purpose or ulterior meaning.  Ideas and actions are, like all matter, subject to physical and chemical laws  that are free of sentimental notions  of good, better, best, or sacred. 

Ross Douthat, a columnist for  the New York Times, and Mark Edmundson, a professor of English at the University of Virginia and the author of “Why  Teach”,  wrote that universities are  beginning to resemble  large corporations  more concerned with their national status, political correctness,  and financial integrity  than in the ethical ambience that penetrates the campus.

This conclusion is supported by the startling fact that 75 percent of the teaching positions in America’s colleges in 2014 are filled by graduate students or adjunct faculty who are paid by the course or work on a year-to-year contract.  These conditions deprive  students as well as the faculty of the illusion that each is participating in a sacred mission that transcends  the ordinariness of daily life. This indictment is confirmed by the surprisingly  small gains in knowledge  that occur over  four years of college.  Derek Bok, a former president of Harvard University, notes in   “Higher Education in America” that, across all of America’s higher institutions, the average American   graduate of a four year college   is only a little more proficient than he or she was as a  freshman.  Less than 10   percent of graduating seniors are proficient in critical thinking,  mathematics, and writing skills. 

The most constructive suggestions for reform depend on an accurate understanding of the  problems.  I agree with the many wise observers of American society who understand that the two most pressing domestic problems are the growing magnitude of economic inequality and the increasingly impenetrable  barrier to social mobility among youth  who grew up in less advantaged families. Today’s economy requires workers who, at a minimum,  have acquired a twelfth grade level of proficiency in reading, writing, and   arithmetic  and can operate  a computer.

 One benevolent change would be to establish more institutions devoted  to teaching the skills known traditionally as  blue collar jobs. It will  be necessary, however,  to remove the  compromised status  attached to these vocations and to award them  more dignity.   This is not an impossible task if more Americans  become less sensitive to their social status.  Each time an expert makes this proposal a member of a minority group stands up in a public meeting claiming that this idea is a plot designed to keep poor minority youth in second class vocations and in their proper place. Citizens must be  willing  to pay higher  local taxes for more generous teacher salaries  in order to attract back to the public schools the talented men and women who abandoned this profession after 1950. When that happens the status of teachers will rise because Americans link status with annual income. 

The American public’s demand  for change is not yet strong enough to produce serious reforms.  Too few parents whose children are  in private  or suburban schools  are unhappy with the current structure.  Therefore, they are not highly motivated to demand serious reforms.  Second, many citizens have the correct intuition that the quality of the relationship between  teachers and  pupils is the most significant  basis for  improved academic performance.  Most have little faith that new curricula, charter schools, or computerized instruction will be as effective as  hiring men and women who understand the significance of  the teacher- pupil relationship. Teachers are flesh and blood  examples of adults who  found a career that combined an adequate income,  an opportunity to be useful to others, dignity, and opportunities for satisfaction in one’s career.  Youth want to believe that such people  exist.

The absence of large numbers of admired role models in the schools contributes to the gap between the academic achievement of poor children in urban schools and  middle-class children in private  schools. One of the culprits is a  reluctance  to acknowledge that  the psychological  processes that  accompany  the interactions between a competent, caring  teacher and a student , unlike those that explain why  an ointment  reduces the itch of poison ivy, are the critical factors that  motivate children to  improve their academic talents.

Finally, members of every society must enter into a candid discussion of the competing values that dominate their historical moment. Schools and colleges, like courts and film studios, serve their communities.  Hence, teachers and professors must remain sensitive to historical changes in  values. My hope is that the  generation  now entering elementary school will become  adults who are friendlier than the current generation to the suggestions for reform advocated here.