I have argued this topic before, but it bears repeating in light of an excellent comment making the rounds on Facebook. The comment was made by Chris Hedges, Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and frequent contributor to the New York Times, among other major papers. His comment, in part, reminds us that “We’ve bought into the idea that education should be about training and ‘success’ defined monetarily rather than learning to think critically and to challenge. We should not forget that the true purpose of education is to make minds, not careers…” I couldn’t agree more.
Bearing in mind that education begins in the home with parents who have time for their children and are eager to see them learn, there are a number of things wrong with the direction American education has taken since the 1940s at least. We have bought into the progressive education fiction that teaching is about the kids when it is supposed to be about what the kids learn. Robert Hutchins and John Dewey fought over this issue for years and Dewey’s child-centered system of education won the day. But Dewey soon left Columbia Teachers College after his triumph and washed his hands of the whole thing: he didn’t like the way his ideas were being misrepresented by his “supporters.” Educators have further watered down Dewey’s ideas of “child-centered” education.
We like to think that we have placed the kids first when in fact they are forgotten in the jargon-filled nonsense about entitlement and self-esteem. Kids are told they are wonderful just because they breathe in and out, whether or not they have actually done anything worthy of praise. They know this is a lie: they sense lies the way a squirrel senses where the nut is hidden. And they are handed the keys to the educational kingdom rather than having to work for them, forgetting that those things that come too easily are really not worth having — while the nonsense about entitlement leads to rampant grade inflation and passing along kids who have learned nothing. Real learning takes effort and that effort is rewarded by a sense of accomplishment that becomes inner satisfaction and requires no pat on the head. And the subject matter that is learned is of central importance.
But Hedges has his finger on the single most dangerous mistake we have made in recent years: we have confused education with job training. It started in the 1950s when the educational establishment was concerned that drop-out rates were climbing dangerously and needed to be stopped. They did research and discovered that high school and especially college graduates made more money in their lifetimes than did those who dropped out of school. So the marketing machine was set in motion and the theme was developed that kids should stay in school in order to be successful — monetarily, as Hedges says (the terms we have decided are the only ones by which success can be measured). Big Mistake! Education is not about jobs or making money. It is about putting kids in possession of their own minds, helping them to achieve true freedom, the ability to think for themselves, separate truth from nonsense, and not to suffer fools. These are the critical skills Hedges mentions and he couldn’t be more right.
The current presidential contest reveals the consequences of this sort of confusion. Instead of dealing with the major issues facing this country and this planet, about which we hear practically nothing, we are focused instead in “jobs and the economy” as though these things are the only things that matter. But a society made up of miseducated people who have been trained to work and not to think can easily be duped into swallowing this line of nonsense — without even knowing what they have ingested.
What matters are not the jobs and the economy in the end. What matters is the survival of human beings on a planet under siege by corporate greed and a business mentality that has convinced us that money is the only thing that really matters and is solidly behind the misperception that education is all about job training. As Hedges goes on to conclude, “A culture that does not grasp the vital interplay between morality and power, which mistakes management techniques for wisdom, which fails to understand that the measure of a civilization is its compassion, not its speed or ability to consume, condemns itself to death.” Amen to that!