Failure?

The wag on “Get Up!” — a weekly sports show on ESPN — put it best when he said: “Failure is a good thing. It teaches us valuable lessons.”

The topic surrounded the recent loss of a football team that had been sailing along beating their opponents fairly easily. They lost the most recent game and the question for the table was weather or not this might be a good thing in the long run. It was generally accepted that it would in fact be a good thing as it would make the losing team more determined and work harder to avoid losses in the future. Indeed, it is a maxim — if not an axiom — in sports that losing can be the best thing for a team that begins to feel it is invincible.

This is one of the reasons why sports is so important a part of our culture, since sports teach important life-lessons. As a whole, we tend to think that losing is the worst thing that can happen. In our schools, for example, we hear that “no child should be left behind,” and I even had a colleague years ago who refused to give grades to his students because it would mean that some would fail. As you can imagine, students flocked to his classes and did absolutely nothing in order to simply be passed along — and get valuable college credit.

But the disparity between the sports axiom and the common notion in the schools (and in the home) regarding failure or success is worthy of thought. I maintain that the sports world knows what it is talking about and the rest of us should simply shut up: failure can be a good thing. It most often is as most of us would attest if we are honest.

Years ago I wrote a post about George Washington who reflected on his losses late in his life — the experience with Braddock in the French and Indian wars, for example — and insisted that they were the most important lessons he learned and steeled him later in life for future disappointments and losses and made him able to win out in the end.

So let it be agreed: failure can be a good thing. Let the kids lose and hope they learn from those losses and become future winners. Because, like it or not, there are winners and there are losers in life.

Sad Irony

In the midst of the pandemic, which our feckless president dismisses as a “hoax,” there is a movement of major importance that is getting inadequate attention. I speak about the “Black Lives Matter” movement. Following the murder of George Floyd by a  Minneapolis policeman a few weeks ago, there has been a surge in attention to the undeniable fact that police target the blacks and that they live in fear of those sworn to protect and serve them while the rest of us rest content and simply complain about the protests.

But during this period when the movement needs all the momentum it can possibly gain, the reporters are constantly sticking microphones in the faces of black athletes asking them their opinion about the movement and what it means to them. This is a good thing, in my view, because all the attention the movement can get is beneficial and will, hopefully make the world safer for blacks in the future. The problem is that many of those athletes are tongue-tied when asked about problems outside their area of major interest, which is the sport they have devoted their lives to.

The irony here is that many of these men have either attended or even graduated from America’s colleges and universities and some have college degrees but still have no way to express themselves at a time when expression is of major importance to them and others like them. It is another indictment of the state of education in this country. This is my point.

Don’t get me wrong, I speak about many of the professional athletes’ interviews, not all. There are a number who are bright and articulate and who make a strong case for their movement. But a great many simply cannot find the words they want to express the strong views they hold about social injustice in this country. And this at a time when strong views are of vital importance to the movement.

We need to pay attention to a problem that has been with us for a great many years and which makes the lives of black people fearful and miserable in a country that should make them feel safe and secure. And we need eloquent spokespersons to spell out the legitimate complaints these people have so we can seek solutions. It is not enough to simply identify the problem, it is essential that steps be taken to overcome the problem and make it go away. But we must begin with a clear idea of what the problem is. So white people in a position to make a difference need to listen to black voices.

As an educator all my adult life I cringe when I hear professional athletes, black and white, fumble and struggle to find the words they want to express their point of view. In this instance, we need to hear them speak and we need to hear what they have to say and take it seriously. These are presumably college-educated men and women but they sound like they are trying to speak in a foreign language.  I don’t blame them: their alma-maters have failed them miserably.

Let me say again that this is true of a great many professional athletes. Not all. And it applies to supposedly educated white athletes as well. Their education has not served them well and it is particularly noticeable at a time when they need to speak out and we need to listen to what they have to say.

The Other

I repost here a piece I wrote many years ago but which still seems relevant. At the very least it helps us alter our focus from the pandemic and the protests — not to mention the upcoming election.

The latest item in the stack of daily horror stories that we call “news” is about students harassing and even threatening bus drivers, teachers, and administrators. As a recent Yahoo story tells us,

The most recent school safety report from the National Center for Education Statistics, the data branch of the U.S. Department of Education, found that 5 percent of public schools reported students verbally abused teachers on a daily or weekly basis. Also, 8 percent of secondary school teachers reported being threatened with injury by a student, as did 7 percent of elementary teachers.

And we wonder why our education system is on the ropes! We refuse to pay teachers what they are worth and complain when they want to make enough to live on while at the same time we expect them to raise our children for us. It is clear even from this small sample (and we have no idea how many people refused to respond) that many of our children have no idea what the word “no” means. They suffer from an enlarged sense of “self” fostered by unlimited time in front of the TV and playing video games (which help isolate them and convince them that they are the center of the world) while their parents are off somewhere else trying to make enough money to pay the bills. The parents, accordingly, are being irresponsible by ignoring their children and refusing to teach them such elemental things as “manners.” What they are teaching their children are lessons in irresponsibility: do your own thing and the hell with others. It’s hard to determine which is the “cause” here since there are multiple factors involved.

For some time now as a culture we have rejected the notion of authority as a bad thing — even the authority of expert opinion. Now everyone has an opinion about everything and all are equal. As Ortega y Gasset pointed out some time ago,

“Today the most average man has the most mathematical ‘ideas’ on all that happens or ought to happen in the universe. Hence, he has lost the use of his hearing. . . There is no reason now for listening, but rather for judging, pronouncing, deciding. There is no question concerning public life in which he does not intervene, blind, and deaf as he is, imposing his ‘opinions.’” [Ignoring the fact that some opinions are more reasonable than others is a part of our preoccupation with self.]

We have also rejected notions such as discipline and discrimination, both of which are now regarded as bad things, taboo.  Both are, however, essential to a responsible, intelligible, well-ordered, world. Contrary to popular misconceptions, none of these things causes repressed egos. When properly guided they merely cause a redirection of energy into productive avenues of expression.  However, as long as we continue to read and hear on all sides that the self is the only thing that matters, reject even legitimate authority as bogus, and identify freedom with lack of restraint, simply, we must learn to expect our kids to pick up on the hints. They take their clues from what is going on around them; they are not stupid. Unschooled and self-absorbed like their parents, yes, but stupid, no.

I recall a good friend of mine who was the school superintendent at our local school. The gym was located in the school building near the classrooms; he went out to the gym one day not long ago because a student was shooting baskets and making a racket instead of attending classes; because of this he was disturbing those students who might have wanted to learn something. He told the boy to stop and go back to class. The boy turned to the man (the school superintendent!) and told him to f$%# off — and he continued to dribble the basketball and shoot buckets! My friend didn’t know what to do: he wasn’t strong enough to physically manhandle the young man and the local police weren’t an option if he wanted to avoid a scandal (which he did). If he suspended or expelled the student he would have to deal with the parents who would invariably take the boy’s side (because he is their son and can do no wrong). But he decided to suspend the boy anyway. As expected, he was severely criticized by the boy’s parents and their friends (it’s a small town) and was eventually “let go.”

Anecdotal? Yes. But symptomatic of the larger problem: our kids are learning to be irresponsible because they are surrounded by irresponsible adults. Clearly the parents should have supported the superintendent here. We are in danger of reverting to barbarism where the strongest (and loudest) rule. But “might” does not make “right.” The kids must learn, and we all must recall, that “civilization is above all else the will to live in common,” to quote Ortega once again.  We need others in order to become fully ourselves: we cannot go it alone, no matter how brave or audacious we think we are. But the first step is to acknowledge and above all respect the legitimacy of others’ interests even when they conflict with our own. We seem to be losing that and it is in danger of tearing us apart.

Spitting Into the Wind

I went back to the first year of my blogging to find this one which shows how great an impact my posts have had on the education establishment! At the time there was one comment, so I thought it might be of interest to a few others. One never knows.

Some years back the local power company was thinking about putting a coal-burning power plant in a town close to ours. They sent a couple of their suits down to placate the locals and reassure them that all would be well. During the question period that followed their presentation a farmer asked them what would become of the numerous acres that would be taken up by the plant and its holding ponds. The spokesman said he didn’t know, they couldn’t project past five years. The farmer responded that if the land were left alone he could predict with some assurance that the land would still be producing corn and beans. One of the wittiest comebacks I have ever witnessed.

It’s an interesting thing, this business model that doesn’t allow us to predict long-term. It’s all about short-term — which translates into profits and losses. The models that the mathematicians come up with cannot work with too many variables, and as the years are added up the variables begin to outnumber the constants. So prediction becomes difficult, if not impossible (just ask the weather prognosticators!) The business model gives us short-term thinking and quantification. The model works, there is no doubt about it: business has brought great wealth to a few and raised the standard of living for many in this country and around the world. It has even provided us with a paradigm of success, for better or worse. But it has its limitations — as suggested above.

It doesn’t encourage long-term thinking and it seeks to reduce all issues to numbers. The model doesn’t work in contexts other than business — say, education. I have even heard presumed educators talking about students as “our clients.” I kid you not. The problem, of course, is that it has in fact been forced on education and has increased the difficulties the schools are having teaching the young. As though there aren’t enough problems already. The notion that schools have to be held accountable and their “product” evaluated on a scale that can be quantified is absurd. But that’s where we have come, because it’s the only model bureaucrats know.

Moreover, the goal of education — which should be to put young people in possession of their own minds — has become reduced to getting a job. As though we could predict today what the jobs will be when the college Freshman graduates. We lie to them when we lead them to believe that the jobs available now will be available four or five years down the road. Here’s where the business model might be applied in a sensible way.  But we forget our inability to predict long-term in the desire to “sell the product,” which is the latest fashion in education finery — culinology (whatever that is), sports science, marketing, or forestry.

The only thing about the future that we know for sure is that it will change, and the only preparation for change we can urge on today’s students is to learn to think, to express themselves, to calculate, and to understand as much as possible of the world around them. The irony here is that the people who can use their minds are the ones who will get the jobs — the goals of education and job preparation are not necessarily antithetical to one another, as long as we get the priorities straight. But if we stress vocationalism and ignore liberal learning (as we have) we place blinders on the students and decrease their ability to adjust to changing circumstances down the road. If the seventeen-year-old focuses exclusively on, say, office management and then discovers at age 36 that the job is boring — or just not there — she is trapped in a straightjacket. If the focus is on breadth of preparation, the student will be ready for anything.

Short-term thinking, quantification, and the notion that it’s all about jobs are antithetical to education properly understood. The business model works in the world of profits and losses; it doesn’t work in the world of health and human development.

Words That Frighten

I wrote this years ago and reblog it here because no one seems to have read it and the ideas I tried to clarify appear to be as relevant today as they were years ago — if not more so!

In every generation there are numerous words that take on pejorative overtones — many of which were never part of the term’s meaning in the first place. Not long ago, for instance, “discipline” was a positive concept, but it has become a bad thing thanks to progressive educators who ignore the fact that discipline is essential to clear thinking and the creation of art instead of junk. Another such term is “discrimination” which used to simply suggest the ability to separate the wheat from the chaff, good paintings and good music, for example, from random paint scattered on canvas or mere noise. Indeed, it was a sign of an educated person who was regarded as discriminating.

In recent days, thanks to the Tea Party, the latest scare term is “socialism.” The political scare term used to be “communism,” but that term became out of fashion when the Soviet Union broke up and conciliation became the word of the day. But even when it was in use, most people would have been shocked to know that in its pure form communism was in close harmony with the teachings of Christ. Further,  the Soviet Union was never a communist nation by any stretch of the term. If anything, it was a socialistic dictatorship.

But let’s take a closer look at socialism. The term means, strictly speaking, that the state owns the means of production. That has not come to pass in this country, even with the recent federal bailouts of the banks and auto companies — initiated by a Republican President, by the way. But there certainly has been growing influence on the part of the government into economic circles, ever since F.D.R and his “New Deal.” Frequently these incursions were made to fill a void created by uncaring corporations, many to protect our environment which seems to be of no concern to large-scale polluters. Further such things as anti-trust laws do interfere with the unbridled competition that many think is essential to capitalism — an economic system, by the way, that has resulted in a society in which the 400 richest Americans now have a combined net worth greater than the lowest 150 million Americans. But even if President Obama has been accurately accused of promoting “socialism,” we might want to know if this would be such a terrible thing. Take the case of Finland, a decidedly socialistic nation.

Finns pay high taxes

“but they don’t spend all their money building $22 billion aircraft carriers, $8 billion submarines, $412 million fighter planes, or spend a million dollars a year keeping each soldier in foreign adventures such as Iraq and Afghanistan,”

as noted in a recent article by Ed Raymond in Duluth’s Weekly Reader. On the contrary, Finnish children are guaranteed essentials in the way of food and clothing, medical care, counseling and even taxi fare, if needed.

“All student health care is free for the family. The state provides three years of maternity leave for the mother and subsidized day care for parents. All five-year-olds attend a preschool program that emphasizes play and socializing. Ninety-seven percent of six-year-olds attend public pre-schools where they begin to study academics. ‘Real’ school begins at seven and is compulsory,”

In Finland teachers are held in high esteem, paid well, and are drawn from the top quartile of university students.  Last year in Finland there were 6.600 applicants for 660 empty teaching slots. The student-to-teacher ratio is seven to one. Contrast this with our over-crowded classrooms and an educational system that underpays and overworks teachers and holds them in low regard. Clearly, there is something here worth pondering, and it lends the lie to the notion that socialism is an inherently bad thing and something to be avoided at all costs.

Am I advocating socialism? No. But I am in total support of the Wall Street protesters who want a  system that taxes the wealthy as well as the poor; I support this President’s attempts to provide health care for those who cannot afford it; I vote for political candidates who seem to care more about people than about profits; but above all else, I oppose those who throw about terms they don’t understand in at an attempt to frighten rather than to advance understanding.

America’s Chronic Anti-Intellectualism

As a retired college professor who has thought about education all of my adult life  (and even written a book about it!), I have posted a number of blogs on the topic. This is one of my favorites from 2014.

Every now and again as we read good books there appear, as if by magic, words that express so well some of the loose, disjointed ideas we have in our own heads. In reading Richard Hofstadter’s remarkable work Anti-Intellectualism in American Life I came across such words. Indeed, I have come across such words numerous times, as readers of these blogs are aware! In any event, Hofstadter’s comments about anti-intellectualism within our educational system ring true: I have seen it first hand and am aware that it has grown considerably over the years as the schools have moved steadily toward a more “practical” system that develops the “whole child” or teaches them job skills, and downplays the importance of developing their minds.

As Hofstadter suggests, this attitude has been commonplace  in our culture since the Civil War; we could be caught, increasingly, worshipping at the shrine of The Great God Utility — expecting of our educational system what we expected of our religion, “that it be [undemanding], practical and pay dividends.”  Still, there were a few people, like this “small town Midwestern editor” quoted by Hofstadter who understood the need for intelligent citizens in our democracy:

“If the time shall ever come when this mighty fabric shall totter, when the beacon of joy that  now rises in pillars of fire . . . shall wax dim, the cause will be found in the ignorance of the people. If our union is still to continue . . .; if your fields are to be untrod by the hirelings of despotism; if long days of blessedness are to attend our country in her career of glory; if you would have the sun continue to shed his unclouded rays upon the faces of freemen, then EDUCATE ALL THE CHILDREN OF THE LAND. This alone startles the tyrant in his dreams of power, and rouses the slumbering energies of an oppressed people. It was intelligence that reared up the majestic columns of national glory; and this sound morality alone can prevent their crumbling to ashes.”

Aside from the fact that few editors today, Midwestern or not, have this man’s facility with words (or his love of hyperbole), he points out the necessary connection between educating young minds and the preservation of our republic, which we seem to have forgotten: education not as job training or increasing self-esteem, but as empowerment, the ability of citizens to use their minds and make wise choices. The Founders were banking on it. Our schools seem to have forgotten what they are supposed to do. As Hofstadter goes on to point out:

“But if we turn from the rhetoric of the past to the realities of the present, we are most struck by the volume of criticism suggesting that something very important has been missing from the American passion for education. A host of educational problems has arisen from indifference — underpaid teachers, overcrowded classrooms, double-schedule schools, broken-down school buildings, inadequate facilities and a number of other failings that come from something else — the cult of athleticism, marching bands, high-school drum majorettes, ethnic ghetto schools, de-intellectualized curricula, the failure to educate in serious subjects, the neglect of the academically gifted children. At times the schools in this country seem to be dominated by athletics, commercialism, and the standards of the mass media, and those extend upwards to a system of higher education whose worst failings were underlined by the bold president of the University of Oklahoma who hoped to develop a university of which the football team could be proud. Certainly some ultimate educational values seem forever to be eluding the Americans. . . . Americans would create a common-school system, but would balk at giving it adequate support.”

A page later, Hofstadter quotes the great education reformer, Horace Mann who predicted as far back as 1837:

“neglectful school committees, incompetent teachers, and an indifferent public, may go on degrading each other until the whole idea of free schools would be abandoned.”

In order to remedy this situation, Mann pushed hard to establish “normal schools” in Massachusetts on the Prussian model, which he saw first-hand. These schools were set up to train teachers, and they gradually spread in this country to become the “teachers colleges” that evolved into the state colleges which, in turn, morphed into the state universities we see everywhere.  The job of these state colleges and universities was, and still is, primarily to train teachers. As part of this process, teachers were to be “certified” to guarantee their competence. But this process, together with the starvation wages they are paid, has practically guaranteed that the poor quality of teachers that Mann pointed to in his day would persist. The process of “normalization” brought with it a huge bureaucracy, which has been aptly named “the Blob,” that has threatened to strangle the training of teachers and has turned many bright young people away from the profession, practically guaranteeing the very condition Mann determined to avoid. America now draws its teachers from the bottom third or bottom quarter of the college pool thanks in large part to the poor salaries they are paid and the “methods” courses they are required to take in order to be certified.

In any event, Mann’s words struck me not only as insightful, but as prophetic. In the end, the current condition of public schools in America comes down to the indifference of the public — their addiction to the extra-curricular coupled and the practical along with their refusal to pay teachers what they deserve —  not to mention a system of teacher training that tends, on the whole, to belittle intelligence and discourage those who would almost certainly make the best teachers.

Highly Specialized

In the spirit of sharing what went before and hoping that the topic is still relevant I post here a previous effort from many, many years ago.

I am reading a history of early Rome that is well done but painstakingly detailed and slow reading. It’s title is Through The Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 A.D. Yes, that’s just the title. The book is by Peter Brown an Emeritus Professor of History at Princeton. Not long ago I was wading through another history book, The Creation of the American Republic 1776-1787 by Gordon Wood. I never made it through Wood’s book even though I am downright compulsive about finishing books I have started to read. The book is ponderous, provides much more detail than I require, and is not well written. So I gave up on it. The Peter Brown book, on the other hand, exhibits better writing and was recommended by a friend, so I will probably work my way through the 530 pages (with 200 pages of notes and index, which I will skip). It reminds me of the fact that we suffer from over-specialization in this country.

The phenomenon results in books written by professionals in the field for other professionals — I dare say historians would appreciate the details and copious notes in both of these books. I speak here of history, but the same thing can be said of books in other disciplines (reading philosophy is like swimming through glue). Even novels are now written by writers who seem to be writing for other writers, not for the average reader who just wants a good read. The novel has to be clever and in the latest postmodern fashion.

Music is composed that can only be appreciated by professional musicians. For the rest of us it sounds like a cat with its tail caught in the car door. Much art has become specialized as well as artists experiment with their media and try to discover new ways to say the same old things. This is not such a bad thing in the plastic arts, since they are more readily appreciated by the unsophisticated viewer and new ways of seeing things can be exciting. The plastic arts may survive the trend toward overspecialization, though there is always the lunatic fringe who create works that can be appreciated only by others on the lunatic fringe — like those artists who place a urinal in the museum on the grounds that it is “art.” In so many of the arts sophistication has become the key to appreciation.

In any event, the phenomenon of overspecialization has infiltrated our colleges and universities where there are now specializations within specializations. As Michael Polanyi said 60 years ago,

“. . .it is a rare mathematician, we are told, who fully understands more than half a dozen out of fifty papers presented at a mathematical congress.” 

And that was then! This has resulted in a hodge-podge undergraduate “education” where students take bits and pieces of this and that until something strikes their fancy or someone convinces them that they can find work in that field when they graduate — or they have decided going in that they will become physicians or CPAs and they stay on track for their entire undergraduate years and get trained but not educated. Neither of these alternatives amounts to a coherent education that broadens as well as deepens perspective. But that’s what we seem to be stuck with as the specialists, separated as they are from one another by discipline — and often by geographical location on campus — don’t (can’t?) talk to one another and cannot come to any sort of agreement about what kinds of things make for a defensible undergraduate education. From the faculty’s perspective, it’s all about protecting their turf. The student is victim though she doesn’t know it.

And the rest of us suffer as well when we want to know a bit about the history of humankind and we are faced with ponderous books that are deep in detail and shallow in writing skill and readability. The curious layman (and student) has been forgotten in this age of specialization where walls between schools of thought cannot be conquered even by the most determined climber.

Taxed Too Much, Are You?

Given the fact that I have pretty much said all I have to say about most topics and some of my former posts aren’t half bad, I repost here one I wrote early on as it still appears to be relevant.

I have had the audacity to suggest that we need to change our mind-set about paying taxes. We lump taxes together with death as the two things we dread and can be certain of. But I suggested that we need to think of taxes as a way of helping our neighbors who may be in need and improving our schools which are failing to get the job done. We pay fewer taxes than most of the people in the “developed” countries and our schools are near the bottom of that group of countries as well. There may be a connection.

In reflecting on this issue, I came across an article in the British paper The Guardianin which the author suggested that Brits — who also dread taxes — think about Sweden where the attitude toward taxes is downright positive. In a recent poll, it was revealed that a growing number of Swedes are pleased to pay taxes because they feel their tax money does so much good. As the article went on to explain:

One way to examine the issue is to compare state help provided by the British government to one which traditionally charges much higher taxes: Sweden. Swedes support the second-highest tax burden in the world – after Denmark’s – with an average of 48.2 per cent of GDP going to taxes. Yet Sweden, along with equally high-taxing Denmark and Norway, tops almost every international barometer of successful societies.

Swedes’ personal income tax can be as little as 29 per cent of their pay, but most people (anyone earning over £32,000) will pay between 49 and 60 per cent through a combination of local government and state income tax.

And yet, the Swedes are happy, the article goes on to explain. What angers them is people who won’t pay their taxes and therefore fail to support national programs that help make the country strong, their kids smarter, their economy healthier, and the people happy.

The key here is twofold: First, the positive attitude of the Swedes is predicated on the good the tax money results in: better schools, free lunches for the kids, excellent teachers, and fewer people in poverty. Secondly, the Swedes don’t spend 60% of their tax revenue on the military. They are not supporting armed forces around the world that are presumably keeping the world safe for democracy. Let’s reflect on these points one at a time.

To take the first point first, the common perception in this country is that much of our tax money is wasted on the poor who are all crackheads busily making one another pregnant with unwanted children. I have written to this point as it is a misconception that is widely accepted among so many Americans who pay taxes in the 10-35% range and who really would rather hang on to all their money and spend it on themselves. But there would certainly have to be some housecleaning and a good deal more accountability before enough people in this country became convinced that their money is being well spent on those in need, on improving the schools, and helping to save the planet from our mindless abuse. There is much good being done already, but more needs to be done and people need reassurance that their money is being well spent.

But I must say the second point above is the sticking point for me. We spend an inordinate amount of money on the military, thereby increasing profits among the multinational corporations who help them build up their armaments. It’s not clear why we need such a gargantuan military presence and I sometimes wonder if it is the military presence itself that creates fear in others and results in them becoming our enemies in the first place. In other words, we are scaring the hell out of everyone else on the planet with our armed presence around the world and that may be what makes them take up arms against us — which in turn makes it necessary for us to increase military spending to protect ourselves against our enemies. It may indeed be a vicious circle. If we are not in fact a bellicose nation, we appear to be so. Perhaps if we presented a friendlier face to the rest of the world the army and navy could “stand down,” as they say in military parlance.

In any event, there are at least two obstacles to the citizens of this nation adopting a more positive attitude toward paying taxes, both of which are based on fear (and possible misconceptions) and neither of which contributes to a healthier and happier world.

The Pyramid Ideal

I recently posted a brief exposition describing a challenge program I foisted on the honors students at the university where I taught for 37 years. There were several comments, but one from my fellow blogger, John, which was most encouraging, prompted me to explore a few thoughts connected with his remarks. I have blogged endlessly (some would say) about education, but it is close to my heart and I am sorely dismayed by the present state of education and seem always to be coming back to the topic closest to my heart.

It does seem to me that the ideal image of education would be the notion of a triangle, or pyramid, that stands on a broad base and tapers to the top. England followed this model for years with its public schools providing the broad education in the arts and sciences — mostly the former — while the university (or “uni”) providing the finishing touches in the way of specialization for the professions. Some American colleges and universities adopted this model but, of late, that model has been largely displaced by a more practical one that stresses job preparation and pretty much ignores education altogether.

Let’s one clear about some things: education should NOT be confused with job training or with mere schooling. There are manny people who have spent years in school — some with PhDs if you can imagine — who are not well educated people. And there are those with poor or inadequate schooling who are well educated people, which is to say people who have continued to read, think and grow as intelligent adults.

But in this country by and large we have been sold the idea that schooling and education are all abut preparing for a job or, as we like to call it, a “career.” This started years ago in order to keep young people in school and when it was clear that those who had a college degree made more money in their lifetime than those who lacked the degree. It’s when the colleges and universities started to be all about money, to be businesses run for profit. Whatever the reason, higher education, so-called, took a wrong turn and lost its sense of its proper purpose — which is to put young people in possession of their own minds, to prepare them for life, not work.

The model that provides the best idea of what education should be all about is that of the pyramid, as I suggested above. The base should be broad and strong and should start in the grades — or high school at the latest. That base should provide students with knowledge about literature, history, civics, mathematics, and the sciences — both the social sciences and the hard sciences. Those who go on to college should then begin to narrow that base and learn more about less. And at that point they might learn some of the basic skills that will prepare them for specific jobs. But the data show us that folks change their minds about what they want to do with their lives, and how they want to make a living, several times before they are forty. So the broad base is essential.

The broad base allows the young person to change direction. One who is trained in one field and who becomes disenchanted with that field after a few years cannot, as things now stand, change direction without going back to school and learning new skills. One who has had a broad base in the arts and sciences — what have dismissively been called the “elitist” liberal arts — does have that ability. They have learned to use their minds and how to learn new things on other own — without having to go back to school.

The data suggest that those with a liberal education make the most successful employees, ironically, because of those skills I have mentioned, skills of communication in speaking and writing, a broad perspective, and a lively imagination. They therefore have that flexibility I mentioned above, the ability to change direction later in life. And, moreover, the data suggest that they make more money in the long run than those with a narrow focus — even though the initial job may be hard to find. But, then, these days that seems to be true for all of those who graduate from our schools of “higher learning” no matter how early they started to prepare for a specific job — a job that is often not there when they graduate.

And that’s the rub. No one at the age of seventeen or eighteen can know what jobs will be available to them when they are twenty-one or twenty-two — no matter what someone tells them. The only certain thing is that things will change. And the best way to prepare for change is to have a pyramidal education, one with a broad base that provides a solid foundation.

Useless Knowledge

A good friend printed on his Facebook page a list of clever Latin phrases that colleges might adopt for their institutions. On that list was one that stood out to me:

Pro scientia inutili
“For useless knowledge”

This, of course, is tongue in cheek and meant to make us smile, if not laugh outright. But I would like to make a case that this as what colleges and universities should aspire too. This is a motto any self-respecting college or university should embrace. We are focused far too much on utility in this country — to the point that if something is not found useful it is tossed aside. But some of the greatest ideas ever shared among humans were initially thought to be useless. Like the notion of human rights, for example. Or the notion that persons are ends in themselves — the root and branch of ethical behavior. Moreover, many of the things we treasure above all else are useless, things such as love and beauty, for example, not to mention the smell of burgers cooking on a barbecue or the taste of your favorite cold beverage on a hot summer’s day.

But, returning to the subject, the point is that the most valuable knowledge is useless knowledge. In any event, knowledge in and of itself is not what education is all about. On the contrary, most knowledge is a means to an end while education is what is left after we have forgotten all the “knowledge” we learned in school. Education is all about putting young people into possession of their own minds — as I have said again … and again. It’s about learning how to think. And that may or may not involve knowledge. At best, knowledge can lead one to think: as noted above; it is, or ought to be, a means to an end — even though seemingly useless.

America has shown itself repeatedly to be a country that denigrates not only useless knowledge but intellect itself. A fundamentalist preacher  recently noted on his radio show that educated women make the worst mothers. This is not only offensive to women, it is downright stupid. Moreover, it is an attack once again on intelligence. And as such it simply joins a long list of attacks against the development of the human mind that we find when looking back on American history.  I have often wondered where this suspicion of intelligence, this anti-intelligence, comes from. Were the first people who came to this country — often as outcasts from their homeland — the mindless dregs who were regarded as a burden on those who remained behind? One does wonder.

In many European countries intelligence is prized above all other human accomplishments. Teachers are regarded with respect and even admiration (witness tiny Finland where teaching positions are prized by the best and brightest). In America they are regarded with suspicion and distrust and relegated to the dustbins. “Those who can do; those who can’t teach.” And they find themselves at the bottom of the list of professional occupations: low pay and low esteem. We don’t pay those who want to help others learn enough to allow them to live comfortably. The brightest young people in this country as a rule do not aspire to teach. This, again, is because of the inherent distrust of the mind and the rejection out of hand of the notion that intelligence is something worthy of development. Teachers, like the things they teach, are also useless.

I generalize, of course. But it has been said by others much wiser and more widely read than I that ours is a country that has been from the outset anti-intellectual. Even our founding fathers who were among the most intelligent of those who made America their home — people like Thomas Jefferson — regarded usefulness as the prize to be achieved, not realizing that useless knowledge was what made folks like them stand out. They were, by and large, practical men with little patience for useless knowledge. They set the tone.

The liberal arts have always been useless. They are about acquiring the tools of intellectual growth, about learning how to learn and how to think. In this country they are dismissed as “elitist.”  As Robert Hutchins once said, however, the only questions worth asking are those that have no answers. They do not lead to practical results, but they force us to think and think again. Useless knowledge is about those things that we ponder and which make our minds grow and expand, enabling us to work through the plethora of information that passes for knowledge to those tiny insights that are valuable in and of themselves. Useless knowledge enables us to recognize fools and charlatans when we see them and makes us wise enough to vote into political office those who might actually be qualified for office and not merely able to pose as wise when they are actually quite stupid. It makes a human life worth living.

Usefulness is not what it is all about. On the contrary, useless knowledge is what it is all about — if our goal is to become as intelligent as possible. Think about it!