Quote of the Week: It has always seemed strange to me that in our endless discussions about education so little stress is laid on the pleasure of becoming an educated person, the enormous interest it adds to life. To be able to be caught up into the world of thought — that is to be educated. –Edith Hamilton
Recently, I was reading some remarks from a former teacher who posted onto Diane Ravitch’s blog, and the teacher was lamenting about (among many other things) the failure of educators to teach the value of education, and of learning, in and of itself. This resonated with the words of Edith Hamilton, author of one of the most widely read books there is on European mythology. Is it good or bad that we attempt to get children motivated to learn by emphasizing how hard it will be to get a job in the 21st century without an advanced education?
One the one hand, as poor as the education system is growing (and as miserly as our largely Republican-led school districts are about public education, and as powerful as corporate for-profit “education” is becoming in the place of public education), we need students to understand that they have to be proactive in learning, in taking their education seriously. Students need to orient their learning toward modern skill sets – computer skills, math and science, and foreign languages (especially those to become significant in the upcoming decades, like Chinese, Farsi, Arabic, Spanish, and Portuguese). But we cannot overvalue education as merely a meal-ticket. Anti-intellectualism has long been a powerful force in our country, and is one that in this new century must either be overcome finally, or will overcome our nation once and for all. Anti-intellectualism questions what value there is in education beyond what it can do to put food on your table; and fails to see the value in learning about culture, learning social sciences, and learning philosophy and aesthetics.
We are entering a new century in which social media is predominant in shaping thoughts: the 140-character tweet in place of the twenty-page manifesto. The single line of response on Facebook to a two-phrase smarmy meme, as opposed to a full discussion on “20/20.” The Instagram replacing the fully-researched and vetted New York Times article. We are entering a world in which thinking is inconvenient and discouraged, particularly if its manifestation requires more than a sentence or two. Complicated thought, and a fuller understanding of whatever subjects we are entering, is becoming a lost art and in its vacuum we are building a new venue for populist politics. When pundits ask from whence this new Trump phenomenon comes, the answer is in part with this very problem. We applaud a simple and ill-spoken man for “speaking his mind,” as he uses quick and easily fact-checked distortions of reality to convince an entire audience untrained and unused to complicated thought, and unprepared to live in a complex, globalized, and multicultural world.
The United States is losing the ability to train minds for the next century, and to transfer useful skills to the next generation. We are entering a new world, in which global relationships are becoming more complex, more decentralized, more culturally aware and diverse, and more technical, all at once. Engineering, languages, art and music, math and computer languages, and awareness of the climate effects of technology, are all going to be the main driving forces in determining who can compete in the next few decades; who can get the kind of job that supports a family, and who goes hungry and goes poor. We need to prepare students for the new century not just with technical (STEM, or science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education, but with art, social science, languages, and cultural education.
As we prepare students for the new century, realizing that most of the old jobs found by our parents to raise us are no longer going to be the drivers of the new economy, we must also train our children – all of them, and most especially the poor – to value education not merely as a step to a paycheck, but as a value in and of itself. We must teach the value of forming and arguing complicated thoughts; of reading complicated tracts; of considering arts and aesthetics beyond the things we may be exploiting for whatever work we seek. If our nation is going to make it in the more competitive environment of the new century, our children need to be able to use computers; but they also need to be able to understand other cultures, people born into different environments, and complicated relationships between the human species and the global environment. Our children need to understand art history and the concept of music. Our children need to understand the difference between rhetoric and argument. Our children need to understand the difference between verified fact and popular opinion. And they need to understand that “scientific theory” does not mean merely someone’s vague and subjective guess, but an established explanation that has passed the basic test of experimentation and validation, and is an accepted understanding of the phenomenon explained. They need job skills, and they need the ability to have a lengthy conversation in a coffee shop about Sartre.
To teach skills needed not just by individuals, but by our nation as a whole, we need to generate an enthusiasm for learning that goes beyond the job description. We need to generate a population able to converse and compete with others globally, on subjects technical and aesthetic, objective and subjective. We need students who seek learning because it makes them better people, not because it makes them (briefly) more seemingly employable. Otherwise, we lose the strategic edge in competing globally, as greater human skill-sets are used to determine job security, as corporations move past simple requirements to greater social values (factors more easily implemented by human resources departments in an increasingly digitized and information-driven world). Once we lose that strategic edge, we will have lost our ability to compete and we will have lost the economic foundation that enables us to have a stable political environment. Once we lose that edge, our nation will plummet ever more quickly into populism, extremism, violence, and authoritarianism. We will seek, ever more, the safety promised by “strong leaders” who ask only that we surrender our freedoms. But we do not have to go down that road; and the alternative path begins with education, and with infusing into our children, and into our population as a whole, an enthusiasm for learning, for reading, for writing, and for thinking. We need, once again, to be caught up in a world of thought.