Laws mandating universal public education were intended to fit citizens with minimal skills for surviving in a democratic society—reading, math, history (at least a version of the myth that suited the needs of citizenship) and penmanship. Other things were taught because they were thought to be good for character. Universal education wasn’t an end in itself. It wasn’t organized or unionized. It used to work pretty well. Most people learned enough to get their news from periodicals and to communicate by mail. Folks could manage their cash. Clerks could make change.
When my son graduated from high school (one of the state’s best, academically) he observed that “The purpose of high school is to teach people to show up regularly and on time, and to follow stupid orders without question; to be obedient citizens” (james) At that time, people were getting their news from TV, communicating mostly by phone. Cash registers told clerks what change to return. Libraries were renting videos as well as lending books.
Today. Many people brag that they never read books. We get our entertainment—and a great deal of the information we trust for making decisions--from the internet or TV. When the power goes out, we hope somebody’s got a Palm Pilot or a calculator with live batteries.
So what? Everybody does have a calculator, a computer, and a car with GPS. Everyone has a word processing program with spell checking and grammar review. Who really needs to read, or to understand arithmetic? Who needs to tell north, south, east or west by the sun or pole star? We’ve got street signs and auto compasses and MapQuest. Who needs to decipher a bus schedule? Don’t they have signs at the stops that announce when the next bus is coming? As well as what time it is? And what day of the week? Isn’t education the ability to pass tests and get into college so you can make a good living? Why do we need to bother with more than that?
Because what reading and writing and math and geography and history do is train your brain. Chess and calculus and art and music and sports (if you play, not just watch) and probably anything else you study and practice and get enthusiastic about is good for your mind.
Because E. M. Forster was a prophet for our time when he wrote “The Machine Stops.” (If you don’t know what I mean by that, read the story.)
Because Sydney J Harris was absolutely correct: “The purpose of a liberal education is to make your head a pleasant place in which to spend your leisure.”
Many schools aren’t even performing the minimal function of teaching people to show up and follow directions, much less to think logically enough to make life altering decisions, or to be decent citizens. John Stossel’s expose, "Stupid in America," puts blame on teachers’ contracts that make it all but impossible to fire incompetents, and on public school monopolies. Other critics of American education cite Federal interference, especially the No Child Left Behind Act, or parental indifference, or lack of funds.
I think those are just symptoms. The real disease is misunderstanding. Too few people get that education isn’t the process of filling children’s heads with the correct set of facts to pass tests, or “win” entry into “good” colleges, or ace job interviews. Real education is acquisition of the skills necessary to satisfy the curiosity every child is born with, acquisition of those skills without destroying joy or enthusiasm. Real education teaches people to think critically (which may be terrifying to politicians) not just to be critical. Real education serves the needs of the educated—once you know how to learn, you can find out anything (and you won’t “buy” everything presented as “real”) Once you get hooked on reading—or music or art—you can amuse yourself for a lifetime. Or entertain others.
Sean Connery delivers a great line in the movie, Rising Sun: “In Japan, when something is broken, they fix it. In America, they fix the blame.” I don’t know about the accuracy of the first part of that statement, but the second part is dead on. What we really need to fix is our notion about what education is. And whom it should serve.