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8_What is Education?

Kant’s Questions and the Epic of Europe

The great German philosopher Immanuel Kant, posed four questions he believed were at the heart of any educational quest:

What can I know?

What may I hoper?

What ought I to do?

What is Man?

It’s surely one of the great ironies of modern life that Germany, a national culture which revered Kant as the ultimate ubermensch, created a form of youth training which virtually extinguished philosophical curiosity at home, and aggressively exported its system throughout the world in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. You need only Google Horace Mann’s famous “Seventh Letter to the Boston School Committee” to dispel any lingering illusions that American compulsory schooling is a home-grown product, or that it aims to transmit “basic skills” as those are generally thought to be. At root, it is German.

All of Kant’s questions must be grappled with before a useful curriculum can be set up to reach the ends you wish. But if you duck this work, or are tricked into ceding it to an official establishment of specialists (or coerced into doing the same thing), it shouldn’t surprise you to find yourself and your children broken on the wheel of somebody else’s convenience, someone else’s priorities.

You’ll never come close to the exalted condition education can offer, where money and fame don’t matter very much, as long as you remain content to memorize somebody else’s definition of the thing, but reflecting seriously on what someone else says about it isn’t worthless.

It can bring you closer to your own truth - as Supreme CourtJustice Potter Stewart said about pornography, “I can’t define it, but I know it, when I see it:’ With that in mind, I’m going to offer you no comprehensive definition, but three “probes” into the mystery: one from an unusually acute travel writer named James Salter; one from a statement I gave to a Senate committee seventeen years ago; and one from a free verse scribbled on a legal pad while I was wrestling with the idea for a letter I intended to send to my granddaughter, Kristina, which you’ll find as Chapter Nine in this book.

James Salter was looking for a way to capture in words the admiration he felt for the continent of Europe and its history. He began by saying that Europe helps to clari£}r Kant’s questions:

The thing it finally gave me was education, not the lessons of school but something more elevated, a view of how to endure: how to have leisure, love, food, and conversation, how to look at nakedness, architecture, streets, all new and seeking to be thought of in a different way. In Europe the shadow of history falls upon you and, knowing none of it, you realize suddenly how small you are. To know nothing is to have done nothing. To remember only yourself is like worshipping a dust mote. Europe is on the order of an immense and unfathomable classroom, beyond catalog or description.

Confronted with the mighty epic of Europe and it’s inexhaustible bounty, Salter is able to see how far “the lessons of school” are from education. Look around you at America, as he did Europe: did your own schooling teach you how we got this way?

The next two offerings are my own. On October 23, 1991, I got an invitation to give testimony to the US Senate Committee on Labor and Human Relations. The subject: speculation what schools in the year 2000 were going to look like. Although I’ve polished prose, grammar, and syntax a little to spare myself embarrassment that an old English teacher would write so sloppily, the argument remains as I delivered it. And the reader will note that the future, as I foresaw it a decade down the line, happened right on schedule. Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts was the committee chair: Senator Kennedy, distinguished committee members, guests: what we should most fear is that school in 2000 will look exactly like school in 1990. School in 1990 is almost exactly like school was in 1890. Keep in mind, however, that if we moved back almost another hundred years, to 1790, the echoes would vanish.

In 1790 it was still possible to become educated in America because school didn’t preempt all the time of the young, nor did it act as a leech upon family life then; it didn’t impose servile habits on the growing up time; it didn’t indoctrinate young minds with a burden of too many pre-thought thoughts.

It was still possible to take an education in 1790 because too many people weren’t around pretending to give you one, forcing you to accept what they offered under penalty of law. In your own Massachusetts, Senator, more citizens were literate under a system where schooling was voluntary and of short duration, than ever they have been under the long-term compulsion scheme in place right now.

Whether it will ever again be possible to take an education easily, in Massachusetts or any other state, will depend upon political decisions made by those - like yourselves - who hold power in trust for the rest of us. I mean no disrespect, only to signal my personal sadness when I say I don’t think those decisions ~ill be made. My reasons for pessimism stem from knowing that failure is built into our political system because it forces our political leadership to depend for its election on the same financial interests which profit from schools staying the way they already are. Schools are a most lucrative source of contracts and an enormous jobs project with sinecures for friends and relatives of your campaign donors. Don’t chalk that up to cynicism: unless you acknowledge why your hands are tied in regard to school change, you’re certain to make the same mistakes year after year in counterfeit reforms.

Change isn’t likely to be possible from any political center for the same reason, but it can come from defiant personal decisions made by simple men and women who won’t stand still for their kids being outraged any more -like the revolution of homeschoolers taking place nationwide. This system has had a century to prove itself, that’s enough. It didn’t work at the start except in-house-generated fairy tales; it doesn’t work today, and it won’t work better in the future.

But if we can pry the boot of the political state off our necks, by the year 2000 here’s what might begin to emerge. First, we’d have a long, loud national, regional, and local debate whose purpose would be to establish the range of acceptable definitions of an educated person.

Professional pedagogy has never done that except in the airiest generalizations because it knows better than to have its hands tied to commitments it can’t deliver. At the most arrogant end of the institutional spectrum, we have public enemies like James Bryant Conant, the WWI poison gas specialist and longtime president of Harvard, who announced in 1959 that education is “whatever a school delivers:’

Dr. Conant was annoyed that any mere citizen might think he had the right to question decisions made by experts like himself What he demanded for himself, in essence, was the right to say, “Education is whatever I say it is:’

But a public definition of the goals of mental and character training can’t be avoided. If we the people don’t agree on ends there is no way on earth to make beginnings - would you set out by car on a 12- year journey whose destination was “out there somewhere”?

The principal target of school time at present, a target many self-satisfied men and women congratulate themselves upon knowing, is the production of high standardized test scores - which correlate with almost nothing of value. Every president of the United States since such testing was launched has had a mediocre to poor standardized test score; the same is more true than not among corporate executives. If the scores had any meaning wouldn’t they be a common piece of data demanded by consumers? Would you bet on a horse without consulting its past performance charts reduced to mathematical data?

Yet you are compelled to bet on schoolteachers, principals, superintendents, college professors, etc. every day without being given access to this “valuable” information. What kind of lunacy is that? High standards and standardization are two very different things but you have been deliberately led by the rules of Newspeak to regard them as the same,just as you’ve been conditioned to think of education and schooling in the same breath.

The long, loud, angry national debate I’m calling for, Senator, would settle school’s side of the bargain by producing a list of valuable human competencies schools would guarantee to enhance - or lose their ability to command attendance with the police power of the state.

That said, let me give you my own list:

  • Educated people are seldom at a loss what to do with time; being alone is often a blessing to the educated because they like their own company. Time doesn’t hang heavily on their hands.

  • Educated people can form healthy attachments anywhere because they understand the dynamics of relationships.

  • Educated people are aware of, accept, and understand the significance of their own mortality and each of its seasons. They learn from each moment, they gain insight all their ages, even to their last minutes on earth.

  • Educated people possess a hard-won personal blueprint of value. They accept no prepackaged marching orders without passing them through the test of critical review. But they are also aware of a larger, human community and its values, are knowledgeable about values in different cultures.

  • Educated men and women enjoy power to create new things, new ideas, and new experiences; the educated discover truth for themselves through the rules of evidence, not by memorizing opinions of others.

  • Educated people detect other people’s needs and in moving to meet those needs earn a living. But unlike the ignorant, the educated never become overly dependent on material wealth for happiness, recognizing that the most valuable goods -love, curiosity, reverence, and empathy - can be had without cost.

  • Educated people actively seek variety and know how to master it sufficiently for pleasure and enlightenment. Yet they are aware, too, that without a home of their own and home responsibilities variety is hollow, experience superficial.

  • The curriculum to become educated is drawn from great life passages which have united generations from the beginning of time. First is the mystery of birth and the mysterious emergence of self. To explore self-requires intimate knowledge of one’s parents and ancestors - and of the specific, cultures which helped form them. The local cultures, that is, much more than the abstract entities we call political states. Who am I Where are my limits What are my possibilities What range do the strange selves about me display Exploring these things are like crucial appointments an educated person must keep; without honoring these only incomplete adulthood results.

  • The physical world near and far must be thoroughly examined, analyzed, tested. This is work which can’t adequately be done in confinement or through blackboard abstractions. When compulsion-schooling steals time needed for this work the damage is great. There is a time and place in life’s sequence when these appointments must be kept; too long delayed and opportunity is lost forever.

  • The complex possibilities of association must be encountered and wrestled with - it won’t work to merely talk about these, or see TV shows. They include family relationships, friendships, companionships, comradeship, love, hate, community, networking and more. Each has strengths and dangers inherent in the form. Not to practice each early on is to risk becoming emotionally crippled. But confinement schooling is designed to socialize children into networks - the very weakest and least reliable of all human associations. Networks are certain to betray your trust if relied upon excessively.

  • Another major theme which takes attention in the educated mind is a thoughtful approach to vocation - how does one contribute to the common good and at the same time earn a living? Then we meet the theme of “growing up” as a vocation of its own. How is that distinct from being a child? What complex of obligations accepted does growing up entail, acceptance of which brings maturity and independence?

  • And we can’t leave out a very close study of Death, the last act of the dramatic cycle begun by the mystery of Birth. Without clear awareness of the short arc of a life, nothing means very much. If we lived forever, no choice would ever be significant because endless time would be available to choose again and again. Time is strictly finite. Every choice precludes another, that’s the reality which vests existence with meaning. We need to realize that the dying owe the oncoming generations a world at least’ as good as the one they experienced while fully alive; if possible a better one.

Give Up the Cathedral

Any school which hopes to educate must surrender the safety of the walled compound; must surrender the security of employing a priesthood certified for docility and political correctness; must give up the papacy of the political state and its economic partners. In the ‘short run this conveys advantage (to the controlling parties), but over time it bleeds the commonwealth of its vitality - as it bled the once powerful Soviet Union - and leaches from the economy its ability to adapt to changing circumstances. In grabbing for short-term economic advantage, schools are being charged with preventing education -the signs of decay because of that prescription are everywhere. If walled compound schooling were ended, corrupt relationships with universities, textbook publishers, building contractors, bus companies, and other protected suppliers who thrive on a mass captive audience would wither quickly.

Our new school, if it ever happened, would dominate centralized testing because of what these rituals do in ranking children by abstract measures. They have little connection with developing mental powers, or the character traits of good citizens. Tests restrict the very development we claim to be seeking.

Our new school would eliminate testing for other reasons, too, finally accepting what experience clearly demonstrates - testing is a poor predictor: Mass testing institutionalizes dishonesty; it belongs to predatory cultures, not dynamic republics. Let testing return to China and the Manchu dynasty which spawned it. Because testing correlates with nothing very real, it mis-identifies winners and losers in a reckless fashion, among its many unfortunate by-products is that testing targets problems for attention which aren’t problems at all. Take the problem of poor reading, a self-correcting deficiency when the game-board can be set up differently. Once mis-identified by test scores, however, the creation of bureaucracy to “solve” the nonproblem can seem a rational thing to do. I use reading as the emblem of this wastefUl craziness because it may be the principal motor driving forced schooling.

To learn to read and to like it takes about thirty contact hours under the right circumstances, sometimes a few more, sometimes a few less. It’s a fairly easy skill for anyone to pick up if good reasons to do so are provided. Exhortation isn’t sufficient, however, nor intimidation, humiliation, or the confusion of a classroom full of strangers.

The only way you can stop a child from learning to read and liking it - in the densely verbal culture which surrounds us all with printed language anywhere we turn - is to teach it the way we teach it.

You should begin with the attitude that nothing is wrong in the natural variation which finds one child reading at five and another at twelve. By the time both are fifteen nobody can tell which one learned to read first. The real trouble isn’t with the kid, it’s that you can’t run schools the way I just described. The pedagogical apparatus which compels age-graded five-year-olds to be ranked according to ability to respond”correctly” to a teacher’s urgencies gives rise to our familiar reading pathologies. By the time a seemingly slow reader approaches adulthood, he or she will display indifference to reading, or hatred of it, because of our methods.

So far our new school has dropped use of a walled compound. It occurs everywhere: on farms, in ships, in private homes, in churches, offices, on hillsides in the grass, and in rooms of a thousand complexions. It has decertified schoolteaching completely so that anyone with a skill to transmit can touch those who want to learn that skill. The Internet makes this transformation simple. All we lack at present is will to bring it about against the opposition of those who benefit from things as they are. What makes achieving that will particularly difficult is that the opponents to change are all too frequently our relatives or ourselves.

This new school we’re creating puts money to purchase outside educational help back in the hands of taxpayers. That will break the monopoly on the training of youth and restore an open system of learning from everywhere we enjoyed from colonial times to the end of the Civil War. Monopolies suppress initiative, make poor use of feedback from customers who have nowhere else to go, and generate an aversion to truth.

Our new school has flexible time commitments operating in flexible spaces with flexible study options and flexible sequencing. It has these things, not because of any momentary fashion, but because the range of human variety demands it.

We will discard standardized testing entirely but not standards of high quality. Standardization cripples imagination and imagination has always been the real driving engine of our powerful economy. The rankings these tests generate argue quite dishonestly that they correlate tightly with real-world excellence, yet they do nothing of the sort.

The only way these judgments, based upon number-magic, can be made to seem functional is to rig the game in advance. That is to say if you only license people with high test scores, regardless of actual merit in designing buildings, removing tonsils, or teaching school, then you create a world of self-fulfilling prophecy in regard to test scores.

Any type of change which will produce new value for our society through schooling will involve less school time, less school personnel, less store-bought materials, less interference in the natural processes of learning. Any school reform that will work, academically and behaviorally, will cost much less money than we are currently spending.

It will involve gradual merging of schooling with community life, a de-professionalization of the learning enterprise.

That’s why positive change directed from the top isn’t likely to happen: it would require political courage from men and women who benefit greatly from the existence of mass-schooling and the jobs and contracts it commands. It’s a dilemma worthy of Solomon, one which virtually demands that reform come from the bottom, not the top; from millions of acts of productive sabotage on the part of parents and students, and yes - from teachers like myself. We must behave like noble termites, tunneling the current structure until it dissolves of its own dead weight: we must encourage school people to sabotage the system while pretending not to.

I know how odd this all sounds: first I tell you reading, writing, and arithmetic are easy to learn as long as they aren’t taught systematically, and now I tell you that the very “comprehensive” school institution which Harvard called for in the 1950S is ruining our children, not helping them. I know you’ve been told by experts that the complicated world of today requires more school time, longer school days, longer years, more testing, more labeling.

Well, Senators, you’ve been bamboozled, and I hope your own experience will confirm that by a little reflection. How do you think millions of Americans learned to be literate on desktop computers, and all the rest of the paraphernalia of the information society. Not at school that’s for sure.

For heaven’s sake, my own school, in the rich west side neighborhood of Manhattan, doesn’t even have a clock on the wall! Or a telephone, a fax machine, or a word processor accessible to teachers or students. How then did we learn to use computer:’ By struggle, struggling with directions translated from Japanese, by whining to friends, by watching others, by networking, by purchasing free-market lessons, reading books, pushing ourselves. We learned to compute the same way we learned to drive - without much professional help.

Isn’t it obvious a lot of people who are making good use of computers right now would have failed computer class in school:’ Many would have been too embarrassed, too scared, too angry and confused in a school setting to really learn. We don’t learn anything else there very well, why would computers be any different:’

In another twenty years when every school is computerized, can’t you predict already schools claiming that without school training, we never could have made a transition to the information age:’ You and I will know that isn’t so, won’t we:’

Draw a parallel with driving. It’s a dangerous ballet of hand/eye/ foot coordination while simultaneously providing the intellectual challenge of constant calculation, strategy, and life and death split-second choices. Notice that everyone who does this actually learns to do it on their own. Yet in spite of mortal risk, almost everyone who doesn’t drink while doing it does it OK. Indeed, our commercial civilization, spread out as it is, would be hurt badly if they didn’t. That’s why we don’t demand drivers be schooled, only that they be competent.

And think of this: none of these drivers is graded, they pass or they fail the driving test; if they fail they take it a second or third or tenth time until they pass. Almost everyone eventually passes. Now regard the potential effect of this “success for all” system on your own life. Your safety has deliberately been placed in the hands of millions of unknown motorists whenever you drive, even when you walk on public streets. At any given moment, you don’t know whether the blonde sailing by in her white Corvette was on the Dean’s List as a driver, or whether she barely passed on the tenth try by flirting with the instructor. Shouldn’t you be terrified of all this ignorance with so much power to snuff out your life or cripple you?

Shouldn’t motorists have to mount illuminated signs indicating the grade of driver they are? You couldn’t argue against such an initiative on reasonable grounds given the low opinion of humanity reflected in our politics, our media, and our pedagogy. It makes sense, yet the idea is utterly ridiculous. We expect one another, whatever our grades or test scores, to use good judgment in driving and for the most part, we aren’t disappointed.

Grades and test scores are a terrible measure of quality. The sooner we recognize that in planning, the sooner we’ll reach better ways to help our young. After teaching for 30 years, and winning awards doing it, I can say flatly what everyone knows in their gut - the best readers, the best writers, the best mathematicians, the best scientists are almost never people who got the best grades. You all sought the position of leader, Senators, and I’m asking you to face the implications of that squarely - find the courage to flaunt the financial interests which use schooling as a cash cow.

If you can’t do that, all the Senate committees in the world won’t give American students a better deal in school.

######A Free Verse for Kristina

Whatever education is it should make a girl unique not a servant It should give her courage to tackle the big challenges, to find principles which will serve as a guide on the road ahead, Make her strong in the presence of evil, Let her love her fate whatever it is, above everything, it should lead her to discover what really matters: How to live and how to die.

  • John Taylor Gatto

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