My tenth-grade Language Arts classes at Fordson High spent the first two weeks of school exploring this question: “What is the purpose of education?”
The answer seems apparent enough: education prepares us for the future and teaches us things that we can use in life.
Students unanimously presented this response in one form or another. But what intrigued me most about their answers was not so much what the students SAID as what they DIDN’T say—that is, what assumptions lay BEHIND the words. And the collective assumption boils down to this: education is here to help us get a job. In their minds it must’ve looked something like this:
I suppose we’d all agree with that. After all, it aligns with Google’s dictionary definition of education: “noun; the process of receiving or giving systematic instruction, especially at a school or university.”
At least, that’s the FIRST definition.
The second one is quite different. It reads: “noun; an enlightening experience”.
Other dictionaries also present a dual definition of “education” as a process of instruction AND a means to enlightenment.
But “enlightenment”? What is THAT?
Does that come before or after the period bells? Is it smashed between the lines at lunch? Permeating amid the silence of bell work? Is it a “content” objective or a “language” one? Is it assessed formatively or summatively? Should we annotate it? Will we need to add a column to our double-entry journals? Or will the M-STEP and the SAT include it as an additional option on the multiple-choice section, right under “None of the above”?
There certainly isn’t any room for it up there on that step chart.
I ask: IS education here to help us get a job? Or is that merely called “training” or “schooling”? Perhaps being “educated” goes far beyond the qualifications for a job.
But there used to be. Our greatest minds and teachers and leaders championed education as a means of attaining truth. As a method of inquiry. As a model for exploration. A lens for self-awareness. A path to invention. A process of social and political change. A playground for asking life’s essential questions: “Who are we?” “Why are we here?” “What is the right thing to do?” “What does it mean to be human?”
And in the spirit of THAT definition of education, I ask: IS education here to help us get a job? Or is that merely called “training” or “schooling”? Perhaps being “educated” goes far beyond the qualifications for a job.
But such pursuits are impossible on the educational ladder shown above. They require an entirely different track. Something more like this:
And the process wouldn’t proceed in steps, but rather in cycles. So it would look more like this:
It sounds exciting, right? There’s just one problem: this model is “useless”. It’s “immeasurable”. It’s “subjective”. “Unscientific”. “Unstable”. “Disorganized”. “Non-methodical”. “Impractical”.
It is also the single most important pursuit of any living human being.
The perpetual failure of the American educational system is the failure of its framework. We are not going to reform decades of educational malpractice by replacing chalkboards with smartboards, notebooks with chromebooks, instructional texts with instructional video, straight rows with collaborative groups, Love and Logic with RA, or GLCEs with Common Core—that is, gimmicks that continue to shove kids up the “education” ladder.
The problem is the ladder itself.
Instead of switching out broken steps every half-decade, we need to rethink the very nature of the ladder model. What do we really want out of education? What are the goals? Are they attainable through this framework? Can the holistic educational quest be realized through a linear series of vertical steps?
Let’s go further than that: do we even NEED a ladder in the first place? Is a ladder even appropriate for such a pursuit? Or is the nature of learning less like climbing a ladder and more like swimming in open waters? Is education the scaffolding of a skyscraper, or the nurturing of a tree?
These are tough questions. Confusing, upsetting, murky. Let’s get YOU off the ladder too, my Most Respected Reader.