Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Is Our Children Learning? (Why Education is Always Worth It)

People often ask me whether I believe obtaining my master’s degree was “worth it.” It’s a question I dread. Not because I do not know the answer. I dread it because the nature of the question presupposes a particular view of education that I thoroughly reject.

First, let me address the question itself: Yes, my MA was absolutely worth getting. I love education and believe it is never a “wasted” endeavor.

My master’s program did all of the things higher education should do. It enlarged my reading, expanded my knowledge, exposed me to new ideas and perspectives, and allowed me to contemplate the critical, philosophical questions we are so often discouraged from asking in our day to day lives. For all of these reasons I believe my MA was indeed worth pursuing. In fact, I have not ruled out the possibility of pursuing a PhD at some point.

But I fear many would regard such strictly academic benefits in our market-oriented society as “abstract,” “idealistic,” perhaps even “frivolous,” if not downright silly. This is because, as a society, we have completely degraded the goal of education.

A college education is no longer about teaching students to become critical, independent thinkers. It is about training them in a specific, narrowly-focused skill so they can get a job—preferably a high-paying one. Universities no longer educate students in the traditional sense of the word—they train them for work.

According to this skills-oriented, strictly utilitarian view of education, degrees that do not directly lead to a tangible, specific career—such as those in English, Philosophy, or Women’s Studies--are branded “worthless.” Knowledge and appreciation of great literature won’t make you a ton of money, the thinking goes, so why bother studying it? And the economic crash, which has led to increased enrollment in vocational schools and community colleges, has only reinforced this attitude. (And as someone who has taught at community college, I can assure you students there have zero interest in any liberal-arts based learning—even if they are enrolled in a Humanities course.)

“At its best, schooling can be about how to make a life,” writes Neil Postman in his book, The End of Education, “which is quite different from how to make a living.” Postman echoes the view of Socrates who understood the difference between teaching a skill and teaching one to be an autonomous, independent thinker. Socrates, of course, famously proclaimed education to be, “the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.”

An educational curriculum that focuses only on skills creates a society of what Chris Hedges calls “systems managers.”

In his 2009 book, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle, Hedges notes how the recipients of such a skills-based education—most of whom end up working in the financial sector—engage in narrowly focused papers or exercises, standardized tests and rote memorization. Upon graduating, these students can regurgitate mass amounts of information, but they rarely learn to challenge authority, social norms, or power structures.

As a result, Hedges explains, they have “been trained only to find solutions that will maintain the system.” He writes:

These elites are not capable of asking the broad, universal questions, the staples of an education in the humanities, which challenge the deepest assumptions of a culture and examine the harsh realities of political and economic power. They have forgotten, because they have not been taught, that human nature is a mixture of good and evil. They do not have the capacity for critical reflection.

Such students are ultimately, Hedges claims, “products of a moral void.”

While many college professors refuse to give up on these loftier educational ideals, those in the liberal arts departments are finding it increasingly difficult to justify such curriculum goals to their university superiors. This is particularly true as so many colleges face mounting budget shortfalls which inevitably result in cutting courses and non-tenured faculty. And since one “can’t do anything” with a Humanities degree, those courses are typically the first to go.

Add to that the mounting pressure on professors not to get “too political” in their teaching—a potentially career-ending taboo, which free-market-oriented Business and Economics professors are curiously exempt from. Yet intellectual inquiry, like art, is inherently political in nature. Those who doubt this claim should consult another excellent book by Postman: Teaching as a Subversive Activity.

Our nation’s education structure, like our health care system, is another casualty of unfettered corporate capitalism. Education has been reduced to a commodity. College administrators now view students as customers who are essentially paying for a degree.

“Most of these students are so conditioned to success that they become afraid to take risks,” Hedges writes of the modern college student.

They have been taught from a young age by zealous parents, schools and institutional authorities what constitutes failure and success. They are socialized to obey. They obsess over grades and seek to please professors... The point is to get ahead, and getting ahead means deference to authority. Challenging authority is never a career advancer.

Socrates said that the “unexamined life is not worth living.” Those who learn to think critically and independently are truly free. They can see through White House lies and media spin. These individuals are their own moral agents.

So, no—I do not regret any of my education. It may not have made me monetarily richer, but it has enhanced my life with a richness of purpose.

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