What Does It Mean To Educate?

To be motivated to learn requires something to be “out there” that appeals to someone’s “in here” – something that holds promise and that, to achieve, requires interest, effort and personal discipline.

Certainly, among the tasks of public schools is to train children to become successful in the essential skills of reading, writing and arithmetic, but are schools also responsible to motivate children to learn? While some will argue that teachers are the principal source of motivation, this seems to me to be unreasonable and mainly a sloughing off of a responsibility proper to parents.

While the society as a whole certainly has a part, valuing learning is first and foremost a family matter, and children need to come to school with that sense.

I think it cynical, if not irresponsible, to foist onto teachers what is essentially a role of parenting. Parents must understand and agree that they have an essential participatory role in the education of their children.

Time to have a public dialogue about ‘educating’

Once in school, a child’s education does not rest solely upon acquiring the basic skills of reading, writing and arithmetic. To teach only skills is not to educate but to train, and that is an issue schools and society must come to grips with. Education and training are not the same thing, and it is important to know and understand which of the two is going on; it is a matter of definition and of “first principles.”

What do we mean when we say “educate?” What does it mean to be “educated,” as differentiated from being “trained?” If we don’t have clearly defined first principles on this matter, we have no clear intellectual, moral or social compass. And this may explain why public education has been so long susceptible to pillar-to-post oscillations from one new great idea, reform, innovation to another and another over the past century and longer.

In fact, John Dewey raised this same issue in 1896! Perhaps the time has come to have a public dialog that is not about charter schools, vouchers, tax credits, magnet schools, free schools, grading schools and teachers, ending social promotion, corporal punishment, and so on. Perhaps the time has come to stop all of that and talk about what we mean when we say we want to “educate” children.

A contemporary ‘OK Corral’

More people experience public education than don’t in the United States, and its influence on social attitudes is pervasive. Common to that experience is the generally accepted organization and structure of curriculum and instruction that was pretty well laid down in modern times by Ralph Tyler in his widely influential 1950’s book, “Basic Principles of Curriculum and Instruction.”

According to Tyler, children are in school to be “developed,” teachers are the transmitters of development, and administrators determine if the transmission has taken place. Is this what we want education to mean?

Well, yes, with certain qualifications. This is the training-in-essential-skills component of a child’s education. Essential skills, however, cannot be said to be the whole of a child’s education. For government to prescribe public testing for discrete skill acquisition as its sole measurement of educational achievement is to betray a fundamental responsibility of any civilization worthy of the name – to properly educate, not merely to train, its young.

Today’s emphasis on public testing and grading of schools has no pedagogic justification – its intent is cynically political. When, in self-defense, schools must “teach the test,” the political agenda dehumanizes the educative process and robs it of meaning and any sense of intellectual purpose. And herein lies a contemporary “OK Corral,” where public education meets politics and where teachers and children generally lose.

The moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre put it this way: “If life is to be meaningful, it is necessary for us to be in possession of ourselves and not merely to be the creation of other people’s projects, intentions and desires.” (Alasdair MacIntyre, “After Virtue,” 3rd Ed., University of Notre Dame Press, 2007)

This essay first appeared on: nmPolitics.net

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