The Real Purpose of Education

David Clemens

My bookshelves are groaning from the weight of books about education’s ills: Waiting for Superman, Higher Education?, Disrupting Class, Save the World on Your Own Time, One-Party Classroom, Not for Profit, Academically Adrift, The Five Year Party, Education’s End, et al.  Many failings are documented, some reasons are advanced, few remedies are supplied.  As if surveying this critical abundance, the best such book I have read lately imagines the education discussion as a vast ocean, and “the bottom of this sea of school-consciousness is covered with the remains of school commentators and critics.  They form the ooze, and nothing but volcanic disturbances will ever bring them to any light again.”  Ouch!

The author deplores the “inertia of school-administration,” and certainly all around us we see inertia married to a managerial obesity where college administrators are coming to outnumber teachers.  The problem this bloat creates for teaching is that

School-administration has become a branch of technical training, and it is perfectly amazing to see the deadly complacency with which the school administrator goes about his task, and accepts responsibilities of whose real nature he knows nothing, and which cannot even be explained to him because he has no faculties with which to cognize these imponderable things.

How cognize indeed when our careerist school managers are not drawn from the teaching pool and often are allergic to the classroom.

Administrative disconnect is one problem but some of those who enter teaching do not escape criticism.  And you of the cold eye and colorless habit of life—shall you attempt its mission?  Shall you, for a living, take the hands of class after class of little children, and lead them into places clammy with routine and barred with efficiency tests, and stale with the taints of modern industrial competition...

The cold-eyed retort would be, I suppose, “We must insure that there is no child left behind in the race to the top” or some other political sloganeering.

What drives this book is the author’s white-hot core of anger and conviction. He insists that educating is utterly, and in some cases literally, in the hands of the teacher facing the class.  He says,

The great thing about a teacher of youth is not at all how much he knows of the science of education, the laws of learning, the administration of a school, or of the particular subject which he teaches.  The important thing is his personal radiative power as an illuminant along the pathways his pupils have to travel.  One could weep, one must weep, to observe how, in place of this, something manufactured is substituted.

All the substitute, manufactured, technologies of the “smart” classroom (the videos, iPads, clickers, PowerPoints) are just electronic props that mediate and dilute the “radiative power” of the teacher.  So does ed school theorizing about teachers being the “coach” or the “guide on the side” or the techno-ringmeister.  Together, tech and theory have only produced a pedagogy of gadgets. Real teaching involves the “confronting of an illuminative personality by combustible material” which results “in a lighting of those lamps in the mind and in the heart that shall eventually show the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”  Only teachers can light the “lamps in the mind,” not the appliances that have become the crutches of the profession. 

Anticipating his readers’ reasonable objection, the author writes, “If you say, `How fanciful this all is:  there are not enough teachers as you describe to answer for a single city school-system – and a small city at that,’ the answer must be that it is necessary to discover such teachers...” Ed schools, he says, “should make it their particular business to select the fit from the mass and return the unfit with great care to a life involving less disaster to themselves and others.”  Teacher training and credentialing seem to subtract more than they add with “seat time” classes and ideological mandates which grind out a standardized product.

Interestingly, given the humanities’ near extinction, the author argues that the liberal arts (he singles out music) are central to any education because in a “life wrapped in the seven veils of mystery, accompanied by prowling demons of pain, and always skirting an abyss, begun and terminated in vacuity and infinite silence, there are certain extremely precious sources of happiness and actual beatitude...”  Literature teachers, especially, he claims, are like “forest-rangers,” guarding “the only springs that make the social world habitable.”

More and more, I face students who do not find the social world habitable, especially young men.  This book suggests to parents why that tragedy has occurred.  “If you have regard for your child destined to wander in the mazes of the labyrinths that are now constructed to the consternation and ultimate destruction of youth, you give him a thread to hold, so that he cannot lose his way...”  For children to survive in the labyrinth, “the supreme duty of parents and teachers is to attach childrens’ [sic] hearts to the threads of great literature and great music and great ideas, while there is still time.”

No such threads are forthcoming from today’s ephemeral, technologically disembodied world of education.  In fact, the author makes a unique and persuasive argument of the need to embody education, making special mention of shop.  Once upon a time, auto shop, wood shop, and metal shop were mandatory in high school or middle school as places where many students began job training.  But the author asserts that shop has even greater benefits because in shop,

You are up against inexorable things.  Tools are inexorable things.  If they are n’t [sic] used exactly right, there is the evidence.  A square and a level and a plumb-bob are absolutely final and positive definitions... Materials are the most perfect medium for the experience which shall illuminate the soul and ripen the mind; for they oppose your effort, and against that beneficent and lovely resistance you work out your ideas, with patience, with forethought, with skill, with pride, with self-revelation.

The author demands a curriculum with shop, saying

something of this point of view, something of the elf, of the gnome, of the kinsman with creatures, of the intense lover of music and poise and presence of things that men make and that men do, of books and art and people, must be in a teacher of children.  Because this is the air children’s souls breathe, and the bread their minds live on.  And if happiness is worth anything in this world, -- and we assume that it is worth everything, -- then this color must be a part of the composition.

You have long since deduced from the diction, pronouns, and syntax that this book I am praising is not on the New York Times bestseller list.  I spotted the provocative title on its spine in a musty, used-book shop: Shackled Youth by Edward Yeomans, copyright 1921. How have things changed in the intervening 90 years? Perhaps just in this: when have you ever heard that the purpose of education is not to “produce skilled workers for a competitive global economy” but that the real purpose of education is to produce...happiness?

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