12 February 2011

What is the Point of Education?: Beyond Skill to Passion

Recently, some of my writing students asked what the point of education was. One looked primarily at the cost involved compared to benefits received, while the other looked at the actual class process compared to what a graduate would do 'on the job'. I have been thinking about this question for some time. In my opinion and at the present time, I think the point of education involves three elementary skills and three advanced skills. These skills are not only useful in specific career tasks; they lead students to passions that can expand the mere making of a living into the making of a life.
Students must be taught the elementary skill of reading in the languages they use orally. Further however, students must also be taught the passion for reading, the love of hearing voices living and long dead that tell about life in other places and at other times. When I encounter university students who complain about long reading assignments and also do little reading outside of their coursework, I realise that the education system has not created a proper and insatiable passion for reading among its graduates.
Students must be taught the elementary skill of writing in the languages they use orally. Further however, they must learn a passion for being heard beyond the range of their shouts, both in terms of time and place. They must learn that with writing, thoughts are honed and clarified and sense transcend the single communication event. When I encounter university students who groan at the length of writing assignments and repeatedly ask for short assignments and extensions on written essays, I realise that the public education system has not graduated independent and competent writers who have a voice outside their immediate social circle.
Students must be taught the elementary skill of handling numbers and abstract concepts relative to their worlds. It is not just about trains that leave Chicago and New York (or Toronto and Vancouver!), but about drawing (some) essential simplicity from the complexity (blooming, buzzing confusion) in the world they inhabit. Students with a proper skill and appreciation for numerancy, can see analogy, ratio, and perspective and perspective where others see only isolated events, identities, and relations.

An online colleague and friend, Glen Gatin has stated he would like to see primary education do just these three things (up through about Grade 3) and then just get out of students' way and let them learn all they can beyond this about whatever they wish. Without these three elementary skills and the passion to use them and apply them constantly in life, students who come to university cannot possibly see the value of a university education, unless it specifically guarantees them a career. However, with these skills and the passion to use, extend, and apply them, students can take responsibility for their learning, their place, and their aspirations in the world. Also with these, students can take their learning to a new level as they engage in the following advanced skills.

Careful thinking
Students must be taught the advanced skill of thinking about the world and their experiences. The loudest (or most popular) voice need not be the correct one, or the one most valuable. Persuasion may not be a matter of benefit for the ones persuaded (though it may profit the one speaking or writing immensely!). Nor is careful thinking the mere undirected outgrowth of reading, writing, and math skill and passion development. Rather it is an integration of these skills in an ongoing pursuit of reasonable understanding of the world.

Students must be taught the advanced skill of ethnography. In its most pan-disciplinary application, ethnography is the ability to make sense of community values, knowledge, and functions wherever people find themselves in the world. As with careful thinking, students will not necessarily find that their reading, writing and math talents will suffice, when they find themselves in new and unfamiliar communities and social situations. Ethnography arises from the talents of reading, writing, and math, but there must be an integration of these skills, as well as careful reflection upon participation in communities and the experience of that community for progress to be made in understanding how the community operates.

Students must be taught the advanced skill of integration. It has long been observed that some insights from one discipline can benefit other disciplines, that physics, for example, might have something to contribute to one's understanding of linguistics or philosophy (and vice versa!). However, recent discussions of the university as a 'job factory' tend to draw students away from this sort of integration. In the face of such pervasive perspective, student might rightly ask what value literature studies might have for the mathematician or the business major, or what value chemistry or biology might have for the psychologist. Students in a university philosophy class should not display eyes that glaze over at the mention of quantum mechanics, and science majors should not roll their eyes when rhyme, metre, and other features of poetry come to the discussion table. Rather, students should be looking for convergence across disciplines, applying divergent thinking to problems in one field by applying methods, and strategies for problem-solving from other, unrelated fields of study.

The point of a university education is not merely to make a living; rather it is to create graduates who have been fully wakened to life in all its chaos, multiplicity, and splendour. If as Gatin claims, the basic skills can be taught in three years of elementary education and if passions develop shortly after, with the proper encouragement from teachers and parents, then the only shame about the advanced skills is that they are sometimes seen as only appropriate for university life. Perhaps we should start admitting some younger students to university!

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