13 June 2011

What's an Education (For)?

Huge disagreements abound concerning the nature of education, whether or not it is the communication and assimilation of information, how it is best assessed, what role technology is to play in the classroom, and so on. In this post, I hope to state my own views (building extensively upon many others) on the matter.
Several months ago, one of my students was making discouraging (and discouraged!) noises about the amount of courses required for a degree that had little or nothing to do with his chosen major (business). Although I cannot remember the exact nature of his complaint-questions, the following are illustrative of the general flow of his thinking:
  • How will a speech course make me a better accountant?
  • How am I going to be better prepared to do my job because I know the history of pre-confederation Canada?
  • When I get a job, who cares whether I will be able to write a research essay?
There seem to be two crucial assumptions made by these sorts of questions:
  • First, education seems to be about creating the knowledge, skills, and attitudes in students solely focused upon job performance; and
  • Second, education seems to be that period of a person's life that precedes working at a career.
Maybe it's my chosen discipline, humanities, that is strongly colouring my thinking at this point, but our reasons to accept these two assumptions seem very weak. Career preparation seems to be quite a minor part of an education; education is not mainly about making a living, but about making a life. The sort of skills that make a student into a good worker cannot necessarily help her enjoy that life, or to know what to do with herself when she's not at work! For this reason, the majority of coursework required in an arts degree (baccalaureate) provides a general overview of many of the ways in which people attempt to understand the world around them, not just those related to income.
The more insidious assumption carefully segregates education from one's adult life. This is harmful to the societies and cultures we live in. What we call 'getting an education' is really about 'getting the beginnings of an education'; we must engage in learning during our entire lives, not just from childhood through early adulthood. In fact, to engage in learning is merely and profoundly to engage the world around us in that process we refer to as life.
It may appear to readers that I am committed to the view that education is what happens (exclusively) in schools. This is far from my perspective; I would see a world where people constantly pursued a greater understanding and involvement in the world around them, where education was not hindered by the need to enrol or to receive paper credentials. I would see a world where learning is as common as breathing, eating, and drinking. Given the actual world that exists, I understand and hurt for the student who asks, "When am I ever going to need to know this?!?", but I long to engage students who are constantly pushing me to expand my own learning, saying, "What is stopping us from learning this and this (and this) too?"

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