A Personal View of Education

by Jim Farrar (1986)

When I was six years old, my first grade teacher sent a note home to my mother along with my first report card. The note soberly informed her that I was a reasonably bright kid, but that I seemed to spend a great deal of time "just staring out the window and daydreaming." My mom was also told not to worry, that I would be "whipped into shape" and that I would be "among the rank and file" by the end of the year.

I remember that teacher very well. I remember her name and I remember her class and how that old woman used to spank me whenever I looked out the goddamned window. She went too far one day and whipped me with my jacket, of all things, hitting me on the head with the zipper and cutting my scalp.

Had we owned a gun, I think my mother would've shot her with it. As it was, she rushed down to the school – after she'd finally got me to stop crying and tell her what had happened – and threatened the principal of the school with legal action if something wasn't done about the situation. After that, Mrs. Engel left me alone for the rest of the year and I, for the most part and out of sheer terror, stopped looking out the window. Such was my introduction to public education. I was never struck by a teacher again but, during the course of the next eleven years, I was certainly the object of every effort, both intentional and unintentional, to whip me into to shape so as to prepare me for my entry into the common rank and file.

Not that my experiences in the first grade were all that traumatic. They weren't. Kids are incredibly resilient and I was no exception. Nor were my early experiences all that unique, which is precisely my point. But I did learn to distrust the system at a very early age and, from that time on, I was very cautious of every teacher I ever had, an attitude which still holds true today. The automatic respect that I carried into the first grade with me had dissolved by the time I'd entered the second, and at the age of seven I'd come to see teachers as merely human, as people trying to do a tough job as best they can and not the sage or guru or, more concisely, the figure of authority that most students are conditioned to defer upon them.

Not that I don't respect teachers. Nothing could be further from the truth. In actuality, what I respect is the profession and, without trying to sound like an idealistic sap, I respect that handful of people who have devoted their lives to the spirit of education. I'm planning on being a teacher myself and, as a result of that decision, I know I'll never be a (financially) rich man. It's taken me thirty years to reach this conclusion, but I think I've made a wise choice and, though this essay isn't technical or quantitative in nature, I think this subject is as important a sociological issue as we're apt to find.

The people who inspired these thoughts, in fact, are sociologists. They are also teachers.

James Christensen's essay on education (What Is Education?) is simultaneously disheartening and inspiring. It is inspiring because it gives me hope when I hear a teacher question the very system that he is purportedly a part of. And I say it is disheartening because I believe his perception of the educational system is painfully accurate. Though he doesn't directly state it, Christensen suggests that we are taught to be good little soldiers from the minute we step into that first classroom, all the way through high school and up into graduate school. The system essentially disappears up its own asshole, students barf up staid facts and pat answers to questions that really have no pat answer, and buzzwords that have no real meaning anymore are thrown about so carelessly that nobody really pays any attention to the student or teacher who cares to ask the loaded question: what, really, is truth? Or, as Robert Pirsig, the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, wondered, just what in the hell is quality. . . in anything? He went crazy trying to find out, as any sane man would. And Pirsig was also a teacher.

The most important victim of education, as so many have said, is creativity. Students are taught to be performers rather than true thinkers. You get an A if you do this and this and this the way it should be done, the way you've been taught. And you're a failure if you do it any other way. An exaggeration? Hardly. I'd never had an open-book test until I'd taken the class for which this essay was written for. In the past, I'd always had to prepare for a test by memorizing the right response to the right question, just like an actor in a play. In the theater, if you blow your lines you get a bad review; the wrong answer on a test gets you an F.

Which may or may not be all that terrible. Any performance should be evaluated. But I wonder whether or not education should fall under that kind of evaluative umbrella. Education is our most powerful sociological agent and we should administer it wisely. Just ask Emile Durkheim.

Perhaps a better title, then, for Dr. Christensen's essay might be "What Is The Function Of Education?" Should it be merely the means by which cultural values are passed on to our children, or is it, as conflict theorists suggest, an oppressive tool of the ruling class that's used only to maintain an inequitable system.

The question we should ask ourselves is whether or not our children are being taught to think, to question or, more subtly, are they being taught to think like us without questioning anything? Albert Einstein, in a 1936 speech said this of education:

If a young man has trained his muscles and physical endurance by gymnastics and walking, he will later be fitted for every physical work. This is also analogous to the training of the mind and the exercising of the mental and manual skill. Thus the wit was not wrong who defined education in this way: "Education is that which remains, if one has forgotten everything he learned in school." (The) demands of life are much too manifold to let a specialized training in school appear possible. (The) school should always have as its aim that the young man leave it as a harmonious personality, not as a specialist. The development of general ability for independent thinking and judgment should always be placed foremost, not the acquisition of knowledge (Opinions, pp. 63-64).

Having been a participant in this particular culture's educational system for over twenty years now, I really wonder if Einstein's attitude towards education will ever be realized. I'm aware that there are exceptions, that there are teachers who encourage critical thought and honest doubt and, occasionally, teachers who believe in open-book examinations: teachers who realize that the learning process, that the ability to analyze and ask the intelligent question, is infinitely more important than the mindless recitation of facts, names, dates, and theorems. But they are just that: exceptions.

Look at the cartoon that's been reprinted at the end of this essay. After you finish laughing, ask yourself why it's so funny, where's the joke. The answer is that it's not really a joke, the punch-line is an accurate reflection of our educational reality. To my mind, it's really not that funny, though I still laugh every time I see the thing. And for those of you, teacher and student alike, who think that the spirit of contemporary education is exaggerated here, I would strongly recommend that you look around the classroom sometime. I've been back in school for a year now and one of the first things that I noticed, especially in my freshman-level classes, is how quick with a pen a student is whenever a professor mentions a name, a date, or even writes anything – and I mean anything – on the blackboard.

Which is, of course, all right, but there's something missing here and that something is found in the coercive nature of the grade. It's sad, really, when a student feels that he or she has to take everything down and then spit it back verbatim in order to be rewarded with a grade. In this respect, grades do more harm than good. Students learn to recite facts like an IBM printout, rather than understand the subject that they're supposedly studying. For this reason and others, students should be required to do more assignments such as the one at hand. It nurtures creativity and creates a healthy anxiety within the mind of the student who, more likely than not, has up until now been told exactly what to do on an assignment, how it should be written, in which form and on what kind of paper, and where to look and what to find. Facts are found but the thinking process is stifled. People should, in other words, look out the window and daydream more often. And to hell with the teacher who tries to yank them back among the "rank and file."

Political scientist Roger Scruton defines education as follows:

[Education is] the process whereby the rational being is instructed, and through which he acquires the beliefs, emotions and values pertaining to a culture (Scruton, p.139).

This is a good definition, I think, of what education ought to be. It defines education as what it can be: a process. The operative word is rational. Creativity is the qualifier.

Works Cited

Einstein, Albert. Ideas And Opinions. New York: Bonanza Books, 1954.

Scruton, Roger. A Dictionary of Political Thought. New York: Hill and Wang, 1982.

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