Define “education” – I dare you!

“What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world. The paragon of animals.” Hamlet, 2.2.303-312

While the specifics of my concerns with education are complicated and often difficult to articulate, the essential core of the problem is neither. It all boils down to what is meant by “education” and, by extension, what it means to be educated. As I’ve tried to make clear in my previous blogs, even those things which seem simple, seldom are. Should you happen to find yourself in a conversation and the word “education” is used, how likely are you to stop whoever is speaking and ask them what they mean by the word? We use language with a kind of understandable indifference – after all, if English is your first language, you’ve been speaking it since before you can remember and you’ve managed to get by.

Einstein genius
Additionally, “education” isn’t a word commonly subjected to the quibbles that might accompany “love”, “faith”, or “integrity”, for example. These are but three words that can mean very different things depending upon any number of factors including context, who is using the word, or when or where it is used. Education, though? Surely we all know what we mean by that? After all, we attended school in our time and we had some great teachers. Most of us would readily assert that he/she is or isn’t educated according to an unstated scale that might use university degrees attained as a partial measure. Still, most of us probably know someone who doesn’t have the credentials in place, someone we would, nevertheless, consider “educated”.

I’ve quoted Hamlet above because, in this passage, Shakespeare articulates a view of human beings that was somewhat new at the time. A child of the Renaissance, Shakespeare (and his contemporaries) were embracing a view of human beings very much at odds with a medieval view of humanity as largely debased and sinful and very much in need of divine intervention if we were to rise above our lowly station. The “renaissance man (person)” notion exemplifies these high-minded assertions. He/she is someone who develops to the maximum possible extent the potential Renaissance thinkers imagined we might have.

As a confessed lover of literature and the arts, I can’t avoid being moved by Shakespeare’s expression of such a noble ideal. An equally adept portrayer of human evil and depravity, Shakespeare does not pretend that Hamlet’s vision of humanity’s grandeur is all that needs to be said. But through this passage, he does provide a vision of what COULD be – an ideal, the details of which are, hopefully, to be actualized in the individual life.

Of necessity, such an ideal lacks specifics. The manifestations of human achievement are as varied as we are. At the heart of Hamlet’s speech is a conception of human possibility that is not tied to measurable “outcomes”; rather, we are invited to participate in a suggestive vision, the details of which it is up to each person to imagine. When I read passages such as this one from Hamlet, I am caught in the dilemma I often described to students as the central quest of probably all significant literature: trying to find words to express that which cannot be expressed. Another way of putting it: Shakespeare and any number of other writers inspire me, provide me with a sense of connection to the world, even provide an inexpressible grasp of life’s meaning.

Maya Angelou
Excuse me?!? The majority of those with whom I have had contact and/or discussions regarding trends in modern education would dismiss my last paragraph, out of hand, as utterly irrelevant. Such abstractions have no place in modern educational theory. The analytical model that currently dominates educational research and the theories and applications that arise as a result demands “data”. Inspiration and vision, in my experience, have little place in a world of tools and outcomes.

In order to illustrate what I am suggesting in, hopefully, a more accessible way, consider the following: have you ever had good teachers? Even a couple of great ones? I know I have. When I look over my academic path from kindergarten through university, I can say that I had quite a few good teachers. The great ones I can count on one hand. I’ll choose two. One was a history teacher I had in high school.

good teacher
Based upon my understanding of current notions of what makes for effective teaching, this guy was an abject failure. He rarely emerged from behind his desk, seldom provided a visual aid, tested infrequently at best and, overall, seemed indifferent when it came to assessment in any form. That being said, I can say without hesitation that any student who had him would include him as among the very best teachers of their lives. History to him was living and, through his telling of history, he brought it alive for his students. His thirst for knowledge – the implicit respect he had for his subject (and for so many other things that were of interest to him) was infectious. He made those who had him as a teacher want to know more.

My second example was a professor I had as an undergraduate student. She was the most unforgiving and demanding teacher I have ever had. She had a deep and profound respect for writers and for writing and expected that the study of literature would be undertaken with an effort commensurate with the work that went into the creation of the works we considered.

What unites these two, regardless of their differences in style, is the ability to inspire. Without ever really articulating it, they were presenting an argument that “education” – as opposed to the modern substitute, “learning” – was not about utility but about personal fulfillment. As students, we were being invited to have a glimpse of that humanity, of that world, that Shakespeare allows Hamlet to suggest. Whatever problems we might believe are present in education today, the root cause of the overall crisis, – and this is the central tenet of my overall argument – is the abandonment of an IDEAL of the educated person in favour of a pseudo-scientific IDEOLOGY that imagines human beings as component parts awaiting improvement if we can only identify more clearly what parts need adjusting and/or enhancement. And so the system and its many supports carry on with their futile quest to develop the “strategies” and “tools” that will provide us with the outcomes individuals purportedly need. Speaking personally, is it any wonder such a notion fails to inspire?


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