Education

Two similarly pointed quotes for consideration today:

Education’s purpose is to replace an empty mind with an open one.
Malcolm Forbes

Clarifying that point a little, Alec Bourne pointed out that a student does not become well educated by filling his mind with millions of facts:

It is possible to store the mind with a million facts and still be entirely uneducated.
Alec Bourne

If a million facts doesn’t make us educated, what does?  Exposure to new ideas?  Critical thinking?  Analytical thinking?  Writing?  Creativity?  Art?

My wife and I decided to homeschool our children well over a decade ago when doing so was considered a little … well, weird and socially thoughtless. The trend to homeschool has been growing rapidly over this last decade as more and more parents have come to the realization that our public education system is failing us. Standardized tests, endless homework, and government mandated curriculums have been breeding groupthink and youth who can read but who cannot write well.  While we continue to be world leaders in technology, our writing skills have dropped dramatically.  Just read some pioneer journals from the nineteenth century and you will find better prose than many thoughtfully considered articles of our time.  Lincoln once lamented that his (now famous) Gettysburg address was poorly conceived and delivered inasmuch as it was not nearly as eloquent as the speech delivered by his competition.

Our decision to homeschool our children took on dramatic significance when I began teaching a writing/philosophy course at a local college that grew into a university shortly thereafter.  It wasn’t long before I became completely appalled at how poor most of my students wrote.  Trained in a “memorize the facts and you will do well on the tests” culture all of their lives, most of our youth have not learned how to express their own individuality with even the coarsest prose.  That isn’t to say my students weren’t bright – most of them were reasonably intelligent and eager to learn.  They just lacked a strong foundation in writing and critical thinking.  Sadly, most of their papers were research and regurgitate stylistically – many utterly failed to come up with their own thoughts and arguments about any assigned topic. They epitomized the impetus behind one of Einstein’s astute observations:

Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking.

Worse, some papers reminded me of a quote from an anonymous English Professor that I love:

I am returning this otherwise good typing paper to you because someone has printed gibberish all over it and put your name at the top.

No, I wasn’t that heartless when I was grading … but the temptation arose from time to time.   ;^)

Admittedly, it can be challenging to establish standards of expectation for a “subjective” subject like writing (if we ignore or downplay ever-changing punctuation and grammatical constructs, spelling, argument flow, etc.).  For instance: how can a liberal philosophy professor grade a paper arguing a conservative position without any significant degree of bias?  Who determines whether prose is eloquent or quaint?  Who determines whether or not an idea is profound or culturally naive? cynical or realistic? groundbreaking in detail or recycling in breadth?

Some parents nationwide have began to question whether our fear to unfairly compare our students one with another, has created a system that breeds hive mentality rather than individuality and creativity.  This is where the wise words of Forbes and Bourne are instructive: while our culture arguably encourages individualism by encouraging acceptance of others who are not like us (unless those who are not like us are still unpopular or are too conservative to embrace our PC culture), those narrow confines do not make up for our failure to help our youth think analytically … or critically (unless criticism is narrowly defined to mean that they can complain about things they don’t like).  We need to open their minds to new ideas; we need to undo the groupthink they were taught in secondary schools.  Sure, they can regurgitate the thoughtful, wise, and/or philosophical ideas of others, but as a group, we are failing to train them to think for their own selves while they are in their early youth. Hopefully home schools, co-op schools, charter schools, and other alternative forms of education will reinvigorate the public school’s interest in writing and critical thinking.  It would probably be naive to hope that philosophy would become a staple in our secondary educational system again (like it was when this nation was much younger) but perhaps it will at least regain its focus on something other than long homework assignments geared towards helping fill our youth with millions of facts that may not ultimately prove educational.

 

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