This article originally appeared in the winter 2010 Harker Quarterly.
There are several national debates rumbling through education today. We are on a “race to nowhere” or other nations will take over the world if our children do not practice more math problems. We need to hold teachers accountable or we need to hold students accountable. We need more school choice or schools of choice need more oversight.
Education is prone to fads, the swoosh of mighty pendulum swings. Because education is in some ways about achieving balance, what Neil Postman called a thermostatic function, debates will always be a part of education. I think some of the current national dialogue on education stems from frustration with some of the built-in blind spots that schools necessarily have. Here are a few.
One, as schools are future-oriented, they miss the present. The entire purpose of schooling is suffused with future. For almost two decades, we sit in classrooms and prepare for the future.
We learn things because we might need them in the future.
I think this is behind some of the angst of the “race to nowhere” movement. Parents sense they are raising a generation of children who are missing out on their present as they prepare for the future. As Eckhart Tolle points out in “The Power of Now,” the future never arrives. It is always Now. Parents recall their childhoods, and they don’t remember missing the present as much.
Two, schools are systems designed to deliver knowledge. Knowledge is wonderful. I love learning. This is what schools are supposed to do, and we cannot fault them for doing so. But knowledge is not wisdom, and sometimes it isn’t even obviously useful. The American education system has a deep suspicion of academic content, following a long tradition of progressive theory going back to Rousseau and Dewey.
Again, this may be behind some of today’s increasing calls for less homework, less breadth and more depth. We all shudder at the thought of youngsters memorizing stuff to pass a test only to forget it and reload for the next test.
Finally, schools teach us to judge. We evaluate and measure everything in schools, even ourselves. We compare ourselves to others. We compare ourselves to ourselves from a different time. Judging is important in life. We sometimes have to judge ourselves or others to grow.
But judging, especially when the metric is quantitative, withers the soul. How do you measure curiosity? Kindness? Insight? A wrong but thoughtful answer? All parents wants their children to do well on the SAT, but no parent wants a child defined by a multiple-choice test.
Most religions attempt to counter these very blind spots that schools propagate: live in the present, see things as they are, do not judge. Children are naturally good at this. William Wordsworth famously captured children’s natural ability to see the beauty of the world and to live in the present:
THERE was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparell’d in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
“Ode: Intimations of Immortality,” lines 1-5
Ironically, most religious traditions attempt to get us to be more childlike (not childish) in our approach to the world, what Zen calls “beginner’s mind.” Children enter schools to learn from adults, but adults would do well to learn from children and not to undo what children already do well.
The “Tao Te Ching” says, “When you have institutions, know where their functions should end.” Schools are wonderful places. But like all institutions, they have blind spots. We cannot fault them for not doing what they are not designed to do. But we can be aware of their limitations and mitigate them as best we can.
We cannot become children again, but we can, as T.S. Eliot describes in his “Four Quartets,” “arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” Sometimes if we are lucky, the most magical education will help us to see something as if for the first time. Sometimes if we are very lucky, that something will not only be the world, but ourselves, too.