Thursday, September 06, 2007

On the value and onus of education

Some questions to the reader:
What is the value of education? Is it economic? Social? Spiritual? Something else? Is there worth in studying something that has no commercial or career value? Do people have a responsibility to be educated? Does the state have a responsibility to ensure that people are educated? Does education have to come from a school?

Thanks to Sociological Stew for a recent post that inspired these questions


Sue said...

Well, erd, it would appear that I emerged from the haze of bronchitis on the right day. Thanks for the nod. There is an undeniable economic value to attaining formal educational credentials. More so today than forty years ago. The data (comparisons of median incomes for folks with various levels of education) bear out that value. I am not at all sure that the economic value comes from education, or rather from learning things.

I would like for education to contribute to citizenship. Just today I gave a college social problems class a task -- select any declared or potential candidate for president (from lists developed by Project Vote Smart), find that candidate's website and find out what issues were important to that candidate. One student got stuck and asked for my help. She did not know whether to look at Democratic or Republican (or "other") candidates, she said she did not know anything about the parties, and asked which was the party that was for "ordinary people." We talked for awhile, and I asked her if she knew the names of any candidates that would help me help her choose a party. She did not know any names. But she did remember a candidate who was "governor" during 9/11, but she didn't know what party he was in. Turned out she wanted to research Juliani so I helped her get to the list of Republicans, and find him.

It's sad to me, that an A student with two years of college cannot think of any names of any presidential candidates that might interest her. Shouldn't young people come out of high school with at least more knowledge of the political parties than this student had?

When it comes to the question of state responsibility, I am no longer as certain as I once was. Once upon a time I would have said that, yes, indeed the state had a responsibility to ensure that people are educated. But, over the last two decades as the assessment movement has taken hold, I have become less certain about that. There is no question in my mind that the state has the responsibility to make genuine, realistic, opportunities to become educated available to eveyone. But I am less certain about the state's responsibility for ensuring the end product. Assessment is an attempt to ensure that learning is taking place, but my observations of assessment in practice raise many doubts and concerns. While assessment may guard against the most incompetent of instruction, it seems to have negative consequences for the best of instruction, by forcing all teaching into rigid, measurable molds.

Education, in the sense of learning, certainly does not have to come from schools. I know the unschooled who are well educated (like my best friend, Betti, who never went to college, but has always been open to learning, reading and exploring), and many of the well schooled I know learned far more after their formal education ended than they did before.

Panhandle Poet said...

Great questions. Do humans have an inate desire to better themselves? If so, where does that desire come from? Is it a result of evolution? -- or does it cause evolution? -- or perhaps we were designed that way. Does the desire to better oneself lead one to desire to learn? -- or to educate others such as progeny? Or is it that we all think differently therefore we desire to sway others to our way of thought? Is there benefit in acting aggregately as opposed to individually? Would a tribe succeed in defeating an enemy where an individual would not? Would we naturally act in the aggregate for the good of the whole if we were not educated to do so? -- sorry, your blog. I'll end here.

PS I've blogrolled you. I liked what I saw. Stop by sometime at Panhandle Poetry and Other Thoughts or Common Sense Agriculture, Conservation and Energy.

hellomelissa said...

i'll never regret getting a formal eduacation... as a matter of fact, i want MORE formal education, and i enjoy life-learning on an everyday basis immensely. i'm honestly more interested in my children just being children and having productive fun and life learning than i am in their elementary education. they are already so much more world-aware than many of their peers because of all we do with them and expose them to. i'd rather have them be good, conscientious, worldly humans than just impeccably educated humans.

i wanted to study something in college that would not have necessarily gotten me a job, but since dad was paying, he said no way. i got a degree in education. am i teaching (other than my own kids)? no.

just one hour with an ignorant person is enough to make me want to jump off a bridge. mostly due to the closed-mindedness, the absoluteness of their lack-of-reasoning. i believe that education forces you to look at a situation from all angles. it teaches empathy.

well, i've rambled long enough! thanks for the daily food for thought.

E. R. Dunhill said...

I’m sorry to hear that you’ve been ill. I hope you’re feeling better.
I think the situation you described with your student is a sad and unsettling commentary. If I might editorialize for a moment, I think this exactly the result one would expect from a political system dominated by a pair of self-serving media-machines that seem to have little focus on governing. People react to this system by mindlessly repeating party dogma, or by checking-out altogether. We need more dialog between members of the large parties, and recognition among voters that most problems don’t have exactly two potential solutions. Moreover, people need to become engaged in local government and politics. I believe that this hands-on approach to government will open many peoples’ eyes.
On the assessment issue, I see the overuse and misuse of metrics as the driver in a race-to-the-bottom. The irresponsible use of metrics necessitates teaching to the test, to the exclusion of anything that is not on the test. In a system that increasingly favors reading and basic math as the only relevant areas of academic inquiry, the humanities, the social, natural, and applied sciences, art, music, and athletics suffer. In 2007, it’s remarkable that there is little or no requirement for US students to learn geography and foreign languages.

E. R. Dunhill said...

panhandle poet,
Thanks for reading and commenting, and thank you for the blogroll.
I think a desire to learn is a fairly common family resemblance among the human family. And, I’ll speculate that given our earliest lifeways and our early proclivity to migrate and create new lifeways that are germane with new ecology, this predisposition toward learning and experimentation is likely the result of natural selection. It seems equally clear that the results of all of this learning and experimentation have impacted our development. Agriculture, for instance, muddied the survival of the fittest equation, and seems to have been a driver in the development of written language, math, and politics. And, there was a time when teaching these things to our children was the only way they would grow to have their own children.
Using a broader definition of evolution, I think education, whether formal or informal, is essential to moving forward. Consider Newton’s pseudoquote, “If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
I intend to get into the issue of individuals, communities, altruism, tribes, &c in a future post. Until then, I’ll put to you the question, “Would a tribe succeed in subjugating a neighbor where an individual would not?”
Thanks again.


E. R. Dunhill said...

You raise a good point, one that I think many parents could learn from. Education is not something that parents can completely outsource to their local school. My wife has taught in several schools that cover a broad cross section of socioeconomic statuses. A commonality among students in wealthy, middle class, and poor communities is that those who have engaged parents are more successful than those who do not.
As it so happens, today’s Science Matters from David Suzuki (arguably the greatest Canadian export) is on the subject of parents serving as role models in teaching their children to be good stewards.
Perhaps I should have my hand slapped for being so nosey, but what is it that you wanted to study?

Panhandle Poet said...

ER: “Would a tribe succeed in subjugating a neighbor where an individual would not?”

Another interesting question. Short answer is yes or no. Too many unknowns.

hellomelissa said...

i'll check out the suzuki article as soon as i finish.

i wanted to study, and still do want to study, and spend a good deal of my free time perusing... art history.

it KILLS me that parents have so little active involvement in kids' school learning OR home learning. i spend a day each week with the kids, at their school, with their teachers, helping their friends... and most of the parents have no idea who i am. why? they never talk to their kids about what happened at school that day, and they never actually come to the school themselves. it's a crying shame when i run into the kids at the store, and they give me a big hug and tell me they got a 100% on the spelling test that i tutored them on, and the parents didn't even know the weeks' spelling words.

Pat Jenkins said...

good questions indeed erd. multiple answers to each obviously, but brain power aside, does knowledge develop character in someone!! i hope so!!!

E. R. Dunhill said...

Art history is an engaging area of study. I’ve studied a little myself, and briefly worked at the National Gallery of Art (US). I’m mostly interested in fairly recent movements – postimpressionism, art nouveau, and sundry others – but I am also interested in prehistoric European art, Chinese art from virtually any period, Maya art, and traditional art from the Pacific Northwest. Also, having just been to Prague this summer, it’s hard not to be madly in love with gothic and baroque art.
If you’re interested in formal study, Peterson’s ( is a great source for finding programs, including distance programs. I know of a few schools that have very student-centered pedagogy that may also be of interest. Goddard College and Prescott College both have low residency undergrad and graduate programs in the humanities, and I’ve heard some good things about both. The Union Institute and University has a similar model, but I know very little about it. Finally, California State University – Dominguez Hills has an MA in humanities (including a goodly number of available art history classes) that is available completely at a distance.

E. R. Dunhill said...

I certainly hope it builds character. Otherwise, I've wasted an aweful lot of time and money.

Jessica said...

As a student of Sue's for 2 online sociology classes, I can honestly say that education is indeed priceless. I have found great pleasure in taking classes that have no "commercial or career value." To learn something, anything, just for the knowledge can somewhat "break open your eye" so to speak about the world around you.

Education should come from many outlets. Schools, after-school programs, life lessons, parents, family, friends etc etc. Parents should not leave it to the school and the school alone.

We live in a poor part of town. Looking over the district report card for their elementary school last year I was shocked to learn that only eight parents were involved with the school. So now, here I am, PTA secretary from hell, poping into the school everytime I can to help. Somehow balancing it between work and a full time class load. I want my children to know that I care about their education. I also want the little punk kids to know that their mom could be here any minute and to "stay away from those Glover twins." For the same reasons, I want my kids to know that if they screw up, I will here about it in a matter of minutes.

E. R. Dunhill said...

Welcome to the neighborhood and thanks for reading The Influence Machine.
It’s good to read that you’re involved in your children’s school. Involved parents can have a positive impact on their own children and on the classroom. Likewise, serving on the PTA can increase the community’s involvement. Too many parents leave education completely to their local schools.