What Are We “Reforming” Education For?

Is learning simply the acquisition of information? Is teaching nothing more than the successful transmission of “answers”?

Seems so.

Seems, also, that those who know next to nothing about education have so hijacked the discussion that we no longer are able to have nuanced discussions about its realities–the needs, methods and goals of systems producing intelligent participants in our democracy and our economy. Instead we get things like calls for “creative disruption,” for throwing bombs into the system so that it can be rebuilt from scratch.

But what are the plans? Tear down, they say. But replace with what?

And then there’s this: What happens with bombs? What is the collateral damage?

The answer, in this case, to that question is simple: the children, the students are.

But back to those plans. Out of the rubble, the so-called education “reformers” want to rebuild using concepts long shown bankrupt, things like merit pay, vouchers, charter schools and rankings. Oh, and testing and its results. They want to do it without ever addressing the central issues of education, replacing them with a blanket concern for “outcomes.” For the quantifiable. Their concern, I think, is for commerce in education for the short run and nothing more.

But let’s leave motivation aside. That’s for another time.

Real education can never be dependent on defined outcomes or on measurement, for real education needs to provide students with flexibility and with skills in observation, communication and analysis… and with the ability to persist in the face of confusion. It needs to prepare students not for what teachers (or others) have defined as what they need to know but for dealing with the undefined. With what no one even knows that they will need to know.

To create able participants in democracy and a modern economy, systems of education need to teach students to take charge intelligently, which means teaching them to evaluate both situations and information and to share what they learn clearly. It is not enough for them to be able to regurgitate information on command–they have to be able, instead, to find the useful information that they will need–and to evaluate it effectively in the company of others.

What we are creating today, out of the ruins (deliberately created–there was no real “failure” of American education before the reformers got going) of American public education, is training for automatons, not for thinkers. That just won’t do.

Thinking, in the world the “reformers” are creating, is reserved for the elite, for those whose parents can afford to send them to private schools providing all the things that are being stripped from public education: small classes, frequent and personal contact with teachers, plenty of exposure to art and music, substantial physical education, and even time for quiet contemplation. All the things that allow for real education.

When this happens, when real education belongs only to those from privilege, democracy is doomed, for effective democracy is based on confidence in the electorate and its decision-making ability. When the vast majority of the populace can only choose from a menu presented to them by others, real democracy disappears.

Yes, some, like Walter Lippmann, have argued that this, in fact, is how democracy should operate, but history (like John Dewey) disagrees. Back-room politics and imposed candidates, we have learned, have more often derailed American democracy than helped it; together with an often uneducated populace (such as the one the “reformers” would have us strengthen), they have almost made it impossible.

And that’s no future for anyone.

3 thoughts on “What Are We “Reforming” Education For?

  1. //To create able participants in democracy and a modern economy, systems of education need to teach students to take charge intelligently, which means teaching them to evaluate both situations and information and to share what they learn clearly. It is not enough for them to be able to regurgitate information on command–they have to be able, instead, to find the useful information that they will need–and to evaluate it effectively in the company of others.//

    For the new Kafka Kastle to be built, staffed, and then sustained, it needs students who are passive, obey orders, and horde knowledge as they build their seven year plans. They will master tests and become willful cheerleaders of Information Retrieval and Adjustments (mixing metaphors here, my bad). Other people will matter less and less as they plug into the system and experience their community life in second life. (Okay, yeah: that was a third, MATRIX, metaphor).

    Burn it down.
    We are living in the middle of the plague.
    Burn it down.

  2. Actually, burning it down isn’t such a bad idea after all. If we’re to believe a teacher whose credibility is beyond reproach, it would leave us better off than if we do nothing. I’ve just read John Taylor Gatto’s book called ‘Dumbing Us Down”. I’m a former academic who quit the job in the mid-Eighties because corruption was becoming the norm. I also taught in a private Episcopal College. I agree with Gatto one hundred per cent. The game is up. The great education con has had its century of fame and reached its use-by date. It’s time to start again–from scratch if need be (and I believe that’s what it needs).

    Max Downham

    • Wouldn’t ‘burning it down’ just dumb us down more? Wouldn’t that just be condemning a generation of students to ignorance?

      Any serious look at the past shows that we’ve not been ‘dumbing us down’ over the past several generations. More American people are getting better education than ever in the past. Remember: huge American populations were relegated to substandard education or no education at all as recently as sixty years ago. What has seemed like a ‘dumbing down’ is simply a result of the fact that the pool is so much larger.

      Oh… and if you do want to start from scratch, what’s your plan? I have yet to hear one from any of you who advocate for ‘burning it down’ that makes any sense. Remember the basic rule: Don’t destroy if you can’t rebuild.

Your comments are welcome. They must be relevant to the topic at hand and must not contain advertisements, degrade others, or violate laws or considerations of privacy. We encourage the use of your real name, but do not prohibit pseudonyms as long as you don’t impersonate a real person.