Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Why Educate?

I was going to write something different today, but I was inspired by one of the comments from a previous post (see what power you have if you leave a comment?) to draw together some thoughts I've been pondering for a few weeks about what is the point of education.  That was not her question; her question, posted in response to my post about the latest battle over whether or not our local school system in Wake County, NC should drop its accreditation rather than to submit to the questions posed by the accrediting agency, is how people can continue to deal with the frustration of trying to resolve the numerous issues that are dividing our community about the fundamental principles of our educational system.

But I think those are both really the same question, or at least, the same set of questions.  Why does it matter?  Who cares about education?  What is it that education should be doing?  Why care?  Why educate?

So let me give you my perspective on this issue.  As I've said before, I'm from the DC area originally, and between growing up there and spending most of my professional life there, I've met lots of important and significant people in many different realms (not the least of which is my father, who held presidential appointment-level positions under six? eight? different US Presidents, along with teaching in two universities and serving as a top-level executive in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York).  But no matter how accomplished (or not), almost everyone I've talked to who has children tells me that their children are at least as important as, if not more significant than, whatever they have achieved in their professional lives.  I think for most people, if you ask them the most miraculous moments in their lives, the top ones include holding their child(ren) in their arms for the first time--whether the children were naturally born, adopted, born through a surrogate, or whatever.  For the vast majority of those of us blessed with children, other things fade in comparison with them.

Even those who haven't raised children themselves usually have a soft spot for children.  Some chose to forego them because they thought they couldn't be the kind of parent they wanted to be, given their professional or other life situations.  Others wanted to be, but things just didn't work out.  And some just never felt the call that parenthood was for them.  But that doesn't mean that such people don't care about and work towards the safety and well being of children.  Because, as the saying goes, it DOES take a village.

So at least in the US, once you've got the child's basic food, shelter, and physical safety needs met, the next need we deem most important as a society is the child's education (we could make a good case here for children's health care, but we'll leave that for another post).  But education is kind of a funny thing with us Americans.  With our rugged individualism mythological past, we tend to think it is up to the parents to take care of feeding, clothing, sheltering, and providing medical care to their own children.  But everybody wants to have some say in how the children are educated, since our historical analogy was education as a melting pot where all sorts of different cultures came in, blended together, and were poured out into multi-colored molds, producing components that fit together to build an ever bigger and better America.

So this is part one of the question--Why does it matter?  Why deal with the frustration?  Why bother?  We care and we fight and we bother and we persevere despite frustration because, really, what else can be more important?  Yes, we can do other things---we can acquire wealth, or fame, or accomplishment, or lose ourselves in hedonistic pleasures, or just surrender ourselves to staying in bed all day.  Does any of that matter all that much in the long run?  Most of us want to invest at least some of our energy in making sure that the next generation not only survives, but flourishes.  And for many of us, the education system is the most tangible way we can do that (beside supporting the raising of our own immediate families).

So people have a high level of investment in the fact that education matters, not just for their own family, but for society in general.  High enough that for many of us, at least, it is enough to forego the frustration and negative energy to continue to fight for what we believe.

This point of view assumes agreement about the importance of education and the future of "our" children.  So our real issues, then, are about what it is that education should be doing.

I can't be a good advocate for the point of view of the current majority of the Board of Education--who, it is important to remind ourselves, were elected by a majority of the voters in Wake County.  If there is every a reader from that side who would like to present that perspective, I would LOVE for you to send me a guest post, which I PROMISE to post (with full credit, of course).

Until that happens, though, I can only present my perspective and the things that inspire me.

As I've said before, we homeschool, and one of the reasons we do so is because I don't like the current commitment nationwide to evaluating education only by those things that can be rated by standardized tests.  We are just starting a study of Dickensonian English history and literature, so when thinking of the present approach to education, I can't help but recall the opening passage to Dicken's Hard Times (his novel that deals most specifically with education):

'NOW, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!'

Maybe it is my personality, maybe it is my education philosophy, or who knows...but I while I think facts are definitely important, there are other important things.  As Albert Einstein says, "Imagination is more important than knowledge.  For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand."  So facts teaches our children what we know from the past, but in the rapidly-changing world in which we live, preparing for an unknown future must be, I think, equally important.

(Note:  Of course, this is not one of the battles that are even being debated in the ongoingly-contentious Wake County School Board public meetings.  But perhaps we can get to it once we settle the issues about who should be going where and how we should distribute the resources and children of this county.)

Let me add a few links of other people who have asked this question about the ultimate role of education.

In honor of Martin Luther King's Day yesterday, here is a link to his article on this issue.  Dr. King makes the point that it is not enough for education to make our children smart; it must give them character as well.  He gives an example of a man who is an accomplished scholar within the realm of academia, but can still justify discrimination against people based purely on the color of their skin.

Then, in the Washington Post today, the president of Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia wrote a nice piece about the purpose of a liberal arts college education today.  According to Dr. Christopher Howard, the role of COLLEGE (let alone undergraduate education) is to help today's students make sense of their individual experience with the world, past, present, and future.  Dr. Howard calls for engagement, which he describes as purpose, passion, and calling, rather than providing them with specific skills, knowledge, or employment tracks.

One of the other blogs that I follow, a lovely site called Fairy Dust Teaching, kind of sparked my thinking along these lines with a post she had last month.  She is a Waldorf-trained Kindergarten teacher, so she is the other end of the spectrum.  But one of the thing she said in her post was:
I have a sticky note posted in the front of my lesson plan book that says, "A good education gives you goosebumps."  It reminds me to not forget to add a little wonder and curiosity in the plan.  

I love that reminder.  I may not always get there, but I think that is a great goal to aim for.  To read the rest of her inspirational notes, see her post on Why Educate?

I have one last reference to add.  I have been reading the magnificent book, My Reading Life by Pat Conroy, a writer that I have adored now for about 20 year now.  This book is like a Valentine's Box of Godiva Chocolates for literature, and each essay is like the richest literary truffle you could ever imagine.  But Conroy is only the latest to write about the impact that an individual teacher made on his life.  In his case, it was an English teacher whom Conroy describes as:
Gene Morris didn't just make his students love books; he made us love the entire world.  He was the essential man in the lives of a thousand boys and girls who dwelled in the shadow of his almost unnoticeable greatness.

Conroy had one other fantastic quote from that essay that I must add:
If there is more important work than teaching, I hope to learn about it before I die.

And that, I think, sums up why we continue, despite the frustration.


  1. Thank you for your thoughts. I guess the follow-up question would be, "Why FIGHT for education?" One can, for example, build for education, or write for education, or program computers for education. Strife and frustration just do not feel inspiring or productive. Why not educate in peace and love?

  2. Good point. I think when we are centered in our commitment towards what we believe in, we are building for, or writing for, or doing for education in peace and love, regardless of what others are doing. However, when we come head to head with a different opinion, it seems to switch in our experience from "building for" to "fighting for."

    Part of this is a foundational American belief. The entire American government was built on an idea of separation of powers that would give different interest groups enough power to have their ideas heard--but not enough to push them through without agreement. Our system was built to accommodate compromise--you get some of what you want, I get some of what I want--with the idea that the middle road is probably the best solution overall. That idea may be wrong, but our government has been based on that idea. Of course, of late, parties have not been playing by those rules (as evidenced by the Wake County School Board), so perhaps that idea is outdated....but that is still the way the system is built.

    Certainly, the most spiritual path is not to fight against, but to advocate for. That is what Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Mother Theresa all did. Unfortunately, most of us find it hard to operate at that level.

  3. Thanks, the historical explanation makes sense to me, and also levels of moral reasoning. I may be dreaming, but it seems there are more individuals and groups going for love-based advocacy and constructive, building action in the last decade or so. What is your feeling about this?

  4. That is my experience at a personal or grass roots community level, but things are going the opposite direction at the national, state, or local politics level. At all levels of US government, which we built to produce the middle road through compromise, elected officials are becoming increasingly partisan, antagonistic, and obstructionist. And the American system doesn't work if one side insists on having it all their way all the time. If the Founding Fathers had acted the way our current US Congress (or the Wake County School Board) acts, we would still be a British colony!

    Yet, on the community level, there are more and more alternative and love-based spiritual movements, such as my spiritual community called Journeys, more people using the Internet for positive actions and free sharing of ideas and resources (FreeCycles and all sorts of free open sources software and classes, etc.), and more people pursuing alternative paths for food (localvores) and education (homeschooling, charters, etc.) and health (alternative medical practices), etc. that involve more love and respect for both human beings and the Earth.

    Who knows? Maybe the Mayans had it right. Maybe those two trends will collide in 2012 and create something new if the old systems aren't working.....

  5. Ahh, this is interesting... I guess politicians always had SOME antagonistic tendencies, but when did it accelerate? It's rather fascinating to contrast these two Journeys, leading into the opposite directions.

    Yesterday we went to the science cafe, where the new director of the nature research center talked about rainforest conservation. She said they gain very little from interfacing with governments, compared to NGOs. And that NGOs have more power to change people's behaviors than governments do, because people actually listen to them.

    We definitely live in interesting times. Let's continue participant observations ;-)

  6. Personally, I trace it back to Newt Gingrich and the Republican Revolution of 1994, but particularly when the Republicans shut down the federal government in 1996 by refusing to pass budget allocations until the Democrats agreed to a balanced federal budget. That never happened, of course, and Gingrich eventually relented. But that, to my mind, was the first case of it being more important to insist on having your way than to try to find a way to work together to enable government operations to continue.

    Many, many of the best long-time Senators and Representatives have retired recently because they can't stand the level of antagonism and really antipathy that Congress has for each other these days. That was one of the things that we really lost with the death of Ted Kennedy--a man who could be an opinionated and competitive and political as anyone, but who never took differences personally, who always was willing to work with the opposition to find solutions, and who, at the end of the day, was willing to socialize with his political opponents, whether he had won that day's vote or they had. One of his best friends was Orin Hatch, a conservative Republican from Utah. But the impression you get from a number of people in Congress these days--as well as on our School Board--is that they have no respect for the other side at all, and treat them as "the enemy"...if not like "the devil."

  7. We came to the US in 94... But that's probably not in a cause-effect relationship with these events ;-) I was just going to say that I've never witnessed it any different than it is now. Snark and vitriol going around is unbelievable. But in some sense, the voters are a captive audience to the two choices they get. Is the mechanism of hostility escalation, then, somewhat similar to the prisoner's dilemma or the tragedy of the commons or other such problems originating in scarcity of resources or information?

  8. I don't know why it has gotten worse, but it definitely has gotten worse.

    It's funny, because the Washington Post's education columnist has an article about "Do We Need School Boards?" where he talks about how quiet and dull and boring and ignored school board meetings are. If only! But it used to be like that here, too.....

  9. Carol, such an important conversation! I loved your reference to Dr. King - "it is not enough for education to make our children smart; it must give them character as well." I am honored to be a part of your post! This is a conversation that we must keep returning to and taking a stand in.

  10. Thank you to Sally for your original post that got me thinking about this question.

    And for Maria, here is one of the best-respected and most in-depth recent articles exploring what the Senate has such a hard time getting anything accomplished these days: George Packer's The Empty Chamber, which was printed in The New Yorker last year at http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/08/09/100809fa_fact_packer?currentPage=1 .

  11. I wish I understood a single cartoon in that New Yorker article (or in any I have ever looked at). Do you get them? Would you explain sometimes?! And I wish people wrote in a faster prose. Having grumbled about my usual dislike of the source...

    I found the parts related to the internet most interesting. E.g Dodd, who came to the Senate in 1981 and will leave next January, told me, “I used to have eleven Connecticut newspaper reporters who covered me on a daily basis. I don’t have one today, and haven’t had one in a number of years. Instead, D.C. publications only see me through the prism of conflict.”

    They become increasingly dramatic and aggressive as they attempt to attract dwindling attention of the dwindling media.

    What I did not see in the article, and maybe I missed it, are portraits of people who do their work with love, care and attention. What a dysfunctional world is described there? Is it really so dysfunctional?

  12. I hadn't responded to this comment because I didn't know what to say. It does seem like it has been pretty dysfunctional lately.

    But I just finished watching the State of the Union speech, one of those annual political dramas that people in DC and other political junkies love. And I thought it was terrific. Obama spoke much better than he has been as president...more on line with the job he did as a candidate. He steered away from the mind-numbing specifics and provided more hope and inspiration than he has tended to do as President. He made some bold statements, and really seemed to acknowledging and reaching out to both sides of the political spectrum. The Senators and Representatives had also tried something different, since many chose to sit with colleagues from the opposite party, rather than having the two parties segregated as in previous years. The willingness to try something new, to make a gesture toward bipartisanship, even as trivial as this, was a great thing. It certainly makes a much better picture than previous years, where one side would pop up to applaud what they agreed with while the other side was obviously glued to their seats.

    But at the end of the speech, Obama said something that is just so quintessentially American. He talked about the American dream, both for individuals and for the country, that anything is possible with hard work and commitment. He acknowledged that American democracy is a messy, ridiculous, sometimes even ugly, if not insane, business. But then he threw out a line that brought everyone to his or her feet. Obama said that, despite all the problems with American democracy, there was not one person in that room who would be willing to trade places with some other system in some other country.

    And that's really the underlying truth about America. As bad as things seem, we have always known that we created something special, something wonderful with our system of government and its underlying principles. And we always believe that we can create something wonderful again. So no matter how dysfunctional it seems, we believe in our democratic system. And that belief pulls us through, even when things seem really dark.

    So who knows? But tonight, at least, positive things seem possible.

  13. Thanks for a positive example, Carol. I loved the fact they reached out and sat together. I hope it is a sign of some change! I will try to watch the recording ASAP. Let me bask in the warmth of your story before I do.

    I am less impressed by the second part than I am supposed to be, I think. "Obama said that, despite all the problems with American democracy, there was not one person in that room who would be willing to trade places with some other system in some other country." Aren't all people in that room at the top of the existing hierarchy of power? And most metrics they typically use for a country's success also place US at the top of world hierarchies. It's not surprising they would not trade - not because they are mercenary, but because from where they stand, the system genuinely looks the best.

    From where I stand, for the set of reasons I can only assume is similar to theirs, I am not seeking emigration either! This system supports what I value and what I do - homeschooling, math ed research (practice is another question) and web tech very well, the best of all countries I know. I realize 2 hours from Cary there is Bertie County where they don't have a single library, and that 1.5% adults are in prison, and so on, and I do try to think of such problems whenever I open my mouth on global issues, but the effects aren't really noticeable directly in my daily life. I don't know if those inmates or their families would think the system is the best in the world, though, that's the point I am trying to make.


    Education practitioners always talk about "changing systems" and always compare among countries. Most recently, Sweden came up - and the "blame" for their success was laid at the feet of socioeconomic variables. Some are also looking at more totalitarian Asian systems.

    I think the checks and balances of power were a brilliant invention at the time. I also think the system, in modern times, can benefit from more pluralism than just two opposing forces, while keeping those other essentials that have been making it so lovable and forward-thinking all this time. Basically, I'd like to see 3-5 strong parties at least, but 30-50 would be even better. For that to happen, among other things, political campaigning for presidency has to cost less than half a billion it does now (that's some fundraiser to start, lol), and become more Internet-oriented. That's my current American dream :-)

  14. Sure, all of that is true. I didn't mean it as a statement that this is the best system that could possibly be, and I would agree with some of your proposed improvements. All I meant was that it is easy to carp and complain and criticize and forget how lucky we are, compared to the lives of most people in most other countries. And it was a great moment of unification, particularly in a body that is recent years has been so uncivil to each other. It was a reminder that there is a grand vision that Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals share...a realm of agreement that has almost been forgotten lately by some politicians who act as if their opponents were evil incarnate.

  15. Thank you for this example of a positive behavior of politicians. I consider country of residence an ongoing choice, so the message that we should remember to compare countries more often, and remember the big reasons for our own choices, is quite relevant. For example, the US is responsible for more than half of all mathematics education research in the world. Despite the negative elements in my personal countries index (such as war), the sum total makes US the top country for me.

  16. That is an excellent point, Maria. In fact, our spiritual center kind of takes that approach to most of the major things in our lives--that they are not decisions we make once and that's it, but are choices we make everyday. So, for example, we may only get married once, but every day we choose our spouse again...or not. Or on the topic of this blog, every day we choose to be educators...or not. Of course, those days we choose "no," we usually muddle through anyway, but our lessons don't sing, and we aren't touching our students' lives and minds and hearts the way we do when we are choosing to be educators. But usually we get a good night's sleep or take a break or whatever, and then we decide to be a teacher again (or a mate or a parent or whatever it is).

    This also reminds me of another post from Sally Haughey's lovely Fairy Dust Teaching blog. Sally was the one who asked this question, Why Educate?, in her blog, which started this whole post. Then last weekend, she poses what she says is an even deeper question--Who teaches? Who is the "self" we bring to education? I think we bring a very different "self" to teaching when we affirm consciously that we choose to be educators, embracing the good and the less desirable. As we do when we realize that we choose to be married, or to be parents, or to be Americans.

    You can read Sally's post on this at http://fairydustteaching.blogspot.com/2011/01/who-is-it-that-teaches.html . She has a wonderful story about how she handled a teaching situation with intuition and compassion instead of frustration or judgement, and what a difference that made to the child involved. She is obviously a fabulous teacher....but the larger point is that when we realize we are doing whatever because we choose to, it gives us a wider range of responses to challenges then when we forget our own ability to decide these things and thing we are "trapped" or "have to" do or be whatever.

  17. Interesting PEW study (actually, all their studies are quite interesting): http://shareable.net/blog/internet-users-more-collaborative-group-oriented

    "Pat yourself on the back, engaged Internet user: a new Pew study has found that you are more likely to be active in some kind of voluntary group or organization."

  18. The thing is, the study doesn't seem to address what is the cause and what is the effect of this data. That is, our homeschool support group states when you sign up that all communication is done via the Internet. So you can't really be an active member of the group unless you are on the Internet. It was the same case with the Moms Club I was in before the homeschool group.

    So we don't really know if people who are on the Internet are a personality type, or whatever, that is more active in groups than non-Internet users, or whether shoe-string organizations like these groups effectively exclude people who are are not Internet users, even if they would like to participate, because of the relatively high cost of communicating with those people (compared to email and electronic communications).

  19. Actually, that reminds me of something that happened with our new school board. When the Republican majority took over, they did a customer satisfaction survey of school parents. Originally, they were going to send home a paper document home with all the students for the parents to fill out and send back to school with their children. But then they decided it would be cheaper to do it over the Internet. Of course, people complained that the survey results would be skewed towards those families with easy access to the Internet (presumably the more economically advantaged ones). But the school board did it anyway. And, of course, it led to the figure of 94.5 parental satisfaction that was featured in Stephen Colbert's skewering of the Wake County situation last week. But who knows how well that really represents all the parents in our community, or at least the ones with children in the school system.

    This reliance on using technology to assess American satisfaction led to the most famous misprediction in US election history, demonstrated by a photograph of Harry Truman, the morning he had been elected President, holding up a newspaper that said "Dewey Wins." The newspaper had made that declaration based on phone surveys of people who had voted--who were wealthy enough to have phones, and who tended to vote for Dewey. But all those people who weren't rich enough to afford phones voted for Truman, the ultimate winner.

    So I'm saying it could be a chicken and egg sort of thing. Just because those active on the Internet are more active doesn't mean that non-Internet users wouldn't be equally active if they had the financial and/or technological/educational means of similar access to the Internet.

  20. Excellent points, Carol!

    It is also interesting, when you think about it, that schools have no reliable means to reach 100% of parents.

  21. Well, when they have a legal need for 100% compliance, such as signed permission forms for field trips, etc., I think they send forms home, so that seems to be fairly reliable. The Board just chose not to do that.

    It might have made sense to do it as an Internet survey if they were trying to reach the parents in the community who DON'T send their children to school, since presumably a good number of them have chosen private schools or homeschooling because they weren't satisfied with the public schools. But they didn't do that, either.

    So I'm not really sure what that figure was good for, other then making Wake County look ridiculous on national comedy shows....