These days, you can’t engage in cocktail party chatter or turn to a “serious” television program without finding yourself in a conversation about education reform. Everyone has a theory, and almost everyone has a culprit–the sad state of education is due to (choose one or more) teachers’ unions, poor parenting, bloated administrations, corporate privatizers, or the ACLU and its pesky insistence on fidelity to the Establishment Clause.
I’m still waiting for one of those conversations to turn to a pretty basic question: just how are we defining education?
Make no mistake: in most of these conversations, we are talking past each other. There is a huge disconnect in what people mean when they criticize education or advocate for changes in education policy. All too often, parents view education as a consumer good–skills they want their children to learn so that they can compete successfully in the American economy. That parental concern is far more understandable than the obliviousness of legislators and educators who want to assess the adequacy of high schools and colleges by looking at how many graduates land jobs.
Let me be clear. There is nothing wrong with job training. But job training is not the same thing as an education.
An op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times–The Decline and Fall of the English Major–detailed “a new and narrowing vocational emphasis in the way students and their parents think about what to study in college. As the American Academy report notes, this is the consequence of a number of things, including an overall decline in the experience of literacy, the kind of thing you absorbed, for instance, if your parents read aloud to you as a child. The result is that the number of students graduating in the humanities has fallen sharply.”
What many undergraduates do not know — and what so many of their professors have been unable to tell them — is how valuable the most fundamental gift of the humanities will turn out to be. That gift is clear thinking, clear writing and a lifelong engagement with literature.
Maybe it takes some living to find out this truth. Whenever I teach older students, whether they’re undergraduates, graduate students or junior faculty, I find a vivid, pressing sense of how much they need the skill they didn’t acquire earlier in life. They don’t call that skill the humanities. They don’t call it literature. They call it writing — the ability to distribute their thinking in the kinds of sentences that have a merit, even a literary merit, of their own.
As a college professor, I can confirm the abysmal writing skills of most undergraduates. And as a former high-school English teacher, I can also confirm that an inability to express a thought clearly is usually a good indicator of an inability to think clearly. (When a student says “I know what I mean, I just can’t say it,” it’s a safe bet that student does not know what he means.)
People learn to communicate clearly from reading widely. Reading widely introduces students to the human condition, to different ways of understanding, to the importance of literature and history and science, to the meaning of citizenship, to the difference between fact and opinion. Such people–educated people–are also more likely to succeed at whatever they choose to do. But that greater likelihood of success is a byproduct of genuine education, not its end.
Unless the conversation about education reform begins with a discussion of what we mean by “education,” unless we can agree on our goals for our schools, we will be unable to measure our progress.
We will keep talking past each other, and looking for someone to blame.