Defining Our Terms

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.


  1. At one time, education was more than the Three Rs. It involved logic and thought, not just memorization. It also included the incorporation of what the community considered baseline knowledge. A slight nod to anything from Shakespeare, Voltaire, Homer, Greek or Roman mythology, or the Bible carried with it the entire reference and its context, because an educated person know those texts. Latin, Greek, and French words were peppered throughout literature, not to intimidate, but because the word conveyed the exact intent and everybody was expected to understand it. An educated person might not be able to write a symphony, but s/he knew what it was. Education did more than prepare a person for a specific job. It brought common themes and ideas to society, and prepared people to be participants in that society, rather than workers/observers.

  2. We had a civics class when I was in HS. Based on the emails from some of my classmates, I assume they slept through it. But we were exposed to the concepts. Some stayed awake.
    A friend of mine runs a youth group in Indiana. He recently had the kids write letters to their federal representatives. Some of them had NO IDEA how to address an envelope. They had never done that before. YIKES.

  3. When I began school approximately 70 years ago (OMG it appalls me to admit that fact); those Three Rs I was taught also taught me to seek beyond them. I was taught how to use that knowledge in my life as I grew to adulthood. I can’t even imagine how much more vital information must be taught in schools at all levels today and how is it decided what to keep and what to let go? In the mid-1970’s my son brought his geography homework assignment to me to check. It was filled with misspelling, erasures and barely any punctuation. I told him he needed to redo it or the techer would not accept it; he insisted she would so I decided to “teach him a lesson”. I was the one who learned that even at that time, reading and writing skills were not taught to students as he received a good grade because the “facts” were in the report. On the other hand, this was when that new math was being taught in our schools. At an open house his math teacher explained she skimmed over that form and taught her students arithmetic so they would be able to figure their checkbooks as adults. His writing skills are still lacking but his math skills are great. The only conclusion I can reach is that we are all to blame at one level or another; but much of that is due to the lack of basic knowledge and skills of parents, teachers and our elected officials who all seem to be sports fans:)

  4. Sheila nailed it. The NYT nailed it. Each person who commented here also nailed it. As a retired teacher of English, I can affirm that everything you have said is true. Students in today’s fast-paced, high-tech world don’t read well, nor do they write even close to ‘well’. Now comes the news that cursive writing is on the chopping block. That may or may not be hugely significant, but it is just one more skill which is disappearing from the American educational scene.

    We are in serious trouble. Those same ill-prepared people are going to be handling prescriptions, trying to fill those prescriptions according to the doctors’ orders, making change at the fast-food window (well, the computer in front of them does it for them now, which is another problem), and eventually providing the correct (or incorrect) dosages of our meds at the nursing home.

    Those same people can rapidly name every player for the Pacers and the Colts. Here in Tennessee, they can name the starting lineup for the Titans, the Grizzlies, and the University of Tennessee. They know the players’ statistics, too. They probably do not know the names of their elected officials on the local or national level. The three branches of government? Jay Leno put that one to rest recently with his questions to people out on the street. No, the average person on the street does not know the three branches of government.

  5. (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.)
    …this is debatable. I think is it NOT that they do not know what he/she means, but a contributing factor of years of primary education where remembering and repeating what has been already written is encouraged.
    How often are 4th -6th graders allowed to debate their thoughts on a subject in class? Remember and repeat! they are young minds and capable of independent thought…though limited, but should be encouraged during this crucial age.

    I remember my good book reports being graded down because of a spelling or grammar error. So my total thought process was graded down because I needed some assistance with another subject, grammar.
    One of my best subjects is History and I attribute that to my 7th grade teacher who encouraged debate in class. She would point out my grammar errors to me but never hold it against my grade on any one report.

  6. Everyone here understands that education is so much more than job training, but too many power brokers do not or just refuse.

    The power brokers have it backwards. If we make better human beings who are healthier, are better parents, are engaged in the civic life of their community, they’ll be better workers too.

    It’s hard to measure those qualities on a standardized, paper and pencil test.

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