The limits and purposes of education
(VANCOUVER ISLAND) It isn’t exactly original to point out that we live in an age of specialisation. Early in the game, young people have to make decisions that will affect their entire lives; even before one graduates from high school, students are confronted with life-defining choices. Academic or vocational? Maths and sciences, or liberal arts? The selections a student makes while still undergoing the rites of puberty will determine the course of his or her life; and some of these choices are close to being irrevocable.
Being a generalist isn’t something people aspire to and it isn’t actually possible in any real sense any more. At one time high school students and even university undergraduates were expected to learn something about everything; specialisation came later and was the result of having enough knowledge to make informed choices. Now, however, students have started to specialise so early that it isn’t uncommon for a high school graduate in math to be completely unaware of who the Duke of Wellington was, or for a first year university Arts student to be unable to tell you what a square root is, much less calculate one. This isn’t laziness or poor teaching; this is a side effect of the nearly infinite availability of information.
It has been said that Thomas Young (1733-1829) was the last man to have read everything published. That’s also been said of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) and Voltaire (1694-1778). None of these candidates for the crown of ‘last omni-auto-didact” strikes me as being very likely; I suspect that there was too much already published even in Voltaire’s time for anybody to have absorbed it all. Possibly another candidate, Aristotle (384-322 BCE), some two thousand years earlier, makes a more realistic candidate. In any case, the point is that we no longer live in a world where it is possible to have a general knowledge of even a representative sampling of every field of study. Perhaps in recognition of this, people, while still children, have started neglecting areas that don’t immediately fascinate them in favour of focusing on a field they think will both interest and occupy them for the rest of their lives.
This has a number of negative consequences.
One of the most obvious problems with making such self-defining decisions so early is that children change as they grow; most men my age would have started training as astronauts or cowboys if they had been required to decide their future occupations at too early an age. To require such decisions of adolescents is only marginally better, if it is better at all. Anyone who remembers adolescence will remember the emotional volatility they endured and the self-destructive choices young teens are prone to make.
It is perhaps better to stop thinking of education as job-training. Education right up until the end of the teen years would be better serving its purpose if it was broad, even all-encompassing. A young person who understands the significance of the Napoleonic wars, the basics of Kantian ethical reasoning, recognizes the rationality of the periodic table of the elements, and is capable of understanding the basics of evolution is a more interesting and in most ways a smarter person than one to whom these are all opaque areas. That person is also in a far, far better position to make any decision at all, particularly one that involves a personal, life-determining choice.
Essentially, we are raising contestants on The Price is Right. The quality and focus of their education is on turning young people into proficient practitioners in their narrow fields, but beyond that, nothing but consumers – ignorant, unthinking, uncritical pursuers of gadgets and status symbols. They are rewarded for screaming in ecstasy and collapsing in bliss at the thought of a side-by-side refrigerator and to shiver with delight at the idea of a new washer/dryer. From their school years they are taught that those things are the Holy Grail of adulthood, but they are not taught, or even given an opportunity to learn, about the legends of the Holy Grail in literature and history.
We need to adjust society’s expectations so that children have their childhood for growing up, not just for their training. Education, until it is time to specialise in specific money-earning skills should focus on literacy and numeracy skills first of all, and then, with those as the foundation, upon critical thinking. Information pervades the world; there is no shortage of sources of knowledge. The most important thing we can teach our children is to distinguish between genuine knowledge and bullshit; between fact and fantasy; between what a politician says to get elected and what is true. If logic and critical thinking were taught in schools as being fundamental tools, all other forms of skill acquisition would be both easier and more effective.
As critical thinking becomes a habit, broad reading and a spirit of inquiry also become habits; learning about our past, about great thought, other cultures, scientific achievements, all these become passions. A broad understanding of the world is an almost inevitable result of learning to think clearly. A narrow mind is one of the saddest and most common human disabilities.
A great familiarity with debentures and stock options is good practical knowledge and can perhaps help a young adult make a living. Marketing expertise, ditto. Being able to solve the problem when a computer crashes may be indispensable, and ought to be learned. But never having heard of Voltaire is a tragedy, and not knowing who Socrates was is an intellectual crime.
The world suffers from a growing suspicion of real science, of anyone with knowledge of history, culture, and philosophy. When, as was recently the case in the United States, a poll can show that 46% of adults do not believe in evolution, and their leaders can run for public office with the conviction that global warming is a liberal myth as part of their platform, it is clear that ignorance has progressed far enough. It is time to turn back the tide.
It is time that adults started to acquire knowledge, and time for children to learn to think…not because it will make them wealthy, but because ignorance in a world of information is the greatest sin there is.