Edumacation: not a simple liberal ideal

“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and will never be.”
~ Thomas Jefferson


There is much debate about the state of education these days, ironically more and more as the funds seem to dwindle, it would appear. I think my educational philosophy has been pretty consistent over the years, and while I am not advocating for stasis, I do think it is good to have a foundation from which you pontificate. I believe some people refer to this foundation as a “soapbox.” Allow me to climb on mine for a moment.


Education is important. [And, for the record, one does not become a qualified educator through the process of giving birth – though many people who have given birth seem to believe that they are at that point educators.] Education is not only attained or gleaned in a classroom setting, but if you are in a classroom you should be getting something. Education is not about opening up a cranial cavity and inserting facts. Learning one thing does not make a person educated. Learning one thing makes a person trained in a single skill. Education and training are fundamentally different. I am not suggesting that one is actually better than the other (even though I obviously feel that one is better) but to call training education is an arrant misnomer.

For years I have had students tell me that what they are being taught in school is not important… it is not relevant… it does not help them in the future. I think this is a dialog that must be engaged in and more fully explored. They would not all be saying it if it was totally without merit. It is critical that students see the relevance in their education. But more importantly, students need to understand that education is relevant. Job training, while often necessary, it is not the same as education.

Why do I think people need to study the “Liberal Arts”? People need a liberal arts education because it provides the point of departure for more sophisticated, innovative and creative ways of thinking. Simply put: IT MATTERS. There are all sorts of reasons I can point to in order to substantiate my position here, and rest assured, I will get to some of them, but underlying all of it is the idea that without context, specialization is useless. A liberal arts education gives you context. And as Liz Coleman points out in her Ted Talk (below), despite all the evidence of the interconnectedness that permeates our daily existence at every level, the idealization of the expert as the “sole model of intellectual achievement” has become the goal of our educational system. Ironically, in our pursuit for expertise Coleman points out, “our public education, once a model for the world, has become most noteworthy for its failures. Mastery of basic skills and a bare minimum of cultural literacy eludes a vast majority of our students.”

Cultural literacy. The ultimate in context.

I wrote a blog a while back about my educational leanings and I got a lot of feedback – of course peppered with the “those who cannot do, teach” type of stuff. More worthy of response were the comments that questioned why everyone should need to have an education – and why did I think that formal education was the answer. First, let me say that I believe everyone, even that ubiquitous ditch digger, should have an education for the two reasons semi-articulated above: 1) Context and 2) Cultural literacy. Without these two things, I do not believe that individuals are meeting the responsibility that they are obligated to for the privilege of living in a free society. [I am fairly resolute in my position, so I am willing to take a lot of shit about it, by the way.] Secondly, regarding formal education; at this point I am not sure it is the answer, but I am also not convinced there is a better one available right now. People who are exposed to higher education have a better set of tools for working with the world. In the words of one of my current favorite writers, David Foster Wallace:

Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal-arts cliché about “teaching you how to think” is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: “Learning how to think” really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.

I have never been a fan of specialization. This may have something do with my mostly mediocre abilities in a pretty wide variety of areas. I am decent at a lot of stuff. I used to get really pissed off about it and think it was such a waste that I wasn’t, like epic or legendary in one thing. But then I realized that with my personality, that would just lead to boredom, which would in turn lead me to do something totally different anyhow, so either way it was okay. I did lots of stuff when I was growing up, but I was generally sort of allowed to decide what stuff that would be. In contrast, kids now are totally over-scheduled as parents try to identify the as-of-yet-undetermined-legendary-greatness that will guarantee the kids admission to the best universities. And this happens when they are like, what? Four years old? Now, I read Outliers, and I totally buy Gladwell’s 10,000 hours=expertise premise. But I also think that it is important that you not overlook the reality that in order to be able to do something for 10,000 hours, you really need to like what you are doing. And how the hell can you know what you like if you never ever take a moment to reflect on anything?

Anna Quindlen wrote an article for Newsweek questioning the benefits of this new model of coming of age where children are over-scheduled to the the point that they are given no opportunity to ponder things… effectively, to be bored. I know that I certainly appreciated the moments of contemplation that I had to come up with new ideas and interests. This does not denigrate the need for experience and exposure to lots of different things, but just acknowledges that constant activity is not necessarily preparing kids for lots of things, but it is preventing them from developing the mental acuity to be creative without constant input. It reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (the title itself owing much to the point at hand):

“Constantly talking isn’t necessarily communicating.”

And, as is the norm in my life, all of this came together in my frontal lobe in a bizarre series of events: I am becoming clear on how much I miss the classroom while  simultaneously watching the demise of education in the amazing state that I call home. Then I saw Liz Colmeman’s talk. Then one of my summer students today said, upon inquiry as to how she was enjoying summer so far: “It’s boring.” At that point I handed her the writing assignment for the day – a persuasive essay explaining her position on the following Bertrand Russell quote:

“To be able to fill leisure intelligently is the last product of civilization, and at present very few people have reached this level.”

Liz Coleman’s point, that the demise of the liberal arts education is dangerous and opens the door to absolutism and things far more detrimental to a free society brings up so many of these issues. At the core of a functional democracy is a citizenry that meets its civic responsibility to engage and ensure that appropriately complex thought is given to complex situations. Can we say confidently that this is what is happening today? The majority of my students in Hong Kong are interested only in specialization. Only. I cannot help but consider the consequences of a few more generations based on this model. Why is it that Jon and Kate surpass the Iranian Election as trending topics on Twitter? Is it ignorance? Provincialism? Or something greater like a fundamental lack of cultural literacy? Make no mistake, we need to initiate a paradigm shift in education and educational values, but to do this we have to think about what it all comes down to in the end.

“The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the “rat race” — the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.” (David Foster Wallace, 2005)


About Amanda

I am repatriating expatriate trying to work it all out. Well, to work some of it out anyhow. I am writing here for sanity, focus and general over-sharing.
This entry was posted in Education, Perception, Philosophical Underpinnings, Politics and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Edumacation: not a simple liberal ideal

  1. Pingback: State of Emergency: Have you heard it all before? | No, THIS is how you do it…

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