[Featured images – show variety of school structures, including Plato’s academy peripatetic garden, little red schoolhouse, modern middle and high school complexes] To see the famous ‘students’ Raffaello da Urbino put in his famous painting, see this Wikipedia page on the School of Athens. The other pictures show the iconic 19th Century “Little Red School House”, Chicago’s Latin School, and Chicago.]
Part I – What education was, what it is now, and what it ought to be
We’ve all heard “It pays to learn”. This suggests the more education someone has, the more money she’ll make. Beyond compulsory high school, this is a bad assumption, for many reasons. For example, it matters what she learns. (Compare quilt making to, say, materials science.) Also, it matters how much she pays for learning, and to whom. Other qualifiers involve who she is – e.g., her interests, her aptitudes and skills, her native language, her ethinicity and color, where she was raised, what schools she attended, how her parents and friends feel about learning. There are institutional policies too, regarding the curriculum or program she follows, standards for admission, and eligibility for financial help, as well as laws about interest rates, default, restructuring, and forgivenness of loans. All the above and more affect the outcome. Obviously good advice is critical here. Does she have a trustworthy adviser? There’s no shortage of people who claim expertise in such issues – for a fee, of course.
70 years of education experience, as a student, teacher, researcher and critical thinker, convince me that present trends are mostly undesirable, at all levels, private and public, especially since the Seventies, as money interests have come to dominated the culture.
Financialization increasingly is hurting schools, as it is hurting all the important aspects of our once promising experiment in “government of the people, by the people, for the people”, honored in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Education, and other institutions which historically reminded citizens that money is not the only value – e.g., arts, journalism, elected representation and even religion – have generally been taken over by financial interests. This is well described in Chris Hedges, Death of the Liberal Class.
Having retired, and intending to focus on and write about these changes, I soon realized the difficulty of analyzing, understanding and judging the topic with confidence. It’s too big, vague and variable, and the relevant available information too full of error, subjectivity, and intentional deception – even for an old philosopher to digest, let alone present to a normal preoccupied public! But I do feel safe to speak about education in some demographic populations, in some areas, under some forms of governmental oversight, and uncover some trends they indicate.
A summary of American education as a whole is perhaps too much to expect. (A recent Atlantic article says “generalization doesn’t work” for America’s Schools, and gives good reasons why.) But it’s such a fundamental part of our society, and my life, that I’ll keep trying to ‘get my head around it’, and hope a few people are moved to think about it more critically, and begin to correct what seems wrong.
Defining terminology is primary for anyone trying to understand an important subject – i.e. without deception or sales pitches. Ambiguity is fatal to clear thinking, and a common tool of deceivers. Unfortunately, in the case of ‘American education’, terms are really hard to define. What is America? What is education? Is it the same as learning? Does it require two people – a teacher and student – one acting and the other receiving? Must education be an intentional effort, or can it be by accident? Can things educate or be educated? (Think of natural forces, diseases, storms, and related animal behavior.) Is AI a kind of education? Who (or what) is the educator of (or educated by) ‘big data’ and the AI systems that depend on it?
Do ‘brains’, ‘cleverness’, ‘now-how’ or ‘book learning’ count for education? Where does ‘understanding‘ come in? I recall one of my earliest educators – Winnie the Pooh – pondering about this:
“Rabbit’s clever,” said Pooh thoughtfully.
“Yes,” said Piglet, “Rabbit’s clever.”
“And he has Brain.”
“Yes,” said Piglet, “Rabbit has Brain.”
There was a long silence.
“I suppose,” said Pooh, “that that’s why he never understands anything.”
Does an educated person understand what she knows? If she does understand, is she an authority, or merely accepting what authorities claim? Ultimately, is knowledge anything more than a person’s opinion confirmed by the fact that so-called experts hold the same opinion? Does it entail finding truth? Must an educated person be aware of finding truth? Must she know that she knows? How? She may have a ‘hunch’ about it – a feeling of certainty – “I’m sure” given as her proof of knowledge.
I don’t think so. In my view, it’s quite the contrary; real knowledge demands being unsure. Uncertainty or doubt – epecially self-doubt – can motivate a genuine desire for knowledge, and generate questions that lead there. However, that’s only my belief. I also believe real knowledge exists, and it depends on truth. But these beliefs are unproveable, as are opposing views, in this question about the present state of education, and its place in the search for knowledge.
Plato – my go-to philosopher for deep thinking – defined knowledge as “justified true belief”. This means it is a ‘belief’, and as such it exists in someone’s mind. But for her belief to be a ‘true belief’, it must describe reality, which is independent of her belief. Finally, her true belief must be ‘justified’ objectively. It can’t be a lucky guess, nor just her opinion, even if the same opinion is held by any number of other ‘true believers’. This view of knowledge from ancient Greece is still held by serious thinkers, whose numbers seem to be diminishing – perhaps they’re even an endangered species. Some academic philosophers give arguments against the justified true belief theory, based on the rules of formal, symbolic logic. I think their abstract reasoning is specious, however, and shows how easily philosophers can go off track to prove their point. Ego is a common stumbling block for all ‘academics’. I’m sure of that!
What does schooling mean? Are schools necessary for education? Various individuals, families and rulers may judge differently. For instance, British lawmakers passed various school acts between 1870 (the Forster Act) and their latest legislation of 2016. Beginning with mandating school attendance to age 13, they raised it by steps to age 16, while restructuring levels, programs, funding and enforcement methods. All these proposals and changes brought oppposition among interest groups, as discussed in this politics.co article from the U.K., which includes this summary:
“However, many remained hostile to the idea of educating the working class, fearing it could de-stabilise the class system and foment dissent. Others warned of the indoctrination risk of mass education. The Act also allowed parents to withdraw their children from religious education, potentially undermining the role of the Church.”
“Many families themselves objected to compulsory education, arguing they needed children to earn a wage. Each subsequent increase to the school leaving age was therefore met with fresh criticism as families “lost” another economically active member for a year or more. Unsurprisingly the 1880 Act also established attendance officers to enforce attendance and parents could be fined for keeping their children out of school.”
Unlike Britain and other European nations, the U.S. had no Constitutional laws about education, thus leaving state and local entities to determine their own requirements. For example, Massachusetts made elementary education compulsory in 1647 when it was still a British colony. But not until 1918 did all states have compulsory schooling for all children. Today, half the states have extended mandatory attendance to age 18, while half left it at 16 or 17. To repeat, education has always be a fractious topic, with many perspectives.
19th century migrants to America from Europe often brought distrust of the authoritarian intellectual class they left in the old country. You’ll still hear “He may be smart in school, but …” Many people don’t believe book learning beats the ‘know how’ of practical experience. I think both are needed. So did Confucius: “The Master said: If you study but don’t reflect you’ll be lost. If you reflect but don’t study you’ll get into trouble.“ [Confucius Analects 2.15, Robert Eno transl (2015) Indiana U.]
American attitudes towards education show regional differences, that were first reflections of the motives of colonial settlers from various lands in the ‘old country’ to the ‘new world’. For example, Spain’s holdings started with Columbus’ reports of abundant gold in Caribbean islands (he thought were the East Indies). That search quickly expanded into South America, yielding gold, silver and other metals for Spain. Portugal joined in, colonizing what is now Brazil, for the same motives and with the same sad consequences for native peoples and imported slaves.
110 years after Columbus, English settlers landed in Jamestown, Virginia, expecting to find easy gold too, but quickly learned that survival should be their first task. British emigrants to New England and Canada were more lucky. Expecting to join the Jamestown settlement (which they did not know had failed), they went off course and landed on a peninsula (present Cape Cod) and settled at what they called Plymouth Rock, named for the Plymouth Company which arranged the venture.
Taking the example of 16th century Portuguese plantations on islands off West Africa, and Spanish plantations in the southern Caribbean, French investors started sugar plantations in other Caribbean areas close to New Orleans. They added fur trade in Canada – shipped down the Mississippi – and sought people to work in all their projects. These were either indigenous people, slaves, or immigrant indentured free Europeans, depending on the climate and work conditions of each area. In any case, French lands west of the Mississippi were not very successful for either royal or business owners. After changing hands from France to Spain to France again, they were sold to the USA by Napoleon – in the famous 1803 deal we call the Louisiana Purchase.
The (obviously inconsistent) goals of converting natives to Christianity, or of freedom of religious expression by emigrants from southern (Catholic) and northern (Protestant) lands added further to differences in regional demographics. These continue to influence attitudes and policies about the value or need for education. Wikipedia, “European colonization of the Americas” shows this variety of purposes.
Putting aside these regional differences of motivation, and cultural attitudes, all the communities in the New World were aware that some sort of training, education or schooling was important for their citizens at every level, for the success of the group. That was a view carried with them from their European history. (Even slaves had to be ‘trained’, to make their labor to be efficient, and discouraging uprisings.)
In Europe, schools go back a very long way. Historically they were established by and for persons who controlled society – i.e, nobles, religious leaders, or wealthy business people, with their families. But schooling was offered also to persons in lower classes who showed promise, and were needed (e.g. to copy books, keep records, design buildings, manufacture weapons, cure the sick, distil wine, entertain, etc.) Today we might call these ‘trade schools’ or ‘service industries’ today – terms with negative connotations.
But one school in Athens of 500 BCE was founded to help all its ‘students’ to gain the most important knowledge every human should seek, regardless of birth or class circumstances. A shadow of that school’s spirit has remained to inspire a few. Here’s a flashback to that vision in Ancient Greece, by an Italian painter living 2000 years later.
The Renaissance artist Raphael did the work shown here in the early 1500s. It’s a grand conception of that early school – certainly not anything like the Athenian institution that Plato founded. Raphael’s painting – called the School of Athens – shows Plato and his pupil Aristotle (dramatically framed against the sky by a Roman arch – not the style of any Greek building!). The famous persons Raphael placed there are his interpretion. But Plato did indeed have a school called the Academy (Ἀκαδημία), where many famous thinkers, including women, were invited (without cost) study and discuss – mainly theoretical principles, science and math.
It may seem strange that the word ‘school‘ comes from Greek skholē, which means “leisure”. For most of us, school and leisure are very distinct. But in that society, school was what a person with leisure time wanted, when and if the demands and obligations of daily life allowed. In Plato’s Athens, usually only those of the upper class had such leisure. An ideal scholar sought self-knowledge, in order to become a true aristocrat, in character – not in social status – which meant to become a true human. (‘Aristos’ άριστος means ‘worthy’ or ‘noble’.) Such a goal demands disciplined thought, and thoughtful discipline.
Plato’s mentor Socrates was not literally a ‘nobleman’ – Socrates’ father was a stone-cutter. His early career was that of infantry soldier (hoplite) like most of his fellow citizens. As such he was subject to being called to serve, in principle from age 18 to 60! And he did serve with honor in several campaigns. He became a life member of the governing Assembly (Ekklesia) at age 36, but spent most of his time engaging people in his quest for wisdom, and to inspire others to do likewise. So although he wasn’t in the noble class, his character was certainly noble. His independent lifestyle and thinking were uncommon, but respected by most.
Socrates’ guiding educational principle was “the unexamined life is not worth living.” He refused to take pay from his ‘students’, with good reason. First, he denied being a teacher, because professional teachers (whom he called “Sophists”) eagerly took pay for what they taught – primarily how to win arguments, and so to gain fame and influence. Secondly, knowledge is available to anyone who seeks it; it’s not a teacher’s possession to give, let alone sell, to a student. And thirdly, if it’s the teacher’s motive, money corrupts the process. I would add a fourth reason – that no one can teach another anything, in the sense of causing her know something; one can only try to motivate her to want to know – a skill that’s more art than science.
The philosophical study of knowledge (called “epistemology” by the Greeks who started it) began with an assumption that knowledge involves truth. More importantly, truth must exist, not as a subjective fantasy of someone’s imagination, but as a reality independent of any person. It can be known – if at all – only by devoted long study and self control. This assumption may appear old fashioned, especially in today’s skeptical culture. It isn’t proveable. (It would be fun to show why it can’t be proved, but time doesn’t allow.) Yet the whole edifice of education rests on it.
All of this underscores by contrast the point I want this post to make – i.e., our culture today seems to have replaced the search for knowledge and its application to a genuinely good life with the search for money. Those with the greatest financial interest – the so-called ‘One-Percent’ [more accurately, the 1/10th or 1/100th of One-percent] – have preached and encouraged this idea of value, so that those at the pinnacle who control the debt pyramid have become incredibly rich, while the real economy is declining. Knowledge today is a commodity. School policies are controlled by the debt industry, and students are “a debtor class” to serve it, as Michael Hudson shows.
Relatedly, knowledge as a search for, and love of wisdom (which ‘philosophy’ means in Greek) has given way to a search for, and love of wealth and power. Regard for truth – vital in any search for wisdom – is replaced by opacity, deception, and lies whenever truth threatens to shine some light on, or obstruct, the financial outcome (which is most of the time). Indeed, it’s increasingly common to hear that truth is nothing but an imaginary ideal, and “true” applies to any idea that “works” – i.e. gets what we want.
Truth does in fact belong to the realm of ideas. But that is the realm of reality, not illusion, where our real self – i.e. our inner mind – should and can operate, if we’re not totally distracted by worldly issues and desires. As Plato would say, truth is in the realm of “things thought”, not “things seen”. Although truth is mental, it isn’t ‘just a figment of your imagination’. No, ideas can be true, but only if and when they conform to reality. Reality itself is neither true nor false; it is what it is – above true and false. If one believes there are different levels of reality – as I do – there must be levels of knowledge of it. For some, the highest level – ultimate reality – isn’t knowable by ordinary methods of knowing. Maybe it’s beyond knowing altogether. Or perhaps it can be known little by little, with limitless room for applying it to self-improvement and service to others – an eternal process of growth, modesty, gratitude and happiness – called wisdom.
The saying “Know thyself” – γνῶθι σεαυτόν (gnōthi seauton) – was inscribed in the Temple of Apollo at Delphi (first built before 600 BCE), but it has parallels in much earlier inscriptions at the Luxor Temple of upper Egypt (modern Thebes), built ca. 1400 B.C.E. Needless to say, our present culture has little so-called leisure for this life-long task. The pace of choosing, speaking and acting is fast, impatient, even frantic. ‘Just do it! Now!‘
In Part II of “Education Pays”, I’ll discuss and illustrate specific ways in which financialization has affected education, students, communities and the economy negatively, and has made it harder than ever for democracy to function, or for ordinary citizens to live fulfilling lives.