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Education and Our Society

Suppose we have a young person, say Andy, who lives in a town, call it Hometown.  Hometown is a placeholder for any community.

Andy is a bright fellow.  Hometown needs lots of help.  Whatever help Hometown can get out of Andy can come from two places: Things that Hometown can persuade Andy to do for it, and Things that Andy decides to try to do, just because he wants to.

This is where education comes in.

Our early education focuses on the sorts of things Andy needs to know to be able to go about living in Hometown.  It's a combination of things that Hometown needs Andy to be able to do, not to be a nuisance, and things that Andy needs to be able to do for himself, e.g. buy stuff at the store, get a driver's license, borrow a book from the library, keep a bank account, pay his taxes.

In Middle School, Andy learns various skills he may never need, but which, if postponed, might be too late for Andy to conveniently learn.  These include skills that Andy needs to have fun: computer skills, reading skills, which are also skills in which it would be useful for a Hometown business or employer to have Andy be proficient in.  There certainly are some occupations that Andy could get into that do not require proficiency in reading or writing at the Middle School level (which are, even at this late date, better than the skills that Donald Trump has, for instance; but it doesn't take a lot to be quite a successful businessman).

Now things become interesting.  If Andy were of more than average intelligence (or even if he wasn't), he might not actually be familiar with certain pieces of information or areas of knowledge that he might be interested in.  There's just so far that you can depend on Television to supply this information, or high school, or other sources of information, given that young people don't read much these days.  Furthermore, there are additional skills in whose acquisition Andy might not be interested in, but in which he might be interested later on.  If he holds off on these, by the time he does get interested in them, it might require more effort on his part than he is willing to put in.

Unfortunately, since society has chosen to put Andy with a host of other kids in the same school, and they might all have wildly different interests, the school is forced to teach them all the same skills.  The more affluent the society, the less tolerant the kids are going to be, so that the school is obliged to sweeten the deal by making the skills training as entertaining as possible.

It used to be the case that parents would explore other avenues to encourage their kids to acquire skills that might deliver rewards later in time: deferred gratification.  There used to be special-interest clubs that kids could join: Astronomy Clubs, Business Clubs, Horticulture Clubs, Art Clubs, and so on.  But the hardworking parents of Hometown may not be aware of such things, and the overworked club leaders are getting tired of putting in a lot of work into these clubs, so Andy's intellectual needs are no longer being provided in ideal ways.

So education is a combination of things, some of which are intended to make Andy a functioning member of Hometown society, and a useful citizen at a low level, and employable at a moderate level.  Some aspects of education are intended to awaken Andy's interest in more sophisticated things, which, if Andy picks up on them, will lead to more useful work that Hometown (and Hometown businessmen) can obtain from Andy, which, ideally, would be more rewarding to Andy.  (Of course, a compromise has to be found between what Andy thinks his labor is worth, and what his employers think it is worth, and of course this is a struggle, and usually the employer wins!)

The higher in the education world Andy goes, the more tenuous the line between what he learns, and how useful it makes him.  Those who are new to the education concept tend to believe that no matter what Andy learns, regardless of how much entertainment value his teachers have inserted into their lessons, that it will lead directly to a skill useful for the line of work Andy chooses.  This is not true.  This brings us to the last of the things education has to offer.

Education can also expand Andy's interests.  The more he knows, the wider his circle or interests will be; indeed, as we said, there may be areas of study, areas of knowledge, of whose existence Andy is totally unaware, which could grab him.  It may be an entire field, or a subfield, or a small backwater within a subfield, which may seize Andy's imagination.

And Andy begins to appreciate the interest of his fellow students in these other things, which is an important skill.  Education at this level increases Andy's awareness in ways that are far from being mechanical.  I mean mechanical in the sense that the skill leads directly to its use in Andy's employment.  He could also find, in books, information that even his teachers have not been aware of.  Finally, if he gets to know his teachers well, he could also learn from them unique and interesting approaches to various problems: of understanding problems, and solving them.

So, the connection between Andy's educational experience and the skill-set that he brings away from school is very vague and tenuous, and likely to be different for Andy from what his friend Bill brings away.  You would think that this is an argument for making highly individualized educational plans for each student.  But no parent can afford such an individualized plan; it is only affordable if it is carried out for an entire group of students together.  And whether it is even possible is a matter of luck and accident.  Andy's parents could help luck along in many ways, but they are usually too exhausted to give much thought to such things.

This is the problem of education: how to reconcile the sophisticated training that modern society needs to pass on to its children, with financial constraints of the Business-driven economy within which we have to function.  Excellence is available, but society demands that the better it is, the more expensive it is going to be.  And it requires an enormous amount of flexibility from Andy, his parents, his school and teachers, and his friends.

Hometown citizens of the managerial class would normally say: this is a problem for the teachers.  Give them a small raise, and ask them to come up with a fantastic new education plan by next Tuesday.  And some teachers will jump at the chance, and neglect their present work on the way.  Nobody realizes that the subtle needs of students can only be successfully addressed by those who have the leisure to do it, and the inclination, and the imagination.

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This post first appeared on I Could Be TOTALLY Wrong, But ..., please read the originial post: here

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Education and Our Society

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