Why education is so difficult and contentious.



Kieran Egan




This article proposes to explain why education is so difficult and contentious by arguing that educational thinking draws on only three fundamental ideas&emdash;that of socializing the young, shaping the mind by a disciplined academic curriculum, and facilitating the development of students' potential. All educational positions are made up of various mixes of these ideas. The problems we face in education are due to the fact that each of these ideas is significantly flawed and also that each is incompatible in basic ways with the other two. Until we recognize these basic incompatibilities we will be unable adequately to respond to the problems we face.




It is onerous to think about our ideas because they are the things we think with. They serve us like lenses that can greatly effect the image that we see. Mostly we take our lenses for granted and assume we see the world directly. We don't, of course, and it is useful frequently to try to reflect on our fundamental ideas. I will argue that thinking about education during this century has almost entirely involved just three ideas&emdash;socialization, Plato's academic idea, and Rousseau's developmental idea. We may see why education is so difficult and contentious if we examine these three ideas and the ways they interact in educational thinking today. The combination of these ideas governs what we do in schools, and what we do to children in the name of education.

Our problems, I will further argue, are due to these three ideas each being fatally flawed and being also incompatible with one other.

I will take them one at a time and try to show that each is fatally flawed, and that in combination they undermine the effectiveness of educational institutions.

The fatal flaws in each of the foundational ideas have been pointed out, one way or another, before &emdash; usually by proponents of one or two of the ideas trying to undercut the value of the third. Educational practice in the twentieth century generally went forward under the assumption that the flaws in each idea would be compensated by the other ideas &emdash; that is, three wrong ideas can make a right idea. Alas, it doesn't work, and hasn't worked, that way.


Socialization is a great idea for hunter-gatherers


For the educationalist today, this first great educational idea we inherit comes as a good news, bad news, worse news, and really bad news scenario.

I suppose our educational troubles began around half a million years ago when our hominid ancestors ran into an evolutionary snag. Around that time, it seems, hominid brains were increasing in size quite rapidly. The snag was the limits to which the architecture of the female pelvis could be stretched to enable the women to give birth to these larger brained babies while also allowing the women to walk efficiently. The remarkable evolutionary solution was to give birth to the babies while their brains were immature and let them do most of their growing outside the womb. So we are today born with brains of around 350 c.c., which is much the same as our chimpanzee cousins. Between birth and adulthood, chimpanzee brains grow about a further 100 c.c. whereas humans' brains typically grow more than 1,000 c.c., with most of that additional growth occurring by age four (Donald, 1991; Mithen, 1996; Deacon, 1997).

This peculiarity of human brains and human childhood created the need for that extended care and instruction that has become a part of what we mean by education. Along with the larger brains came language, and language was used prominently to tell stories (Donald, 1991, Ch. 7). The most important stories were designed to create for their hearers a conceptual image of what we may call the meaning of life. They gave to the young, and reinforced for the older, images of who "we" are and what we are doing here &emdash; in this forest, on this plain, by this sea-shore, among these hills, alongside these animals, under these stars &emdash; and where we are going next. The stories typically told about gods or sacred ancestors who warranted the norms and values that constituted the culture of the particular hunter-gatherer society.

The stories create conceptual images that serve as an explanation of the conditions we find ourselves in as we come to consciousness. The good news is that the techniques invented in hunter-gatherer society to create an homogeneous image of "our" society, of "our" individual roles within it, and of the cosmos in which the drama of our lives is played out, have worked with great success for countless generations. The continuing good news is that the procedures we have inherited from ancient oral cultures remain today wonderfully effective in socializing our young.

For example, we still deploy stories to shape children's understanding, and interpretations, of experience. Because we do not use traditional myth stories in sacred contexts, we can easily fail to recognize how this ancient technique is ubiquitously used in modern societies to communicate and reinforce who "we" are, what "we" believe, and how "we" should behave. While religious stories are perhaps the most obvious surviving examples, they jostle, and sometimes compete, with a huge variety of more informal stories &emdash; jokes and "urban myths", family stories that reinforce certain norms and values (Rosenbluth, 1990), proverbial sayings and warnings echoed from well-known stories, simplified national histories, accounts of office politics, conventional plots of movies and TV shows, and so on. The story is particularly important among the socializing techniques we have inherited because it orients the emotions of the hearers and so more powerfully shapes their commitments to the values and norms coded within it (Egan, 1988).

The bad news is that our evolution has equipped us ideally to live in small, stable, hunter-gatherer societies. We are Pleistocene people, but our languaged brains have created massive, multicultural, technologically sophisticated, and rapidly-changing societies for us to live in. Now that's not so bad in itself, as our brains also can adapt to a huge range of social conditions. The bad news is tied into that ingenious evolutionary adaptation that led to the extended growth of our brains outside the womb. One result &emdash; wonderfully efficient for hunter-gatherer tribes &emdash; was to enable us to learn effortlessly in our early years a language, an image of our society and its norms and values, and images of the meaning of life, the universe, and everything. We are equipped, that is, very early and quickly to orient ourselves conceptually. Whatever children learn from the stories they are first told becomes quickly fixed and serves as a template for future learning. This rapid and deeply-etched early learning served hunter-gatherer societies so well because their stability and solidarity was sustained by their members all sharing an unquestioned and homogeneous world-view or ideology.

If one was to try to model human conceptual development, it would be tempting to say that evolution equipped us with two kinds of learning. There is, first, that largely effortless learning of our early years, which we use to pick up a language and those images of our society and the cosmos. It seems to work a bit like cement or plaster-of-Paris; at first it is enormously flexible, able to adapt to widely varied external constraints, and then gradually it sets and becomes rigid. It also seems to be focused on very specific objects &emdash; like language, or social behavior etc. The second kind of learning remains flexible throughout our lives and is a kind of all-purpose utility, but it is much more laborious and slow. The difference between the two is often said to be evident in the efficiency with which we learn a language and adapt to social customs in our early years, in contrast with the relative difficulty and inefficiency with which we learn a new language and adapt to new social customs later in life.

Jerry Fodor (1983) suggests we might see the mind as having a set of input systems and a somewhat distinct central processor. The input systems are relatively specific to particular parts of the normal brain, they are focused on such things as touch, hearing, seeing and language, and they are fast and "stupid"&endash;&endash;we can't not hear or not learn a language in normal conditions. The central processor is "smart" and is slow and general in both brain location and operations. This allows very fast responses to some things by the "stupid" brain systems and contemplation and analysis by the other. Fodor notes that "it is, no doubt, important to attend to the eternally beautiful and true. But it is more important not to be eaten" (1985, p. 4).

Well, we might wisely be cautious in inferring such a sharp distinction in kinds of learning as we are still unsure about the underlying cognitive reality such distinctions refer to (Bruer, 1997). But for now it helps to clarify the bad news that comes along with inheriting the idea of socialization as a part of education.

Socialization relies heavily on the early "stupid" kind of learning and the commitments it forms. If told that the earth is a flat disk that rests on the back of a turtle, nearly everyone will believe this and see the earth in terms of this belief. (An earthquake? The turtle shifted.) If told that it is a huge ball that turns on its axis at high speed while also travelling unimaginably fast around the sun, people will believe this. The cement-like learning of our early years can accommodate almost anything, then it fixes, and becomes almost immovable. The other, general-purpose, learning capacity can, of course, accumulate knowledge that contradicts the first-formed beliefs, and we know that we can, as a result, change our earlier beliefs and commitments. We also know that this is rare and difficult for most people. The stories we are first told, and the other techniques of socialization deployed early, pretty well fix the values people hold until their death. They become the things people think with, not the things they think about.

The bad news, then, is that we live in a world that requires flexibility in adaptation to changing norms, beliefs, and values, and evolution has equipped us to be socialized in a manner that creates rigidity and unquestioning commitment to unchanging norms, beliefs, and values.

The worse news, which follows from the bad news, is that if we are really successful in socializing, we get someone who is indoctrinated. Now most people tend to be very acute at recognizing the ways in which "others" indoctrinate their children, but are largely oblivious to the forms of indoctrination they deploy themselves; "they" indoctrinate, "we" educate. Of course, "they" think we indoctrinate and they educate &emdash; but that's only because they have been indoctrinated to think so. Five year olds in Teheran, Baghdad, St. Petersburg, Winnipeg, San Francisco, New Guinea, and so on across the disk on the turtle's back, have already learned complex sets of beliefs and patterns of behavior whose validity they will never seriously question. We label as indoctrinatory those that are most in conflict with our own.

This leads to a conundrum. "We" distinguish indoctrination from education on the open-ness of inquiry the educator encourages about the values taught, whereas the indoctrinators teach "their" values as unquestionable truths. But we do not typically encourage our children to question the value of our kind of "open-ness of inquiry" &emdash; we teach its value as an unquestionable truth. We'll return to this after considering the really bad news, which results from one of the effects on our thinking that comes along with language.

Thinking in language leads us to recognize and name things as distinct from all other things &emdash; x is what not-x is not, goes the logic. Whether this results from the hard-wiring of our brains or from the way language shapes our consciousness, we have a powerful tendency to construct our conceptual grasp on the world in terms of opposites. Our sense of "good" is tied to our sense of "bad", big to little, brave to cowardly, safety to security, and so on. ("The development of language in humans . . . represents the current ultimate in structuring the world by its features, for each word represents a feature. The real world is continuous, but our inner world of features is discrete because features elicit a binary yes/no response" [Stewart and Cohen, 1997, p. 168]).

When hunter-gatherers distinguished who "we" are, the distinction was with who "they" are. This characteristic of socialization we have also inherited. For the hunter-gatherers, "we" are recognized faces and are treated as friends; "they" are unknown, potential enemies, and one must be prepared to kill them before they kill "us." As Jared Diamond puts it: "With the rise of chiefdoms around 7,500 years ago, people had to learn, for the first time in history, how to encounter strangers regularly without attempting to kill them" (Diamond, 1997, p. 273).

Socialization today not only fits us to a particular social group, but also identifies "us" to ourselves as distinct from other groups. Becoming American, or Canadian, or English still involves learning about the distinctive qualities that characterize the excellence of one's nation by contrast with other nations which lack those qualities. Even within the country, whichever "we" belong to, we will identify ourselves again in contrast with others; so we conservatives or liberals identify ourselves in some degree by contrast with those liberals or conservatives.

Our seemingly inescapable tendency to oppositional thinking produces a horrible result when it works in socializing. It sets people against each other in greater or lesser degree. The trick, as Richard Rorty suggests, is to increase the range of people we include as "we," thus widening our solidarity with others (1989). But our history suggests that we then will begin to make divisions within the group rather than, or in addition to, with outsiders. Even the local stamp club or choir develops factions with bewildering ease. For much of the time, in groups, we are a contentious animal.

Now this is all a bit odd, as we can't give up socializing our children despite these problems. Even if socialization does require some degree of indoctrination, some homogenizing, some degree of fixing certain beliefs and values beyond the easy reach of rational reflection, as long as those beliefs and values are decent, we can surely do nothing else but go along with the process? If our values include tolerance and a positive attitude to other races and cultures, socialization that fixes these values firmly will surely prepare our children well for these complex multicultural societies we have made? If the indoctrination part of socializing discourages our children from questioning the value of tolerance, how can that be so bad?

Socialization as an educational ideal worked well in hunter-gatherer tribes. But today we can't easily avoid squirming a little about the dilemma it creates for us. On the one hand, for our children to become familiarly at home in our society, we have to allow considerable scope for socialization to occur unimpeded, and, on the other, our commitment to rationality in our everyday affairs is affronted by the indoctrinatory element in successful socialization. On the third hand, to fail to socialize adequately produces alienation. Our general solution to the dilemma has been to recognize that single-minded socialization &emdash; à la Hitler Youth &emdash; is unacceptable, and that we need, double-mindedly to give rational reflection a large role in the process.

The difficulty of building flexibility into socialization creates a discarding of generations, as the conditions they were conditioned to deal with change under their feet. The flexibility was to come from being able rationally to reflect on events and adapt to them where appropriate. And that's where we try to plug Plato in.

The academic ideal and asses loaded with books


The next really big development in human intellectual culture after the development of language was the invention of literacy. While literacy may be counted as one of the most productive of human inventions, transforming our conditions of life and the conditions of our minds like no other, for the poor educationalist it is the source of another huge set of problems. Clearly literacy has been in general a good news scenario, but it also carries for the educator some bad news, some worse news, and some really bad news.

The good news is easy to see. Literacy has allowed generations of people to record their knowledge and experience. Further generations can compare that recorded knowledge with what they can see or discover, and leave a more accurate record, and they can compare other's experience with their own, enlarging and enriching their experience in consequence. Today we have stored vast amounts of knowledge in written records and we have access to a vast array of varied human experience. These enable our minds to transcend our own time, place, and circumstances.

Eric Havelock argued that Plato's great achievement was to work out how to think once alphabetic literacy became common (1963, 1982, 1986). The result is both described and, if you'll excuse the term, paradigmatically exemplified in Plato's dialogues. When the best-accumulated knowledge coded in writing is learned, Plato taught, it transforms the mind of the learners and enables them to understand the world more accurately and truly.

The bad news in this for today's educators is that they have to work out what, among the vast accumulation available, is the best knowledge for children to learn. Herbert Spencer was confident that his answer to the question "What knowledge is of most worth?" was unassailable. But, of course, everyone assailed it. Is the best knowledge that of the "timeless classics," "the best that has been taught and said," as Matthew Arnold argued or of urgent knowledge about current social conditions, or of economically productive skills, or should children's own interests determine their curricula, or should our school curricula be a smorgasbord of all the above laid out by committees of "stakeholders," or should we have different curricula for different people, or a common or core curriculum for all, or what? The bad news is not so much that we don't know the answer in any generally agreed way, but we don't seem able to agree on how we might go about reaching an agreed answer. In the absence of any convincing theoretical grasp on the question, it is left to political power &emdash; to the committees of "stakeholders" laying out the smorgasbord. This might be a good solution if we think of education simply as socializing, but it is a lousy solution if we think education has something to do with that ideal Plato articulated for enabling us to understand the world and transcend the (socialized) conventions of our time and place.

The worse news is that, whatever the knowledge some group decides is worthiest for inclusion in our curricula, most students find literacy a sufficient barrier that they will be unable to access it anyway. It ought to be easy to teach children to read and write. The great cultural breakthrough made by the invention of the Greek alphabet &emdash; from which all modern alphabets are derived &emdash; democratized, one might say, reading and writing. One had to learn only twenty or so symbols that could be combined to approximate the sounds of language. But becoming literate has never been as easy as it seems it ought to be. Most people find reading a lot of text very difficult and when not compelled to do so, don't. When it comes to writing, most people find it almost impossible to compose a coherent piece of prose that can express what they think with economy, clarity, and elegance. A note or e-mail message in dull conventional terms is as much as the majority can manage.

For most children, school disrupts and significantly destroys the orality of their early years by insistently trying to teach literacy and the knowledge coded in literate forms. For most children, school fails to provide the glories of literacy and to provide access to literacy's transcendent culture. A complaint of aboriginal people on the west coast of Canada who had been compelled to send their children to schools has been that "they taught them to read and made them stupid." The schools disrupted and significantly destroyed the children's native oral culture, and in its place were able to put only a crude and debased literacy. This is analogous to what we do to most children in schools.

The really bad news is that there isn't any knowledge stored in our libraries and data-bases. What we can store are symbols that are a cue to knowledge. People can read the symbols and not understand the knowledge, or partially understand it, or have a vague sense of what it means. This happens in schools to such an extent that we expect it and grade children by the degree of understanding we think they have achieved.

The problem here is that knowledge exists only in living human minds, and the literacy codes we use for storage are cues that need to go through a complex transformation before they can be brought to life again in another mind.

Many educationalists, and even more non-educationalists, confuse the codes with knowledge. They assume that if the students internalize the codes they will have the knowledge. Alas, not so. We can relatively easily compel or persuade or seduce people into internalizing literate codes &emdash; so they can pass exams and seem knowledgeable. This kind of learning has been the bane of insightful educators down the centuries. What it produces is not knowledgeable people, but, as Michel de Montaigne put it, asses loaded with books.

This well-schooled, exam-passing, information-loaded person has always exasperated the major educational thinkers. That bookish man who described how his own early reading set his mind afire &emdash; J.J. Rousseau &emdash; in a characteristic outburst famously wrote: "I hate books: they only teach one to talk about what one does not know" (1762/1979, p. 184).

Howard Gardner describes a modern rediscovery of this phenomenon in what were the most successful science students at leading universities. When given problems based on principles they had learned but in contexts different from those in which they had learned the principles, they typically responded incorrectly in much the same way as a typical unschooled five-year-old (1991, Ch. 1). The students drew on the intuitive folk-physics they picked up in those early years of effortless learning. Their dozen years of physics in school and university was an insecure accumulation compared with the foundational knowledge of their pre-school years. The trouble is that the intuitive folk-physics is wholly inadequate to a scientific understanding of the physical world. We all recognize the difference between genuine knowledge and accumulated codes &emdash; we talk of education as against training, wisdom as against "book learning," insight as against literal thinking and so on. But our schools are not good either at recognizing the difference or, consequently, promoting the genuine article rather than the counterfeit. And, as usual, Gresham's law applies &emdash; debased coin drives out good. T.S. Eliot's "Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?" cannot be answered if one doesn't recognize a difference.

The problem Gardner writes about is just the same as Montaigne complained of. In Montaigne's day, the richness and abundance of understanding which should have come to all students from literacy through an education in the classics, had too often descended into dry pedantry. The nineteenth-century reformers saw the dry pedantry and assumed it was the classical curriculum that caused it. ("Anyone who has passed through the regular gradations of a classical education, and is not made a fool by it, may consider himself as having had a very narrow escape" [Hazlitt, 1826/1951, p. 147]). So in its place they created a more "relevant" curriculum, and their progressive successors through the twentieth century have remained puzzled that it has produced similar, and even worse results &emdash; not so much pedantry but ignorance so extensive that there has been nothing much to be pedantic about.

The really bad news, then, is that some kind of magic (or technique we don't understand) is required to bring back to new life in a new mind the desiccated written codes in which knowledge was stored by some other, perhaps long-dead, human mind. But even if we can manage the magic, I'm afraid there is even worse news than the really bad news. That is, even at its best, Plato's academic ideal can't deliver on its promises.

Plato describes an educational program that will carry the mind from the confusions and illusions of the folk-physics, folk-psychology, folk-sociology learned effortlessly in our early years, through a curriculum of disciplined knowledge, to an understanding of the true nature of things. It is a program that requires the sacrifice of easy pleasures, and the deployment of our laborious general learning capacity to remake all our early false knowledge, converting our minds always towards rationality and truth and away from the seductions of beliefs, myths, superstitions. We are to climb beyond personal interest in looking at the world and to see it objectively. It is not clear that Plato's, or anyone's, curriculum can deliver these benefits. It is not clear that the products of high literacy include justice, objectivity, truth. Plato believed these were the fruits of his educational program and justified the austere discipline necessary to gather them. It is probably a better educational idea than anyone before or since has had, but it is not adequate. The worst news, then, is that the academic ideal of education is designed to achieve a kind of understanding it simply can't deliver &emdash; its justification is an ideal that is unrealizable.


The ideal of development

I linked the two previous educational ideas/ideals with, first, the development of language and, second, the invention of literacy. For the sake of symmetry, it would be nice to link this third educational ideal with the invention of printing and the new learning and "Enlightenment" it seemed to many in Europe to promise. Even if the causal connection is not quite so easily made, the printing press was certainly importantly complicit in those intellectual changes which included the radical re-thinking of the nature of education in the work of John Locke (1632-1704), Etienne Bannot de Condillac (1715-1780), and, crucially, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778).

Their reconceiving of education seems, in retrospect, a part of the new learning most signally represented in Isaac Newton's (1642-1727) (Latin) Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy (1687). This work looked like the triumphant confirmation of the Enlightenment belief that scientific observation of nature could produce data that could, by the application of reason, disclose the laws according to which the whole cosmos worked. Rousseau argued that human beings also have a nature and a natural process of development that could be disclosed by careful observation aided by reason. As we can observe the body's regular pattern of development from birth to senescence, so we can, with more difficulty perhaps, observe the mind's regular pattern of development. Education was reconceived as the activity of supporting the fullest achievement of the natural process of mental development.

This idea came as good news for educationalists, but also &emdash; you guessed it &emdash; there is bad news, worse news, and really bad news that came with it.

The good news was that it promised to solve a problem that Plato's idea left us with. Rousseau acknowledged that Plato (hitherto) had been the greatest educational thinker. He had recognized how knowledge shaped the mind and how particular kinds of abstract knowledge, and the disciplines they required, shaped the mind to understand the world in more adequate and effective ways. But it had become clear that this wasn't enough. The common product of a Platonic education was asses loaded with books, informed pedantry without imagination, originality, or vigor. Rousseau proposed that the missing element was the knowledge that we could deduce from careful observation of the natural course of development.

So Plato, Rousseau suggests, was right about the importance of knowledge in education, but his insight was of limited value without recognition of the stages at which the young can best learn the various kinds of knowledge. Plato failed to recognize the mind's autonomous growth, and so his conception of mental development was just a mirror-image of his conception of the logic whereby knowledge was elaborated. By understanding the autonomous growth of the mind, one could co-ordinate the logic of knowledge elaboration with the psycho-logic of mental development.

The continuing good news is that educationalists more or less universally now believe that it is important to attend to the nature of the child's learning at particular developmental stages, to different "learning styles," and to that range of sensitivities to learners that became a hallmark of progressivism. Once attention to the distinctive psychological development of the child was made central to educationalists' understanding of their task, a number of considerable benefits followed. The first and perhaps still the most important was the recognition that failures to learn the curriculum might be due to faults other than the child's recalcitrance. It might, for example, be due to the method of teaching, or the "stage" at which a topic was being taught. This recognition led to relieving children's school lives of the constant fear of violence for failures to learn. It took a long time from Locke's and Rousseau's formulation of the educational ideas from which this benefit followed, but we should not underestimate the importance of this humanitarian result of attending to the nature of the learner.

The combination of Plato's idea about knowledge and Rousseau's idea about the mind was launched by Rousseau with the promise of a revolution in learning. Through the twentieth century, each claim to have more adequately exposed the developmental process &emdash; most notably in the work of Jean Piaget &emdash; has led to renewal of the promise of a revolution in learning. The enterprise of psychological research in education that tries to discover the nature of learning, development, motivation, etc., has gone forward on the promise &emdash; as one of its early prophets put it &emdash; of "pedagogical possibilities now undreamed of" (Hall, 1904, II, p. 222).

The bad news is that the revolution in learning has stubbornly refused to occur. It seemed, and still seems to many, that research which discloses increasing knowledge about children's development and learning must lead to, at least, evident improvements in general education. The trouble with promising a revolution in learning is that people expect to see some evidence of it in the learners.

What did become evident was that the commitment to freedom for natural development didn't take one very far. As an educational idea, it makes it difficult to determine a curriculum, and tends to leave the selection open to local prejudice, charismatic enthusiasts, or blind chance. To keen progressivists, this doesn't matter that much because the curriculum isn't the point. We have had a century of fairly intensive experiment in implementing varied forms of the idea we have inherited from Rousseau, and progressivism's interpretations of it, and educational psychology's attempts to flesh it out scientifically. It seems fair to observe at this point that something is still missing. Plato's and Rousseau's ideas together are not able to bring about for most children the kind of learning we see in some, and the kind of learning that it doesn't seem unreasonable to expect from hugely expensive schools. The promise of Rousseau's idea has not been delivered. Alas, it hasn't worked.

The worse news ... What? There is worse news than that it hasn't worked? Yes&endash;&endash;that it can't work. The worse news follows the observation that human beings don't have a nature. There are obviously regularities in human mental development, but they are so tied up with our social experience, our culture, and the kinds of intellectual tools we pick up that we can't tell whether the regularities are due to our nature, to our society, to our culture, to our intellectual tools, or what. We can't simply measure the regularities, which turn out to be pretty irregular from person to person, and see through them to our nature, or to some autonomous developmental process. Vygotsky pointed this out as a fatal flaw in Piaget's theory in the 1920s, but it is only now, with the generally recognized foundering of Piaget's theory, that the force of Vygotsky's criticism is coming home to many. It's a bit like Gertrud Stein's Oakland, there is no nature of mental development there.

The really bad news is that Rousseau put in place for the modern educational world a binary distinction between an autonomously developing mind and an "external" body of knowledge. Once education became thought of in terms of knowledge and mind (content and method, curriculum and instruction), the problem became how to get them back together again. The history of educational thinking in the twentieth century prominently involved a bizarre war between these two &emdash; between those who were "child-centered" and those who were "subject-centered," between progressivists and traditionalists

If you begin to think of education as facilitating the ideal development of individuals' minds, you have the problem of dealing with the role knowledge is to perform in this process. Progressivism emphasized the general uselessness of the "traditional" classical curriculum and the value of useful knowledge that responded to current social needs. That is, Rousseau's dichotomy undermined Plato's "epistemological mind", in which particular kinds of knowledge were learned because of the benefits that accrued to the mind. Now the mind is assumed to go through its own autonomous process, given "natural"/normal interactions with its environment, and knowledge is selected for the curriculum based on its social utility. Tatters of the old classical curriculum hang around, partly out of an intuition that there might be something in Plato's idea and partly to satisfy the minority who still want that old-style "ornamental" education. For the core of the new progressive curricula, however, utility trumps transcendence every time &emdash; Career and Personal Planning or Drug Education or Economics for Everyday Living trump Latin hands down in the competition for limited curriculum time.

Rousseau's dichotomy, adopted by Spencer, Dewey, and pretty well all other progressive educationalist, has given us a century of polemical battles between supporters of "child-centeredness" against "subject-centeredness." We are, of course, suckers for a neat dichotomy &emdash; why else do we go to war? The polemical battles are one result of the really bad news resulting from Rousseau's idea.


All together now!


We obviously haven't inherited these three great educational ideas in the more or less discrete packages described above. We don't, of course, think of our conception of education as a composite, but rather as a unitary idea. But those three ideas have become entangled with each other through the centuries, and have produced our contemporary schools and curricula and teaching practices.

When we do note differences between the competing demands of these three ideas&emdash;when, for example, politicians or business people demand from the schools more relevant social knowledge or work-skills or when some neo-conservatives demand we concentrate on developing academic knowledge&emdash;we say that there are "tensions" among the requirements of the various "stakeholders." The job of the good educational administrator is to balance these tensions, so that the requirements of all the major stakeholders are met to an adequate degree. We have come to live with these "tensions" so long that most see them as inevitable and as a management problem. This is how we disguise confusions from ourselves, conceptually papering over deep fault-lines in our thinking.

Each of our three ideas, then, is really bad news left to itself. Well, of course &emdash; has been the response since the mid-nineteenth century &emdash; that's why we put them together. Judicious application of one or another of the ideas supports or constrains the third; each solves problems created by the others. The academic idea has been used to provide support for individual development and to put a brake on excessive socialization; socialization has been used to give individual development a sense of direction and to provide a check on the élitism of the academic idea; and individual development has been used to check the excessive intellectualism of the academic idea and to enrich, enlarge, and diversify socialization. Ah, the best of all possible worlds!

Another way of putting it, of course, is to say that our three defective ideas prevent each other from doing too much damage. So, we socialize, but we undercut indoctrination by the academic program calling society's values into question and by the commitment to individual development reducing society's claims on any particular individual; we pursue an academic program, but we undercut intellectual development by egalitarian pressures from socialization and attention to other forms of individual development; we encourage individual development, but we undercut its fulfillment by the homogenizing pressures of socialization, and by the standardizing brought about by a common academic curriculum. Ah, what a wonder of compromise is our modern conception of education!

Can it really be true that our conception of education has three main components, each one of which leads to undesirable results by itself, and which work together only by each one interfering with the adequate implementation of the other two? Surely this is a pessimistic fantasy? Do the schools that have been built on this tripartite conception of education &emdash; that is, nearly all modern schools &emdash; fail to provide students with an adequate academic education? Well, there has certainly been a chorus of critics who have vociferously argued over the years that typical schooling leaves students woefully ignorant of their cultural heritage. Do they provide inadequate socialization? Certainly critics have constantly complained about students' alienation on the one hand and their common lack of civic values on the other. And do they provide inadequate individual development of students' potential? We do still hear loud criticism about the irrelevance of much schooling to students' individual needs.

Well, of course there are such criticisms, you might reasonably complain. This is a democracy, after all. Even optimists don't expect perfect implementation of all three ideas. The great success of our education system is to have achieved and generally held a balance among three somewhat distinct aims. Schools provide an exposure to academic material to all students, and clearly allow some to excel in academic work; they socialize all students in a basic way while avoiding fanatical extremes; and they attend to the general development of all children and provide special help to some who clearly need it. Of course there are tensions among the three general educational ideas that drive our schools &emdash; successful education is achieved by finding the right community-supported balance.

I think this complacent view is mistaken, and that the three ideas undermine each other rather than complement each other.

Consider this scenario: Let us say you are a movie fan and enjoy going out to a cinema once each week But the government imposes a new requirement on cinemas. As you come out of the cinema, you will be required to take a test on the movie you have just seen. You will be asked the color of the villain's car in the chase scene, or the adequacy of the motivation of the leading woman's sister, or the gist of the alien's speech before it transmogrified, or the name of the brother-in-law's pet dog, and so on. Your score on the test will determine your salary for the next week, when you will face another test and another salary adjustment. Consider for a moment how such tests and their consequence would likely influence your watching movies. At the very least, they would change what was carefree entertainment into anxiety. You would also spend a lot of effort watching movies trying to second-guess the kinds of questions you are likely to be asked and the focus of your attention would be shifted to fit your expectations of the test.

What does this remind you of? Right. School. The above absurd scenario creates a social institution &emdash; with, no doubt, huge testing services and solemn officials and entrepreneurs setting up test-coaching companies &emdash; which confuses two conflicting aims. There is no problem with having two aims for an institution, except if the aims conflict with each other. If one of our aims for an educational institution is the pursuit of academic knowledge, we will interfere with that in all kind of destructive ways if we then impose a social sorting role on the institution, and use academically inappropriate testing to do that social sorting. Also the social sorting role would be confused because academic prowess&emdash;which we are only marginally testing for any way &emdash; is hardly the most important determiner of social value. That is, this kind of undermining of separate and conflicting aims is precisely what we get if we try to make the school an institution that tries both to socialize and implement the academic ideal at the same time. The result is that neither is adequately or sensibly achieved, as, in the cinema scenario, neither carefree entertainment nor an appropriate manner of determining salaries is achieved.

Yet we have created such an institution and keep trying to make it work to realize conflicting ideals. Adequate socialization requires successfully inculcating a set of beliefs, values, and norms of behavior in the growing child. The academic program is specifically designed to enable the growing child to question the basis for any beliefs, values, and norms of behavior. The two aims pull against each other: the more successfully one socializes, the less one achieves the academic ideal; the more successfully one inculcates disciplined academic thinking, the less easy it is to socialize successfully. Socialization requires acceptance of beliefs, values, and norms that the disciplined academic mind sees as stereotypes, prejudices, and homogenization.

Consider this scenario: You are fifty-five and have had a successful career as a lawyer. You have a spouse and two successful children. You are a pillar of the community, active in church, community center, and children's sports activities. But it has recently become disturbingly clear that you will not remain vigorous forever, and that time is closing in. Something in you is unsatisfied, like a distant echo from a life-path you somewhere missed taking, like a call from another you who was not realized &emdash; but still might be. It is a disturbing call, a distressing echo, that grows louder by the day. Increasingly you feel it is a call from the real you, a call from your buried life; from the you who somehow got lost in all those legal tussles and in the social round and the kids' soccer and ballet and then their colleges and marriages, and now that ghostly you calls to be recognized and brought to life. Well, fortunately, you can enroll in the required government program, ReTRY. ReTRY &emdash; an acronym for Realize the Real You &emdash; is slickly operated by the country's best and most expensive psychologists. It is mandated by law to assist citizens' psychological adjustment to later middle-age. Success in the program is measured by the degree to which people return satisfied to their old routines of life.

Hang on. How can an institution designed to help you find the real you measure success by convincing you that the old you is the real you? Shouldn't you be encouraged to head out yonder to the pearl seas or the South Pacific, or at least take up kayaking or building a Japanese garden? Socializing strives to homogenize; individual development strives to bring out the uniqueness of each person. Hard to aim for both in the same institution and expect success. They constantly pull in opposite directions &emdash; the more you do one, the harder it is to do the other. And we expect our schools to do both successfully.

Consider a third scenario: It is twenty years in the future and the government's educational authorities have become convinced that the route to the fullest development of each individual's potential is to design different kinds of schools to support the main styles of learning and kinds of intelligence people deploy. There are twenty-seven kinds of schools, each designed for one of the twenty-seven distinct intelligences now identified by Dr. Gardner at ground zero. Enormously sophisticated testing apparatus and procedures are applied to children to determine which school would most fully develop their particular strengths. Huge amounts of money have been spent on designing the schools, outside and in, to respond to, and stimulate, the needs of the kinds of students they house. The curriculum in each kind of school is, however, identical. The children follow a rigorous academic program designed to carry their minds from the ignorance and confusion of their originally unschooled condition towards a disciplined understanding of their cultural heritage. There are no electives, until university specialization, because the authorities have also been convinced that the only proper aim of education is to empower children's minds with the best material human beings have created, and that is precisely what the disciplined forms of understanding provide.

Now such a system would surely be self-contradictory. The academic commitment to shaping the mind by teaching disciplined forms of understanding isn't compatible with the belief that the minds of different people can be optimally developed by knowledge chosen to suit their particular style of learning, kind of intelligence, needs and interests. One cannot have two masters, especially when both mandate different things. We can't construct a coherent educational institution using radically different criteria.

But, of course, that's precisely what we require of our schools today. We require that they acknowledge, and accommodate as far as possible, different styles of learning and different ends of the process for different people. "Education" for one child may have a quite different character from that attained by another; quite different "potentials" might be developed and each be an example of successful education. We require also that the academic ideal be acknowledged, which recognizes education only in the degree to which minds are shaped by progress in understanding the range of disciplines. The result, of course, is not a coherent curriculum, but one that tries to accommodate both conflicting principles. The result, also, is perpetual strife by adherents of the conflicting principles, fighting about which should have greater influence over children's education.




We have inherited three foundational ideas about education. Each one of them has flaws, at least one flaw in each being fatal to its ambition to represent an educational ideal we might reasonably sign on to. And the worse news is that each of the ideas is incompatible with the other two. These warring ideas hovered around the cradle of the public schools, proffering their gifts. The schools eagerly took them all, and so education remains difficult and contentious.




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