The Trouble with Education

“For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”
                                                          — H.L Mencken


I once heard a humanistic woman on the radio explain that the root of the word education is the Latin educare, “to bring forth from within.”  Let me check that for you almost instantly on these here Internets:  


present active ēdūcō, present infinitive ēdūcere, perfect active ēdūxī, supine ēductum

  1. I lead, draw or take out, forth or away.  [quotations ▼]
  2. I raise up; erect.


From Latin educatus, past participle of educare (to bring up (a child, physically or mentally), rear, educate, train (a person in learning or art), nourish, support, or produce (plants or animals)), frequentive of educere, past participle eductus (to bring up, rear (a child, usually with reference to bodily nurture or support, while educare refers more frequently to the mind)), from e (out) + ducere (to lead, draw)

Whoops.  A little information, as always, a dangerous thing.  I prefer the simple, evocative definition offered by that humanist on the radio many years ago.   The word education, she said, is derived from the Latin, educare, which means, she said, “to bring forth from within”.  

Education includes a lot of things and is used more and more interchangeably, in our increasingly materialistic, profit-driven world, with training.   Making education a synonym for training reduces this wondrous exercise to its most mechanistic sense.  Therein lies a big part of the trouble we encounter when trying to have an intelligent discussion about education.  Defining our terms and framing a conversation go a long way toward understanding what we are actually talking about, and the defining itself is a great and perplexingly fraught undertaking.

Education, though we all know it when we are being properly educated, is as complex an idea as we can conjure. It is complicated further by being part of a partisan political debate driven by the love of money, and vindication of the philosophy of the “free market” and its propents’ relentless drive to prove the superiority of private entrepreneurial enterprise over public endeavor.   Education is entangled in politics, wrapped in the tentacles of ideology, market forces and institutionalized inequality.  

Discussing the proper aim of education, or even the proper meaning of the word proper, is difficult.  Education in the abstract is often simplified to mean a course of study leading to a lucrative and/or meaningful career and/or a productive life.  In this limited sense there are metrics that can be brought into play, data that can be massaged to support arguments and ideology.  Intelligently discussing education and its ultimate goals is not the work of a moment. Nonetheless, I will try to make it that now.

There are those, of which I am a starkly cautionary example, who believe that many people are born with potentials and passions they never become aware of and so never develop, enjoy, inspire others with.  The role of the teacher is to guide the student, to bring forth from within, to inspire a lifelong love of learning and self-development.  The old “give a man a fish” line from Maimonides springs to mind:

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.


I didn’t know that quote was from my man Maimonides until just now.   Cool.   You can learn something every day!  And it is a pleasure, and a thrill.  And instilling that pleasure, and that thrill, is the enduring work of our most memorable teachers.

For many, my words would mean a lot more, resonate longer and more roundly, even result in a pay check and professional status as an opiner worth noting, perhaps, if I was writing them from my study in a nice home somewhere rather than from the crowded rent stabilized apartment I inhabit, more like a demented person’s overstuffed, out-spilling closet than the den of a thoughtful person.   That this is beyond the point is beyond the point.

I paint you a picture then, to make you think, and disappear into memory, like every good pedagogue should do.

A man is invited to create a showcase for the program kids come to after a day of school, where they take over a dingy public school classroom and turn it into a buzzing beehive of creativity.   He is invited to do this by the woman who has witnessed this transformation weekly and smiled on it each time.  The same kids who were wild and fussy during the school day are excited, focused, working together, planning, performing a variety of tasks related to a crude form of actual alchemy.   At the end of each session they watch on the computer screen what they’ve made with their own hands, chuckle, remark, pack their bags and head home.

Inexperienced at presenting his idea to an audience, the man creates a fairly shabby showcase for this workshop at the request of the woman who has hired him.   He muffles his written remarks, losing his place on the flapping pages each time he tries to make eye contact with his small audience of parents.  He has technical problems showing the examples of student work, fumbles, bumbles, mumbling excuses during each amateurish delay.  

By these failures he will learn exactly what to avoid next time, how to make this presentation effectively, but in the moment, to the people in the room, it is like watching a grown man struggle not to drown in a shallow puddle on the sidewalk.  At the end of his endless fifteen minute performance few in the room have any sense that this fellow is a teacher of a certain vision who has created a simple but ingenious program to make animation that the children themselves run.  

Then, after asking for comments and seeing none, he smiles and invites the parents to join their children in the creative workshop.   The children leap out of their seats as though shot from guns and deploy themselves in every part of the room.  Here a group draws and cuts things out, a kid works with clay, others arrange things under lights while others hover above and photograph the choreography frame by frame.  Children sit at the computer, inputting frames from the cameras and starting to edit.  Others put on headphones and animatedly listen back to a soundtrack they are working on.  

This little demonstration of purposeful autonomy by the kids is worth the price of admission.  It shows the thing itself in action, in its most elemental form.  “Show me, don’t tell me,” the writing instructor always says.   As for describing how the thing works, the best way is simply to show it in action.  Then, as the prosecutor says at the end of the presentation of evidence and witnesses at trial:  the People rest.

It should be noted that the man’s failures during his presentation are an object lesson in how people actually learn.  You learn by failing, as the cliche goes.  These embarrassing mistakes will not be forgotten or repeated the next time.

Swimming against the prevailing tides, beside the gigantic, ocean churning ships of wealthy and influential people like Bill Gates, the tired swimmer sputters and struggles for breath.   If he can manage to keep swimming there is every possibility of his making it to a desert island where he can show the thing in action– to a group of very interested and exotic birds.  Huzzah!

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