What is important for us to learn?

A prolonged crisis characterizes education in America today. As participants in higher education it is important that we understand one another and the meaning of learning as both a personal and a common experience. Fundamental to education is th capacity to read critically and write convincingly about what one learns.

But a more careful look at the meaning of education may reveal to us the purpose and the means by which knowledge is acquired. Understanding the root words from which educate is derived isa starting point from which we can understand our current national predicament, existing constraints, responsibilities and hopeful remedies. The solution to the current crisis in education rests with each of us who participate in learning so far as we can create the trust and understanding needed to reform the persistant inequities that underly our instructional systems today.

  There is some ambivalence in the original meaning of the root words from which education, or educate is derived. Some etymologists tell us that educare means to “lead out,” after the prefix, ex, from or out of and the word duce, “to lead;” hence the meaning to draw out. The other suggestion is educate comes from the word meaning “to nourish.” The disctinction is subtle because there is a convergence of meanings as well as a divergence in the implication of each word. Both translations suggest that one takes responsibility to nourish their needs, or to lead themselves out of the existing situation. Both words imply that anyone needs to know the substance of what one is consuming and the direction you have to take that nourishment in order to move from an existing to a desired state of affairs.

One slight way these words diverge, in what they imply, is that you may think that a guru, or teacher, or instructive authority may, or indeed must “lead us out” of the condition of ignorance into an allegedly enlightened or at least an intelligent situation. This is the way most primary and secondary education is practiced. We center our intructional management systems around supposedly intelligent leaders and they distinguish for us what is correct from what is incorrect, or incomplete. But nourishment has a different connotation, because one ultimately is responsible for ones own care and feeding. So there is a healthy tension in education between self instruction and learning by careful attention to authority.

Since the Renaissance, western instructional institutions have associated learning with freedom and the desire of the human soul to liberated from ignorance, prejudice and error. That is after all the meaning of the Liberal Arts. In the Middle Ages they represented the necessary practice, skills and bodies of knowledge needed to function as a citizen of the medieval towns and city states. Grammar and astronomy, for example, gave order to early thought, as they do now. Dialectic, or the study of argumentation and antithetical ideas required mastery of significant content. Rhetoric and music where appropriate foci on the presentation or expression of this content and order that lay at the core of a learned person’s beliefs and practices.

By the time of the Enlightenment, two great changes had occurred that influenced the content and the delivery of learning, as far as modern ideas about education are concerned. Sir Francis Bacon, in the early 1600’s cautioned that humans are worshippers of idols as readily as they are capable of learning to reject popular notions of what passes for knowing. He warned that the four idols of the cave, the tribe, the theatre and the marketplace, were snares to catch the less than fully educated persons into making errors of judgment. He recommended inductive reasoning to challenge the reliance on deduction alone, which might reinforce these idols and the follies that they perpetuate when we uncritically accept the values of others without testing the assumptions on which the error in vision rests. Bacon’s ideas could spread because of printed books and pamphlets made knowledge widely available to those who could read. The printing press brought a new standard we call literacy.

The second great change after the necessity for inductive reasoning in learning, is the belief expressed readily by Jean Jacques Rousseau that all people, women as well as men, are deserving of and --more importantly-- capable of reason, learning from experience and testing unfounded assumptions. The great awakening among post revolutionary centers of learning was the new ideal of an educated citizenry. This meant opening up of elementary education to all capable residents, and not just the well born, or well connected. So as we glance superficially backward to see how learning has develpoed it is obvious that there is a role for authority, an equally vital role of participants, a methodology for both to use and tha real necessity to distinguish facts from errors and true beliefs from corrupted ideas. Learning then is a difficult process because it forces us to reject familiar, comfortable and widespread ideas which inherently contain errors, when they go unexamined.

Renaissance faith in humanity made people, you as participants, the center of learning. The scientific revolution and the Enlightenment focused on new methods, content and audiences for education. All people in democratic societies where believed worthy and of necessity must be educated, because they are asked to make decisions over life and death on juries, or to select leaders by voting. These are the great traditions, but underneath these glittering ideals is the older reality that those who can pay for an education, receive some evidence of that training. Those who cannot afford the time and the treasure remain unschooled. As schoolong became universal in the German and American experiences during the 19th century, Jeffersonian ideals and industrial demands revised how local institutions of schooling were to be paid for from the public commonweal.

Today we are faced with a convergence of the old ideas with a shattering of the financing and the costs of schooling ever greater numbers of citizens. Into this convergence also came the technological inventions of the postal service, newsprint, radio, television, telecommunications and public libraries. As printing became ever cheaper, books and newspapers proliferated the amount of information grew out of all proportion to the once prevalent condition where information was scarce and authority was controlled by a few gentleman scholars. Now that schooling is required by law until an age certain, the expense and the content available to educational institutions have generated a growing problem. Financing schools has become more difficult and less satisfying schemes from lotteries to national taxes have been used to equalize the sizeable inequities that exist in the per pupil spending in public schools. While some schools spend $3000 per pupil, others spend four and five times that amount. Thus unequal access to well financed schooling is at the foundation of current problems.

As it was in the Reformation, today there is a widespread, profound and ongoing challenge to authority. Now, however, the questioning of authority is secular and the rejection of scholarship is based on ready acces, for gifted people, to proliferating sources of information. What this means is the content of contemporary education is now a battleground. More significantly, the battle between ignorance and learning, even in the classroom, let alone the internet or the media, requires a method for distinguishing errors from facts. The challenge to authority is healthy where the population is literate and capable of discerning mistaken or corrupted ideas from a rational and verifiable understanding of the world. As knowledge becomes more complicated and as the tools we use became more powerful, the exercise of astute judgment on the part of participants turns out to be of greater and greater importance.

This brief review of education’s relevance to our technologically sophisticated age is meant to undescore consequences to learners, who are at the heart of the experiences by which people acquire knowledge. The first burden of knowing is to learn, to practice, and to express what has been studied no matter what the consequences, or the situation. Allowing a teacher to define what, when, how or to what extent you learn is a dangerous precedent, unless it is counter balanced by what the learner is curious to discover. The only way to survive the battle over educational content today, is to nourish your passion for discovering new ideas, to kindle the wonder in your imaginative souls, and to investigate always, the ideas you are introduced to in a book, a class, or a media presentation.

The certainties we have explored here about education’s meaning, the contributions of the liberal arts, Renaissance humanism, faith in reason and the necessity of schooling to the proper functioning of democratic societies are significant lighthouses in the dim past showing us the way to dispell ignorance and folly that stalk the human imagination. Our current confusion makes the methods authorities and participants use ever more impotant and these common means of knowing must be transparent, that is apparent to all who want to learn. Authorities will always have a role to play in keeping error and rubbish from consuming our attention.

Education is time consuming, labor intensive and technologically very costly, because the human spirit is so capable of learning and applying reading, writing and problem solving to the critical thinking life requires of us. So nourish your curious, skeptical, and passionate nature to investigate how people and the world function, that is cental. Don’t ever discount your sense of wonder and your will to analyze and verify because these lie at the basis of learning and are needed to distinguish facts from errors.


John Dewey | uncertainty | veracity is measured | types of knowledge

J.V. Siry, Ph.d., 1600 words


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