Schools May Be Cesspools – But Don’t Throw Education Out With the Wastewater


I am appalled by the state of American education. I am appalled not primarily by the crowded classrooms, decrepit buildings, unmotivated, unionized teachers, severed arts programs, drugs, violence, or many-children-left-behind, but by that which should be the central, fundamental, defining element of any school – the education. Even those schools with richly appointed, sprawling campuses, dedicated faculty with PhD’s, and reputations for academic excellence backed by test scores to prove them still suffer from the same basic pedagogical problem. Education, the actual “learning” that goes on within the walls of our schools, has come to consist primarily, almost exclusively, of mindless memorization.

From the causes of WWI, to Newton’s laws of motion, to types of literary devices, to the formulas for area, etc., etc. etc., we are asked to memorize, and regurgitate, and study, and memorize, and regurgitate…and forget. Today’s schools are failing utterly to provide children with a real, functional, life-enhancing, lasting education. That is why I sympathize with the widely popular rallying cry well captured in this viral video, of people who “love education” but “hate school,” and the message, “We will not let exam results decide our fate.” They recognize that their education is bankrupt, and they refuse to define themselves by the schools’ standards of success.

But sadly, this rallying cry and most of those like it are not a rejection of education in its current, empty, memorization-driven state – they reject education as such. The idea that school must “change with the times,” that education is fundamentally for “getting a job” or “satisfying society’s needs,” that our “different genes” mean we must be educated by “different means,” that Google, Twitter, and Facebook are as legitimate means of personal development and self expression as any schooling, betray a basic hostility to the very concept of education. This should not be surprising, given that those sounding the call are victims of the very educational system they decry. How could they know any better?

What a real education actually looks like, what basic purpose it serves, what it does to enhance the life of an individual, why it is essential to life as a mature and thriving adult – these are enormously complex issues. But for my own peace of mind, I want at least to offer some food for thought, and a rallying cry of my own: Protest the “education” in today’s schools, but not education in and of itself.

What does a real education provide?

1. A proper education empowers you to understand basic principles, as the summation of a detailed study of particulars you might not retain.

The artist in this video says that since most people will have to study subjects they “will never, ever use,” it was worthless to learn them. But this oversimplifies the educative process, and the concept of “use.”

Need I learn, for example, the causes of the Fall of Rome, or of WWII, or of the American Civil War, because some day I will be asked—on a date, in a job interview, or for a TV talk-show host—to provide such a list, with my value as a person being weighed in the balance?

Certainly not.  But what today’s tragically uneducated generation fails to recognize is that understanding the fundamentals of history—the basic ideas, figures, actions, and their monumental consequences for mankind—is what makes us informed citizens of the world. It is what enables us to understand where we have come from and where we are headed, to appreciate the legacy that has made life as we know it possible, to safeguard those things which are essential to preserving that life, to effectively evaluate current events, to make informed and productive political decisions, and much more. That no employer will ask you how the United States was born does not relieve you of the responsibility of knowing it. Understanding the foundations of freedom, from Greek democracy, to Roman law, to the Enlightenment concepts of rights, to the American Constitution – these are critical concepts for every American citizen to have studied intensely, understood thoroughly, and appreciated deeply. Or God help us.

2. Education is not for “getting a job.”

A hallmark of this popular rallying cry is the idea that the “information” we had to know to take “tests” so that we could get “degrees” does not help us to get jobs, or at least, to get jobs we love – so who needs it. Instead, we should look at what we love to do (i.e., become a famed internet spoken word artist), and retrofit the idea of education to that end.

Education is not fundamentally about job training, whatever the language of the Common Core Standards would have you believe. Fundamentally, it is about becoming an adult – an intelligent, clear-thinking, well-informed, deeply valuing adult. This includes learning the logical rigor that comes from mathematical study; it includes grasping the order and explicability of the physical world, so that it can be rationally understood and harnessed; it includes developing the ability to communicate thoughts with clarity, and precision, and eloquence. It includes much more.

And when it comes to learning what it means to live a mature life of reflection and wisdom, something without which life – thereby unexamined – becomes hardly worth living, there is no substitute for the literary classics. Ibsen, with his radical and iconoclastic challenges of basic societal conventions; Hugo, with his epic heroes dedicated to profound values that we come to understand and hold ourselves; Dostoevsky, with his penetrating insights into the soul and psychology of man. The development of this thoughtful and philosophic perspective on life makes any individual infinitely more employable, whatever his job or interests. But the purpose of education is not defined by any job, it is fundamental to his soul.

As evidence for the “we don’t need no education” perspective, critics, including the artist in this video, offer the following, “Look at him! He didn’t get an education, but look how much talent he has, look how successful he is!” My quiet, internal response is always the thought, “Ah, how much more could he enjoy his life and develop his talents if he were also well educated!”

The fact that someone is, for example, an entrepreneurial prodigy with the savvy and drive to build a company from the ground up is remarkable, and inspiring, and admirable—and does not the least absolve him from the value of a good general education. He has built a great company – does he have the knowledge of history and politics necessary to defend it against inevitable attack by those bent on tearing down success? (He could get that from history.) He has built a great company – has he developed the psychological self-awareness, and understanding of human relationships, and appreciation of romance that will allow him to share his success with a loved one? (He could get that from literature.) He has built a great company – does he have the vocabulary, and literacy, and intellectual wherewithal to explain, promote, defend, archive his achievement for posterity? (He could get that from the sum total of a good education.)

When joining the rallying cry to “love education” but to “hate school” – be careful. Give due contemplation to what you mean by education. Do not be led down a path to an understanding of education as subjective, job-oriented, utilitarian skills training. Historian and writer John Truslow Adams once said, “There are two types of education…One should teach us how to make a living, and the other how to live.” The latter, he would agree, is the more fundamental. What good is a living, if we don’t know how to live? And knowing how to live—how to really live—requires that we draw upon the wisdom of the ages that has brought us from grunting cavemen to rational, cultured, and life-loving men. It requires education.