As if we needed any more evidence of the sorry state of the “modern” American education system, the recent performance of Miss Teen South Carolina was the final report card: FAILED
One has to shake one’s head in disbelief at her incoherent answer to a simple question, but who can blame her. The poor girl was only reciting the mindless garbage poured into her head in the government schools.
Being at the curmudgeon stage of my life, I’m almost too old to care about the things I can’t possibly fix, but I can still point fingers and offer advice to those who will listen. So my advice to any of you who might want to fix the broken education system in America is to ask yourselves, "What is the purpose of education?"
As I was going through school, I often wondered what the purpose was. I had heard all the platitudes about "making me a better person", but that kind of "answer" answered nothing. In my own mind, I finally decided I was there to learn how to do things. That was good enough to get me through and in retrospect, wasn’t too far off the mark.
Now that I'm sixty, I finally understand that the purpose of education is Survival.
Humans and animals are both born with the desire to survive, but humans differ from animals in that we aren’t born with the knowledge of how to go about it - we have to be taught all that over a long period of ten or twenty years.
When baby chicks hatch, they’re up on their feet within a matter of minutes, scratching around for food - they’re born with that instinctual knowledge. When baby goats, cattle, horses, or most other mammals are born, within minutes they’re standing on their feet and nursing. What an amazing sight to see!
But we humans aren’t like that - we can’t even stand upright and walk for an entire year - we’re essentially helpless at first. Sure, we have a few built-in instincts - fear of heights and loud noises, and the suckling instinct - but that’s about it. A young human would die in short order if left alone after birth while most animals would do just fine.
The essential difference between humans and animals, of course, is that we humans have a conceptual mode of consciousness, whereas animals think perceptually. In other words, humans are rational animals and we have to learn how to do just about everything.
As a human child grows, the teaching of survival continues - at first by parents and friends, then (since about 100 years ago) in the public schools. After being taught how to eat solid food, walk, and talk by the parents, the “work of growth” continues, both at home and in school. Maria Montessori wrote in her book, Dr. Montessori’s Own Handbook:
“The infant’s first impressions are a bewildering chaos of sensory impressions which he must learn to organize and integrate. He must learn to recognize and identify the things around him; he must learn the distinction between himself and the external world; between reality and dreams; he must learn special and temporal relationships (e.g. the difference between near and far, between past, present and future); he must learn to make comparisons, to classify and to judge. In sum, he must develop his conceptual faculty.”
After learning enough about his own nature (that he gets hungry several times a day), a curious child learns (or should learn) that the food he needs has to be provided by somebody. After learning enough about the world to understand that being outside can be too hot, too cold, or too wet, a curious child learns (or should learn) that the roof over his head and the warm bed in which he sleeps at night have been provided by somebody.
Little pitchers have big ears, as they say, and young children pick up a lot of this from just watching how their parents and siblings interact. You can’t tell them everything, you have to show them by the way you live. (Giving thanks before meals and at bedtime is a good way to teach young children about food and shelter, for example.)
After ten years or so, I suppose it’s possible that a human child could survive on his own in a stone-age sort of way - by hunting and foraging for food - but this primitive kind of survival isn’t the goal of education. The purpose of education is to teach children and young adults how to rise above living that kind of miserable existence. Every aspect of education should focus on what is required to achieve and maintain a civilized society - one where it isn’t necessary to forage for food and fight one’s neighbors in order to survive.
After learning the basics of how to use our conceptual faculties, we learn to read and write so we can learn things far beyond the circle of our family and immediate friends. In this way, the literate person can leverage his knowledge to take advantage of what others have learned over the millennia.
Some of us need to learn how to produce the food we eat, the tools required to produce the food we eat, the metals used to produce the tools. We need to learn how to mass-produce those tools so they are affordable. We need to learn about fertilizers, irrigation and pest control. We need to learn how to get that food to market and preserve it without spoiling.
All of the above is why we learn math and science - chemistry, biology, and physics. Not that every child will be a farmer, but every child should learn the basic facts of how food is produced, and in general, how the world works.
But even more than all of the above, we need to understand that to prosper, we must find a way to live productively among each other (e.g. in a society). There are proper and improper ways to do that as well, just as there are proper and improper ways to grow corn. This is why we learn about history.
In any society, there are always some individuals choose to survive the easy way - by stealing from their neighbors. (Here in America, we call those people either criminals or politicians.) A just society has to develop systems (laws) which make production of any kind possible without the politicians and criminals stealing from us.
For example, why spend six months growing a crop when your stronger neighbor or the tax man will just take it from you? Why spend years and dollars developing a new tool, a new method, a new pesticide, or a new genetic strain if someone will just steal the idea and profit from it with no effort on their part? This is why we learn philosophy, the third branch of which deals with morality (or ethics), and the fourth branch of which deals with politics (e.g. the proper way for men to deal with one another in a society).
Some have asked, “Where do the studies of art, music, and the classics of literature fit into your idea of education?”
That’s an excellent question and as I said earlier, when I speak of survival, I don’t mean just bare subsistence as has been the lot of humanity throughout most of recorded history.
That sort of basic survival is primary, of course, but I was speaking more of the survival of civilization, or more accurately the best parts of civilization as we in America have known it. I think education should start with teaching what primitive survival was like, and then build on that base so the kids understand how we got from the "brutish and short" existence of not so long ago. That's where the fifth branch of philosophy - art - comes in.
Art, literature, and music are essential in this learning process, and essential to a civilized society. There was a great passage in Ayn Rand’s book The Fountainhead where a teenager was walking out in the woods feeling depressed and thinking he had nothing to live for. The boy happened upon a cluster of houses built by the hero of the book, Howard Roark. Just seeing that such a thing of beauty was possible gave the kid the power to go on. In my humble opinion, that’s the function of art - to show us that great things are possible.
Ayn Rand wrote her Romantic Manifesto in 1966. Those essays explained how a simple painting, piece of music, or group of buildings has the power to express our entire view of life. She wrote:
"Consider two statues of man: One as a Greek God, the other as a deformed medieval monstrosity. Both are metaphysical estimates of man; both are projections of the artist's view of man's nature; both are concretized representations of the philosophy of their respective cultures.
"Art is a concretization of metaphysics (the first branch of philosophy that deals with the nature of reality). Art brings man's concepts to the perceptual level of his consciousness and allows him to grasp them directly, as if they were percepts.
"This is the psycho-epistemological function of art and the reason of its importance in man's life...
"...The claim that "art is the universal language" is not an empty metaphor, it is literally true..."
Art gives people a sense of possibilities.
The education establishment in America has forgotten the reason for its existence…or maybe I have that wrong. Maybe the education establishment knows full well what their schools are doing to our children, but it is the parents who have forgotten the reason for sending their children there. In 1963, Nathaniel Branden wrote:
“Should the government be permitted to remove children forcibly from their homes, with or without the parents’ consent, and subject the children to educational training and procedures of which the parents may or may not approve? Should citizens have their wealth expropriated to support an educational system which they may or may not sanction, and to pay for the education of children who are not their own? To anyone who understands and is consistently committed to the principle of individual rights, the answer is clearly: No.
Isabel Paterson wrote in The God of the Machine (1943):
“Where teaching is conducted by private schools, there will be a considerable variation in different schools; the parents must judge what they want their children taught, by the curriculum offered…Nowhere will there be any inducement to teach the ‘supremacy of the state’ as a compulsory philosophy. But every politically controlled educational system will inculcate the doctrine of state supremacy sooner of later, whether as the ‘divine right of kings’, or the ‘will of the people’ in ‘democracy.’ Once that doctrine has been accepted, it becomes an almost superhuman task to break the stranglehold of the political power over the life of the citizen. It has had his body, property, and mind in its clutches from infancy.”
I don’t see any of this changing any time soon. Yesterday I browsed the official websites of several of the presidential candidates, and their positions on education sounded a lot like Miss Teen South Carolina’s answer.
“I believe we can educate students more effectively…”
“I support streamlining the responsibilities of the U.S. Department of Education toward a goal of working in cooperation with local and state governments to meet local and state learning levels…”
"If we are going to compete in the global economy, we have to set our education goals higher."
“I believe that every child should have the opportunity for a quality education…”
Nathaniel Branden had it right over forty years ago: "…when a government enters the sphere of ideas, when it presumes to prescribe in the issues concerning intellectual content, that is the death of a free society."