Tuesday, October 10, 2006

A Root Cause of the Failure of Contemporary Education

Ask yourself if the following paragraph would seem believable to you if you were to read it a in a newspaper:

Washington, D. C., Oct. 10. Following in the footsteps of “No Child Left Behind,” the Department of Education is considering new requirements applicable to all colleges and universities benefiting in any way from federally financed programs, such as student loan and dormitory-financing programs. Continued eligibility for participation in the programs would require graduates receiving a baccalaureate degree to demonstrate at least a 9th-grade level of reading ability and a 7th-grade level of ability in mathematics.

I think that the deplorable state of contemporary education that is indicated in that paragraph is essentially accurate and that the paragraph would probably be accepted by the majority of informed people without challenge, as a straightforward news report.

In my book Capitalism, I explain a root cause of the collapse of contemporary education in terms of its essential, guiding philosophy. Here is my explanation. It begins with a quotation from W. T. Jones, a leading historian of philosophy. The quotation describes the philosophy of Romanticism, which appeared as a hostile reaction to the Enlightenment:
To the Romantic mind, the distinctions that reason makes are artificial, imposed, and man-made; they divide, and in dividing destroy, the living whole of reality—“We murder to dissect.” How, then, are we to get in touch with the real? By divesting ourselves, insofar as we can, of the whole apparatus of learning and scholarship and by becoming like children or simple, uneducated men; by attending to nature rather than to the works of man; by becoming passive and letting nature work upon us; by contemplation and communion, rather than by ratiocination and scientific method. (W. T. Jones, Kant to Wittgenstein and Sartre, vol. 4 of A History of Western Philosophy, 2d ed. (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1969), p. 102.
The Romantics held that “we are nearer to the truth about the universe when we dream than when we are awake” and “nearer to it as children than as adults.” (Ibid., p. 104.) The clear implication of the philosophy of Romanticism is that the valuable portion of our mental life has no essential connection with our ability to reason and with the deliberate, controlled use of our conscious mind: we allegedly possess it in our sleep and as children.

In its essentials, the philosophy of Romanticism is the guiding principle of contemporary education. Exactly like Romanticism, contemporary education holds that the valuable portion of our mental life has no essential connection with our ability to reason and with the deliberate, controlled use of our conscious mind—that we possess this portion of our mental life if not in our sleep, then nevertheless as small children.

This doctrine is clearly present in the avowed conviction of contemporary education that creativity is a phenomenon that is separate from and independent of such conscious mental processes as memorization and the use of logic. Indeed, it is an almost universally accepted proposition of contemporary pseudoscience that one-half of the human brain is responsible for such conscious processes as the use of logic, while the other half is responsible for “creativity,” as though, when examined, the halves of the brain revealed this information all by themselves, perhaps in the form of bearing little labels respectively marked “Logic Unit, Made in Hong Kong” and “Creativity Unit, Made in Woodstock, New York.” Obviously, the view of the brain as functioning in this way is a conclusion, which is based on the philosophy and thus interpretative framework of the doctrine’s supporters.

Now, properly, education is a process by means of which students internalize knowledge: they mentally absorb it through observation and proof, and repeated application. Memorization, deduction, and problem solving must constantly be involved. The purpose is to develop the student’s mind—to provide him with an instantaneously available storehouse of knowledge and thus an increasingly powerful mental apparatus that he will be able to use and further expand throughout his life. Such education, of course, requires hard work from the student. Seen from a physiological perspective, it may be that what the process of education requires of the student through his exercises is an actual imprinting of his brain.

Yet, under the influence of the philosophy of Romanticism, contemporary education is fundamentally opposed to these essentials of education. It draws a distinction between “problem solving,” which it views as “creative” and claims to favor, and “memorization,” which it appears to regard as an imposition on the students, whose valuable, executive-level time, it claims, can be better spent in “problem solving.” Contemporary education thus proceeds on the assumption that the ability to solve problems is innate, or at least fully developed before the child begins school. It perceives its job as allowing the student to exercise his native problem-solving abilities, while imposing on him as little as possible of the allegedly unnecessary and distracting task of memorization.

In the elementary grades, this approach is expressed in such attitudes as that it is not really necessary for students to go to the trouble of memorizing the multiplication tables if the availability of pocket calculators can be taken for granted which they know how to use; or go to the trouble of memorizing facts of history and geography, if the ready availability of books and atlases containing the facts can be taken for granted, which facts the students know how to look up when the need arises. In college and graduate courses, this approach is expressed in the phenomenon of the “open-book examination,” in which satisfactory performance is supposedly demonstrated by the ability to use a book as a source of information, proving once again that the student knows how to find the information when he needs it.

With little exaggeration, the whole of contemporary education can be described as a process of encumbering the student’s mind with as little knowledge as possible. The place for knowledge, it seems to believe, is in external sources—books and libraries—which the student knows how to use when necessary. Its job, its proponents believe, is not to teach the students knowledge but “how to acquire knowledge”—not to teach them facts and principles, which, it holds, quickly become “obsolete,” but to teach them “how to learn.” Its job, its proponents openly declare, is not to teach geography, history, mathematics, science, or any other subject, including reading and writing, but to teach “Johnny”—to teach Johnny how he can allegedly go about learning the facts and principles it declares are not important enough to teach and which it thus gives no incentive to learn and provides the student with no means of learning.

The results of this type of education are visible in the hordes of students who, despite years of schooling, have learned virtually nothing, and who are least of all capable of thinking critically and solving problems. When such students read a newspaper, for example, they cannot read it in the light of a knowledge of history or economics— they do not know history or economics; history and economics are out there in the history and economics books, which, they were taught, they can “look up, if they need to.” They cannot even read it in the light of elementary arithmetic, for they have little or no internally automated habits of doing arithmetic. Having little or no knowledge of the elementary facts of history and geography, they have no way even of relating one event to another in terms of time and place.

Such students, and, of course, the adults such students become, are chronically in the position in which to be able to use the knowledge they need to use, they would first have to go out and acquire it. Not only would they have to look up relevant facts, which they already should know, and now may have no way even of knowing they need to know, but they would first have to read and understand books dealing with abstract principles, and to understand those books, they would first have to read other such books, and so on. In short, they would first have to acquire the education they already should have had.

Properly, by the time a student has completed a college education, his brain should hold the essential content of well over a hundred major books on mathematics, science, history, literature, and philosophy, and do so in a form that is well organized and integrated, so that he can apply this internalized body of knowledge to his perception of everything in the world around him. He should be in a position to enlarge his knowledge of any subject and to express his thoughts on any subject clearly and logically, both verbally and in writing. Yet, as the result of the miseducation provided today, it is now much more often the case that college graduates fulfill the Romantic ideal of being “simple, uneducated men.”

The bulk of this article is an excerpt from pp. 107-109 of the author’s Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics (Ottawa, Illinois: Jameson Books, 1996). The article is copyright © 2006, by George Reisman. Permission is hereby granted to reproduce and distribute it electronically and in print, other than as part of a book and provided that mention of the author’s web site www.capitalism.net is included. (Email notification is requested.) All other rights reserved. George Reisman is Pepperdine University Professor Emeritus of Economics.

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