Wither Education; Whither Education

In his Apology, Socrates boasted that he shared whatever knowledge or skills he had in the agora with no expectation of payment, and he managed to work in a little reminder that he had reduced himself to poverty by refusing payment for his tireless search for truth. By this, of course, he insinuated no small measure of superiority over the Sophists, who choose to offer educational opportunities in exchange for a living wage, something educators are only occasionally lucky enough to achieve today. Socrates shared his information primarily with wealthy young men who had plenty of leisure time to sit around the agora soaking up tidbits of brilliance from an old master. Likewise, it is currently difficult for any but the most affluent to afford the luxury of study for the sake of intellectual stimulation and personal enrichment.

Indeed, it is increasingly painful for most middle-class people to afford even a vocational education that doesn’t leave them deeply in debt. Education is now typically only worth the expense when students go for the quick credential—a certificate or license that will get them in the pool of skilled labor. In the past, students such as myself could afford to pursue intellectual interests without worrying about being reduced to poverty. Study in the arts and humanities has never generated great financial rewards, but it did not always result in a lifetime of crippling debt as many recent graduates are finding awaits them now.

So, unlike students we once had, entering freshmen will forgo anything resembling a liberal education and opt for vocational training instead, leaving them unaccustomed to the expansion of the moral imagination and sharpening of the critical edge. We no longer need visionary writers to describe some hellish dystopia where critical thinking is forbidden and creativity is quashed. We have seen this future, and the future is now. The Texas Republican Party is now officially opposed to the teaching of higher-order thinking skills. They argue that education in critical thinking causes students to challenge the teaching of their parents, but they seem less concerned about parental authority when parents teach their children that global warming and evolution are real but the seven habits of highly effective people are not. Parents have the right to turn off the lights, they believe, but not the right to open the window and invite illumination from the sun.

A few days ago, I read and shared a blog by Jack Rasmus, who warned of the dangers of corporatization and privatization of education (another excellent blog on the subject is here). His blog is insightful and accurate, but I don’t think many in education will need his warning—we have already experienced the move away from education and toward indoctrination. Rasmus says one goal of privatization is to replace educators either with machines or curricula so standardized that teachers are no better than machines. I once had the surreal experience of sitting in a meeting where we were told in no uncertain terms that there was no movement toward developing a standardized curriculum. No, we had it all wrong. In fact, what they were doing, we were told, was developing a few standardized questions for the final exam. They were merely determining the content of our classes; we were free to teach it anyway we saw fit, so long as we used the tools provided in the training we would be required to complete.

Not surprisingly, many teachers have left the schools for other pursuits, but no teacher wants to give up on education. We may not all be willing to die for education as Socrates was, but we aren’t likely to give up without a fight, either. And we do know, of course, that we may very well end up reduced to poverty and may face trouble with the authorities.

As we flee the schools and universities, where will we take our questions, answers, and insights? Socrates lectured in the open market, where he ran into trouble. We can go to the public spaces, but the public spaces are now almost entirely privately owned. We can emigrate away from repressive governments, but we cannot escape the reach of the transnational corporations that own the public spaces, water, and land we occupy. The internet is democratic we thought, until we realized the corporate owners of internet services store and compile the private messages, tweets, and personal information of everyone, and they often do not hesitate to turn over such information of rabble-rousers to authorities.

In an entirely Socratic move, some universities and individuals have decided to offer their instruction for free with open-sourced content. Students thirsty for knowledge can find lectures uploaded to various content sites, syllabi posted for all to see, and bibliographies filled with provocative citations. If the content is difficult to comprehend or organize, many dedicated individuals are willing to provide coaching, tutoring, or lecturing for any and all willing to listen.

As the conservative fear, teaching is a subversive activity (though it can subvert either the left or right), and subversives will not stop teaching. The pursuit of knowledge, even if unattainable, is a worthy endeavor, and the desire to broaden our imaginations and expand our reach is the only path to a brighter future. The next dark ages could, indeed, be the last, but we must strive for a new age of enlightenment or die trying.


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