Thoughts on Education

“Going to our school is an education in itself which is not to be confused with actually getting an education.” Cartoonist Charles Schulz speaking through his “Peanuts” character Sally.

Everyone says that education is essential to our future, our democracy, and economy. But I would question if we, as a society, really value education. It seems to me what we call education is more like indoctrination with a minimal level of skills training to function in the workplace. As the quote above suggests, what happens in our schools is not “actually getting an education.”

As a nation, we have seldom adequately funded quality education for everyone. This demonstrates our lack of real support for education. Public K-12 education spending may seem large in dollar amounts. But given 50 million school age children it is actually inadequate for the size of the task. Total national, state, and local K-12 spending is about $630 billion a year or $12,600 per student (2019 data). But this is only 3.5% of Gross Domestic Product and lags behind spending by many other countries. 

By comparison  American consumers spent $13.3 trillion in 2019. Much of that was for food, housing, medical care, and other necessities. But Americans spend a lot on arguably less important stuff. Internet sources say we spent $858 billion at motels and restaurants, $569 billion on recreational goods (mostly consumer electronics), $103 billion went for pet care, and $203 billion on entertainment. Our obsession with “national security” and war wasted over $1 trillion. We could easily find enough money for great schools if we truly valued education. 

Much of the controversy over school funding comes from a fundamental flaw in our thinking. Too often education is seen by legislators, school boards, and taxpayers as an expense to be  reduced. But education is an investment in our children that pays dividends for everyone in the future. As the saying goes, if you think education is expensive, try paying for ignorance. Ultimately we all pay for ignorance with increased healthcare costs, reduced productivity, bad personal decisions, environmental damage, prisons, and many other social problems. 

Education should be about the acquisition of knowledge and the application of that knowledge for useful purposes. Few people would disagree with this statement. But what knowledge to acquire, by whom, and for what purpose, has always been problematic. 

The purpose of education has often been to indoctrinate students into the accepted social, behavioral, religious, and political mainstream culture. Turning young people into compliant workers and consumers is the goal. Schools are intended to Inculcate patriotism and conformity rather than fostering creative, critical thinkers. Efforts to require meaningless rituals like the pledge of allegiance or official prayers are examples. Banning books and  opposition to teaching evolution, human sexuality, racial history, and many other “controversial topics” reflect these attitudes.

Many parents (and politicians) don’t want children actually educated. Rather they want them “protected” from ideas that might differ from the attitudes and beliefs taught at home. The increase in private schools following desegregation, the rise of home schooling, the push for vouchers for religious schools, and the emphasis on teaching the “basics” result from parental  fear of real education. All this is a  part of the long standing anti-intellectual tradition in America. Education is perceived as a threat to “traditional” values. 

Real education is by its very nature liberalizing. It expands the student’s world and exposes them to new ideas, knowledge, technologies, differences of opinion, and ways of living. Schooling that only maintains existing “group think” short changes the students and the everyone’s future. 

Education should build tolerance, understanding, and appreciation for people and cultures that are different. This is why social sciences are critical to a quality education. We are seeing the results of inadequate social education in the malignant anger, hate, division, and gridlock that is common today.

Education encourages and allows people to “be all they can be.” It provides the pathway, tools, and the confidence to reach one’s full potential. In this process the “basics” are important. Reading, writing, and basic mathematics are the foundation for everything else. But these basics are not the end goal of quality education. This doesn’t mean  every child can become a rock star. But neither will any child be left behind because of poverty or inequality in educational opportunities. 

Education should also provide the basic, practical skills and knowledge needed to function effectively in everyday life. So learning about personal finances, consumer economics, human physiology, child care, health, home economics,  consumer law, or employment law are important. 

Education is the springboard for the creative, innovative solutions needed by societies. It is the engine driving progress and the well being of people. This is why art, music, literature and drama are important. These activities foster the development of creativity in addition to making life more meaningful.

All this is a huge task to accomplish. So the notion that a high school diploma, or even a college degree, represent an education is ridiculous. There is just too much to learn in a modern society. Life long learning is essential. This is why learning should also be enjoyable. Too often schools –  with limited resources and mass production, one-size-fits-all teaching methods – beat the enjoyment out of learning.

The most important factor in education is the desire to learn. The greatest teachers and the best schools will accomplish little if the students are not engaged, curious, and wanting to learn. Students must also be ready and able to learn. Coming to school hungry, frightened, homeless, or otherwise unprepared to learn doesn’t work. This is why schools need a variety of support staff. Cafeterias, nurses, and counselors are not unnecessary frills.

Student motivation is a direct result of their upbringing. Parents are 100% responsible for the their children’s desire to learn. If you are a parent who doesn’t read, or seek self improvement, don’t expect miracles from the school. You can’t blame the schools, or teachers for your failures as a parent. 

The problems facing Wisconsin’s public schools are complex. There are no quick or easy fixes. But neither are the problems insurmountable. In the next article, I will offer some suggestions for fixing some of the problems.