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Education and Life

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Remember those days in elementary and secondary school when it seemed like an eternity before you would graduate and become grown-up? Remember how even the transition from one grade to another seemed to take forever? The reason time moved so slowly when we were young is because the psychological sense of time was different. But equally important to remember is that those early years of our lives were indeed lengthy and important. The years from age 6 to 16 are a long time.

In the current concern about schooling, there is the danger that what may be overlooked is the intrinsic meaning and value of life lived in early school days. Current debates in education center primarily on the quantity and quality of knowledge acquired by students. Standardized tests and "objectively'' established scores on examinations become the measures of the worth of our educational system. But what about the very quality of life as lived in these institutions by children who are in school spending six or seven hours each day for 10 years? In addition to asking our children each day what they learned in school, would it not also be reasonable to ask if they enjoyed school?

Historically, the school emerged as an institution when the family could no longer perform all the necessary civilizing functions for children. Originally, the school was an extension of the family, but in time it became viewed as a distinct, separate institution. The link to the life of the home was forgotten and the school became a place where skills and knowledge were acquired. But we ought to no more think of a school as worthwhile if children only learn well than we ought to think of a family as commendable because the parents have only trained their children well. School is more than an institution for the acquisition of knowledge; it is a civilizing organization, a place where friendships are established, character is formed, and models of behavior are sought--it is life.

There has been a tradition that flows from Rousseau to John Dewey about the intrinsic value of education. The child, Rousseau argued, is not a miniature adult being prepared for a life in the distant future. And Dewey constantly wrote about recognizing education as an end in itself, not solely as a means to some remote goal. The purpose of the 2nd grade ought to be to live life in that time, not just to get to the 3rd grade.

Unfortunately, the philosophy of Rousseau and Dewey became distorted by some progressive educators into a romantic notion of schooling as a hedonistic pleasure trip at the expense of knowledge. But the truth is that schooling can be--should be--enjoyable as well as being academically productive. Indeed, there is a preponderance of evidence that children learn best under conditions that they conceive as being enjoyable.

In our anxiety about declining academic standards and the superiority of foreign academic systems, we ought not forget that for children schooling is not preparation for life; it is life. We should measure the worth of our schools by the quality of life they provide for our children as well as how much information they dispense.

M.I. Berger is professor of education and chairman of the department of educational administration and policy studies at the State University of New York at Albany.

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