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Education's Intrinsic Worth

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One of the delights of teaching is the opportunity to work with students as they create a future--a future for themselves and collectively for society. "Should I take this job or continue with my studies?" "Should I study computers or Asian art?" "Does it make any sense to work so hard on this paper when I really just want to get my degree?" How does one answer these questions? If we are honest, we have to admit that the best trade-off between education and employment and education and fun is not always easy to identify. Most often, I do the curmudgeonly professor thing and say something about the importance of education. Once in a while, I feel inspired and find myself giving a little speech about the sacredness of learning, its transformative power, its beauty. Usually this little speech is followed by a moment of embarrassed silence as the student assesses my basic sanity. The idea of study as an end in itself is about as current as "how to" books about making buggy whips.

It's not that students are less motivated than in previous generations--most of them are terribly motivated. But they are not really motivated to tackle difficult intellectual problems and devote irrationally long hours to study, debate, and writing. Somewhere on the Internet, they assume, the answer must be located. What baffles most students is the unworldly notion that education is a goal unto itself, study need not result in a promotion, and thinking is a sport where nobody keeps score. Now it could be argued that I have spent too many hours studying with no discernible product. Fair enough. But here is my question: If education isn't of intrinsic worth, do we really need it? Why not just train for a job and be done with it?

These thoughts led to another line of thinking. As we view the education reform landscape what do we see? How many reformers are standing up for learning for learning's sake? How many believe that doubt is the first step to becoming genuinely knowledgeable? Why are so many reformers worrying about kids' literacy without worrying about their own? It appears that the technocratic, economically driven approach to reform trivializes learning by replacing the experience of intellectual growth with the scramble for a credential. In our mad rush for material acquisition have we turned learning into just another possession, like the painting we buy and hang on the wall without a thought about the underpaid artist who painted it?

At the same time, the reform movement has become horribly politicized. Not a day passes when politicians, ideologues, single-idea near-lunatics, self-promoting educational saviors, and the frankly nutty are not advocating their educational wares. Like patent-medicine hucksters of yesteryear, many reformers promise that in one swallow their programs will destroy ignorance and lead to educational utopia. More standards! More choice! More discipline! More computers! More, more, more. Much of educational reform is a kind of Hollywood version of a social movement. Good vs. evil. Good triumphs. Evil conveniently dies at the end. In the last several years, there have been many films that have portrayed education reform as a soap opera and poverty as a condition of life that can be overcome by following one's karma. According to the most fashionable pundits, what we really need is more choice, competition, and charisma.

And how does the educational crisis benefit the new educational gurus? Whole careers have been built on the presumed failure of the ordinary mortals who actually teach. Can you imagine the education system that politicians, pundits, and CEOs might create if left to themselves? When the intellectual fast-food industry meets the educational privatizer, we get schools that look a lot like any other franchise. When school choice becomes universal, schools are more likely to pattern themselves on theme parks than learning organizations. Theme schools are boutique schools; not bad places to pick up some unusual ideas, but poor places to clothe the mind for a lifetime.

Now here is the shocking news. Virtually all the available research calls into question the basic premise of the reform movement. The unspoken assumption of nearly all reformers is that education is the most powerful predictor of adult occupational attainment. Virtually all reputable research, however, indicates that an individual's social-class background is the most reliable predictor of his or her occupational status. It is the exception to the rule when education per se is able to alter a person's class position. Educational attainment is related to income, but seldom independently from class background. Here is another kicker--studies show that employers hardly ever inquire about what a prospective employee actually learned in school. It is the credential that matters, not the knowledge. The argument that there is a direct cause-and-effect link between education and socioeconomic status in terms of what is learned in school is simply false. No matter how many computers are put in classrooms, the class destiny of most children will be the same as their parents'. The technocratic reform project will, in the end, result in a hoax, which is likely to lead to more cynicism about education.

There is an alternative, a very old one. It begins with the injunction "know thyself." Reflection, especially organized critical reflection, is the medium for finding the way out of Plato's cave, where we can see only shadows and half-truths. Reflection is not the monopoly of the educator, but available to all. Study makes reflection powerful and, in doing so, transforms the self from a "mind within the mind" to a "mind within the world." The argument for the intrinsic worth of education, however, does not end with personal growth. There are urgent social reasons why we need a civil society based on reflection and insight. Without a core of self-knowledge, how can we be active and engaged citizens? There are so many fragmenting forces operating in the late 20th century that we desperately need strategies for creating and retaining a basic sense of self. Markets may produce a cornucopia of goods for the affluent, but they have also produced a materialistic, violent popular culture that reduces sensitive human emotions to the mechanics of sex and a mindless sentimentality that is the moral worldview of the robot. We have raised the commodity fetish to a national ethos of consuming for the sake of consuming.

We are a greedy people. We consume most of Earth's nonrenewable resources while being only a small fraction of the world's population. And we haven't found a just way of sharing the wealth with others. The gap between America's rich and poor gets wider and wider, and the gap between the world's rich and poor gets wider too. The signature personality type that emerges from this economy and culture is either the zombie or the fanatic--the former psychically glued to his or her TV, VCR, computer, and movie screen, the latter emotionally glued to paranoia, fear, and hatred of the "other."

Education is the only antidote against this weird culture because it offers a stronger, more active, happier view of life. The paranoid style of American life and politics is partially the result of our belief in unlimited growth and acquisition; if I define myself by what I own, how can I ever be complete? Moreover, isn't theft an ever-present danger?

When the intellectual fast-food industry meets the educational privatizer, we get schools that look a lot like any other franchise.

Years ago, the psychoanalyst and social thinker Eric Fromm wrote of the "biophilic personality." He contrasted the life-affirming, engaged, creative, and open-hearted biophilic with the necrophilic, a paranoid, angry personality. From Fromm's perspective, much of our future depends on whether or not the biophilic personality prevails. He expressed 30 years ago serious reservations as to whether capitalistic societies could or would support the creativity of the engaged and open-hearted. In today's grab-what-you-can social, political, and economic environment, his ideas seem quaint--like thoughts from a forgotten era.

But at the risk of sounding sentimental, let me push the issue a little further. What is education but the drawing out of intelligence made latent by perceptual distortion, self-deception, and ideology? We all perceive the world as through a kaleidoscope; illusion and reality play hide-and-seek in an ever-changing personal and public environment. As the existentialist poet said, "What is reality anyway?" Still, it is better to struggle toward reality, rather than revel in a world of self-satisfied delusion. Many of our problems are the self-indulgent, self-induced crises of the affluent and uncommitted. When the insatiable ego meets the commodity fetish we are ripe for an ideology of greed masquerading as individualism, competition, and, of course, the ever-present favorite, just desserts.

The social activist and educator Paulo Freire challenged the "banking" metaphor of education, which suggests that many academic deposits result in intellectual wealth. He saw education as a method of liberation. Unfortunately, liberation has lost its meaning in contemporary society, where the struggle for consciousness is equated with hyper-individualism, "personal" visions of freedom, escapism, and the creation of a material cocoon of possessions. Personal liberation is a form of social autism, a mind-within-the-mind project leading nowhere. Real liberation is the recognition that I am as free as the least free person on earth. The struggle for liberation must always be political--not in the electoral sense, but in the historical sense.

Liberation is energy. This energy is the psychic source from which goodness and genuine striving flood, cascading over the distractions and stupidities of everyday life, washing away the mediocre as an absolution and a refreshment. This renewing and renewable energy fuels new mental life, creates new ideas, and allows us the pure pleasure of exercising our cerebral cortex as it was meant to be used. All people are capable of creative thinking: It is the ordinary genius of Homo sapiens, it is our singular gift, which we ought not to neglect or abuse. Creativity and the joy it creates are the last and only real defense against the long night of social madness that comes in the form of repression, materialism, and violence.

Thought and creativity without moral commitment, however, are the dilettante's delight. The higher navel-gazing in academia, on the analyst's couch, and in the cultural institutions of the rich and powerful is little more than the elevation of bad faith to the status of a self-referential worldview. Education should prod us to action, risk-taking, and genuine solidarity with other people. Who will be th e stewards of our future? Computer magnates? Business whizzes? Conventional politicians? Status-hungry academics? None of the above, I hope. Education is not a "product," not a "process," but an act of affirmation, a rebellion against mediocrity, a struggle for identity and freedom, and an expression of purpose. To be educated is to be whole, courageous, and engaged.

From my heretical perspective, schools ought not be vocational entities churning out generations of credentialized, one-dimensional graduates ready to take their places in the beehive corporate culture. They should be sanctuaries against practicality and commerce. Schools should promote creative, even dangerous thinking. They should be gloriously irrelevant--places where students study history, art, and ethics through reading, discussion, debate, and rubbing shoulders with all kinds of people.

Computers are no substitute for thinking; they are tools for extending our mental reach. To accept the notion that computers have intelligence is to mistake speed of calculation with genuine thought. Computers can become "pac" men of the mind, gobbling up thoughts in a digital feeding frenzy. The human mind and heart are what education ought to be about.

Imagine our relief if education were no longer considered the royal road to material success. No more deception about education saving society from itself by raising the standardized reading scores of 3rd graders. No more self-promoting reformers moralizing about the glory of achievement as they push their tawdry products to desperate teachers and parents. No more politicians marching about claiming that they really care about poor children as they fill their pockets with the money of major contributors. No more beating up teachers. No more choice advocates wrapping themselves in the slinky flag of competition. Instead, we would have public and private schools concentrating on the only thing that matters: arousing to life the wonderful ideas that lay sleeping in the souls of children.


Peter W. Cookson Jr. is the director of the Center for Educational Outreach & Innovation at Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York City.

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