Education Opinion

Beyond Half an Education

By John I. Goodlad — February 19, 1992 10 min read

I am regarded as well educated because our society has a limited view of what education encompasses. From early times, human tribes have engaged in rites of passage symbolizing the readiness of their young to assume full adult responsibility. These rites were preceded or accompanied by education designed to ensure perpetuation of the tribes’ ways of life. Learning these ways becomes an introduction into the human conversation. Our society looks mostly to schools for introducing the young to this conversation.

The “human conversation” becomes a metaphor for the whole of living: work, play, parenting, governing, and more. Societies differentiate the values they place on various elements of this conversation. These values, in turn, create incentives for preparing to participate in some parts of the human conversation and not others. These choices of values drive schools. Unless these choices are adjusted from time to time in the light of changing circumstances, a society can get quite out of balance in regard to the human traits it fosters. And so can its schools.

And so it is in the United States of America. Unless we see soon what is eroding in our culture and value the return of what we are losing, this nation will become increasingly out of balance. More and more of our citizens will be, at best, only half-educated.

As book learning moves more and more to the center of the stage, all else is obscured in the shadows at the wings.

What is it that we have pushed off the stage? The valuing of making things. Erosion in the value of making things began in our country years ago. But it manifested itself during recent decades in the search for cheap labor abroad. Not long ago, the negative American view of Japanese goods was such that entrepreneurial Japanese manufacturers attached to some products the label “Made in U.S.A.” Now, the products of companies with American names carry the label “Made in Japan,” or “Korea,” or “China,” or “Taiwan.”

Once upon a time, heads of corporations worked their way up through every detail of making, marketing, and financing the product. Now that the making is largely gone, a degree in law or an M.B.A. becomes the requisite. David Halberstam, in a recent book sounding the alarm, describes advancement to the top echelons of a Japanese ceramics maker on which much American technology depends: Every executive began on the floor where production begins.

The social commentator Charles Osgood recently summed it all up succinctly: “One major cost-cutting method now favored by American corporate management is to stop making anything that isn’t going to produce a lot of profit within the next two weeks. Manufacturing companies find it is too expensive to manufacture very much of anything anymore, especially here in the United States. And you notice that not very much is being manufactured here in the United States as a result.”

It’s easy to see where all this leads. The ideal American corporation will be one that doesn’t make anything or employ anybody. When we get to that point our economy will be so efficient, so streamlined, that we will all have to make a living taking in each other’s wash.

Almost overnight, it seems, there is growing awareness of the folly of these ways. Two of the Democratic Presidential candidates recently featured in televised debate referred specifically to the problem and the need to go beyond targeted tax reform to stimulate the economy. I find that many of my neighbors with whom I usually exchange remarks only about the weather are ready to talk passionately about the subject.

We may be coming to the realization that a host of corporate and management policies and decisions in recent years have been misguided. And the business community may be sensing that the time for looking at the schools as a convenient scapegoat is past. In spite of the political hype, it just may be that better schools will not give us better jobs or any jobs. Business and a great deal more besides schools must heal themselves-probably in concert.

Difficult though it will be to reverse the course of the past few years so that we both make things and take pride in the products and the doing, it may be equally difficult to get back on course in regard to our schools and their educating. The alarm that has brought forward an education President, education governors, school-business partnerships, and educational reformers of all stripes is the causal connecting of schooling and the economy. Malfunctioning schools brought us down, we are told; excellent schools will bring us back by the year 2000.

The doubts of many economists even as recently as a few months ago--only increased the stridency of the rhetoric, much as witch doctors increased the frequency of rain dances as evidence of the lack of connection between the two mounted. The thoughtful query of Clark Kerr, a keen analyst of both education and economics, was brushed aside. Is it reasonable, he asked, to believe that declines and increases in S.A.T. scores significantly affect the course of our economy? (See Education Week, Feb. 27, 1991 .)

Although schools are minimally causal in regard to the contemporary functioning of a nation, they are highly reflective of its basic characteristics over the long run and respond, in time, to repeated messages. The way in which an instrumental role in the economy has been attached to the schools of this country has set us on a course that increasingly takes on a life of its own. It is like a huge oil tanker at sea. Should the captain sight a fleet of small sailboats ahead, a hard turn changes the course very slowly. And even with engines in full reverse, his ship will continue to move forward for many miles.

The ship of schools now picking up momentum was launched by a consortium of political, business, and educational leaders, flying a U.S. flag of global economic competition. Ironically, if it remains on course, the outcomes may hamper the efforts of the business community and, indeed, our nation to heal themselves. My reasons for this observation return me to where I began: I find myself today much-schooled but only half-educated. I am a first-generation college graduate, even though I did not attend in conventional fashion until enrolling for the doctorate. My parents were highly talented but little-schooled. They reinforced me, their third son, in whatever successes I had in school. I completed half an education, for which I have been well rewarded.

But today, I need a corps of representatives of the other half to keep the Goodlad family afloat. Fortunately, my wife, Lynn, has to considerable degree compensated for my shortcomings by becoming educated to considerable degree in both halves. But, beyond her, we need an array of specialists: to make car and beat engines healthy once more, to stain the house’s exterior periodically, to repair its heat pump, to fix innumerable gadgets that don’t live up to their advertised excellence. This polyglot crew, largely assembled by Lynn, shares many of our interests and, together, a broader range.

Let me describe Dick, a fireman, retired early because of a back injury. He can take a crumpled automobile and, single-handedly, put it back into showroom condition again. He built his own house, impeccably. He has restored others. He can fix almost anything. He paints in oils and watercolors. He learned recently to fly an airplane and operate a computer. Like most of the others in our keep-us-afloat crew, he hated school. Not only that, he refers to himself as stupid, apologizing for the notes he occasionally feels compelled to write me. He regards me with awe. What he sees himself lacking most, he sees society valuing most. There are thousands more who share this perception. What humiliated him most in school--the achievement tests he failed fuels the ship of schools now launched.

Three closely related educational reform efforts now dominate the education scene: America 2000, championed by President Bush and Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander; America’s Choice, driven by a consortium of political and business actors; and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. At the core of all three are tests for students in schools and for their teachers.

The state of Oregon has bought into America’s Choice. There is to be in just a few years a series of examinations culminating in a “certificate of initial mastery” for 10th-grade students. Certificate in hand, a 16-year old will qualify to choose a college preparatory or a job-training curriculum for his or her concluding years of high school. Supporting all of this is some language that Oregon has not bought into: The possession of such a certificate should be prerequisite for entry into the workforce. Back still further is language advancing the arrogant notion that America is to lead the world in matters of the head. The dirtying of hands is for others-perhaps even some of our own who fail to pass the tests.

I do not have the time to trace some of the history that brought us to where we are. Part of it is the understandable desire of parents such as mine who wanted their children to work out of the rain, cold, and soil in which they worked. The pride they experienced in making things work well would be experienced by their sons and daughters in designing and managing things well. For this, their children needed to complete high school and, high hopes above other hopes, go on to the higher learning. Little by little, we attached more and more to schooling. Success in school became associated not just with more prestigious work but with virtue. We confused being much schooled with being well educated. And then being well educated became equated with passing tests and acquiring diplomas and certificates. It should not surprise us, then, that many people--particularly those who possess such indicators of their accomplishments-assume that they signify a great deal and should translate into better jobs and more dollars.

Unfortunately, success in school appears to predict little more than success in school. As Robert Pace pointed out years ago, marks in school subjects are virtually useless as predictors of creativity, inventiveness, leadership, good citizenship, personal and social maturity, family happiness, and honest workmanship. Tom Peters, a much-in-demand consultant to the business world, doesn’t see much connection here, either: “I live among rural Vermonters most of the time,” he writes. “They can do a million things. The average ‘hick’ in my part of the woods is a talented, crafty, multiskilled, networker-trader-businessperson-entrepreneur who makes ‘empowered work-team members’ pale by comparison. Many of my neighbors are degreeless and diplomaless, but could outwit the average manager in big corporate America without raising a sweat.”

The corps of engineers that keeps Lynn and me afloat probably would agree. And all of its members are shocked when I tell them about the tests their sons and daughters may have to pass in order to qualify to seek a living in the ways of their parents--that is, making and fixing things.

This may be a strange message to deliver to educators, persons prized because of their academic prowess. But comprehensive participation in the human conversation requires more than the half-education our schools now provide. Some of us want to reform schools and the education of their teachers so as to ensure cultivation of both halves of the education required to sustain a healthy nation. To value one half and not the other is to ensure its decay.

I get along just fine with half an education. Indeed, I enjoy my half so much that I have little time to cultivate the other. But should that wonderful cast of characters on which the Goodlad family depends for its sustenance disappear, a large part of our comfort and happiness will go with it. And so, selfishly, we are counting on you and others in our half of the half-educated to make certain that the other half always is valued and fully participates in the human conversation.

A version of this article appeared in the February 19, 1992 edition of Education Week as Beyond Half an Education