Rethinking ‘School’

Few institutions in the United States create more cognitive dissonance than its public school system. Complaints about the cost and quality of American schools fill newspaper opinion pages, and the rhetoric of “improving education” is a staple of every political campaign. Missing from this debate, however, is the role each and every person plays in his or her own education. This responsibility is much more important in determining quality of education than how much money is spent. Even the poorest among us, by embracing a return to the fundamentals of school, can take advantage of all being an educated person has to offer.

The time is ripe for a new way of looking at school. A Wall Street Journal and NBC poll taken in September 2010 found that 58% of those surveyed think public schools need “major changes” and only 5% believe they “work pretty well.” The pessimism of these respondents is justified. In 2005, for example, a study called “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” led to a twofold increase in Federal funding for science education. A recent Congressional review of the results, however, found little improvement in U.S. elementary and secondary science education.

More public funding and more Federal interference in science classrooms had virtually no effect in raising test scores, because simply doing more of the same thing is not going to solve the problem. We not only need to challenge what it means to be “educated” in the U.S., we need to recognize the limits of publicly funded or government-controlled education.

Proponents of publicly funded education are correct in insisting that education empowers, but their arguments in favor of continued government intervention in schooling can only be sustained as long as “being educated” is defined by the state. Currently, a person who is educated in the eyes of the state is a person who has passed all required exams, meaning that he or she has memorized certain facts and is able to recite them with over 70% accuracy.

Multiple studies, surveys, and “man on the street” interviews have shown, however, that even among those who have graduated a public high school in the United States, there are many who lack critical thinking skills and basic knowledge of logic, math, science, history, and geography, as well as other markers of “intelligence.”

To get to the bottom of this problem, we must understand that simply attending and graduating a traditional liberal arts school does not guarantee a person will become educated or even intelligent. A state of being educated is typically defined as “characterized by or displaying qualities of culture and learning,” or “to qualify by instruction or training for a particular calling,” “to inform,” and “to develop the faculties and powers of (a person) by teaching, instruction, or schooling.” An educated person is someone who possesses a trained mind, not someone who can merely recite important facts or who can display a diploma.

An educated person has a great advantage over one who is not, not only in terms of employment and social advancement, but in terms of self respect, creativity, health and cleanliness, fitness, parenthood, and in being informed and able to participate in decisions that affect that person and his or her family and community. But as we have seen, publicly funded education in the United States has failed to develop this kind of person, and that failure is now reflected in every facet of popular culture, entertainment, and political life.

I would like to propose an alternative school that can be organized right now, that hardly costs anything (other than a small investment of time), and which is guaranteed to produce better results than any Federally-funded education program. This alternative school will be more successful because it is born out of a natural desire to learn. It can be performed by anyone with a brain and an interest in self-improvement, from high school students, to short-order cooks, to farmers and housewives.

The ancient Greeks invented some of the world’s most sophisticated learning with nothing more than the art of the dialogue. During the Great Depression, men who earned a few cents a day carried on discussions of the latest books by scribbling notes in the margins, then reselling them to be read by the next buyer. In the 1700s, men and women met in salons and coffeehouses to discuss important issues as well as the latest scientific discoveries. Today, all over the world, small groups meet in “schools of community” to discuss the works of philosophers like Luigi Giussani.

Imagine what would happen if instead of relying on the public school system for our education, we took education into our own hands and turned every coffee shop, bar, or even living room or front porch into a contemporary salon. Imagine what we could do if instead of spending $60 and several hours on buying and mastering a new Xbox360 game, we invested that time and money in learning a new skill, or in holding a discussion of Frédéric Bastiat’s The Law. I guarantee that Jay Leno would have less comedic fodder the next time he interviewed the average man on the street.

What are your thoughts?

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