Part 1: Learning is Dead

In a classic Doonesbury cartoon, a rumpled professor holds forth from a lectern while his students dutifully scribble away in their notepads: ” . . . and in my view, Jefferson’s defense of these basic rights lacked conviction. Okay, any discussion of what I’ve covered so far?” “Of course not,” he thinks to himself. “You’re too busy getting it all down.”

“Let me just add,” he goes on, “that personally I believe the Bill of Rights to be a silly, inconsequential recapitulation of truths already found in the Constitution. Any comment?”

The students continue to take notes.

“No, scratch that!” he says, raising his voice and waving his hands. “The Constitution itself should never have been ratified! It’s a dangerous document! All power should rest with the executive! What do you think of that?”

They keep writing, their faces blank.

“JEFFERSON WAS THE ANTICHRIST!” the professor screams. “DEMOCRACY IS FASCISM! BLACK IS WHITE! NIGHT IS DAY!”

The students are still taking notes as the professor collapses on the podium, announcing, “Teaching is dead.”

“Boy, this course is really getting interesting,” one student says.

“You said it,” another responds. “I didn’t know half this stuff.”

Although hyperbolic in form, this cartoon still accurately portrays the reality of education in our society. Students have become programs by which teachers are to imprint information on. And through failing to equip students with the proper mechanisms of learning, students have been left high and dry in their educational life.

How did we get here? Of course, living in the ever so politically correct United States, educational reformers and politicians will never state the status of education in such negative terms, as I did above. Nowadays, the model of education is disguised under positive spin such as the “no child left behind program.” And we arrived at the current system through much of the same type of misleading rhetoric.

John DeweyBack in the early 20th century, philosopher, psychologist and eventual education reformer, John Dewey, along with Charles Pierce and William James, advocated a philosophical theory known as Pragmatism. However, Dewey did not identify himself as a pragmatist per se, but instead referred to his philosophy as “instrumentalism”. Instrumentalism is a type of pragmatism. Very roughly, ‘instrumentalism’ is the idea that “concepts and theories are merely useful instruments whose worth is measured not by whether the concepts and theories are true or false (or correctly depict reality), but by how effective they are in explaining and predicting phenomena.”

Furthermore, Dewey felt that only science could reliably further human good, specifically denying that religion or metaphysics could form a valid foundation for morality and social values.

As popularity over Dewey’s theories began to rise and American economic pragmatism became mainstream, education began to be viewed as a means to an end. Explicitly education was said to be of great value for the human person, yet the system set in place said something contradictory. The ideas of goodness, truth, and beauty in education increasingly diminished as utilitarian modes of learning actualized. In the outworking of education, students became treated not as creatures made in God’s Image, as our nations forefathers believed, but, as said above, programs to be inputed with useful information so that students could then ‘learn by doing.’

For Christians, the road back to reclaiming the role of goodness, truth, and beauty in education is an arduous task. Where should one begin? Often, the simple answer employed by many is too enroll their children into a Christian school. Yet, while going to a Christian school may be more beneficial, in many ways the educational system there is merely a replication of the public schools system only with a Christian veneer. Even there, standardized testing is of maximal importance, students are more often than not impeded in learning by outcome-based assignments, and the pressure to justify the existence of these schools mount as parents often become dissatisfied when their students are seem to falling behind those students in public schools.

If Christian schools are not the answer, then ‘Where do we go from here?’

Part 2 will seek to describe an educational model that will seek to recover the art of learning.

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One response to “Part 1: Learning is Dead

  1. I loved reading this post. I agree with much of what you said and you gave me some new things to think about, and your passion for education is so refreshing. Keep it up, mate.

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