I’m not sure I entirely agree with this post by author/thinker Seth Godin (I’m certainly not an expert on the history and purposes of American education), but there are some intriguing ideas in it, and it raises some good questions. What is the ultimate goal of our educational system? What should it be?
If it is to make sure children can read, write, do basic math and have the discipline and learning capacity to hold down a job, well, that’s not a bad goal. But it sure would be nice to seek more, to seek to make them thoughtful, curious, insightful lovers of learning, able to absorb the ideas of others and synthesize new ones.
And it’s not like they’re not capable. I sometimes watch late-night TV shows about gangs and criminal organizations, and I’m often struck by how sophisticated they are, the creativity they employ to circumvent the law, from engineering efforts like under-border tunnels to linguistic feats like coded messages in letters from prison. These were not the bookish kids sitting in the front of their classrooms with their hands in the air, not MIT graduates. But when they’re motivated and have a higher (or lower) goal, they can tap into a significant well of intellectual power.
Another example that has struck me is the National Football League. It’s an arena in which the required abilities are huge athletic gifts and a capacity for controlled mayhem, and most players were only nominal college students. Yet they memorize massive playbooks and master the ability to recognize their opponents’ formations and adjust their reactions in the midst of the on-field chaos.
What brings this to mind is a quote I recently copied; it is from Arcana Coelestia 5949:
If concern is shown for truths they will have in abundance factual knowledge, which is ‘the good of the land of Egypt’; and in a similar way, if concern is shown for good, they will have truths in abundance.
So if we’re seeking truth, seeking to really understand something, we will end up collecting and retaining a great deal of knowledge. That certainly rings true to me; if I try to sit and read the Writings it’s a struggle, but if I’m trying to find something or answer a question, I end up retaining much more of what I read.
In NFL terms, that would be like asking a player to find 10 plays to run on third and six down three points late in the fourth quarter instead of handing him the playbook and telling him to learn it. In criminal terms it would be like telling someone to figure out how to build a 500-yard tunnel under a specific point on the U.S.-Mexico border instead of telling him to learn civil engineering.
And on a higher level, if you’re motivated by use, by a service you hope to do, you will end up collecting a great deal of truth. So if, say, I’m employed building a website on the internal sense of the Word I will be far more effective in taking questions to the Writings and seeking answers. In NFL terms, designing an offensive system will make knowing the playbook second nature. In criminal terms, the benefits of feeding the insatiable drug market inspires mastery of the various ways it could be done (in the service of evil, with facts resting on a bed of falsity, but still pretty darned effective).
The point, then, is to always aim a level higher than the level where we’re seeking to educate. If we want our kids to collect and retain factual knowledge, we should offer them searching questions and challenge them to find the truth in answering them. If we want them to grasp deeper truths, we should challenge them to come up with ways to fill a need, be of service, perform a use.
I see some of this going on in education, with a move toward problem-solving and project-based learning. But there’s still an awful lot of learning by rote, too.