Sunday, May 9, 2010

Some Education Philosophy

I wanted to answer a commenter who responded to my post about procrastination, so I was link jumping my way from the post that prompted my query to a post that the article linked to when I hit a link to a Mortimer J. Adler article entitled "Invitation to the Pain of Learning."  The article was written in 1941, but it says what I believe about 2010 better than I can.  Of course, I might be old fashioned, but then again, there's "nothing new under the sun." Adler begins,
ONE of the reasons why the education given by our schools is so frothy and vapid is that the American people generally-the parent even more than the teacher-wish childhood to be unspoiled by pain. Childhood must be a period of delight, of gay indulgence in impulses. It must be given every avenue for unimpeded expression, which of course is pleasant; and it must not be made to suffer the impositions of discipline or the exactions of duty, which of course are painful. Childhood must be filled with as much play and as little work as possible. What cannot be accomplished educationally through elaborate schemes devised to make learning an exciting game must, of necessity, be forgone. Heaven forbid that learning should ever take on the character of a serious occupation-just as serious as earning money, and perhaps, much more laborious and painful.
 He concludes,
. . . let us not fool ourselves about what we are doing. "Education" all wrapped up in attractive tissue is the gold brick that is being sold in America today on every street corner. Everyone is selling it, everyone is buying it, but no one is giving or getting the real thing because the real thing is always hard to give or get. Yet the real thing can be made generally available if the obstacles to its distribution are honestly recognized. Unless we acknowledge that every invitation to learning can promise pleasure only as the result of pain, can offer achievement only at the expense of work, all of our invitations to learning, in school and out, whether by books, lectures, or radio and television programs will be as much buncombe as the worst patent medicine advertising, or the campaign pledge to put two chickens in every pot.
Here endth the sermon.  Go forth and do good.  Amen.


caheidelberger said...

Toward some advice for the young at heart: suppose a new ed. graduate cites this Adler text in a job interview. Would she/he get hired?

LK said...

I would guess that any young person who holds this view would not graduate with an education degree in the current climate.

They might also get in trouble with the following paragraphs by Terry Eagleton, especially the part about feeling good about oneself should be secondary to self improvement.

With the decline of the critical intellectual, the thinker gives way to the expert, politics yields to technocracy, and culture and education lapse into forms of social therapy. The promotion of ideas plays second fiddle to the provision of services. Art and culture become substitute forms of cohesion, participation and self-esteem in a deeply divided society. Culture is deployed to make us feel good about ourselves, rather than to tackle the causes of those divisions, implying that social exclusion is simply a psychological affair. That to feel bad about ourselves is the first step towards transforming our situation is thus neatly sidestepped. What matters is not the quality of the activity, but whether it gets people off the streets. Extravagant justifications for culture are piously touted: it can cure crime, promote social bonding, pump up self-assurance, even tackle Aids. It helps to heal conflict and create community - a case, ironically, dear to the heart of that bogeyman of the anti-elitists, Matthew Arnold. As Furedi points out, art can indeed have profound social effects; but it rarely does so when its value as art is so airily set aside.

The feel-good factor flourishes in education as well. University academics are discouraged from fostering adversarial debate, in case it should hurt someone's feelings. Why indulge in it anyway, if what matters is not truth but self-expression? "Student-centred learning" assumes that the student's "personal experience" is to be revered rather than challenged. People are to be comforted rather than confronted. In what one American sociologist has termed the McDonaldisation of the universities, students are redefined as consumers of services rather than junior partners in a public service. This phoney populism, as Furedi points out, is in fact a thinly veiled paternalism, assuming as it does that ordinary men and women aren't up to having their experience questioned. Rigorous discriminations are branded as "elitist" - an elitist attitude in itself, given that ordinary people have always fiercely argued the toss over the relative merits of everything from films to football clubs. Meanwhile, libraries try frantically not to look like libraries, or to let slip intimidatingly elitist words such as "book". (Terry Eagleton,