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Thursday, December 23, 2010

Our Institutions of Education are Anti-Education

A very good friend of mine who is also a philosophy professor pointed me to this article about rampant plagiarism in the academic world, written by an "academic mercenary" whose clients pay him to write everything from business school proposals to doctoral dissertations.

It's a chilling read, because it articulates so clearly the massive failure of our institutions of education, as a whole, to actually educate. Not only do they fail to educate; the educational institutions to whom we entrust so much are, in many ways, anti-education.

A few days ago, I posted a note about this problem on my personal blog and received a comment from the ever-insightful Carol Sanford that really hits the nail on the head:

"Education, from the Latin root ed-u-caré,means to draw out; and the current model of education is missing the point of its own etymology... Modern schools do not 'draw out', but rather 'push in' facts and knowledge."

The current model of education is missing the point of its own etymology. I love this phrase. It's so deliciously ironic, and it would be funny if it weren't so piercingly true. In the United States, we treat schools as fact-pushing factories, filled with the bland curriculum of standardized tests, devoid of creativity and critical thinking. And like a factory, the best students aren't the most creative or even the smartest; they're the ones who can best tailor their work to fit within a certain set of specs. Those who question the system are ignored or ostracized, while those who struggle are utterly left behind.

Case in point: my professor friend, who teaches at a small liberal arts college, has a transfer student from a large, prestigious public university. This student is struggling in class and was afraid to approach my friend for help. The reason, he later learned, is because at the large, highly-respected university the student came from, undergraduate students were discouraged from engaging with their professors!

Our institutions of education are not only failing to adequately educate the vast majority of their students. If education is the Socratic process of drawing knowledge out through creative inquiry and critical thinking, these institutions are actively undermining their students' ability to be educated at all.

The Lumiar Institute in Brazil has a more humane view of education. For their students, education is about inquiry and interaction, engaging with the world rather than retreating from it to memorize facts in a book. They treat education as a lifelong process that occurs both formally and informally. The Lumiar Institute is still an educational institution, but here's a key difference: this institution is expressly designed to encourage human flourishing, to facilite creative education, rather than undermine it.

Pratham is another organization that's doing great things for education. Pratham is more about communities than instutitions. Their programs utilize community spaces - homes, temples, parks - to provide a place for underprivileged children to come together and learn. They find and train instructors from those same communities, supply materials and generally try to enable success. Pratham recognizes the interdependence of communities and educational institutions and seeks to build vibrant communities that allow students to thrive within these institutions.

I encourage you to visit the websites of these organizations, read about their educational philosophies, their students, their values. They're examples of humane education, so very different from the commoditized, factory schools we have in the United States, where education seems to be more about producing workers than enlightening minds.

We desperately need that humanity here. Organizations like Pratham, the Lumiar Institute, and also the Harlem Children's Zone tell me it's possible. With few resources and seemingly terrible circumstances, they're making a difference. Yet how many students are languishing in the middle-class suburbs of America, to say nothing of the small towns and inner cities? How much potential are we wasting, will we yet waste from our inaction?

Robin Cangie writes about 21st-century issues at She tweets as @robinoula.

-- Robin // 3:44 AM // 2 comments


I couldn't agree more with the thesis - but am left a bit cold with some of the supporting arguments.

My experience is that we currently have an overabundance of "critical thinking" and "experiential learning" opportunities, particularly at the elementary level.

The developing human brain requires the building blocks that are being skipped - like learning phonics before whole-word learning and memorization of multiplication tables, state capitals, and *the horror* poetry. Yes, these things can all be quickly and easily looked up on our iPad - so why bother forcing kids to memorize?

Why - because learning fundamentals and rote memorization skills are critical in developing neural pathways. And these will result in the automaticity that will then provide the opportunities for "critical thinking" that comes with maturity.

For our young children, a return to the curriculum of the early 20th century wouldn't be the worst thing that we ever did to them.
// Blogger Geoff // 5:27 AM


Excellent thoughts here. Have you read "Weapons of Mass Instruction"? It is a bit of a diatribe, but it discusses the problem of factory, compulsory schooling and I think you would find it compelling.

// Blogger Andrew // 7:51 PM
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