Tim Howe
Ms. Wallin
A.P. Language and Composition
19 January 2000

The Purpose of Education

The purpose of education is to gain the knowledge and skills necessary to make informed and reasonable decisions. Any other consequences should be treated as merely incidental.

The first means to this end is through the simple gaining of knowledge by memorization of certain key facts, such as the periodic table. This is often necessary, and should not be avoided, but too often it is seen as synonymous with learning.

In his excellent essay, ``Examsmanship and the Liberal Arts: A Study in Educational Epistemology,'' William G. Perry, Jr. uses the term ``cow'' to describe ``writ[ing] on the assumption that `a fact is a fact.' ... present[ing] evidence of hard work as a substitute for understanding...'' while using the somewhat more traditional term ``bull'' to mean deception as to the presence of actual data (548).

Perry points out that the emphasis on simply learning mountains of facts ``implies that the standard against which the rightness or wrongness of a fact may be judged exists someplace--perhaps graven upon a tablet in a Platonic world outside and above this cave of tears'' (550). He observes that ``The moralism of sheer work and obedience can be an ethic that, unwilling to face a despair of its ends, glorifies its means'' (551).

``Cow,'' as he calls it, can be more dangerous and harmful than ``bull,'' because it encourages the rote memorization of facts instead of promoting an actual understanding of the subject at hand. Unfortunately, this approach to learning is held by many, both students and teachers.

Another situation that often occurs is that teachers feel a need to have students undergo the same thinking process as themselves, and to arrive at the same conclusion in the same way. John Holt, in his essay, ``How Teachers Make Children Hate Reading,'' explains this as ``a game of wits. I never gave my students an opportunity to say what they really thought about a book'' (455).

Holt describes how many teachers feel the need for students to understand each word right away, again focusing on raw facts, rather than allowing the students to absorb concepts as a whole. He states that ``I now began to see also that books were among the most dangerous things in school. From the very beginning of school we make books and reading a constant source of failure and public humiliation. When children are little we make them read aloud, before the teacher and other children, so that we can be sure they `know' all the words they are reading. This means that when they don't know a word, they are going to make a mistake, right in front of everyone'' (457).

He goes on to say, ``Before long many children associate books and reading with mistakes, real or feared, and penalties and humiliation. This may not seem sensible, but it is natural'' (458). Tragically, instead of making learning seem natural and possibly even pleasant, the system had destroyed any desire for education his students may have had.

Education is not simply learning things; it is learning to learn things. The clichéd proverb about fishing and learning to fish may have suffered somewhat from overuse, but there is truth to it.

The third temptation that is encountered is to try to create or enforce philisophical conformity through the educational system; witness the attendance recently of a first grade class to an anti-gun rally. Attempts to right social wrongs through the schools are generally well-intentioned, but come perilously close to the line between education and indoctrination.

Historically, opressive regimes have ensured that educational materials, and by extension, students, conformed to politically accepted philosophies and doctrines. Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and Communist China (Tofani) are all excellent examples of this.

In the short account, ``By Any Other Name,'' an imperialist British schoolteacher passes on her views to her students, specifically that English names and culture are somehow better than Indian (Rau 465), and that ``Indians cheat'' (Rau 469). Most readers would likely agree that these views had no place in the school, and especially should not have been voiced to small children.

If this is the case, however, what is the difference between this and any current school putting forth our government's views on what kind of thinking about others is and is not acceptable, or what groups, beliefs, and behavior should and should not be tolerated? The short answer, of course, is that ``we'' are right and ``they'' were wrong.

Leaving aside for the moment this argument's rather odd leap in logic, is it even appropriate for an official entity to simply pass on such opinions, right or wrong? It would seem most beneficial for students to form philosophies based on the facts and concepts they absorb, giving them a better context to later support those opinions than simply, ``Because.''

The purpose of education is to enable students to learn for themselves, not to spoon-feed them every fact they will ever need in their lives. Such an attempt is Herculean to the extreme and cannot succeed. Education should encourage students to learn how to make connections between facts, and give them the ability to use this process throughout life.

Works Cited

Holt, John. ``How Teachers Make Children Hate Reading.'' The Norton Reader. Ed. Peterson, Linda, Brereton, John, and Hartman, Joan. New York: W.W. Norton, 1996. 455-464.

Perry, William C., Jr. ``Examsmanship and the Liberal Arts: A Study in Educational Epistemology.'' The Norton Reader. Ed. Peterson, Linda, Brereton, John, and Hartman, Joan. New York: W.W. Norton, 1996. 543-553.

Rau, Santha Rama. ``By Any Other Name.'' The Norton Reader. Ed. Peterson, Linda, Brereton, John, and Hartman, Joan. New York: W.W. Norton, 1996. 464-469.

Tofani, Loretta. ``How China replaced the Tibetan school system with one that teaches Chinese proppganda [sic] - Never saw a judge - Reality of the law - `No freedom ... none' - Burned repeatedly.'' The Philadelphia Inquirer 9 December 1996. Online http://www.tibet.ca/wtnarchive/1996/12/10_1.html. 18 January 2000.


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Last modified: Tue Jan 25 00:24:49 MST 2000