Bill Long 1/22/06
Education and Self-Discovery in the 21st Century
The Sunday NY Times ran a front-page story today which told of a $3.75 billion federal initiative to award scholarships to new college students who had successfully completed a "rigorous secondary school program of study." Though tucked deeply in a 774-page budget bill that has yet to be approved, most observers think that approval is a slam dunk. The proposal would reward students who were primarily interested in math/science/computer science. While the proposal ignites perennial debates among educators regarding the federal government's role in secondary education, it caused me tho think through again what I consider to be appropriate goals and practices for primary/secondary school education. In short, I argue that the role of the public schools should primarily be to foster sensual and intellectual awareness so that students discover and are encouraged to pursue what attracts them.
Some Theories of Secondary Education
Throughout our nation's history, the public schools have served two central functions: (1) to "Americanize" a diverse population and (2) to give students training in/exposure to instruction that would enable a them to live productive lives in our society. That is, education was either education in citizenship or education to find productive work. Even if the education was "college-prep" in nature, it was designed to enable a person to develop the kind of skills that managers or professionals in our society need to compete well in their professions. Emphasis on math and science education as a way to compete either against national foes (i.e., the former Soviet Union) or other capitalist economies has been a staple of our public school system for about 50 years. The Bush initiative should probably be seen in that context. What intrigues me, however, is the question of whether we will ever be confident enough as a nation to say without equivocation that the goal of our primary/secondary school systems (college too?) should be to help students develop sensual and intellectual richness and refinement, with little rhetorical emphasis on the "global economy" or even education in "citizenship"? This essay explores briefly what that education in self-discovery would look like.
Education as Self-Discovery
Of course, I am suggesting nothing new. Rousseau, in Emile, anticipated most of what I will say below by more than 200 years. I would propose that education be understood as a combination of sensual and intellectual training, with the goal of having the student discover the areas in which s/he can flourish. The elements of intellectual training I propose, however, are quite different from the way that students are taught to learn today, so let's begin there. I would propose five elements of intellectual training: (1) extensive memorization (what is popularly decried as "rote" learning); (2) learning of historical facts; (3) study of loads of stories, whether they be found in ancient mythology or sacred texts or more modern novels or plays; (4) study of ancient languages, especially Latin and Greek; (5) development of a historical consciousness in the students--to understand how ideas emerged and changed over time.
I only have space here to talk about the first desideratum. What would be memorized? Well, there could be the "traditional" stuff--poetry and important prose addresses, speeches or definitions. I think that memorization should be encouraged in order to teach students how to be good writers. That is, students ought to memorize exceptionally-eloquent and riveting ways to express emotions, such as sorrow or loss or joy or love or longing. By having well-chosen words, which try to unlock the emotions, deeply embedded in the psyche, students are encouraged not only to recognize those emotions as part of the human experience but to build on their memorized definitions with their own words. Creativity works best if it builds upon something; only God creates ex nihilo.
I think that people downplay the importance of memorization because they never have undertaken that discipline in their own lives. In fact, I think that memorization needs no defense, though it does take lots of work.
In addition to the intellectual education, one needs sensual training. This type of education arises out of the realization that we are sensual creatures, and that the more senses we employ in learning, the deeper the learning will stay with us. Thus, we should develop exercises and activities which capitalize on our sensual nature. How do we educate the sense of smell? By teaching people how to cook; by having people mix spices. How do we teach people how to hear? By having music play through the day, and teaching students how to "read" and "hear" music. Science education should be concerned with learning about the natural world--the rocks, minerals and gems of the earth; the orders of life in the universe; the flowers and plants all around us; the trees that tower overhead.
Along with sensual education should be some emphasis also on learning how to do things, such as how to plant a garden, to paint a room, to put up wall-paper, to make a bookcase, to learn how to do some rudimentary things that make life easier and more happy.
I suppose it is natural that national politicians only want to put money where they think it will benefit "national defense" or will enable the continued economic strength of the country. But if we say we regard the integrity of the individual as the paramount value in our society, why not demonstrate that commitment by offering a menu of educational options which will maximize the individual's chances of flourishing? Sensual and intelletual education, training in self-discovery, are the tools of this enterprise. I have thought this for years, and I am even more convinced of the rightness of this approach in 2006.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long