Education: A Method in our Madness?


June 27, 2012 17:08 EDT

An introduction to the issues surrounding education.

We are immersed in it at an age when we cannot possibly appreciate it, but education is incredibly precious. Full-time education is a way of being in our formative years, a first taste of a routine outside the family structure. We learn basic skills here for life as an adult: literacy and numeracy of course, but also being part of a larger social animal. It is the beginning of society, and in the process of education young people are slotted into place. More than this, however, is that education is something that happens long after we leave school and are freed from the pontificating of the classroom. It is an on-going process, and the extent to which we take personal responsibility for education throughout our lives is telling of how successful our schooling may or may not have been.

What and who is education for?

As developed nations have moved into a post-industrial phase, the importance of education has heightened. We now no longer rely on tangible raw materials for our prosperity, but rather on knowledge to fuel our services industry. Education therefore indirectly feeds the economy: intellect is our raw material and knowledge our marketable product. Less than a century ago, a formal education would have been a luxury, not only because it was private and expensive, but also because the most of the subjects taught – theology, philosophy, classics, mathematics – were not fundamental to life and livelihood. Now subjects like these make up the many stepping stones which lead to professional success.

But what of the ideals of education? In western philosophical thought, education is thought of as encouraging students to develop an individual voice and independent thought which leads to personal fulfilment. Almost 2000 years ago, Plutarch sowed a seed: “The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.” Training children to be able to parrot historic dates, facts and figures is not true education. Fostering a desire to learn, so that students will inquire about the world around them, is. Contradictory though it may seem, a popular teaching approach today is to set up a structure in the classroom that allows students to become autodidactic; the best teacher aims to make themselves superfluous. 

Of course, the reality is often very different. Grades are the yard stick with which to compare students, schools and national education systems. As students reach the age when they take external exams, the curriculum becomes more and more restrictive, and teachers plug away at the exam rubric and fill the vessel. The extent to which a centralised system can control the quality of education effectively without quashing the freedom of students and teachers is uncertain.

But above teaching theory is the true impetus of education: money. Along with work and pensions and healthcare, education takes the lion’s share of most governments’ public spending. There is a correlation between the quality of education – or at least the quality of test results – and levels of funding, and so there is considerable public pressure for it to stay as a top priority. Educational qualifications are revered, and rightly so. More often than not, education is a ticket to a reputable career, higher salary and life expectancy.

The territory really being fought over now is higher education. At this level, it is becoming less of a state responsibility. The proponents of education for all and education without boundaries are in a lock with governments, who claim the costs are unsustainable. The burden therefore is being shouldered increasingly by students themselves. Governments have shifted the responsibility from a general societal one, of investing in the future for driven young people, to a personal one, a financial investment for those who can afford it. It is a means to an end rather than a rite of passage. 

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