A Minimalist Definition of Education

The distinctive goal of an institution is whatever is the primary goal of the institution, whatever other functions it may carry out, and even if its budget and talk seem more devoted to other activities than those that enhance that distinctive goal.  The distinctive goal of the military is to strip or counter the ability of the enemy to perpetrate organized violence through the use of its own abilities in perpetrating organized violence, never mind that the military also dallies in winning over hearts and minds and is an icon of patriotism. Other institutions, like Hollywood, also win over hearts and minds, and patriotism can be tied to vigorous, loyal dissent as well as to risking life and limb on a battlefield.

It is the same with education. Local suburban school boards may be preoccupied with making a campus shine even though their students will do well whether the campus looks good or not; local urban Parents Associations may talk a great deal about a learning environment when what they mean is that the school is safe enough for their children to attend. But a school without instruction in subject matter is a recreation program by another name, and so schools have to offer some version of the usual courses as well as the other things that motivate students to attend school so that they can be known and qualified as schools and thought to be doing the things schools are supposed to do. A college curriculum without liberal arts requirements is a training academy, and you couldn’t sell it to parents as a real college education unless you included those requirements, even if students don’t like to take those courses and even if the parents and students say that what they really want are the vocational preparation courses.

By that light, the distinctive task of education can be defined, in general, as structured instruction for the purpose of the development of disciplined thought about any subject matter. Plato thought that there was a single discipline of thought which pervades all thinking, and for which we retain the title of “logic”. Aristotle thought that there were many disciplines of thought, the rigor or “logic” of which depends on the subject matter and the audience which was to be convinced of the rightness of one or another view. This distinction between logic and logics still obtains. Some people develop large habits of thought, such as how to read texts or do statistical analysis, and some people learn particular disciplines, like economics and psychology and religious studies, and some people learn subject matters, like Southeast Asia, or mass communications, or African-American studies, and pick up smatterings of whatever disciplines seem to apply as well as a healthy dose of some particular discipline so as to provide tools for the study of the particular subject matter.

The foregoing definition of education is useful because it allows a distinction between education and those means to an education which become ends in themselves and so replace education as a goal. The definition is also useful because of what it leaves out so as not to prejudice the empirical questions of how and whether education is accomplished. Only structured instruction is considered education so as to exclude all of those other avenues that may account for most of the things that are learned in life and which are therefore part of one’s education in an only metaphorical sense. We learn to tie our shoes from imitation, trial and error, and direct instruction, the same techniques that are also used in schools, but learning to tie one’s shoes is not, strictly speaking, part of education. We learn how to deal with members of the opposite sex from what happens within family life, but that also is not, strictly speaking, part of our education, even if many hours of school time are devoted to this and other supplementary tasks, such as driver’s education and patriotism.

Children learn how to operate a computer so very quickly and easily by themselves and when with their friends so that they will not be left out of games that schools ought not “take credit” for having provided instruction in how to use computers, just as schools run in the Thirties by Father Divine should not have patted themselves on the back for having taught inner city kids to use a telephone. Those practical activities are not part of education, strictly speaking, even if schools do offer courses in computer instruction, or did, until it became clear that it was unnecessary for well prepared students and a way to fill time for less well prepared students. Only that which is best learned didactically, whether through discussion or lecture, whether in classrooms or in guided distance learning, constitutes education.

The idea that education is structured instruction allows the inclusion within education of forms of education that do not take place in schools. A grand tour of Europe was and remains a structured form of education. It is planned with an educational goal in mind, as is an apprenticeship, or sleep-away camp, or piano lessons, or lessons in knitting taken at the local YMCA.

Going to the local public library is perhaps the most successful and pervasive form of non school education. Libraries are educational even though they do not usually include instruction in classrooms as part of their repertoire of activities. Libraries are educational because they expose children and adults to choices to learn about whatever pleases them including what comes their way to arouse their curiosity simply because a book about it is on the shelf next to something they thought was a subject they wanted to inquire about. (You still can’t get that much serendipity from browsing the web.)  Libraries have various “curriculums” within any library as well as across libraries. All branches of the New York Public Library group their books according to age level and through the use of a cataloguing system. Some branches have more extensive holdings in college catalogues and SAT preparation books. Some branches fill their travel sections with Fodor Guides and others have more literary travel books. Some have more mysteries while others have more “good” literature. Yet all have a basic curriculum: a holding in encyclopedias and newspapers and “classic” fiction and even a smattering of volumes in the history of philosophy, though the taste in what constitutes philosophy doesn’t seem to have changed much in a hundred years. You don’t see much Schopenhauer outside of the public library, even if you do see the every present William James.

Public library users avail themselves of libraries for a number of reasons. Some want to have a quiet place to read a newspaper or a favorite periodical. Some are in job searches. Some are doing homework assignments. Some are looking for diversion. Some are exploring their fantasy lives. Some children are reading about the life of Thomas Edison or George Washington Carver and so find inspiration for their own lives. The important point is that library goers are there for a reason. Going there is voluntary. And so everyone uses the library in a way that is effective for them as well as efficient for the institution as a whole because how the library resources are used is self selected by the user. All the librarians have to do is select books that are of a range and depth suitable for their users. That they also conduct readings and book fairs and allow their libraries to be used for meetings is just a bonus in the pursuit of their educational mission. Think how different that is from schools who engage so much of their energy simply to keep their kids within their walls for the length of a school day without those charges becoming too unruly. As a policy matter, if city budgets have to be cut, it would seem much wiser to cut school budgets than to cut library hours because libraries supply more bang for the buck as well as more of a refuge for those who declare themselves in need of an educational environment.

A limiting case for an organization or institution that is educational is television—all of television and not just PBS or a set of cartoon programs designated as educational by the networks because they teach good values so that they meet the quota for quality television time for children that is mandated by the FCC. The claim that television is educational goes against the common sense that television is anti-intellectual and is turning the minds of children as well as the entire viewing public into cottage cheese. So hear out the case.

As with libraries, there is no classroom and (as of yet) little interaction. But television does have the qualities of going to a library. You can tune into whatever it is that attracts you and explore that in depth (by tuning in a lot of programs on politics or nature or even a channel dedicated to a subject that catches your fancy). You do not get a practicum, except in the sense of being able to make use of the vocabulary that has been instilled by listening to big game naturalists, foreign correspondents and relationship experts. Moreover, even local broadcast news is a source of history and drama, and the soap operas are explorations of human fantasies. Documentaries and news magazines are as didactic as any college lecturer.

The reason that television is not thought to be educational is because it is said to dumb down its viewers to the level of a ten year old. Well, that is pretty demanding if you are an eight or nine year old who is just getting a sense of world geography or the roles played by politicians in Washington or keeping up with which celebrity is in town. The value of television as education does not depend on the viewer being well enough educated to see what there is in television that provides useful knowledge and concepts; it depends on the viewer being poorly enough educated so that television supplies explanations and insights and experiences one has not before encountered—and that one is held accountable for what is learned through television, which happens when students are supposed to have a passing familiarity with current events not directly covered in a classroom, or a child seems a font of the information that was provided on Sesame Street. There are some children, of course, who have been exposed to so little verbal interaction—as opposed to emotionally stunting language—by the time they reach the age for Sesame Street that they can no longer stretch themselves to give themselves up to it and so will settle for the more stilted emotions available in the more violent cartoon programs. You can lead a child to water, but he will not reach there if it is too far a distance, but how far that distance is comes from a rigorous and complex empirical examination that brings together with a student’s predispositions, the cultural support provided by family and community, the student’s intelligence, the mode and means of education the child is exposed to, and the quality of the student’s teachers. There is no formula that brings these forces together, even though, some educators do argue in a polemical fashion that all children can learn (therefore blaming poor student performance on teachers or the cultural environment) and some educational researchers argue in a more serious manner that teaching accounts for more of the variance in student outcomes than does the social backgrounds of the students, while presuming that the education to which the students are exposed is more or less as it is presently practiced in school systems that administer a day of classes in classrooms for an age graded population.  

In order to think of education in its broadest sense, and so not to presume one form or content matter for education as inevitable, the definition of education has to be structural and minimal. The object of education is disciplined thought, and that means, among other things, that there is no prejudgment in the definition of education of whether the person being educated has the capacity for being educated or the level of insights that are pre-verbal or pre-disciplinary that are necessary for significant education to take place.  Education is not the development of cognitive skills, by  which is meant the ability to grasp abstractions and reason cogently, because those may be largely innate; rather, education concerns the way people are brought to use whatever cognitive skills they have in the analysis of problems and issues they face with a particular subject matter, whether carpentry or politics or Latin, as those are established through a familiarity with concepts, practices and information that may have a bearing on the subject matter. Such a familiarity constitutes “knowing” the discipline. The person reaches out and finds the words and formulas and facts that explain the situation that is under review so that such situations become themselves familiar. That procedure applies to cutting a board or noticing the dynamics of a presidential election, or seeing what a poem means. Indeed, surprising revelations about a subject matter come from a profound familiarity with the intricacies of a discipline. You can see that T. S. Eliot is a new kind of poet by noticing how he does things differently from his forebearers, although it takes a new consciousness, perhaps one educated in Eliot, to notice that the effects the poet creates are worthwhile rather than simply unfeeling.

Sufficient knowledge of a discipline, as that is measured by oral or written terminal examinations, whether in the third grade or at the end of graduate school, is an end in that it constitutes the ways a person, at a given point in their life, will assess a situation they are assigned to make sense of, as when a doctor evaluates a patient, or when a member of the audience takes on the self-appointed task of evaluating what happens on a screen or a stage. Some fans have a quite “disciplined” sense of baseball statistics even if not of the mechanics of pitching but we keep that discipline within quotation marks because in most cases it has not benefited from structured instruction.

Education is a means to the end of understanding, and yet there is no end to the knowledge already acquired by a discipline or that might be acquired through a discipline. Different people will master more than others, and different people will be able to master more than others or master different levels in different ways. So some students will master philosophy as a set of self-asked questions, matters of curiosity or self-creation for which they may or may not have the verbal and logical equipment to allow very clear answers, while other students will master philosophy as a set of questions set by others which they find themselves to have the logical and verbal fluency to clearly address. There is no reason to think that one or another of these approaches is better or worse, only that some logical fluency is a requirement for doing the job at all. Wittgenstein asked his own questions while G. H. Moore answered the questions set by other people.

How smart people have to be to do philosophy or physics or literature is an empirical question. Education uses smarts but is not itself about smarts. It is about the creation of a mental apparatus, as that is engendered by teachers who tell students how to think about problems and so lead students to think that the way in which they have been told to think is thinking, and as that is also engendered by the paths of least resistance which every student finds for his or her own self in his own head as how to become familiar with a discipline.

The mastery of activities done as part of alienated work, such as tasks done on an assembly line, are often thought of as tasks that require a short learning curve, but that does not mean they do not, at least in some trivial sense, constitute a discipline. To say one “knows” the frying machine at the fast food emporium is meaningful because it means you are practiced in not getting hot oil all over you and in coordinating your arms so that you can do the job quickly and place the basket correctly. You are attuned to the machine in the same sense as a musician becomes more and more attuned to the instrument the musician may have been playing for years. It is quite another thing to have mastered the idea of frying machines and think about how to improve them, in which case one has educated oneself into being a mechanic rather than a fry cook, a different role that requires more abstract thinking and which could benefit from formal instruction or some kind of apprenticeship, just as learning to be a fry cook required some short apprenticeship. The point of these observations is that the knowledge of a discipline, any discipline, is un-alienated as well as un-alienating, and perhaps the difficulty some students have in learning comes from their inability to engage in the enthusiasm, sympathies, and satisfactions that come from having un-alienated relationships to objects or to bodies of thought, all of which may be dependant on having first learned to have un-alienated relationships to people. All of which is to say that the capacity for education may be founded on very deep psychological processes not easily remedied if they have gone awry.

The psychological resources required to become educated makes the alienation from the process of education all the more damaging, even as the process of becoming a fry cook can withstand a sense that the job will not be all that satisfying even if it is mastered. Students who want to master more complicated or abstract disciplines, whether they are studying social life or literature or physics, have to give up familiar or conventional or habitual ways of thinking so that they can appreciate new subject matters or learn details or use concepts previously unknown to them. Relying on new facts or ideas is alienating because it means the person has to become a little less what the person was, how that person thought about things and the thoughts they had and the images that occupied their minds, and a little more like a new person, whose head is filled with different things and so thinks of things differently.

Education, then, is a close approximation of what might metaphorically (or not) be called changing one’s soul. One is not giving oneself a new direction, but one has a new set of ways of deciding what direction to move in and what to feel when one is not thinking about anything in particular. So as a matter of substance and as a matter of will, a person’s education transforms the person, and the old person holds out against the strangeness of the new person, not only because it is hard to reprogram oneself, but because it is difficult to trust someone else taking the place of the self with which one is familiar. It is hard to trust new judgments on the basis of old judgments, and it is even harder to accept that the new judgments are self-validating, based on supposedly superior analytic abilities. So even able students will resist what they have to learn, and students not particularly apt at learning or distrustful of new ideas will count the minutes until they can stop cramming or until the lecture will end and they can go back to being themselves. They are required to be there and to memorize but they do not have to give themselves up to that of which, after all, they catch but a glimmer.

It takes more than a bit of courage to appreciate that gravity is why we don’t float off into the air, even if it takes no courage to appreciate that it would be unnatural for us to become Mary Poppins. That gravity is, moreover, subject to exact quantification, and acts according to Newton’s laws, is something that will not be surprising only to those schooled on the idea ever since they can remember, which will not be true of peasant populations come to urban areas, and so still capable of surprise at what science provides. That shock of surprise at the abstract, a hallmark of education for those who learn to add up the figures in a column as well as those who learn that the Founding Fathers had economic interests, whatever one eventually comes to make of that fact, is also the case with creationists who have not been prepared to deal with the slow processes of geological time and with Biblical literalists who are shocked to discover that close textual analysis provides very different readings than the ones they had assumed to be accurate because they had been told by authoritative figures that the offered interpretations were accurate, a reading of a text having been substituted for the text itself.