Educational Means & Ends

So difficult and profound is the nature of education, and so uncertain its results, since education has to do with the nature of the way people think more than what they know or what they can do, that it is not surprising that the goal of education is replaced by something else. Using history to ponder the complexities of social causation is replaced by learning the chronicles and traditions of a nation so as to implant patriotism; using math to learn how to think abstractly and logically is replaced by the mastery of times tables and algorithms. More dramatically, learning is itself replaced as a goal of education, its time taken up with the variety of services that are useful to the population that attends school, such as how to drive an automobile or protect against pregnancy. Schools can therefore become schools in name only, even though they are regulated by state education departments rather than by some other agency. That is what happens when schools serve non-educational functions for reasons of convenience, such as providing vaccinations for all students, free lunches for poor children, or day care for seriously disabled children, or warnings about not to talk to strangers. These are health and safety programs, not educational programs, even if it is also the case that children who get glasses may see the blackboard better and so learn more. Many social services make it easier to educate students, and there is no reason why these services should not be provided in schools, given that children of school age can be found there en masse, but social services are not the same thing as education itself.

One obvious kind of replacement of goals occurs when the provision of a social service is treated as education, schools redefined as places that provide whatever it is that children need. Mis-categorization created confusion on both sides when the Jewish Orthodox parents of children in the town of Kermit Joel prevailed upon the New York State legislature to create a special school district for their children so that they could get government education funds for day care for their seriously disabled children, only to find that the Courts regarded the new school district as a subterfuge to permit religiously based services to be provided in a school. The school, however, was not really a school. It was more like a residential facility for the elderly and infirm, which can receive government money and still supply social services in a religious environment.  The school was not addressing the education of the children, strictly speaking, but, rather, their welfare and comfort. Children capable of significant education were tutored in privately funded religious schools. This school came under the rigors of the state education law only because it was called a school.

A school like the one above whose major goal is to provide a service very different from that of education is an extreme form of the replacement of ends with means. More usually, education is redefined to include processes that bear some proximate relation to education, such as driver’s education, or, even more likely, are much more global than education even if they are, metaphorically, education-like because they “instruct” children in morals or middle class behavior. Proximate goals can be defined as those means to an education that are similar enough to the goals that are specific to education that they can be confused with education or at least considered an indication of education. Sports instruction and competition are regarded in that way. Sports teams build self-discipline, an orientation to group cooperation, and provide a structured setting for the stress of goal attainment through repeated practice that is supposed to lead to psychological maturity. Performances can be monitored and participants can be competitively evaluated. So sports becomes a feature of schools, not just as a way to tease students into attending school, but as one of those things that schools are about. Schools invest money in sports programs because students are entitled to sports instruction. The same arguments can be made for music instruction, even though that is an expensive way to learn to think abstractly, and even though it is just one form of culture. This is an old argument, since Plato was uncertain about whether sports and music were part of intellectual life or supplements to it.

The most important case of the treatment of means as ends by educational institutions takes place when education becomes justified as a way to guide a student to make choices about the kind of person the young person will become. That is only an approximation of education since education is a particular way of forming a person-- by increasing the ability to be self-directing-- rather than by invoking or furthering goals of independence or self-appreciation or personal fulfillment or all the other things, including the choice of occupations and mates, that go into turning a young person into a functioning adult. Yet educators will say that the purpose of education is to assist and nurture the development of self, just as they will also say the purpose of education is building skills, values, a sense of community or citizenship, a set of habits useful in employment, and any number of things that happen while a person is being educated and which might be impacted by their education.

Given the welter of social forces that would turn educational institutions into places to meet these other, proximate goals, the important thing to notice is not that schools are little concerned with “true” education, but that much of what goes on in schools is, indeed, both educational in spirit and in practice. Educational institutions go about doing what they do through discussions, the exposition of ideas, the analysis of texts and the mastery of textbooks, through a history of a subject matter or the presentation of a set of propositions about a subject matter, and through examinations and self-examination.

Explanations do not constitute most of what people have to do in most life outside of school, where people will settle for postures or assertions of belief or descriptions of how to do something or of what is right. Plumbers engage in rhetoric to convince their clients of why they need the sink repaired, not an explanation of how to repair it; lawyers argue cases rather than seek to establish the truth of a case, much less explain why their clients did what they did, since that would be an appeal to the general rather than the specific case, and might not put the client in a good light. Boy friends do give “explanations” to their girl friends for why they forgot to call, but there the word is used to mean “excuses”. Spouses can explain themselves to one another only when and because they trust one another enough to share knowledge.

Nor is explanation the same thing as the ability to do. People may have a knack for doing politics or being charming that they never learned in school and that no amount of schooling in political science or psychology can provide. A plumber or an inventor may be very good at doing what is to be done in those callings, but not very good at teaching someone how to do what he or she does. Explanation is, however, the characteristic activity of education, what makes education noticeable as such, whether that means decertifying conventional explanations or the conventional lack of explanation, the activity in which Socrates engaged, or in providing explanations by listing kinds of causes, as was the case with Aristotle, or by providing abstract formulas that could be applied with numerical precision, as is the case in modern science.

Schools provide explanations for everything, even when that is not the most useful way to go about learning a skill or the most useful way to provide a service. Foreign languages are taught, for the most part, by explaining the grammar of the language. Children learn to conjugate verbs rather than to speak, a skill better learned by immersion in a foreign country or in a Berlitz course. The justification for teaching in this way is that foreign language instruction of this sort leads to the appreciation of a foreign culture and that it provides mental discipline because it requires students to memorize vocabulary and master an intellectual system known as a grammar, both of which are indeed educational goals, though they are not the presumed goal of language instruction, which is to learn to speak and write and read a language. With language instruction, there is a reversal of the replacement of means and ends: the general end of education is invoked to excuse the fact that few students achieve the immediate end of learning something useful.  French teachers teach the way they do because they are primarily teachers and so they explain.

Children are also instructed in health education. Reproductive biology is explained and condoms exhibited. The downsides of early pregnancy and venereal disease are discussed. Exhortations to virtue are avoided by the invocation of maxims of prudent conduct such as “Be Careful” and “Don’t Do Anything You Find Uncomfortable”. So one or another set of circumstances are offered as explanations for one or another course of conduct. There is little attempt to shame children into the kind of activity (or lack of it) that the teachers clearly favor, even though shame might be more effective than even the moderately emotional presentation of all the considerations that go into a clarification of sexual “values”. So health education also emphasizes the methods of education even though its goals are moral rather than educational.

Patriotism and diversity, which are also generally regarded as “moral” goals are also inculcated in schools through explanation. Students learn of and develop an appreciation of either a positive or negative American history. The United States saved the world for democracy or, on the other hand, the United States has mistreated any number of ethnic groups who were trying to find a place for themselves in this country. Teachers bite their tongue when students say the wrong thing, according to whatever version of American history being taught. They claim that students are too cynical about the nature of American history or that the students did not understand their own predicaments or the predicaments of minority groups well enough to think that, on the whole, those groups were well served. Teachers generally do not think they have illuminated race relations when students vent their anger with one another, even if some teachers may follow the rather dubious process of liberating emotions as the foundation on which to build explanations of why people think and feel badly about one another. Rather, teachers think they have illuminated race relations when they have explained anger away or explained why anger exists.

So moral instruction, which is an oxymoron, becomes education because it becomes a lesson, an explanation, of how morality works in the dynamics of the person or of the world. It becomes a lesson from Horodotus: the bad leader (and nation) is punished and the good leader (or nation) is rewarded, though only in complicated and ironic ways known only to the historian. The United States prospers because it is a welcoming haven that provides at least the idea of equality to all those who come here; the United States prospers because its resistance to those who come here was overcome by the determination of those who came here, willingly or not, and fought for their equality.   

Education, in short, treats all subject matters as objective ones about which the student and teacher can be objective, whatever their own personal inclinations, and whatever the beliefs they have suspended just barely or only for a moment. That is the case even if most students drop the pose-- that of being students-- when outside the classroom or later in life remember school as that quaint time when one was supposed to act as if one were objective. In “real life” students give in to their anger rather than just vent their anger while trying to come to terms with why slave masters were so mean, just as they also take pride in what is offered to them as signs of slave courage and the survival of African customs.

Even religious education explains doctrines and the history of a people and provides reasons for the features of a liturgy. That is so whether the religion regards instruction as the justification of religious beliefs or as the elaboration of whatever are the abiding sentiments on which a religious commitment is based or simply as instruction about the features of a religion about which adherents might be expected to have some familiarity so that they can practice it. And so education is always a two step: there is the explanation, and there is the un-objective use that will be made of that explanation, which may be, from the teacher’s or the school’s point of view, the point of the exercise. We become proud of ourselves so we can learn. We learn so that we can become proud of ourselves. And we take pride in our learning. Never mind that what is learned, what has transformed us, is itself neither proud nor pride-inducing. It, in itself, just what it is.