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.

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