Real Education

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One
month ago, I interviewed for a teaching position at a small private
school. The school was quite rightly proud of their high standards.
Their students learned what was, in many ways, a classical curriculum.
In addition to English, all students learned Latin and Greek, as
well as one modern language. In mathematics, all students were required
to learn BC Calculus. Certainly, this is high-caliber high school
education. My first reaction is to say "See what can be achieved
through market forces!" Yet, a little voice inside my head
rises up to question this ideal of a classical education. This little
voice gives me pause as it asks "Why does everyone need to
know integration by parts and dead languages?"

My liberal
arts bona fides, I think, are without question after spending a
year as a philosophy graduate student, and being a lifetime member
of Phi Beta Kappa. I do not doubt the value of liberal learning,
but I am beginning to doubt the value of liberal schooling. There
is only so much time in life, only so much we may learn. What, but
our needs and our interests, should realistically guide the selection
of material? Why need there be a shared curriculum enforced by school
administrators? Certainly, there are certain works that make it
possible to understand our world. But doesn't it follow, then, that
the liberal learner, the man truly interested in knowing and understanding,
would come to these works? Why make them requirements for a piece
of paper?

Many make
the distinction between education and training. I think this is
an important distinction, and that both are important. Yet I fail
to see the value of paying tuition for education, which may more
readily and reliably be obtained in a library than in a school.
Not having a graduate degree, I often find it interesting to compare
myself to those who do posses such degrees. I have to wonder how
many folks with PhD's, MLS, MAs, etc. have the wide-ranging interests
I do. Certainly I am not less well-read than most. How many with
a master's degree in philosophy have read all of Quine's major works,
and most of Russell's? I think my reading of Cicero and Aristotle
has given me more than time spent in literature classes. In fact,
when I think of the lessons I have learned from liberal studies,
it is not a classroom that comes to my mind. When assigned books
for a class, I often quickly skim them, learn enough to pass exams
and write papers. This does not compare to the serious learning
I do in my living room. Would attaining a degree in the liberal
arts make me more of a liberal learner? I doubt it.

Training,
on the other hand, is worth paying for. I probably could not have
learned to start IVs in my living room, nor would I even know what
to begin studying in order to take part in many trades. Training
is schooling in preparation for a job — it only makes sense that
one would go to a master of that trade for training. Rather than
each applicant explaining to an employer what he has done to prepare
for the work, a standardized core curriculum for the profession
is efficient, and I believe would develop without state interference.
Even accreditation of such schools, I think, would develop, so that
employers can be reasonably sure about the quality and quantity
of material learned. Liberal arts, though, are not supposed to be
preparation for anything. Of course, a mentor, reading lists, and
so on are helpful. Wandering aimlessly around in a library does
not guarantee that I will find what interests me most. It might
be nice to have a guide who can say "oh, you're interested
in love. Well, there's this fellow named Shakespeare, another named
Cicero — look at On Love, and you might try Augustine's early
works; for a more scientific approach, look at Freud, but then for
an antidote, check out Szasz. Finally (at this point his eyes twinkle
with the merest mention of such a lovely piece of writing), for
a true understanding of romance, you simply must read the Goethe's

The Sorrows
." Most lovers of learning, though, offer
advice for free on what to read. At any rate, you need not pay outlandish
tuition to obtain reading lists.

Of course,
I am overlooking one benefit of liberal schooling. Consider St.
Johns College, for instance, and leave aside the present concentration
of Straussians on the faculty. The college largely admits that its
faculty is more guides and museum curators than teachers. That is,
it is admitting the dirty little secret of education — no one can
teach. So-called teachers ought to be called facilitators. Once
it has admitted this, though, it becomes difficult to see why the
school is better than a library. The answer given is the presence,
in one place, of so many lovers of liberal learning. The ability
to walk into a classroom each day and discuss your reading with
others also so engaged is supposed to be worth tuition. Perhaps
it is, and perhaps this once made the school a worthwhile endeavor.
With the internet, though, a few minutes of typing will enable you
to find hundreds of others reading the same works you are reading,
and eager to discuss it. You can join mailing lists and discuss
the work with dozens of people, read critical analysis (and search
through the text for topics of interest), and sometimes even chat
real time. That is, you can have far more than St. Johns offers,
for far less money.

Would the
free economy produce professional educators? I think so, but I wonder
if they wouldn't be more similar to tutors and mentors than classroom
instructors. Furthermore, I believe there would be far less of them,
despite loud claims about a teacher shortage. Without licensing,
people who work outside of education would be able to spend a few
hours a day sharing their knowledge. The norm for a teacher, I think,
would be one experienced in life, and work, quite well-read, who
spends some time, perhaps in retirement, perhaps after work, discussing
great literature with the youth. For that matter, perhaps in a free
market we'd have training also provided by instructors with experience.
While this is the norm in trade school, such as in emergency medical
services, it is decidedly not the norm in high-profile training
endeavors. One management class, taught by a PhD in business, convinced
me to short the whole market and never look back. I understand that
the only businesses classes worth taking are the low-level courses
relegated to adjuncts — an adjunct frequently being a professor
with real business experience but without a doctorate. Without government-run
accreditation boards, perhaps we could escape the silliness of pretending
that the person most qualified to teach a skill is one who has written
a long, tedious, and boring paper on a minute aspect of that skill,
while a person who works long hours perfecting that skill is worthless
as a teacher.

Conclusion

One criticism
of my argument might be that I omitted many of the horrors of the
present education system. I omitted, for instance, the emphasis
on putting graduate students to work as underpaid professors and
unpaid researchers, rather than teaching them. I also omitted the
stupidity of "publish or perish" in colleges and demerits
in private high schools. (If I paid $40,000 per year in tuition
for my child's high school, and some administrator told me that
my son would be kept after school to pull weeds as punishment for
being late to class, I can guarantee that school would not receive
another check.) Those, I think, are good points, but not my point.
My point is to criticize liberal education, even if done properly,
as being uneconomical.

I
think all of us will agree that public schooling, and government-required
credentials, are not good means of education or of quality assurance.
I am now advancing the argument that, particularly given the existence
of the internet, we can largely do without liberal arts education
at all. Much is made of the enhanced communication and critical
thinking abilities arising from liberal arts education. This is
true, but these skills certainly also come from long hours spent
reading and writing, that is, engaged in solitary or small-group
liberal education. Certainly employers want employees with such
skills — that's why they interview them! The presence of some liberal
arts courses on a rsum means far less, I think, than a lifetime
spent engaging the works. Not all will spend their free time pursuing
liberal arts — and why should they? Who am I say that Cicero is
more important than Nintendo? If Cicero will bring about success,
then the desire for success means Cicero will be read. If Cicero
is his own reward, that also is not an argument for forcing him
upon people — those who choose not to read simply miss out on the
reward. More to the point, there is much to learn out there. Who
can compare Cicero to Augustine to Nietzsche to the Gospels to Plato?
(Okay, I will — drop the Plato.) Why not simply pursue your own
interests, degree plans be damned, outside of training credentials?

May
9, 2006

Joshua
Katz [send him mail] is
Chief of EMS at the Town of Hempstead Park and Recreation for the
summer. He has studied philosophy of mind, logic, and epistemology
of economics from an Austrian perspective, and is a former graduate
student in philosophy at Texas A&M, as well as holding a bachelor’s
degree in mathematics. He is planning to return to Texas after the
summer, in order to seek work in EMS there. He enjoys a glass of
port, a wedge of brie, and a chapter of Cicero as a way to start
his day.

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