The beauty of freedom in United States of America includes the freedom to obtain an education. Thomas Jefferson advocated public education for the betterment of the country and I fully agree with this vision. Education is valuable not just to the individual but to the society as well. An educated citizenship results in a healthier more productive and prosperous culture. Lack of resources including food, shelter, finances, and education drag a culture down. Likewise, an abundance of the same resources creates a more stable society. It is education that enables a people to be stronger, more creative, and more united.
Although the right of an education is granted to all Americans, compulsory education has been distorted to an entitlement rather than a right. I once was a high school graphic arts teacher. My class was a vocational class, a trades class. No one expected to be challenged intellectually while learning the printing business. But once students began to apply the trade of the graphic arts, they quickly realized that a foundational education in mathematics and imaginative learning were crucial to creating commercial art and printed pieces. This example goes to show that education is more than just getting a job. An education is the development of the human mind and personality of the student. All knowledge, whether scientific, mathematical, literary, artistic, or mechanical, is valuable knowledge that interacts with all areas of society and work.
The right of an education for American citizens has expanded beyond the fundamentals of learning to the public universities and colleges where all citizens of the state have a right to attend these institutions. Yet what we now have in many public universities, but not all, is not an attitude of the right to an education rather to an entitlement to a degree. Russell Kirk reflects this sentiment when he says, “every man and woman and intellectual king or queen, with an Oxbridge degree!” His comments are sarcastic. Yet he fully agrees that the original intention of the University has been changed to a factory mentality. The original intent of the University was, “to develop right reason and imagination, for the sake of the person in the sake of the Republic.” If then education benefits the nation, it behooves the nation to ensure the integrity of learning.
While the dream of a college degree is admirable, the needs of everyday living to obtain food, shelter, clothing and finances is a true reality that cannot be ignored. The answer to improving education is not then to supply the financial needs of all citizens in order for them to pursue education. Again, the root of all problems in education rest in an entitlement mentality. If citizens are then entitled to be cared for this will not help the state of higher education. Those who work hardest are those who benefit most from the labor. Hunger is a great motivator. Ironically physical hunger will motivate one to work in order to satisfy the physical need. In order to work to satisfy the need, one must also learn and be educated in order to provide basic human needs. So the answer to all higher education problems is not to give away an education, but to make this occasion desirable. If a student is not hungry a student will not work.
I must admit that I have benefited from the grace of many teachers in my educational career beginning in kindergarten and continuing in my current doctoral program. This statement must come first in order to understand the opinion that standards must be in place and expectations enforced to bring value to an education. Academic standards that expect students to push further and obtain quality, will in turn cause hunger in the mind. Lax standards merely breed slothful mentality resulting in entitlement.
John Dewey has been criticized for his philosophy of education in that education has become a religion under his tutelage. Writing on Dewey, Christopher Dawson says concerning education, “it exists simply to serve democracy; and democracy is not a form of government, it is a spiritual community, based on the participation of every human being in the formation of social values.” John Dewey’s influence on compulsory education shifts the very nature of education away from strengthening the mind to strengthening the society alone. While it is true that an educated populace makes for a stronger society, the education citizens receive should be that education which liberates the intellect rather than conforming the soul. If then John Dewey has changed the concept of education so radically, perhaps it is imperative to undo his philosophy.
It is perhaps too late to influence the current generation of students to radically turn around the direction of higher education as it is today. Yet if problems exist to the extent that damage has been done, it is the responsibility of current scholars to begin to speak on and write on the problems at hand. In offering a solution, I would argue, in the spirit of Dawson, that motivation for higher learning begins in the primacy of the development of the mind. The atmosphere in which one lives at a young age does affect later learning. However this is not to say that the youngest mind is the only area of influence. I myself have been introduced to and inspired by many great teachers in my higher education years. But in order to redirect the ship, the rudder must be turned.
Influence on a society begins with the highest thinkers. Those thinkers must motivate current scholars, who will be future leaders, in ways of living apart from the current state of mind-numbing entertainment. The entitlement philosophy shapes not only education, but the way in which a society exists. If computerized ways of doing dominate the way one thinks, then the way one thinks will reflect the instant information atmosphere that computers create. Although I am grateful for the advancement of computer technology in the areas of research and accessibility to books that are no longer in print, I must caution myself often in depending on the search engine results as the top possibility for all of my research and thinking. True humane thinking requires time to ponder information in order for it to become knowledge. If instant information is then replacing what has traditionally been known as knowledge, it is important to delay the effects of the computer until after one’s mind has begun to grow in rational and imaginative thinking. It is the lack of creative problem-solving, not just in education, but also in normal everyday living, that has affected the way education is approached. One no longer is required to solve the problem of everyday living needs like obtaining food, clothes, yard and home maintenance, and even cooking recipes. Everything is available at the touch of the keyboard. If we do not know how to bake an apple pie, a computer can tell us how within just a few seconds. No research needed. No problem to solve exists.
Perhaps the solution to the decline of higher education standards, rests in a fundamental shift in the approach to everyday living. This can only begin at home. Dire circumstances in the economy and in the culture, will require many to go back to the basics. But as long as problems have immediate answers, solutions will evade the seeker. If immediate answers substitute solutions, higher thinking will not be necessary. I do not propose that issues that need to be resolved can be resolved by one opinion alone. But in a time of history where all opinions matter and no opinion is more true than others, I wonder if any solution can be widely accepted as the best direction to begin solving the problem.
In a postscript thought, I do believe that making education available for all is a very important freedom. But I must clarify my opinion, education is not an entitled right. All education is valuable. But the learning of an economic trade is not the same as higher liberal arts learning. If one’s aptitude is more in line with vocational training, that person must be given the freedom to choose that route. While if one’s aptitude is more in line with higher academic learning, that person must also be given the freedom to pursue that route. But it is not the role of the state to determine who is eligible for a particular trade or education. The role of the state must be that which enables all the opportunity to explore and pursue what is best for their skill set. This can easily be done while also providing academic standards that do not discriminate. I do not believe that state-funded education is always the best, but it is necessary and important. Those without financial means to a higher education must climb through the state schools in order to get there. I am grateful for my state sponsored education. This was the step up I needed to pursue higher forms of thought.
Gamble, Richard M., ed. The Great Tradition: Classic Readings on What It Means to Be an Educated Human Being. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007.
Kirk, Russell. “Humane Learning in the Age of the Computer” in The Wise Men Know What Things are Written on the Sky (Washington: Regnery Gateway, 1987), 90-100.
Kirk, Russell. “The Conservative Purpose of a Liberal Education” in Classical Teacher, Spring 2007.