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Why Did Public Education Fail?

| 03.02.2017 |

Culture is the central organization of a civilization, and the greatest pillar of culture is education. It is through the education system that all aspects of society are built.


And it is for this reason that T. S. Eliot's Notes Towards the Definition of Culture includes an invaluable discussion on the nature and role that education plays. He begins by acknowledging that many took a great interest in education and educational techniques following World War II, and he was worried about “the kind of assumption which is made by those who write about education.”


The first issue he discusses is the purpose of education itself, and he explains that “when writers attempt to state the purpose of education, they are doing one of two things: they are eliciting what they believe to have been the unconscious purpose always, and thereby giving their own meaning to the history of the subject; or they are formulating what may not have been... but should in their opinion be the purpose directing development in the future.”


To some, “The purpose of education, it seems, is to transmit culture,” but Eliot argues that “we must observe that the assumption that culture can be summed up as skills and interpretations controverts the more comprehensive view of culture which I have endeavoured to take.”


Eliot then moves on to discuss some other proposed purposes of education, including social change, to teach skills, and happiness. Of these, Eliot focuses on the definition of Dr. C. E. M. Joad, who stated that education has three purposes: (1.) to help children earn a living, (2.) to become citizens, and (3.) to become aware of the world so they can enjoy life.


To Joad's first point, Eliot claims, “It is a relief, at this point, to have presented to us the simple and intelligible notion that equipment to earn one's living is one of the purposes of education,” before adding “We again note the close association between education and democracy”.


These three ideas “contain some truth: but as each of them needs to be corrected by the others, it is possible that they all need to be adjusted to other purposes as well. Each of them needs some qualification. A particular course of education may, in the world in which a young person finds himself, be exactly what is needed to develop his peculiar gifts and yet impair his ability to earn a living.”


It would be difficult to serve all three purposes of education (vocation, citizen, and happiness) within the same system and for all children. In particular, “Education of the young to play their part in a democracy is a necessary adaptation of individual to environment, if a democracy is what they are going to play their part in: if not, it is making the pupil instrumental to the accomplishment of a social change which the educator has at heart–and this is not education but something else.”


Eliot continues by warning against abusing an educational system in order to promote social and political change. Although he does not describe the act as “indoctrination,” he warns that those who promote one form of social change open the door for those who would use the system to promote the opposite.


Of Joad's third point, Eliot warns, “as for developing all the latent powers and faculties of one's nature, I am not sure that anyone should hope for that: it may be that we can only develop some powers and faculties at the expense of others, and that there must be some choice, as well as inevitably some accident, in the direction which anyone's development takes. And as for the good life, there is some ambiguity in the sense in which we shall 'enjoy' it; and what the good life is, has been a subject of discussion from earlier times to the present day.”


In short, it is difficult to satisfy every goal in life or to even know what goals are necessary, and the satisfaction of desire and goals does not necessarily lead to a happy life.


However, these stated goals are rarely the actual reason why people discuss education. Instead they are primarily focused on promoting their own political thought: “What we remark especially about the educational thought of the last few years, is the enthusiasm with which education has been taken up as an instrument for the realisation of social ideas. It would be a pity if we overlooked the possibilities of education as a means of acquiring wisdom; if we belittle the acquisition of knowledge for the satisfaction of curiosity, without any further motive than the desire to know; and if we lost our respect for learning.”


Actual learning for the sake of learning is often ignored. Pundits and advocates have their own agenda, and they seek to benefit themselves more often than others. Of the many mistakes they promote, the worst is that all can be fully educated or that all desire to be fully educated.


To the former point, the notion that all can be equally educated, Eliot devotes more effort: “It is right that the exceptional individual should have the opportunity to elevate himself in the social scale and attain a position in which he can exercise his talents to the greatest benefit of himself and of society. But the ideal of an educational system which would automatically sort out everyone according to his native capacities is unattainable in practice; and if we made it our chief aim, would disorganise society and debase education.”


Of the latter point, Eliot points out: “People can be persuaded to desire almost anything, for a time, if they are constantly told that it is something to which they are entitled and which is unjustly withheld from them... If this is so, we may conjecture that facility of education with lead to indifference to it; and that the universal imposition of education up to the years of maturity with lead to hostility towards it. A high average of general education is perhaps less necessary for a civil society than is a respect for learning.”


He continues, “Any education system aiming at a complete adjustment between education and society will tend both to restrict education to what will lead to success in the world, and to restrict success in the world to those persons who have been good pupils of the system. The prospect of a society ruled and directed only by those who have passed certain examinations or satisfied tests devised by psychologists is not reassuring: while it might give scope to talents hitherto obscured, it would probably obscure others, and reduce to impotence some who should have rendered high service.”


Eliot concludes, “Furthermore, the ideal of a uniform system such that no one capable of receiving higher education could fail to get it, leads imperceptibly to the education of too many people, and consequently to the lower of standards to whatever this swollen number of candidates is able to reach.”


In our own system, we see the promotion of “equality” leading to the debasement of education to allow all to obtain a higher education. At the same time, the promotion of STEM combined with a system focused more on indoctrination than traditional subjects suggest that Eliot's fears have already come true.


Yet this is one step beyond what Eliot feared. Eliot stressed the problem with the “equality of opportunity,” a universal access to education, but not necessarily an equality of results. What we currently have is a system that ignores results, focusing not on an understanding of subjects but on ultimately making a high salary in a field that is most likely unrelated. Traditional education is gone.


Eliot noted that the “Equality of Opportunity” is one that “assumes that a great deal of first-rate ability–not merely ability, but genius–is being wasted for lack of education; or, alternatively, that if even one potential [John] Milton has been suppressed in the course of centuries, from deprivation of formal teaching, it is still worth while to turn education topsy-turvy so that it may not happen again.”


However, this is a belief based more on envy than truth: “The envy of those who are 'better born' than oneself is a feeble velleity, with only a shadow of the passion with which material advantages are envied. No sane person can be consumed with bitterness at not having had more exalted ancestors, for that would be to wish to be another person than the person one is: but the advantage of the status conferred by education at a more fashionable school is one which we can readily imagine ourselves as having enjoyed also. The disintegration of class has induced that expansion of envy, which provides ample fuel for the flame of 'equal opportunity.'”


Of the other serious problems with those who seek education reform for the wrong reasons, Eliot warns, “Instead of congratulating ourselves on our progress, whenever the school assumes another responsibility hitherto left to parents, we might do better to admit that we have arrived at a stage of civilisation at which the family is irresponsible, or incompetent, or helpless; at which parents cannot be expected to train their children properly; at which many parents cannot afford to feed them properly, and would not know how, even if they had the means; and that Education must step in and make the best of a bad job.”


Of this last point, the decayed American education system had led to a decayed American society struggling with this very issue. So often, we hear that schools must teach basics, such as “balancing a checkbook.” Rarely, do we hear someone say that it is not a school's job but a parent's. By making infants of students and parents alike, we destroy society as a whole and replace it with an overarching government that must pick up after those who were once citizens.


While vocations are important, we must remember that education is primarily meant to promote learning for the sake of learning. It is not to teach human basics nor replace the parent. It is not to help someone earn money. It is to the enrich the mind, but it is not to increase self-esteem or happiness.


When we remove what education is truly about, we promote everyone through a system that accomplishes nothing. How can anyone truly be worthy of a high paying job when their degree is ultimately meaningless? How can we have a society in which schools are the new parents, feeding and teaching children basics that they should learn at home? What is next, that we bathe them and give them a place to stay?


We might as well turn the public school system into orphanages that churn out a complicit population that goes along with whatever those in power say because they have no ability to act or think on their own.


Jeffrey Peters is an Annapolis, Md.-based writer and political consultant.