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Education Versus the Employment Factory

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Sometimes, I raise a difficult question in class.

“Why are you in school?” 

Students stare at me uncomprehendingly.

“What do you mean, why?” They ask. “It’s obvious, isn’t it?”

“If it’s obvious, explain it to me.”

“Well . . .” someone stammers. “We’re in school so that we can get good grades and then get a good job.” Beneath the reasoned tone, they are saying something else: what a strange question for a teacher to ask.

“But what if you don’t get a good job,” I ask. “Or you don’t get the job you’re aiming for? Then what? Will you have wasted your time?”

Discomfort.

“Are you suggesting we quit?” another exclaims in exasperation.

No, I am not suggesting my students quit. What I am suggesting is that they take the time to think about the question. Because if the only purpose of an education is to get good grades, which are supposed to lead to a good salary, then school is nothing more than an employment factory.

It doesn’t take long for the students to ask me the question back. “Why do you think we’re in school? What is your answer to the question?”

My answer has many layers, but the first piece is simple: an education is about learning. This might seem too obvious to start with, but given the waves of anti-intellectualism crashing on our shores of late, I think it bears noting. The purpose of schooling is, first and foremost, quite simply to learn.

We teach our students their ABCs from the moment they start with us until the day they leave. When they are young, it is basic training: how to spell, how to count apples, how to read a map. As they get older, we continue along the same trajectory, but with more complicated sentences, more difficult territory. The longer they stay with us, the more we can offer.

Hopefully, students will ask us the question why at every turn. The more precocious ones do it earlier (why can’t I spell the way I want to?). Others ask later (what’s the point of calculus or 19th century poetry?). Our job is to answer their questions, each of us to the best of our abilities, at every stage. You study calculus because some of you might need it for your future studies. Because it is brain gymnastics. Because calculus is the art of bending infinity and seeing the universe through a new set of eyes.

You study poetry because it is the voice of the soul, of yearning, of loss and love. You study all of these subjects because they are windows into the human experience and all that we have achieved, learned, and attempted.

And because the more you know of these things, the wider your inner universe becomes.

The problem is that students find themselves learning these subjects in an impersonal system. They sit in rows and stare at a teacher, who is often talking into a vacuum, repeating things they have said a million times before. Students try to focus, but often they don’t and soon they find themselves drooling into oblivion. Or they keep themselves awake by scribbling notes, hoping that they catch every potential question that might be on a future exam. Inner universes and founts of inspiration are far from the point for most of them. Far from the point for most of us.

So when I ask my students why they are in school, why they are paying high tuition fees and jumping through academic hoops, they are quick to voice frustration. “What choice do we have?” They reply in accusation. “You want us to be inspired but we are just trying to get by.” Just tell us what we need to know for the test.

There are so many issues to address regarding the education system. It is material for a book and not a short essay. But I can offer at least this much here: that, at the very least, we must embrace the question why. We must remind our students (and ourselves) why learning has value. We cannot resolve every obstacle, but if we hold onto the question why, we give education some space to mean more than the diploma at the end of the line. Education cannot just be about a potential material outcome, a line on a CV, a statement of social status.

We must remind our students of this value each time they ask us their questions. If we don’t, we fail the most basic point of a good education. This is not only about the grades. This is not limited to future employment. Education is about learning, about the vastness of the human experience in all of its extraordinary diversity, and as such, it is a good in its own right.

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