In doing research for a new book project, I spent some time exploring a few books on the philosophy of education.

This may sound incredibly dull, but it was some of the most exciting reading I’ve done recently, despite it’s heft, because it really asks us to return to our basic beliefs about education and learning. Do we believe that education is a cornerstone of our democracy and is the great potential equalizer for our citizens? Or do we believe that education is for the few and the privileged? Do we think teachers are like bosses and must be in top-down control, or should the classroom be a more collaborative working environment, where the teacher is as much as guide and part of the learning as a content delivery service professional. These are big questions we really need to explore in depth before you can make a knee- jerk decision on things like charter schools, vouchers, testing or anything else- what are our fundamental beliefs about the purpose of education in this Country? If we can have some common core belief or goal, then the decisions that lay on top of that are much easier to understand and justify, as well as discarding ideas that do not support or map to the higher purpose.

In the great national debate over money and teachers, we have to face the fact that we’re in a time of great disruption. Traditional education with lecture style formats is not “wrong” but it doesn’t meet the needs of all learners. Everything we’re learning about the brain and how people think and learn demands that we do better. What we need to do is translate all this new information into practice, which any other profession, like medicine, will tell you is easier to say than do.
So let’s pick one of these disruptions. You’ll see a lot of folks debating whether or not the money spent on higher education can be justified if folks can’t get a job after college because of the economy, or because they may not be seen as having practical skills. the underlying philosophical question here is one of whether education is an intellectual or a practical exercise. (I think it’s both, actually.).

We need teachers to be agents, to be essentially service providers, like other professionals. We need them to use their judgment, knowledge and skills to filter information, and choose worthy goals for their students. Yet so often, teachers are set a very prescribed curriculum that takes all of that judgment and learning and throws it out the window in the name of standardization. We’re asking our teachers to become more like factory workers and less like professionals, who are willing to question themselves and others about the purpose of what we’re doing, it’s logic and larger purpose. instead, we’re asking them to just do a job, stop questioning, and produce standard students with standard intellect and nothing more. Is it any surprise we’re getting students who seem lost without being spoon fed information? Is it any surprise we’re getting less rather than more free thinkers and innovators?

The more we try to turn education into a practical, journeyman, factory experience, the more we move away from it’s best and most exciting purpose- helping people become great thinkers and problem solvers, in any context. It’s why when people seem to look at education as a mere ticket onto the ride of life, rather than a formative experience, to build the foundation of who we are and what we believe, that they are cheapening and devaluing the true purpose of education. Likewise, when we forget the fundamental philosophical underpinnings of why we value education in the first place, we risk losing the things that make education exciting and important to the life of the mind along the way.

Thanks for reading this- it’s a bit more esoteric than usual, but that’s what you get from reading philosophy and trying to get down to the fundamental questions of why we’re making the choices we make every day. It’s not light entertainment, but it’s always worthwhile and satisfying to me, at least, to realize sometimes we’re asking the wrong questions, and discovering the foundation of our beliefs is fundamental to moving forward in a thoughtful, purposeful way.