It seems fitting to discuss this particular maxim now (albeit, posted a tad bit early!), as most kids around here (including mine) are marching off, backpack in hand, to riding their iconic yellow chariots to various institutions of learning…
Before I start yammering on about education, I’d like to make one comment on the historical context of this particular maxim. I feel pretty comfortable, with the (albeit limited) knowledge I have about the cultures of ancient Greece, in pointing out that the gender bias is likely intentional. “Educate your sons” probably means exactly that–educate your sons. That doesn’t necessarily mean one ought to forgo education their daughters (a properly educated daughter has, after all, been historically considered to be beneficial to her father and to her future husband). Instead, I’m pretty sure that in Greek culture (just as in most cultures) that the sort of education that is necessary for a daughter is limited to the social role of the girl in question–girls have not historically been educated for the sake of education in the hopes that they might (to borrow an advertising campaign from the Army) “be all they can be”. Over the years, girls have been fairly narrowly educated for the purposes of being better wives and mothers, while a broad education has been mostly accessible and admirable for the male half of the population.
Now that I have gotten that out of the way… Obviously, times have changed (at least for mainstream Western culture). And thank goodness for that. For today’s discussion, I’m going with a contemporary reading of this maxim, which would more comfortably read “Educate your children“. Even better, I think, would be an “Educate OUR children”. I hate to sound like a 1980′s pop song but…I believe the children are our future, and we all have community responsibility to contribute to teaching them well enough that they can lead the way.
Which brings us to some of my other ponderings about this maxim…
What exactly constitutes an “education”? Once upon a time, I went to college with the intention of teaching high school science. And I became incredibly disenchanted with the idea. The conventional school system, public OR private, has some very big problems (we’ll leave that 10 foot pole discussion for another day), and they start here, with this very question.
According to the dictionary, “education” has a couple of meanings, foremost of which is “ act or process of imparting or acquiring general knowledge, developing the powers of reasoning and judgment, and generally of preparing oneself or others intellectually for mature life.” In other, simpler words, the process of giving or receiving instruction on being an adult, or even simpler, the transmission of information.
I know what I think my kids need to know to be a grown up…and it differs from what my neighbor thinks her kid needs to know to be a grown up, and it even differs from what my parents though I needed to know to be a grown up. Some of which might even agree with what society or the establishment (or both) think my kids (or her kids) need to know to be grown ups. Which one of us are right? How do we even begin to decide which opinion on the matter is valid? And, if we are all right, how to we extrapolate that idea into a larger and even more diverse population over time?
What should the goals or benchmarks of “an education” look like? Having though long and hard about the type of education we want for our children (if our economic situation were just a little bit more comfortable, we would be homeschooling), as well as having considered teaching (and being that I am currently reconsidering the idea), I’m pretty familiar what our education system currently uses to determine benchmarks of learning–standardized testing. There are a number of reasons why I am not a fan of standardized testing, the primary one being that they are ultimately meaningless in determining what a child has learned as a result of education, and it is largely useless in measuring the effectiveness of schools or teachers to teach.
Certainly, the “three R’s” are important. As is scientific literacy, cultural literacy, and an understanding of history and of political systems…but so is music and art, empathy and compassion, critical thinking, and any number of practical skills and valued traits. How should we measure these? I’m pretty much of the opinion that a sense of justice and compassion is more important than the ability to calculate differential equations. And, to be perfectly honest, I’d rather my children have an appreciation of the natural world that comes from building sand castles and climbing trees than hoping they develop one from memorizing the difference between plant and animal cells. What skills we look for and how we look for them in our children matter. They matter for our individual futures, as well as our collective one.
How do we go about getting (or giving) the best education effectively? I think the answer to this question is actually pretty easy…but the execution of it is something else. Quite simply, we need to stop treating kids like they’ve been produced from a cookie cutter and start treating them as individuals. Education needs to be multi-faceted–it needs to meet the needs of different learning types, of different skills, of different interests, etc.
To do that, education needs to be a societal priority, rather than a convenient political platform to be paraded out every four years or so. Schools need to be well-funded so that they can be well-staffed, and so that they can offer innovative programs and facilities that allow kids to be outside of a box. Schools should be fully integrated into a community, a place for children to go to do children’s work (to borrow a phrase from Maria Montressori), and a place for children to become a vital part of communities. Teachers need to be given the equipment and support that they need to do their job–teachers should have aides and assistants to facilitate more one-on-one and small group learning, and they should have access to specialists (or training in specialty areas) to develop programs in the areas of math and science, as well as the arts and physical education. Both teachers and schools need the resources to help support families by offering them the assurance that their child, regardless of ability or disability, is valued as an individual and whose future is worthy of investing in.
What are our individual and collective responsibilities for the education of future generations? First off, not every family has the luxury of homeschooling–it might be a financial thing, or it might be a matter of personality (not every parent or kid is suited to homeschool) and most families don’t have the luxury of private schooling. That leaves public school as the most accessible option for most families. Secondly, there is a social value to an educated public–education goes hand in hand with things like economic success, lower rates of crime and violence, better health and nutrition, and a better informed electorate (conservative preoccupation with defunding education makes so much sense in those terms). Put these two things together, and I think that the simple pragmatism of a free and comprehensive education for all people as the primary responsibility of any society is pretty obvious. Unfortunately, its also pretty obvious (if one pays any attention to politics) that access to education, and the valuation of public education as the mode of transmission of cultural literacy is not a common societal value. So in the end, I’m not too sure where that leaves us as a people. All though, as a parent…it leaves me with a helluva lot of work to do!