Here’s another way of looking at the role of education. The author is thinking of schools but I have something broader in mind. More about that below. First, here are the opening paragraphs of “Unplugged Schools” by Lowell Monke, which appeared in the September/October 2007 issue of Orion:
“Educators say the darndest things. Consider this from a high school social studies teacher who told me, ‘Kids don’t read anymore. The only way I can teach them anything is by showing them videos.’ Or this from a middle school principal who defended serving children junk food every day by telling me, ‘That’s what they’re used to eating. They won’t eat it if it doesn’t taste like fast food.’
“Aside from their stunning capitulation of adult responsibility, these comments illustrate what has become a common disregard for one of schooling’s most important tasks: to compensate for, rather than intensify, society’s excesses.
“I first encountered the idea of the compensatory role of schools in 1970, while preparing to become a teacher. In Teaching as a Subversive Activity, Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner argued that one of the roles of schools in a free society is to serve as a cultural thermostat — to take the temperature of the culture, determine where the culture is over- and underheated, and then gear instruction to compensate for those extremes. If a culture becomes too enamored with competition, schools would emphasize cooperation; if it overemphasizes individuality, schools would emphasize community responsibility; if it allows poor children to go hungry, schools would (and do) develop lunch and breakfast programs to feed them; and so on.”
As one such area of needed compensation, in the rest of the article Monke goes on to look at our growing emphasis on information technology. It’s worth reading, but here I want to focus on the idea that education should compensate for society’s excesses, that it has a responsibility to be countercultural in some important ways. And I’m thinking of education not just as schooling, but as including all the thinking and reading and conversing that we do for ourselves after our school days are over.
But why would we think of education this way? Because the world of books, ideas, curiosity, and learning can give you the tools to transcend your particular time and place. Through books you can look at the world through someone else’s eyes — someone from another time, another temperament, even another culture.
Monke is suggesting that we seek these alternative perspectives deliberately. It sounds contrarian — figure out what your culture is doing and use ‘education’ to find other ways. But this doesn’t mean that you have to change. It means you now have options. You can see that what the culture has chosen for you is indeed a choice. You don’t have to accept it. Without such an education, the excesses of the culture are just the sea you’re swimming in, like the proverbial fish who is unaware of water.
The countercultural role of education has been on my mind lately as I’ve been re-reading one of the most famously contrarian books in American literature, Walden by Henry David Thoreau. Walden is often mis-characterized as a book about wilderness survival or withdrawal from society. In fact, it’s mostly about questioning society’s assumptions and looking at things closely for yourself.
More about that starting March 20, as we begin “A Year in Walden.”