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The Paradoxical Disadvantage of Education

Education is a programmed experience which occupies time that could be spent in other ways. It is therefore a choice which society has made. If children were not in school receiving instruction from an adult, they might be playing with other children, they might be with their parents, or they might be passing the time by themselves.

It is an article of faith in our community that school is the best place for children up to a certain age. Heaven knows, school dropouts might join gangs or, at least, be unprepared for a “good” job. In today’s highly competitive environment that means becoming doomed to a life of failure.

The experience which children have in school is twelve years (sixteen, if one completes a four-year college) of sitting at a desk in a classroom listening to the teacher talk about something. They may also work with computers. In the earlier years, there may be exercises in a skill such as reading or writing.

The children thus learn to focus their energy and attention on intellectual disciplines centered on written language. They remain inside a building for much of the day. They are judged on their ability to learn the course material as evidenced by scores received on a test. Some students do better on those tests than others. It is the beginning of a “meritocratic” hierarchy.

In preindustrial society, children grew up alongside their parents. As soon as they were able, they shared the farm work. There was no need to prepare for a career beyond this. As a result of such upbringing, people were raised with their parents’ culture, which was more authentic than what we have now. Children learned to deal with adult concerns. Their “learning” was based on what they could observe in their elders. It included the adult experience of dealing with dangers and uncertainties.

I decline to say that the education which preindustrial children had was inferior to what we have today. That is because the learning which comes from experiencing daily life is a more complete kind of learning than that involving classroom assignments. One can also presume that parents care about their own children’s preparation for adult life at least as much as teachers do.

The bureaucratic nature of contemporary education raises the possibility that schools may reflect other needs and concerns than the students’ well being. However, professionally directed instruction is better suited to teach the skills of mathematics, reading, and writing than the informal teaching of untrained adults. This kind of knowledge does not naturally arise from experiences in life. Children are trained to enter a literate culture which will prepare them for modern-day careers.

But it is the fact that teachers shape the content of educational experience which pushes personal identity in a certain direction. If there were no adult instruction, then children would pass the time in unpredictable, aimless pursuits. Much of the time they would “play”.

Children’s play is, of course, a learning experience except that the experience is unprogrammed. It happens more or less spontaneously. If the child is lucky, he or she may stumble upon a situation that leads to a significant personal discovery. Conversely, such a life may be repetitive, boring, and unenlightening. The teacher’s job is to create an artificial experience that brings reliable learning in a safe and comfortable environment.

The Paradox

There is a paradox in this type of upbringing. On one hand, personal self-confidence and pride rise from the experience of having successfully met a challenge. The challenge must be real, not one which has been manufactured. On the other hand, however well designed the educational experience might be, it cannot match life in terms of providing authentic challenges. The challenges built into classroom assignments will never pose a real danger because education is meant to help and not hurt the student. They will be a simulation of danger, but not the real thing.

Now what does it do to a person if the first sixteen years of life is spent in a simulated experience? I would think that, deep down, that person would have to be embarrassed. No one can be a hero under those circumstances. It is not heroic to come out on top in a test. I think of the words in “The Ballad of the Green Beret”: “One hundred men will test today, and only three win the green beret.”

The mentality here was that the men of the Green Beret were to be admired because they were picked for that elite unit after having placed high on a test. But the Vietnam war required the kind of heroism born of courage and the will to prevail. No educator or military administrator can program someone to become a war hero. That distinction comes only after a “baptism of fire” when the person is truly tested in combat.

Charles Lindbergh became a national hero after he became to fight person to fly an airplane across the Atlantic ocean. His heroism was deserved. Several others had previously attempted the flight but were lost at sea. Lindbergh himself had played a major role in organizing the project to build “The Spirit of St. Louis.” He almost fell asleep during his 33-hour solo flight. But “Lucky Lindy” made it across the ocean in one piece and became a hero.

Compare his heroism with that of the Apollo 8 astronauts whose feat was far more spectacular. To fly to the Moon and back was an unprecedented accomplishment. NASA tried to make heroes of the astronauts who had piloted the spacecraft. They made frequent public appearances to sell this program to the public. But despite their commendable performances in flight, the astronauts never quite caught people’s imaginations as Lindbergh once had. Budget cuts soon hit the U.S. space program.

Why did the latter set of events not succeed in human terms? It was not the astronauts’ fault. They performed competently in flight as they had been trained to do. They were troopers on the publicity circuit. But the public knew that their selection to pilot the spacecraft was based on criteria having to do with their backgrounds as test pilots, having passed psychological tests, their personal attractiveness in public-relations terms, and other factors which space bureaucrats thought important rather than qualifications that sprang directly from life. It was all a bit too artificial.

So it is with the qualifications that a formal education brings to a person. A system decides how the person will be spending much of his time between the ages of five and twenty. The student’s progress is carefully monitored in regular testing. Those who achieve high test scores and also retain an appealing human personality become eligible candidates for desirable career positions.

Then the successful job applicants, starting in their entry-level positions, continue the process of conformity, evaluation, and promotion in the context of a corporate or professional organization. Based on their performance and personal connections, they move up through the ranks of the organization, or jump ship to other organizations with their marketable resume, until they have achieved the position of Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and are ready to start earning some serious money. And that is success in America. An education-career continuum has consumed the better part of life.

Of course, it does not quite work like that. Those who conform religiously to the system have the humanity wrung out of them and tend to fall by the wayside. Dwight Eisenhower once said disparagingly of a military colleague: “Heck, he never broke any rules.” In the rules-heavy military culture, those who succeed know that, at times, it is not only permitted but required to break the rules when circumstances require this. The true leader will face life’s situations squarely and make decisions based simply on what he thinks needs to be done.

Bill Gates was enough of a schoolboy conformist to be admitted to Harvard. His claim to fame, however, is not that he took the right courses, passed the right tests, and assembled the right resume for a successful career, but that he dropped out of Harvard to start up a company that had its first offices in a New Mexico shopping mall. Then, due to fumbled opportunities by IBM executives, he pounced on the rights to software coding for the IBM personal computer. His company, Microsoft, earned immense royalties and developed its own proprietary software. By the age of forty, Bill Gates was the richest man on earth. His success story, however, has little to do with the traditional career path touted by educators and career counselors.

The point here is not to say that ambitious individuals should forget education and career experience but instead become entrepreneurs. Only the exceptional person succeeds as Bill Gates did or, I should say, the one who was “in the right place at the right time.” Another way of putting it is that “it’s better to be lucky than good.”

Most people have to work through the system. This system of education and careers does, for the most part, provide a comfortable living even if it comes with a certain human cost. And what is that cost? It is the deprivation of real life experiences for the sake of reaching a socioeconomic end. It is the emptiness of soul that some people feel when they know they do not deserve their success.

Again, people become proud of themselves for having successfully met a challenge. They are proud of having demonstrated the full range of their capabilities. Among these, the spiritual capabilities are most important. One of the highest spiritual virtues is courage, which is the ability to persevere in a situation of danger. The greater the danger, the more courage is required to summon the will to act to overcome the problem in a focused and energetic way.

The paradox, then, is that we need situations of danger and uncertainty to demonstrate our highest state of character. On the other hand, modern life is structured to avoid them. Children go to school to learn in an orderly way what they need to know to put themselves into a comfortable position within society. There is the idea that they are better than other people who have not gone through that process. They, the educated people, are better than uneducated people; the college graduate is better than the one who has merely graduated from high school.

To put young people in a position of having to defend their presumed superiority puts pressure on them emotionally. But this has always been the point of higher education: to advance into an elite class. Most young people want simply to get along with their peers. But adults are pushing for social advancement. They are forcing unauthentic identities on children as a kind of duty.

What this also means, of course, is that society has chosen a path for these young students intended to guarantee success rather than to give them the opportunity to become successful on their own. It has taken risk out of the process. We thereby remove the spiritual nutrients that people need to develop self-pride from having successfully met a challenge.

A Spiritual Aching

Such concerns came to a head in the 1950s. Dwight D. Eisenhower was President and our nation was experiencing great prosperity. Having come through another world war, the society was peaceful and orderly. Adults were working in secure jobs and the kids were going to school. Mom had dinner on the table when her husband came home from work. As idyllic as this may have seem, though, young people wanted something more. They idolized film stars such as James Dean who were “rebels without a cause”. They screamed in delight when Elvis Presley sang black people’s music and swiveled his hips suggestively.

Race relations in America took a new turn at this point. Black Americans were officially disadvantaged. Relegated to poor southern towns or northern big-city ghettos, they were excluded from prestigious schools and the better careers. Their lives seemed to be filled more with grief and suffering. At the same time, the white boys and girls in schools sensed that these black people were experiencing real life.

The raw sexuality, dissipation, and violence that was a part of ghetto existence seemed actually appealing in a context of repressed sexuality and suburban “white bread” conformity. And so, some of the more hip white kids picked up on black culture. They made it fashionable to be black. In this culture, “singing the blues” was an authentic expression emanating from life rather than an artistic pose.

What no one noticed is that the white deprivation of spirit was closely tied to the school system. Education continued to be touted as the key to a better life. Instead of giving white children more freedom to learn to be themselves, society decided to redouble its efforts to bring black children into schools where they would be taught the white people’s culture. These schools would be racially integrated. On an equal-opportunity basis, both white and black kids would learn to pursue the promises of a prosperous and safe life at the cost of their personal freedom.

American Jews pursued another solution. Jews were not suffering culturally or materially. Most were living quite comfortable lives, even lives of privilege. But they had to feel that they were deserving of their comfort and prosperity by having passed a personal test. Even if they personally had not experienced hardship, the Jews as a people had, especially European Jews living in Nazi Germany. The Holocaust, then, became a symbol both of horror and of pride - pride in Jewish survival. It was the balancing factor in the culture that let Jews think they deserved a privileged place in society.

Plato wrote that the gods had created this world “on the spindle of necessity”. What is takes shape from what needs to be. Primitive man lived much closer on necessity than we do in today’s highly organized society. When a person does what he needs to do, there is no question that he is doing the right thing. Such a person therefore cannot be blamed for making a wrong decision. Necessity dictates his course of action.

In our society, farther from the need to satisfy life’s raw needs, we have far more discretion in conducting our lives. We tend to gravitate toward what is comfortable and safe. At the same time we identity with experiences that are difficult and dangerous in our lives. We are proud of having come through those experiences successfully; they give us certain boasting rights. And so you will often hear the political candidate say: “I am the first person in my family to have graduated from college.” You will hear grandpa tell stories of how he had to wake up at 4 a.m. to milk the cows in the dead of winter or walk five miles to school. We want to be the type of person who could endure such conditions and thrive.

I think that the inhumane institution of waging war upon each other may survive for that reason. War is extremely horrible. But war is also a builder of character. Some young people may want to prove themselves in this way, masking their desire in terms of protecting their community from external harm. Many of our “great” presidents were wartime presidents. Could it be that a president hungering for greatness in historians’ eyes will contrive to become a wartime president, so that the conditions will then exist for him to become great by being the leader of a country that met great challenges?

One way that adults in comfortable positions can draw closer to necessity is through their children. Children have natural wants and needs which parents have a duty to fulfill. Children express themselves unselfconsciously. They spontaneously engage in activities that inevitably involve adults. Therefore, parents of these children will feel fully engaged and justified if their own lives are, to a reasonable degree, dedicated to the interests of their children. They need have no regrets about this kind of choice because they “had to do it” if they loved their children.

Rose Bud

There is a famous theme in one of history’s greatest films, “Citizen Kane”, which was directed by Orson Wells. The film is loosely based on the life of William Randolph Hearst. It shows the young “Kane” (Hearst) being rescued from an obscure childhood when he was adopted by a wealthy relative. This led to his own immense fortune and fame as a newspaper publisher. Kane on his death bed muttered the words “rose bud”. What did this mean? An investigator tried to get to the bottom of the mystery.

Rose bud? Was this about a flower garden? Was it a Freudian allusion to Kane’s mistress? A scene at the end of the film shows Kane’s many possessions being carted up or discarded after his death. Among them was a boy’s sled - the same one upon which he was riding happily down a hill when that rich relative arrived to take him away to better circumstances. Upon that sled was painted the emblem of a rose bud. Evidently it was the manufacturer’s brand name.

I take this to mean that “Citizen Kane”, one of the most powerful men in America, was thinking back upon his life shortly before he died. When he did, a powerful memory came back to him. That was when he muttered the words “rose bud”. Only he could have known what they meant. Those words meant, I think, that Kane was remembering one of the happiest times in his life when he stared at the picture of the rose bud on his sled as it raced down the hill. He was remembering how it felt to be a boy.

By interpretation, I would say that he was remembering a life of simple experiences when a boy just did what he wanted to do. The words, “rose bud”, might have meant that the dying Kane might have been willing to trade all those years of power and fame for the chance to go back and be a boy again. In the end, life left him with the memory of racing down the hill on that sled.

And so, I would conclude that wealth and comfort, though desirable, have their limit. We must never arrange children’s lives so tightly that we do not give them freedom to be children and to learn to be their true selves and find happiness. If calamity strikes this world, then we will, of course, be living close to necessity. That is not a desirable outcome. Could it be, however, that the world could be arranged to provide both comfort and freedom? If freedom is taken away, we may become hollow shells of ourselves. We must nurture our personal identities as well as our careers.

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