What is Education for? Part II

A response to Kevin Mattson



In my most recent essay for The Smart Set, “What is Education for?” I argued that the tendency to equate education with mere instruction neglects the more fundamental purposes of education: initiation into a cultural or civilizational tradition, indoctrination into a public philosophy — in the United States, democratic republican liberalism — and inculcation of the manners which enable young people to grow into good citizens, good neighbors, and good colleagues.

In the liberal magazine Democracy Journal, Kevin Mattson was quick to respond. Mattson is a professor of history at Ohio University, a fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress, and a member of the editorial Board of Dissent. As my politics are those of a Rooseveltian social democratic liberal, and presumably similar to those of Mattson, to judge from his affiliations and his publications, I was curious to learn what his objections were. It turns out the divide between us has nothing to do with politics, in the conventional sense, but rather with our differing views of the purpose of education.

Implicit in my arguments for what I provocatively called initiation and indoctrination was my support for a broadly fixed core curriculum for all students. I favor a standardized core curriculum because I am a small-l liberal and small-d democrat and small-e egalitarian. I believe students from disadvantaged backgrounds should receive exactly the same basic liberal education received by students from affluent families. If the school in the poor neighborhood equips poor kids with one set of cultural references, while the rich kids pick up a different set of cultural references, the poor kids, as adults, can easily be identified by their conversation as outsiders and may subtly — perhaps even unconsciously — be ostracized by the rich.

Such egalitarian and communitarian considerations are not shared by Mattson. For him, the purpose of education is libertarian, to “provoke students from thinking about the world differently than they would have without going to school.” From this, he draws the conclusion: “What books students are assigned should be up to the discretion and judgment of a professional educator who has experience in the classroom and knows what can prompt students into thinking more critically, perhaps to think in a way that might lead them to wonder what is even meant by “polite manners.””

Mattson’s second claim, that “professional educators” should decide what books students are assigned,” does not follow logically from his first claim, that the purposes of education are not initiation, indoctrination, inculcation and instruction — the “Four I’s” which I proposed should replace the “Three R’s” of readin’, ‘ritin’, and ‘rithmetic — but rather a fifth “I,” which might be called Inquiry.

The idea of education as inquiry, led by a teacher who provokes students into rethinking their basic assumptions, is as old as Socrates. But Socrates would not have seen a contradiction between Mattson’s view and mine. For the most part, Socrates and other ancient Greek philosophers and sophists taught young men who were born into the upper classes of Greek city-states or kingdoms. Their mainstream education was already complete long before they were exposed to the Socratic method. They had been initiated into the Homeric epics and Greek poetry; in republican city-states, they had been indoctrinated into a knowledge of their political rights and duties, as citizens and, in some cases, as military cadets; and good manners had been inculcated in most of them, by their families and their community. I very much doubt Socrates would have tolerated a student who kept interrupting him or shouted obscenities at classmates.

In the traditional view of liberal education which I am defending, inquiry can be a legitimate purpose of education — but it is mostly reserved for advanced students and scholars, and certainly is not the major purpose of education for most students. Even in relatively liberal societies like the United States, almost nobody agrees with Mattson that the main purpose of education should be to “force — young people (or old people in adult education, for that matter) into thinking for themselves.” Most parents would think that an education which produced an adult who boldly and ceaselessly questions everything, but does not know who Abraham Lincoln was, cannot do simple fractions, and is too rebarbative to work with, was a disastrous failure. So would most of the taxpayers who directly or indirectly subsidize both K-12 and higher education in the U.S.

Only about a third of Americans complete four-year college degrees, and the vast majority of them — quite sensibly — go to college in order to acquire a credential that will help them to get a better job than they could get with a high school diploma alone. They do not go to college to think “about the world differently than they would have without going to school.” Going to college is expensive, and the internet and public libraries provide much cheaper ways to learn to think differently about the world.

But for the sake of argument, let us stipulate that Mattson is right, and that the main purpose of education is to provoke students into questioning anything and everything. From this it does not follow that the “books students are assigned should be up to the discretion and judgment of” individual professors, instead of a committee of academics, the university’s regents, a state legislative committee, or some other authority.

After all, if the purpose of education is the Socratic Method, then some Socratic Method readings might work better in provoking discussions than others. Text A might inspire stimulating debates in most classrooms, while Text B puts many students on many campuses to sleep. Why not convene a number of “professional educators” with “experience in the classroom” who “know what can prompt students into thinking more critically,” and have them choose the single best Critical Thinking Socratic Method Readings text and require its use in all of the classrooms of a university? I may be mistaken, but I think Mattson would find even this exercise of institutional authority in the service of free thought too repressive.

As Mattson writes: “What Lind likes to do is provoke, especially those on the anarchist left.”

Without intending to, perhaps, Mattson has provided us with a sense of what his ideal Socratic classroom would be like. His critique of my essay is largely structured on the basis of his questioning of my assertions and conclusions. Here are a few examples:

[Lind] goes on to explain, “The point is that, in addition to having a shared identity, nay enduring society must have a political consensus which by its nature includes some values and excludes other.” The problem, at least from an American standpoint, is that we live in a period of time when “shared identity” is no longer something that we agree on. Here we also enter the land of counter-platitudes: His statement might sound definitive, but it leaves open a plethora of other questions, more perplexing than clarifying.

And again:

To “get along with others” is, yet again, another platitude that needs some deeper inspection. Don’t we want to create students (and, eventually citizens) who aren’t trained only to get along with people and become “team players” but who can also think for themselves, and maybe even criticize group decisions?

Mattson may think this is the Socratic method, but it’s really just quibbling. It’s easy to play this tedious professorial game, which takes place routinely in graduate seminars and at academic conferences. First, you put scare quotes around a rival author’s statement: “get along with others.” Second, you raise a lot of questions you have no intention of addressing — in the scholastic Newspeak of the 21st century academy, this debating trick is called “interrogating” or “problematizing.” The purpose of both of these rhetorical techniques is to imply that one is much more intelligent than the author whose work is being criticized.

When quibbled with, I can quibble back, lifting Mattson’s own formulaic quibbles from his critique of my essay and turning them against his insufficiently-problematized and under-interrogated assertions. His assertions are in regular text, his quibbles (originally directed at my assertions) are in italics:

Mattson slips into a more aspirational language when he justifies his views about education’s role: “What education can do is provoke students into thinking about the world differently than they would have without going to school.” The fact that he even brings up terms like “provoke students into thinking” illustrates the slipshod nature of his thinking.

One more time, pitting Mattson’s quibbles against Mattson’s own assertions:

Here’s [Mattson] summarizing his own argument. Listen to the gaping holes throughout this passage: “What books students are assigned should be up to the discretion and judgement of a professional educator…” Here we also enter the land of counter-platitudes. [Mattson] enters into wishful thinking territory. Unfortunately, the misguided platitudes and sweeping terms he refers to give short shrift to what is, now more than ever, a much-needed debate.

This is a free country, and I would not object if someone were to establish a chain of charter schools on Mattsonian principles in the U.S. Parents would be guaranteed that students would learn how to question received opinion, but there would be no guarantee that they would learn anything else. Students, even young students, would be encouraged to question authority — for example, by responding, when the teacher tells them to form a line and hold hands, “Says who?” or “What do you mean by “hold hands”? Which hands? What if somebody doesn’t have hands?” There would be no fixed curriculum, only whatever particular teachers chose to assign.

This is not my idea of a liberal education. But then, what exactly do I mean by terms like “idea”? Or “liberal”? Or “education?” •

Images courtesy of via Adbourne School c1930 via Flickr (Creative Commons).

Michael Lind is a contributing writer of The Smart Set, a fellow at New America in Washington, D.C., and author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States.

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