The daily musings of a substitute teacher in East Central Illinois.

Philosophy of Education Part III

Today was another non-teaching day. The only assignments that presented themselves were for a couple of hours in the middle of the day, which are impossible for me to accept due to my wife’s work schedule. The day off ended up being fortuitous: I needed to take my car to the mechanic to get the brakes checked out, and it turned out that not only did we need new brake pads, we also needed the lower control bushings replaced. (I honestly have no idea what these are, but my understanding is that they have something to do with the control of the wheels, and, as such, is fairly necessary.)

I also spent the day dealing with financial matters while watching The X-Files. I thought I’d post another section of my education philosophy. Before doing so, I’d like to explain why I am doing this in the first place. Writing up my philosophy of education is a purely personal project. While my original draft is found in my common assessment portfolio and can theoretically be viewed during job interviews, it isn’t ever examined. Instead, this project is for me to better understand my own beliefs about who, what, where, when, why, and how I teach. I will eventually take everything I’ve written during this blog series and put it all together. It will also be subject to considerable editing. I may self-publish the entire thing when I am all done (whenever that may be).

I was recently asked this question: “What do you say to those who argue that education in this country has less to do with the transmission and evaluation of values than with the preparation of a work force?”

My answer is simply that this argument is silly. The reason is also simple: the greatest preparation for entering the work force is to have a first grasp of and ability to live according to the values of our society. A person can be perfectly qualified to enter a particular field, but if he or she is lacking in an understanding of social values, this person will not be fully prepared to enter the workforce. After all, nobody likes working with either jerks or those who are socially-awkward.

All of this transitions quite well into the realm of teaching. As an educator, the best way to teach values to students is by properly modeling these values. Students mimic those around them. I realise that they are only around me for a few hours every day, but I have seen this mimicry in action. One of my favourite experiences while student teaching was when a young boy left school on a Friday recalling a brief mention of something I’d said about the American flag. He came in on Monday morning bursting with excitement about all of the things he had learned over the weekend about the flag. He had heard what I said and wanted to show that he remembered it. The other great memory of my student teaching was my very last day. I made a decision early on that I would wear a dress shirt, tie, and slacks to school every day. This I did, even on the days when I would have much preferred working in jeans and a more comfortable top. I’m glad I did: the students all wore ties on my last day and left me notes telling me how much they’d liked my ties.

And so it is with everything: students mimic those whom they admire. They admire those whom they respect. They respect those who give them a reason to be respected. And the greatest reason to be respected is because you give respect. Yes, it is a cliché, but as I am fond of saying, clichés exist for a reason: they are generally true. So when it comes to deciding whether education should be about preparation for the work force or about the transmission of values, I believe that it is both because each leads to the other.


13 responses

  1. To clarify: my question derived from debates surrounding higher rather than primary education, so we need to keep those spheres separate as we consider the essential point.

    I don’t think you should dismiss so cavalierly the fact that grades 9-14 are heavily influenced by efforts to expose students to career choices and place them in programs that prepare them and in some cases place them in careers. The initiatives are variously named: vocational-technical education, education to careers, etc. If you had taken and read the book I offered you a couple of weeks ago, you would have seen also that this push is actually deeply rooted in the history of secondary education in this country. Here, however, is a link to my review of that book for your reading pleasure:

    I will even go farther and say, based on a quick perusal of two college catalogs and on several conversations with students of my acquaintance over the last 15-20 years of teaching, that universities are heavily invested in preparing students for professional careers.

    And since I have a fairly clear memory of you sitting in my family room and poo-pooing general education courses, I stand all agog to read your argument that a person “lacking in an understanding of social values…will not be fully prepared to enter the workforce.”

    Here, I must pause and define “values.” Your post suggests they include at very least good grooming and patriotism, with maybe manners thrown in. Based on my research on ETC initiatives in the late 1990s, I will give you good grooming as a key career value. Many potential employers of young people were aghast at the lack of grooming and dress standards of their young applicants, and part of career training in high schools and community colleges actually focused on how to dress for interviews and for work. So I applaud your example.

    That said, I have in mind Values with a capital “v”—the values of liberal democracy, free intellectual exploration, tolerance for difference, free trade, respect for conscience, etc. We could quibble about what goes on the list, but the point is these are values derived, in part, from a study of the humanities and sciences. These are not the equivalent of values such as integrity in the workplace or courtesy to others (not downplaying these latter, simply distinguishing a difference).

    Thus, by my definition of values, the liberal arts offer an alternative to and augmentation of professional and career training programs. But of course they are never very popular because students really very rarely care about true education. They want training and they want jobs. And, of course industry and the professions support their training in many ways through the university by setting up programs to get them trained and get them into the work force.

    The battle at the university level seems to have always been about how much should a student be exposed to literature and great ideas, etc., to instruct them in the values of western society, and how much should they simply be trained to do something? Over time, of course, the liberal arts have lost ground because, after all, the bottom line is always the essential reference point. There are exceptions, of course, but that has been the sad trend. Your lad with the enthusiasm for flags is less likely, in other words, to have read anything written by the founding fathers, or any truly great Western literature, on his way to the cubicle or the shop floor than his grandfather was. Some might call that change, but I would call it decline.

    February 12, 2011 at 9:29 pm

  2. I have not dismissed vocational training at all, cavalierly or otherwise. In fact, I believe in vocational education, and feel that our education system in general, from the primary level onward, would benefit greatly from it.

    What I have dismissed is the notion that vocational training is somehow a separate entity of this notion of “values” education. I believe that you simply cannot have either one without the other, or the other without the one. I see the debate to being very similar to the ridiculous theological debate of faith vs. works. The two are not at odds with one another and are, in fact, aspects of the same thing.

    I do poo-poo the liberal arts/general education classes at the university level for the simple reason that I think they are a waste of time. I gained nothing of great value from any of my gen ed classes, which included nuggets of waste such as “English 104 – Film Art” in which I watched “Citizen Kane” and then discussed it with other students. I can watch and discuss films on my own. Nor did I get much from my speech communication courses which sought to teach principles of rhetoric without any real context.

    I would be much much happier to see such courses integrated into vocational education. I strongly support cross-curricular education, integrated learning, and learning within a context. My major beef with general education courses is that they are none of these. They are topics taught within a vacuum.

    Take your values. I agree with you that these values need to be taught. But the reason students don’t care about the courses is that they are not given any relevance to the vocational field. Relevance is what captures the mind of the young man or woman who is investing thousands of dollars to receive the training to enter the workforce. If I wanted just a liberal arts education, I would have gone to a liberal arts school, not a university.

    Finally, I see no need to keep primary, secondary, and tertiary education in separate fields. Primary education sets the groundwork for everything that follows. Primary and secondary education are and should be focused on liberal arts. If the primary and secondary school teachers are doing their jobs properly, then the foundational values you seek to be taught at the university level would already be instilled before the students even arrive on campus.

    February 12, 2011 at 11:23 pm

  3. Your inclination to combine the two suggests the influence of Dewey* who argued that not only should the technical student read his Shakespeare, but the student of literature should take up his hammer. I have no problem with that.

    Neither would I disagree that liberal arts education is on the very edge of cultural bankruptcy—suggesting, I would argue, a much larger cultural problem. But there are some of us still battling it out in the trenches, to keep liberal arts relevant.

    The problem, as I see it, lies with the student who refuses (or is unable) to engage difficult and unfamiliar topics. I’ve seen this time and time again. The relevance of great ideas is only clear to those willing to engage the great ideas. If students don’t take the classes or read the books, or choose real learning experiences instead Film-class pap, then they have only themselves to blame.

    We could also blame their parents and the countless cogs in public education who refuse to think and teach with any sort of courage (yourself excluded, of course). Primary and secondary education are not doing their jobs. When I ask my classes, have you heard of xyz, and I get blank stares, I know they have been cheated in the earlier grades. This happens time and time again. Basic things these people should know are foreign to them, either because they were not taught, or because they didn’t care to learn.

    The reason students don’t see the relevance of the liberal arts is because they’ve been conditioned to be sheep and they refuse to see the relevance of classes that could expand their understanding and refine their thinking and communication—their idea work. They want to get on with the business of getting their degree and getting their job.

    The problem with integrating liberal arts into vocational education (getting back to Dewey) is two-fold: 1.) which field would be dominant and integrate the other into itself; 2.) whichever field is dominant, would the teachers in that field have any real capacity to teach an integrated curriculum? I suppose joint teaching might work, but at the university level there would be so many hurdles to jump—we can’t even get historians to agree to joint teach a class on the Atlantic world; what a nightmare it would be to get someone from the sciences over to joint teach a course on the history of science! Turf wars would abound, egos would flare, and funding streams would become fouled. The American university system is not cut out for that sort of melding of the minds, though there have been here and there efforts in that direction over the last 20 years that I am aware of.

    Where there is success at integrating general education courses, however, is when student and teacher work together within a course to devise a personalized curriculum that brings history or philosophy or rhetoric together with telecommunications or business or nursing. I have had satisfactory experiences along those lines.

    But none of this erases the fact that liberal arts are a necessary part of an education. Underlying all of what I have thus far said is the bedrock fact that business and industry have shaped education to serve its own purposes. The majority of students go to a university these days not to learn a profession or become a scholar (please hold the ivory tower quips), but to get a job and start a career. There is money to support them, and specialized programs, labs, equipment, people from the industries teaching, etc. I am sure there are millions of dollars in funding being slopped into the system everywhere we turn. They hold the reigns.

    *I forget if you are a fan of Dewey. If not and this compares rankles, I do apologize.

    February 13, 2011 at 12:08 am

  4. ****this COMPARISON rankles**** Sorry.

    February 13, 2011 at 12:11 am

  5. Oh, and I should also add that when I suggested keeping the levels of education separate, I didn’t mean in terms of their connections, but rather only for the sake of argument. I sense from reading your posts that there are issues at the primary level that are not really applicable at the higher levels and vice versa.

    February 13, 2011 at 12:13 am

  6. Having read your post a fourth time, I believe I can say that what I disagree with is the suggestion that the liberal arts need vocational education to be relevant.

    I quote: “But the reason students don’t care about the courses is that they are not given any relevance to the vocational field. Relevance is what captures the mind of the young man or woman who is investing thousands of dollars to receive the training to enter the workforce.”

    It seems to me that the opposite is more correct: the liberal arts provides meaningful context for the vocational study. After all, a man might be like a mule and be taught to work and follow that habit all his days, but it is only by considering the human experience that he can truly understand why he works, and whether his work holds any value. And even whether he should abandon his work and seek some other kind of pursuit.

    The reason students don’t see the relevance of liberal arts again is because they have not be taught to appreciate them. They have been taught by television and sports teams and video games and inattentive parents and bored and boring teachers to hold a crasser set of values.

    OK. I’ve said my piece. I’m shutting up now.

    February 13, 2011 at 12:27 am

  7. As I compose my thoughts on education and entitle them a philosophy, I find myself in the company of many other philosophers in that I am writing of an ideal world that, realistically, will probably never exist. My ideal is encapsulated beautifully by the saying of American philosopher Elbert Hubbard, whose work I have not yet delved into, but whose following quote I have known for many years: “The object of teaching a child is to enable him to get by without his teacher.”

    This is no more true in any field than that of the liberal arts. Your last statement reflects that this is simply not the case. Students today have not been taught to appreciate the humanities, and so they have no internal motivation to self-teach.

    My greatest aim in education is to provide my students with the tools and the motivation to become life-long learners. If and when this happens, they will have a desire to consider the human experience, rather than be compelled to pretend to do so. And I must be absolutely and brutally honest about this: the general education requirements of the American university does not lead the majority to truly consider the values and concepts being presented by the humanities. All they do is lead the majority to figure out how to regurgitate the information in such a way as to maintain a satisfactory GPA. The reason I took English 104 instead of any other of the available options because I cannot stand the way that literature (including novels, short stories, and poetry, which were the three other options for me) is taught, examined, dissected, critically reviewed, dissected more, facetiously examined by men and women who think their interpretation of the motive of an author who died 400 years ago is the only correct one, and the examined some more. I prefer to draw my own conclusions.

    So on the one hand, we need the P-12 education system to do a better job of teaching core subjects, principles, and skills so that students entering the college or university will want to take humanities courses by elective rather than compulsion, and on the other hand, we need the college/university system to do away with this method of academic putrescence that passes for learning.

    Not all teachers reflect these negative methods, but enough do that it is clear that there is a massive shift in pedagogical style needed across the spectrum, and only them will my ideal vision be seen: a future in which students will read Shakespeare, learn about the history of his Globe Theatre, pick up the power tools and build their own theatres, understand the basic principles of architecture and construction, and learn how the tools all work. That, I believe, is the truly rounded education that comes from integrated study.

    So my finally summary isn’t that I want to do away with liberal arts education. I want to do away with the way it manifests today and replace it with something that students will want to pursue on their own, rather than be required to take. “For it is not meet that man be compelled in all things… For the power is in them, wherein they are agents unto themselves.”

    February 13, 2011 at 8:12 am

  8. Your pursuit of a philosophy, which I commend by the way, is exactly what I refer to in my last post. Rather than simply planning, delivering, and assessing curriculum (the labor of teaching), you seek to place those activities in a philosophical context. You do this because you are steeped in the liberal arts tradition. The problem of the connection between the two halves of learning (mind and hand) is whether vocational work is also imbued with that same contextualizing. Would a fellow on the shop floor do the same? Would a cubicle slave contemplate a philosophy of his paper work? A salesman? An IT technician? A cashier? A carpenter? Truck driver? There are precious few Eric Hoffer’s in the world. If we find a laborer thinking of the grand values of his culture, no doubt he or she is a French studies graduate who couldn’t find a job in academia.

    February 13, 2011 at 9:12 am

  9. There are also precious few Hank Reardons, John Galts, Dagny Taggarts, Francisco D’Anconias, Ragnar Danneskjölds, Midas Mulligans, Owen Kelloggs. If we find a labourer thinking of the grand values of his culture, no doubt he or she is an admirer of the fictional men and women listed above. All characters from the story, incidentally.

    My pursuit of philosophy is much more heavily influenced by the writers of philosophy themselves than any education I received regarding philosophy.

    February 13, 2011 at 10:41 am

  10. I don’t recognize those names. What story are they from? I’m talking about laboring folk who turn to ideas to augment their experience. Eric Hoffer was a longshoreman who read and then wrote philosophy. You don’t find very many of his sort at all among the working, service, and information classes. And to your last point: it doesn’t matter where you draw your inspiration, the point I’m making is that you engaged liberal arts because you wanted to deal in ideas. You turn to philosophy because you want your work (teaching) to be imbued with meaning. You seek a context for your work in the world of ideas. A longshoreman typically does not. He seeks release from his suffering in distractions. It is only very rarely that a career-oriented person seeks to engage idea work. Hoffer, for example, did not write philosophy and then get a cushy appointment to Harvard. He stayed working on the docks and read philosophers during lunch hours.

    And by the way, you let your “orientation” show again today in your comment to Philip: integrating liberals to vocational. No, no, no. It must be the other way around. Vocational must rise to meet the liberal arts. That is the order of things. I insist upon it.

    February 13, 2011 at 2:36 pm

  11. Liberal ***arts*** to vocational, that is.

    February 13, 2011 at 2:39 pm

  12. Your desire to replace the liberal arts curriculum with something students will want to learn on their own has already been fulfilled by the History Channel. That’s all my students can talk about–the major historical reference many of them have. When I asked them whether they had been moved by any certain historian or his work, none of them could think of any really great historian’s text–one student volunteered the novel, The Jungle, but was miffed when I said literature is not history, even if it might contain a lot of history.

    February 13, 2011 at 2:53 pm

  13. Replacing liberal arts education with the History channel is not what I desire. I don’t want to replace liberal arts education. I want it changed. Fundamentally, but still what it is: formal education.

    What I desire is to see liberal arts educators who strive to make their topic relevant to their students. This is hard and it is messy. It means the teacher will start each course by asking the students why they are there and what they expect to get out of it. It means the instructor will know the subject matter so thoroughly so that he or she can present relevant material or, more importantly, tie the material to what the students are interested in. It is an ideal and one that I doubt I will see, but it is still something I desire.

    February 13, 2011 at 3:55 pm

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