School Is Not the Place for Education

What does it mean to be educated?  This morning at The Imaginative Conservative, Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg blasts public schools for punting on this central question.

Rummelsburg relates his long quest to dig into the basic philosophy of public education.  No one he’s asked, he tells us, is able to answer the simple question: What is an education?

Rummelsburg, a veteran public-school teacher himself, asked public-school teachers, students, and administrators.  Most of the respondents, according to Rummelsburg, hemmed and hawed with answers about mastering standards and earning a diploma.  One math teacher, he tells us, paraphrased Steve Forbes.  What is an education?  This teacher answered, “Replacing an empty mind with an open one.”

When he asked his county superintendent’s office, he got a list of four points:

  1. You will get as many definitions of education as the number of people you ask.

  2. To be educated means to have learned enough language and math to be a good citizen.

  3. It is not about the subject being taught, but what the teacher does with her audience. It is all about the student teacher relationship and what she can get them to do.

  4. That is the answer today, the answer tomorrow will be different.

[I assume this was Rummelsburg interpretation of the superintendent’s office’s answers.  The language sounds a little too frank to come from a public official.]

What should the answer have been?  Rummelsburg wants teachers and schools to hew closer to GK Chesterton’s definition of education.  Education must not be thought of as a simple thing, but as a “method.”  It should be a transmission of all that is best in our culture.  The only way to do that properly, Rummelsburg concludes, is to separate out the unfairly conjoined notions of “school” and “education.”

As he concludes,

It is a terrible crime to hand the formation of our children over to an enormous class of uneducated teachers, yet that is what we have done. As it stands, there is nothing redeemable about the public schools or the lies they instil in our children. . . . Let us take our children back and assume our responsibility as their first teachers and teach them as they ought to be taught.

Certainly, Rummelsburg’s argument that today’s public schools have utterly lost their way resonates with intellectuals on both the cultural right and left. And I have a deep sympathy for his insider’s critique of public education. I work with many public-school teachers and administrators, and nothing makes me more pessimistic about our public schools than the number of teachers who choose to homeschool their own children.

But is Rummelsburg’s method sensible? If we can’t get an adequate philosophical definition of education from teachers and school administrators, does that mean that schools are not educating students?

Would this work for other institutions? For example, if I asked everyone who worked in my local supermarket to explain “the market,” would I get a coherent answer? An answer that captured the essence of social and economic exchange? Probably not. But does that mean that my supermarket is not functioning as a market?


Leave a comment


  1. Agellius

     /  April 13, 2014

    Let the government stop insisting on running all publicly funded schools. Let public funding instead go to private schools, and let parents decide what kind of education is best for their children, based on what they think is most important. Let the people who think that county superintendent’s notion of education is the best, seek that kind of education, and those who think Chesterton’s is best, that kind. In a government of the people by the people, I can’t understand what the problem is with this idea.

  2. In NJ, we are in a battle over public funding of schools. There was a landmark ruling in “Abbot vs. Burke”, which has been turned into what I call “the dirty 30”. These are districts considered in need of more money because of poor performance. NJ’s Constitution states that all children are entitled to a “thorough and efficient” education.

    What bugs me about the “T & E” statute, is that it is not defined. What constitutes such an education? In that respect, I like the idea of Common Core. It may need to be tweaked in the future, but Common Core is at least trying to answer my question.

    Right now we depend on outcomes from various standardized tests to examine whether or not our students are well educated. My own hometown is one of the dirty 30, and consistently fails to meet minimum standards. I think a dialogue on what constitutes a good education is a good thing.

  3. So you equate a worker at a supermarket with a teacher? Is that a valid comparison? Wouldn’t the worker be comparable to the student in the classroom? Should the store manager know how the store works? Should the owner know how the store works? Are you really suggesting that a teacher who has no idea what it means to be educated can be a good teacher?

    I do appreciate your comments on my article, but let’s be honest, teaching is an important job if we are discussing a thing such as education. The fact is that the schools are not in the business of education, they are in the business of indoctrination, and at that they do a pretty good job, but we ought not to call them schools.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: