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?