Lately, I’ve been thinking about education as a tool. I can do different things depending on how it’s used. For example, preventing certain people from accessing education can prevent them from improving their social situation. To get a better handle on what education is, and what it can do, I’ve been reading a couple good books.
I finished School recently. It’s a book about the history of school in America, from the late 1700’s to the early 2000’s. Given the broad time span and general topic, the book can only cover so much. The topics it highlights are race issues as they interacted with education in America and popular topics in educational theory and practice that ebbed and flowed in American society.
I picked up the book as a primer for another book about education, Teaching to Transgress by bell hooks. I figure, if I plan to read about transgressing the educational system, then I ought to understand a bit more about what I would transgress. Like a good Jazz musician or criminal knows: to break the rules, you need to understand them first.
One of the most surprising themes of School is the correlation between American society’s move from an agrarian economy to an industrialized one and the increasingly complex educational system that followed the economic shift. As the industrial revolution changed America from a nation of farmers into a nation of engineers, business people, and manufacturers, the need for skilled labor grew proportionately. The government relied on the education system to provide the foundational training for those workers. Curricula and longer school attendance were required as the economy grew increasingly complex, and today, we have a society where a Bachelor’s degree is required to be a secretary, and a Master’s degree is required for some entry-level positions in college administration. The idea that education is simply a tool job training is an important, if limiting, awareness of what education can do for us, although I’d like to think that education is more than simply a vocational preparatory tool.
Racism in America is a painful part of our history that we’re still trying to understand as a society. Ironically, racism in American education is an issue that wasn’t taught to me in school. Of course, we learned about segregation and integration of schools as these issues related to the civil rights movement in the 1950’s and ’60’s, but the larger issue of discrimination against Hispanic and Latino students in the West, as well as 19th Century discrimination against immigrant families, wasn’t covered.
Racism and sexism in American education occurred, and likely still occur, when specific groups of people are prevented or discouraged from accessing parts of the educational system. In the ’60’s, Hispanic students in Texas were told they couldn’t go to college by high school teachers and administrators, even though there were no laws preventing them from going. They were discouraged from taking college prep. courses in order to get to college. School claims that white people felt threatened by integrating Hispanic and Black students into the higher education system.
It’s interesting and sad that empowered people in society use education as a tool to maintain their position of influence. Even in the Information Age, it’s possible to keep less privileged people from accessing educational information by restricting access through requiring more working hours in low-wage jobs or limiting access to computers and smart phones by emphasizing other purchases, such as cable television hardware and service or fancy cars.
The lesson that disenfranchised people draw from this restriction on education and information is that education is power. However, bell hooks notes in Teaching to Transgress that she felt integrated schools and universities used education as a tool to homogenize and indoctrinate students with regards to societal norms and expectations. In her segregated school, hooks found education to be a tool of freedom. Thomas Jefferson saw education as a tool to develop an informed and active democratic populace, and at its best, that is what education can achieve, but education can serve different purposes, depending on who’s doing the teaching. In light of hooks’ anecdote, education seems to be something more complex. Education can be oppressive in some situations and empowering in others.
One of the first courses I took in graduate school was a survey on the literary trope of the self-taught person. We read the stories of Ibn Hayy and Robinson Crusoe, as well as similar stories from several other cultures. One important theme of these stories is that the protagonist is an autodidact, a person who is self-taught. An autodidact is different from someone who leaves the school system with the vocational skills of an auto mechanic, computer programmer, college admissions counselor, or a accountant. Autodidacts use education as a tool to patch holes in their understandings of the world, or open up new territory in their understandings of the world: hooks describes liberating education as “self-actualizing”, a term which I associate with Maszlow’s hierarchy of human needs. Viewing education in the light of stories like Crusoe or Ibn Hayy, where the protagonist uses education as a means to thrive in their environments, self-actualization and liberation are appropriate descriptions of what education can do for someone.
The catch is that these stories are about people who lived alone. Crusoe and Ibn Hayy didn’t have any family to support, or a job beyond surviving. This leaves a lot of time for learning that most folks don’t have. Moreover, these guys wanted to learn. Many people just don’t have a dedication to education like these storybook characters do.
While the idea of an autodidact is thrilling to someone who likes learning. I expect that many people don’t feel like they can teach themselves whatever they want to learn, or even find a teacher who can help them with this. Many things stand in the way of being an autodidact: money, transportation, responsibilities to your family or job, etc. However, with the tools available on the Internet, I believe that it is possible to teach yourself just about anything: Code Academy, Khan Academy, and DuoLingo are just a few of the many free educational resources available to anyone with an internet connection — and if you have a library card, you have internet access. As a student, you have to supply the desire and discipline to learn, which is no small feat, but if you have that, then the tools are out there.
The benefits of education are more than just intellectual. I think this point is often misrepresented by proponents of education. If you read blogs by people like Mr. Money Mustache or the Mad Fientist, you can quickly learn how to save and earn lots of money. By learning how to repair bikes, cars, and houses, you can maintain your possessions. By learning to write and speak well, you can persuade folks to see your side of issues that you care about. In other words, education can help you achieve results on things that matter to you.