Teaching/Learning Lexicon: “Education” as Cultural Artifact

Today I find myself meditating on the word “education”. In some ways I avoid a more comprehensive set of topics that I will get around to, I suppose. But also a workshop earlier today and an article read this evening have helped burble up some musings I have flirted with before.

“Education.” The word and the concept have taken on a bland connotation in my mind, but I suspect I am far from alone; I argue the word in contemporary America dulls the mind. I am reminded of vapid, superficial thinking that leads nowhere but to the fulfillment of the author’s need to publish, or to vent some complaint, without – and this is the key – producing much that is creative and exciting. What should be a stimulating, energizing word that refers to a fundamental human activity, has become its opposite.

“To be educated” is a phrase with more pop, complexity, and which compels desire, but the simple word education in the popular mind lacks pizzazz. In education where is the exalted language of service and social change that impels the environmental movement, the urge to legal action on behalf of the poor and those on death row, the saving of a life on the operating table, or the creation of urban designs?

Is this language, arguably a “branding” in contemporary market speak, part of the reason why Type A college graduates do not flock to its service, or money to teacher salaries, or prestige to the ranks of practitioners? What should be a purview as wide as all experience and as deep as the soul feels on the tongue as dull as the classic monotone lecture. I sat today in a workshop about some quite legitimate teaching principles, simple and obvious stuff yet worth review because of their importance, yet paradoxically I found myself wandering off. My daily work with kids is much more compelling, exciting, stimulating and just plain fun than the words delivered to the workshop in well meaning tones. Have we adopted a language in education that invites torpor?

A useful article in the Pacific Magazine of the Seattle Times by Linda Shaw, the Times education writer, “Teachers as Targets”, notes that early teachers in public school were women who were hired first because they would work for significantly less than men and were, moreover, traditionally those who transmit the culture to children, the early purpose of the public school. Of course transmitting the culture is a necessary function, but one deeply conservative in its timber, and the antithesis of the iconoclastic culture we all encounter contemporarily – all of us, not just children. How much then has education remained mired in unconscious institutional memory of that earlier purpose, and so takes a back seat to the much more compelling excitement of 21st century culture? Just as institutions perpetuate the racism of periods not so far behind us, perhaps also our schools transmit older, out of date, awkward patterns from bygone times when their first purpose was to transmit culture, and did not anticipate the need as today to prepare for a future where change will be the norm.

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