Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The purpose of Education

Has it ever struck you as odd, or unfortunate, that today, when the proportion of literacy throughout Western Europe is higher than it has ever been, people should have become susceptible to the influence of advertisement and mass propaganda to an extent hitherto unheard of and unimagined? Do you put this down to the mere mechanical fact that the press and the radio and so on have made propaganda much easier to distribute over a wide area? Or do you sometimes have an uneasy suspicion that the product of modern educational methods is less good than he or she might be at disentangling fact from opinion and the proven from the plausible? Dorothy Sayers - The lost tools of learning

When I graduated from High School some 23 years ago I gave a speech titled The Purpose of Education. The topic was a bit (OK a lot) beyond my ability but I did come up with one memorable line: the purpose of education is to teach people to love learning.

Unfortunately I didn't catch the learning bug for another 15 years and ended up wasting a opportunity to lose myself in the wonderful libraries of Cornell. But this is not an essay on my misspent youth. I mention it only to note that I spent many years behaving as if education was about passing tests, getting a degree and perhaps putting that knowledge to work to make money. I did not take my own advice.

Like many of my fellow students I thought in terms of subjects, in my case Physics and Philosophy. Perhaps Dorothy Sayers described this viewpoint best when she wrote: Do you often come across people for whom, all their lives, a "subject" remains a "subject," divided by watertight bulkheads from all other "subjects," so that they experience very great difficulty in making an immediate mental connection between let us say, algebra and detective fiction, sewage disposal and the price of salmon--or, more generally, between such spheres of knowledge as philosophy and economics, or chemistry and art?

My problem, it seems to me now, was that I failed to see the unifying force in developing a sense of the world. That is, I did not understand the power of the word. Each subject, after all, is but an attempt to use language to describe, communicate and contemplate different aspects of human life.

The study of language per se, grammar, was, to my young mind, an exercise in drudgery which got worse as I began to study Latin. I can remember heckling my Latin teacher, to the chuckles of my classmates with quips like, "who had cared about the pluperfect tense." Being a kindly old man he would calmly respond, "people, unlike you, who wished to communicate effectively...please continue your conjugation of amare."

Yet without a solid understanding of language per se we are all like people who drive cars but have no idea how they work. Under those circumstances we don't appreciate the power of the car until it breaks down or doesn't start. Unfortunately, one cannot take one's understanding of language to a shop for repair. This is one instance where there can be no division of labor. A linguist within ear shot can correct your use of a verb, or offer a few alternative words that better advance your argument, but this is a one shot affair. The car will still be broken once you leave the shop.

It was, I believe, no mere coincidence that I caught the learning bug at the same time I began to appreciate the power of language per se while traveling around the world. There are few things more frustrating than needing to communicate an idea only to have one's ignorance of a language stand in the way. This same problem happens quite often internally, but often without notice, when contemplating an idea. It is very difficult to solve a problem if you don't frame the question to yourself precisely.

It is also, I believe, no mere coincidence that Dark Ages in history are associated with a decline in linguistic proficiency. A read of 8th Century Latin prose suggests to me that it must have been difficult for even the most educated to grasp the subtleties of Cicero. I view with dismay the fascination in American culture with sound bites today.

The lack of appreciation for language per se leaves us with a bunch of "experts" who cannot communicate with each other. The modern economist, who spends most of his time in school learning box-jenkins and other statistical tools, is almost amazed to learn that there was an economic world before 1945, when GDP accounting became the rage. He has difficulty communicating with the historian or philosopher who speak in terms of the waxing and waning of empires or ideas.

Worse, the common man, educated just enough to believe he understands, takes the views of these various experts as givens if they align with his prejudices. Who knows, perhaps the rise of the authoritarian personality is merely a sign of the lack of appreciation of language.

As Dorothy Sayers put it: For we let our young men and women go out unarmed, in a day when armor was never so necessary. By teaching them all to read, we have left them at the mercy of the printed word. By the invention of the film and the radio, we have made certain that no aversion to reading shall secure them from the incessant battery of words, words, words. They do not know what the words mean; they do not know how to ward them off or blunt their edge or fling them back; they are a prey to words in their emotions instead of being the masters of them in their intellects. We who were scandalized in 1940 when men were sent to fight armored tanks with rifles, are not scandalized when young men and women are sent into the world to fight massed propaganda with a smattering of "subjects"; and when whole classes and whole nations become hypnotized by the arts of the spell binder, we have the impudence to be astonished. We dole out lip-service to the importance of education--lip- service and, just occasionally, a little grant of money; we postpone the school-leaving age, and plan to build bigger and better schools; the teachers slave conscientiously in and out of school hours; and yet, as I believe, all this devoted effort is largely frustrated, because we have lost the tools of learning, and in their absence can only make a botched and piecemeal job of it.

Language, the word, is the basis of our sense of the world, and thus our non-conditioned behavior in it. The failure to appreciate this, leaving grammar to grammarians, risks a loss of our civilization.

My advice, pick up a Latin textbook. And learn to love learning.


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Toff said...

"... is almost amazed to learn that there was an economic world before 1945,..."


for my part, i'm currently reading "Cato maior de senectute" (but it's really heavy stuff...)


and here a small update of where "education" (in the broader sense of the word...did you say MBA's?)
finally brought, i'm not talking about the "cdm" ("credit-deleveraging-mechanism"...yes, after CDO, CDS, MBS, etc. etc. all abbreviations...I too want to join the "TAIR"-game...(TAIR = "the abbreviation is right, btw. "TAIR", not to confound with "TARP"...aaargghh, another one...definitely lost the plot...)

P.S.: Note the phrase: "They were leaders, so they led."...(sure they did, but where??hmmm...nowadays...let me guess...)

Just for fun ...thus admitting that i'm a huge "el dudino...or Dude-raham"-fan... answer I posted over at Calculated Risk, when CR asked:
Q: "where's all the money gone?"
A: (a memorable scene)...