It’s a question I’ve asked myself. It’s a question maybe you’ve asked yourself too:
“When am I ever going to use this in my life?”
I was working on some math homework with my 7th grade son. Slope-intercept form. I’m sure I “learned” it way back when. I put learned in quotes because I obviously didn’t learn it: I had no idea what the hell slope-intercept form was, but with a little internet help I was able to help my son with his homework.
Helping him though provided me with the (to me, humorous) answer to the question: you use this stuff when you have a child who needs help with his or her homework. Eureka!
Of course there are some whose jobs require such knowledge, all that math beyond addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. But seriously, I don’t think I’ve had to use anything beyond that, like algebra, since I took my last math class.
Another story involving my oldest son relates to the aim of this post. Last year as a freshman in high school, his English teacher was explaining how several years ago the Texas Board of Education said the best way to begin an essay was with a rhetorical question. These days, she said, opening an essay as such was deemed a bad way. My son raised his hand and asked his teacher, point blank, “Who is the Texas Board of Education to tell me what a good way to write an essay is?”
I had one of those proud father moments when he told me the story, thinking to myself “right on dude.”
School bores the hell out of my kids, as it does many of their friends. I wonder if school bores your children too. It bores my sons to the point of them hating it.
The current posts is about education in America and education in general. The United States typically receives average scores in those studies of education around the world. According to Pearson’s 2015 rankings, the US places 14th. In 2012, the Huffington Post reported American scores were “average.”
Needless to say our Education system is complex and this post is not intended as a means by which to suggest some sort of solution. Rather, what follows is merely an offering of a perspective on education that likely goes against the norm. And maybe, just maybe, if you have kids bored in school, maybe something you read below may help you in some way.
My gut tells me kids are bored with school not so much because they don’t want to be educated, that they don’t want to
learn. Children are naturally curious. I think our education system kills such for most kids. Why? Because everything is so separate: you have all your separate classes disconnected from one another. You have to memorize facts to do well on tests and these days, you have to pass the standardized tests. The teachers, in turn, teach to those tests. The education system is nothing short of a mill producing people to enter the job market to make their money to pay their taxes, to keep the whole thing going. In short, the education system, and more particularly the philosophy behind it, demoralizes and dehumanizes our children.
Educational funding provides a central metaphor from which this post will proceed: more and more goes to science and technology while English, Music, and Art departments take the brunt of the cuts. The jobs, of course, are in the former, not the latter. The Sciences get the money. The Humanities get cut. Now isn’t that telling?
Prior to proceeding, I should note this is not a critique of teachers–the men and women who dedicate–maybe even sacrifice–their lives to educating our children. My parents are teachers, many of my cousins and aunts are teachers. I am a teacher. It runs in my blood.
The prompt for the musings as put forth in this post stem from my various readings in Confucian thought. Over the past several years I have often steeped myself in Confucian thinking and while I can’t quite put my finger on it, if find something inspiring and consoling in it. It is a very quiet feeling, but one that brings me much serenity.
So first thing first: Contrary to much popular thinking, Confucianism is not simply a rigid repetition of past traditions. Rather, as a mode of thinking with the aim of achieving social and political harmony through individual participation–individuals who “contribute meaning and value as individuals” in their own lives and in the lives of others (Hall and Ames 143). While not intending to reduce Confucian thinking to any single idea, the emphasis in much of Confucian and neo-Confucian thought centers around cultivating jen (pron. ren), one of the arguably most difficult of the Confucian terms to translate.
In short, jen is often translated as humanity and jen is often spoken of in terms of interconnectedness with oneself, with others, and the world at large. It is a sensitivity toward others and the world that takes cultivating. Moreover, “jen is the basis of authentic learning, because unless there is personal engagement and some recognition of commonality, the result would be dehumanizing” (Selover 66). In other words, learning proceeds from jen and, in reciprocation, learning lends toward the cultivation of jen, the highest Confucian value. To cultivate jen is to become, in short, a better person: more humane, more compassionate, more loving, more giving, etc.
This kind of learning is called jen-hsueh in Chinese, and most often translated as “humane learning.” Accordingly, education acquired for Confucian scholars “a much deeper meaning…Education should develop consciousness, awareness, and sensitivity…a gradual ‘greening’ of moral transformation'” (Selover 57).
In particular, this process of learning (hsueh) was bound up with reflecting (ssu), “the consequence of which is ‘realizing’ (chih)” (Hall and Ames 44). Learning then is a process developing awareness and its connection with reflection suggests humane learning is not simply a memorizing of facts, to add more contents, as it were, to memory. Furthermore, this process required a commitment on behalf of the entire person (ibid 45). In other words, it is a holistic process. As such, the cultivation of jen, one’s humanity, is itself a holistic process, a process our modern American education system, it seems to me, undercuts.
Sure, we learn various disciplines and we get our physical education and if we are in the “right” schools we may get a little art and music. But such fields are divorced from one another in our system. They are not integrated let alone related. It is this fragmentation, I think, that lends itself to the demoralizing and dehumanizing effects.
Why? Because education and learning is precisely not geared toward helping the child be the best person he or she can be. By best here I am, for the sake of transparency, basing my definition here on the concept of jen. Our education system does not help us cultivate our humanity. In it’s emphasis on rote memorization to pass tests, it does not engender in us the capacity for reflection. It does not help us expand beyond ourselves, to connect in deep and meaningful ways with ourselves and others. Nor does it encourage compassion toward others.
Rather, it feeds us through, grade after grade, setting up those with better scores for better chances of success, success to compete in the job market, to be “successful.” The educational system is one built upon a capitalist model based on competition. Beyond all the subjects one learns in school, then, what is it that they are really learning?
How to compete in a dog eat dog world.
In conclusion to what could have been a much longer post, I end with a few quotes from The Art of Self Cultivation: Quotations from Chinese Wisdom:
When three are together, one must be my teacher–Confucius: Analects
Enshrine learning within life and it will last a lifetime–Han Yu (768-824 CE)
Only through study can man’s innate genius appear in all its glory–Wu Jing (669-749)
Love of learning is better than learning itself and joy in learning exceeds even that–Confucius: Analects
To learn is to love learning, to love learning is to seek it and to seek it is to gain it–Cheng I (1033-1107)
A student should not fear that he lacks talent but that he lacks aspiration–Xu Gan (171-218)
To succeed in study come to it fresh every day–Chao Yuezhi (1059-1129)
Study exercises the soul–Shi Jiao (c. 390-330 BCE)
Teaching is for the sake of the people–Li Zhi (1527-1602)
Hall, David L. and Roger T. Ames. Thinking Through Confucius. SUNY Press, 1987.
Selover, Thomas W. Hsieh Liang-Tso and the Analects of Confucius: Humane Learning as a Religious Quest.. Oxford UP, 2005.
Tianwen, Yang. The Art of Self Cultivation: Quotations from Chinese Wisdom. Better Links P, 2012.