The Cost of Education

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DeathtoStock_Wired8This is a passage from William Ayers’ Teaching the Personal and the Political: Essays on Hope and Justice. It’s from his chapter, “Learning from Children.” He contrasts what education could and should be with what it often can be (and is) for many learners.

. . . education is bold, adventurous, creative, vivid, illuminating — in other words, education is for self-activating explorers of life, for those who would challenge fate, for doers and activists, for citizens. Training is for slaves, for loyal subjects, for tractable employees, for willing consumers, for obedient soldiers. Education tears down walls; training is all barbed wire.

What we call education is usually no more than training. We are often so busy operating schools that we have lost sight of learning. We mostly participate in certification mills, institutions founded on notions of control and discipline, lifeless and joyless places where people serve time and master basic skills on their way to a plain piece of paper that justifies and sanctions the whole business. Sometimes these places are merely mindless, and sometimes they are expressly malevolent.

A hundred years ago this country developed a system of schools run by the Interior Department called Indian boarding schools, a few of which survive to this day. The premise of these schools was that Native American children must be stripped of everything Indian and taught to be like whites. Taken from their homes, these youngsters were punished severely for speaking their own languages, practicing their own religions, or attempting to contact their families. Everything Native had to be erased as a first step toward official learning. Some students, of course, went along, but many rebelled, refused to learn, and were labeled intractable.

The cost of education at an Indian boarding school was huge — dignity, identity, one’s full humanity, sometimes even sanity. The payoff was rather small: a menial job and a marginal place. Students had to submit to humiliation, degradation, and mutilation simply to earn a place on the lowest rung of the social order. No wonder most refused: the price was high, the benefit meager.

It is not much different in too many schools today. We claim to be giving students key skills and knowledge, and yet we deny them the one thing that is essential to their survival: something to live for. All the curriculum units together — whether in drug awareness, gang prevention, mental health, or literature and history — are not worth that single, simple, expectant thing.

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