Modern education is superficial.
We teach knowledge and skills to prepare students, but in doing so overlook the more profound capabilities of an education:
Rather than simply changing what we know, education has the potential to change who we are.
My thesis is this: Schools often fall short because they fail to consider the impact of content on a child’s fundamental identity, and that they should engineer curriculums to produce well-rounded individuals.
This principle, however, is not limited to schools. What you consume has a far deeper impact than you might realize. What we do, read and think is constantly forging our minds and hearts; for better or worse, you must decide.
A brief digression – why I use “we”
In the introduction I state, “we teach knowledge and skills…” You might be wondering why.
I am certainly not a teacher.
But I believe that education is the responsibility of collective society, rather than just teachers and educators. We, as citizens, as parents, as humans, have a duty to inform ourselves.
Because the demands and constraints imposed by society(us) shape education to an enormous extent.
By changing ourselves, we begin to change the opinions and demands of society. And by changing the opinions and demands of society, we may change the education system itself.
And it is only through changing education that we may change the world. School is the pivotal cog in the great contraption of society, and therefore it’s greatest responsibility.
So yes: “we” are responsible for the state of education, and what it teaches.
How content shifts identity
With that dollop of idealistic rhetoric out of the way, let us turn our attention back to the article. I invite you to examine two prominent philosophers, and observe how they believed different subjects would influence a child’s fundamental character and habits.
Locke deemed the goal of education to be the virtuous man.
And in his mind, dancing was the surest means to this end:
In dancing you are poised and upright, and move with purpose, accuracy and confidence.
It is only natural that these qualities will permeate your life, that you will become self-assured and refined.
Dancing then, is advocated not because of its intrinsic value (superficial) but because of how it shapes character (fundamental).
The world of forms
To understand his theories on education, we must first outline his most notable contribution to philosophy:
You see, Plato believed that everything has an ideal form – horse, table, beauty you name it – and that these exist in the world of forms.
People often describe it as a separate reality, but that sounds very mystical, which it really isn’t. Rather, it is simply the world of the mind, where the ideal exists, because it is simply theoretical.
Further, Plato stated that the only way we could reach the world of forms was through rationality and clear thought, since they exist, after all, in the mind.
Luckily for us, he summed it up in a metaphor, the allegory of the cave:
We are like men tied up, facing the back wall of a cave. Behind us is a great fire, and between us and the fire is a ledge, across which shapes (the ideal forms of things) are paraded. The fire, being fire, casts a shadow of these shapes on the cave wall.
The shadows are all we see, and we, being human, mistake them for reality. Only through reason (philosophy) may we escape our bonds, and see the true shapes and the fire in all its eternal glory.
If you want further explanation, I recommend this delightful video.
The purpose of education, according to Plato
But what does this have to do with education?
Plato believed the purpose of education was to equip his future leaders with the faculty of reason, and shift their perspective on the world, so that they may turn around and see the forms for themselves.
Each subject he proposed in his ideal education system was therefore tailored to accommodate this fundamental shift. He looked at education in terms of the underlying impact of subjects, not their superficial value.
We will now proceed to examine three of the subjects he proposed:
First on Plato’s agenda is athletics.
What then is the real object of them [music and athletics]?
I believe, I said, that the teachers of both have in view chiefly the improvement of the soul.Plato
According to Plato, athletics is important not because of its most obvious benefit, health, but because of how it sculpts the soul:
Most importantly, it ensures the body does not distract the mind (through illness or laziness), but that the two may work in harmony towards a common goal: the pursuit of wisdom, or the world of forms.
While Locke disparaged music, Plato exalted it:
Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything
Why musical training is so powerful, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the secret places of the soul, bearing grace in their movements and making the soul gracefulPlato
Plato’s passages of music are rhapsodies of pure delight. Such naked passion. One cannot help but read them with a smile.
While his account of music is certainly… embellished, it does hold true.
Playing and listening to beautiful music must inevitably have an impact on the soul. To deny this is to deny reason.
As a result, music serves to balance out the coarseness introduced by athletics. The child himself becomes a finely-tuned instrument, the two subjects working in harmony to produce him.
And, as Plato posited, if the soul is harmonious, we may perceive harmony in the world around us, which is truth.
For in the world of the intellect, which is perfectly ordered, what is truth, but harmony; simplicity, coherence and balance.
And so, by teaching music, Plato intended that his students began to sense truth, simply by virtue of good taste.
Mathematics is concerned with perfection. Through the study of mathematics then, the child turns his eye towards the ideal and unchanging, rather than the physical.
Thereby through arithmetic, students turn their attention to the world of forms.
Why this is essential
The point of this exercise was not to convince you of these philosopher’s specific theories, but rather demonstrate that this is a universal and important idea, with a solid general truth; the content we teach invariably has a profound impact on a child’s character.
Let us now examine why it is so important that education deliberately shifts and transforms the character and habits of students.
It’s already happening
Schools already alter the identity of children, drastically.
But it is currently haphazard and uncontrolled, a vast source of untapped potential.
If schools do not pay attention, this will continue to imbalance students.
Character wields knowledge
Intelligence plus character – that is the true goal of education.Martin Luther King
There is more than enough food to end world hunger. So why is it still a problem?
Because society suffers not from a lack of power and resources, but a deficiency of character.
Our major problems; poverty, climate change, nuclear weapons, are all self-inflicted, all stemming from a lack of virtue.
Schools desperately need some element of moral education. And by deliberately wielding the influence of content taught, schools may provide this.
Identity is universal
Knowledge and skills lose relevance, quickly.
Character and habits, however, do not.
By crafting the soul of a person, education ensures a profound and lasting impact.
There are a few things society, and by extension each and every one of us, must consider before this can be made possible:
- Society places a lot of emphasis on knowledge, and not enough (I believe) on character, simply because it is difficult to measure. How may we test character?
- We must truly think about what we want from education, to inform how and what we teach students.
- Outside influences constantly clash with schooling. This is a major problem. Because a child is like a bonsai: He requires fine pruning, and any early flaws are drastically amplified. We must rethink to what extent schools must operate, and how much control we should grant them.
- Education must mould to fit the child, not the child to fit education. Before this is fixed, we cannot entrust schools with more control, lest indoctrination becomes the norm.
Now I don’t have all the answers to these problems.
But the underlying principle remains sound, and a worthy cause: Schools should design curriculums according to how content affects the identity of the child.
Through much experimentation, we may turn this from educated speculation into a science. And eventually a sort of harmony may be found, where, as Plato envisioned, different subjects balance, and produce a well-rounded, capable and virtuous individual.
To realize this vision, we may only look to gradual shifts in society’s perspective, started by individuals, ushered in by a wave of content.
Each one of us has a role to play in shaping the future of education.