What Is The Goal of Education? Guest Post by My Really Smart Brother

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What Is The Goal of Education? Guest Post by My Really Smart Brother

My older brother, Brad, has just retired after a life-long career in secondary education. He was a legendary AP US History teacher, vice principal and principal of large public high schools in southern California, and retired as Asst. Superintendent of San Marcos School District. He and I have been discussing what we all now call transformative education since the early 1980’s.  The following are thoughts that he shared with me after one of our recent conversations when I raised issues of grit, slack, and self-evolved learning.  He explores the deep meaning of learning and asks us to ask and answer one simple question: what is our goal? I have invited my wiser brother to share more with us in the near future. 

Thank you for the healthy conversation the other day. We agree about so much when it comes to how our young people learn. When our dialogue turned to the oft-repeated mission of creating life long learners or a similar goal, I raised a question or two and you asked if I would put my thoughts in writing.

Almost coincidentally, I ran across the following remark and quote the next day in a Washington Post book review. Which led me to the thoughts that follow.

Philosopher John Dewey further contended that continual “growth itself is the only moral end,” that self­-creation or self-realization should be our aim during our earthly existence. On our deathbeds, we want to look back on our lives and be reasonably content with what we have made of them. Till then, we should strive to charge our days with intensity.

First, I haven’t verified the quote.

imgresSecond, I owe a great deal to John Dewey (as does the vast framework of 20th century American public education). His philosophies and understandings of how we learn laid the cornerstone for my teaching and school leadership.  His perspective that we are “subjects” and not “objects” fostered development of critical thinking and experience-based learning and empowered generations of young people to break away from reliance upon dogma without reflection in a search for a limitless future.  In my mind, he joined Piaget, Erikson, Kohlberg and other developmental psychologists that saw life as a progression from shallow and undeveloped to full and developed.  This flowed naturally from the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason.  It fits neatly with evolutionary theory.  It does a great job of glorifying (a carefully chosen word) human progress. It’s the perfect match with so many educational mission statements that tout the value of “life long learning” and its various corollaries.

While the quote is just a snippet, it speaks to my question and concern.  It’s interesting that the above piece mentions looking back at one’s life as well as clearly stating an absolute moral good.  The trick is resolving the apparent conflict that progressives/modern pragmatists (many western intellectuals, most of contemporary academia) find when they decry absolutes but manufacture them, nevertheless.  Dewey clearly does this when he says the “only” moral (good) end is growth.  Since growth is relative, this sets up the conflict and my reason for critiquing his position after my 36 years as a teacher and educational leader.

imgres-1You see, growth has a really good name.  In today’s contemporary western mindset, it has replaced God, for instance, which was a staple for societies, pre-Enlightenment, and before the western humanist inclination.  Presumably (if we take the quote at face value), one looks back on one’s life and says, “I gave it everything I had and I’m a much better (wiser, nicer, more productive … whatever) person than I used to be.” Period. Death.

Extrapolating, we pass this perspective to successive generations via education with growth as the guiding principle or lodestar. Since we have to be grounded in something, we use science in all of its fields: Evolutionary Biology, Psychology, Physics, etc,.. as our engine. And, when these two combine as our end and means, our perspective and educational pedagogy adjusts accordingly.  A philosophical perspective that identifies a lodestar such as “growth” or “progress” then creates conditions to ensure those exist and it’s wonderfully circular.  “My target is growth. I’m growing.” That’s good. “I worked hard at growing and helping others to grow.” That’s great. “I’ve realized my capacity to grow, therefore I’m self-actualized. I’ve achieved growth.” Or, something to that effect.

But, what’s the point? (We’ll get to self actualization in a moment.) Is it something like being a “productive member of society?” Is it to be happy and content?

For the sake of transparency, Dewey believed strongly that the scientific method, applied appropriately and via experience and coupled with a belief in the inherent goodness of humans, would promote social justice and foster the common good. (Nod to Rousseau.)

As I mentioned in our conversation, I’ve nothing against growth or progress and I’ve spent most of my life seeking to promote social justice. I’m a big fan and tireless advocate, as you know. (Unfortunately, social “justice” can conflict with human liberty. Both can be noble and desirable outcomes but both carry the seeds of terrible slippery slopes.)

Anyway, back to the quote and my conflict with its message.

imgres-3Growth is not the end, it’s the means. Descartes’ famous cogito ergo sum posits that thinking and being are synonymous, which is just not true. If it were, it’s not difficult to see how growth then becomes the only moral end and some kind of “self-realization” is our individual target. I should be all about creating myself.  “You can be anything you want.”

Granted, for those with no or limited self worth, the downtrodden, the forsaken, the dispossessed and disenfranchised, providing means and resources to help them be “anything they want” can be a really good thing.  But not necessarily.

Are we teaching a moral absolute that what’s most important is being in control?  Control of myself and the conditions for my own fulfillment?  Actualizing of the self is mostly about this goal, however it’s couched in secular or religious terms.

I’m so over self actualization.

Some very bad people are self actualized.  Otherwise decent people with a warped sense of priorities are self actualized.  All have “grown.”  Many have worked “intensely.”

So is the epitaph we want for ourselves and our children something like, “There lies ‘insert name’.  He left us content with what he’d made of his life.”  By the way, who cares?  What is the value of my life?  That I knew more than before?  That I’d acquired more skills?  Had become better at producing some set of goods and services? That I’d chased happiness with mixed results?

As you can see, life long learning or its various synonymous phrases, is not a lodestar.  It’s more of a magnet with no fixed point. Consequently, there is no such thing as an overarching morality, other than situational, which even Dewey would disagree with, ultimately. (We’re not talking here the Jean Valjean kind of morality).

imgres-2It’s a non-lodestar magnet that can easily lead to a Steve Jobs (gifted businessman, transformational social figure … who was just a plain bad person by most accounts) or to any number of tyrants. By the way, Marx was very big on self actualization.  He got it from Hegel who said humans progress from ignorance to self-understanding. Marx said we progress from alienation to self determination and self understanding.  And, I haven’t got time to talk about how Mao fits in.

Why do you think totalitarian regimes had re-education camps that would spend years trying to help people “grow” into a fuller understanding of their place in life?

Of course Dewey and the western Democracies want people to grow towards things like liberty, the common good, and pursuit of happiness.  Some add equality. Or, now we need to grow into “tolerance” of all things as each individual and society has the inalienable right to self determination and to state what’s true (principally, that there’s no such thing as absolute truth outside of particles and progress).

Again, what’s the point? As educators, we want life long learners to learn what in order to do be what?  Growth to what end?  And, what do we do with “meaning?”  Do I look back at my life, nod my head and say, “I was intensely committed to my self actualization.”  Good, then I can die in peace.  Oh, wait, let’s throw some altruism in there.  “I was intensely committed to my own self actualization and the self actualization of others.”  Now, I can die in peace.  Oh, maybe it should be “I was intensely committed to my own self actualization which made me very productive and happy and, on top of that, I helped many others actualize themselves and be productive and happy.”  Now I can die in peace.

So, what is self-actualization? If this is the point or some variation, what does that mean?  Is that the overarching goal?  A few of the world’s (non monotheistic) faiths would say yes. They share that with communism as well as democracy, new age spiritualism, and atheism. Doesn’t give me confidence that we have the answer.

Enough for now. Sorry for the unpolished ramble. To summarize, I believe those of us in positions of helping people to learn should be grounded in something greater than what is attributed to John Dewey above and to missions of creating life long learners and productive citizens of a democratic society. While growth can be absolutely good, growth without the appropriate target is not.

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  1. Angél Kytle March 12, 2014 at 10:46 pm - Reply

    It appears as if the smart gene runs in your family, Grant! I am enthralled by your brother’s thought process and will definitely think on it more. My first response (gut, if you will) goes to my faith and how it can fill in the blanks and the targets, in your brother’s terms. But I will continue to think about this in more depth to further my own (and hopefully others along the way) path. Please thank your brother for his provocations.

    • glichtman March 12, 2014 at 10:54 pm - Reply

      Will do; has certainly jogged my thinking in this area!

  2. Thomas Steele-Maley (@steelemaley) March 13, 2014 at 1:05 am - Reply

    “The trick is resolving the apparent conflict that progressives/modern pragmatists (many western intellectuals, most of contemporary academia) find when they decry absolutes but manufacture them, nevertheless.”

    Thank you for this post, Brad. As you write about an educational “seeking” and at the same time “observance” of static educationalist praxis my mind wandered to Jung (1973) [1921]: para. 93) “The debt we owe to the play of imagination is incalculable”. As humanity rightly seeks to grapple with environmental, social and economic overshoot, the response of education seems fearful and unclear as if called from a old thin roped bridge stories above a raging river…. not full of imagination at all, but somewhat panicked and prone to whatever might fix the situation quickly.

    Many have not looked to Dewey’s works such as Art and Experience (1934), where the full pragmatism of epistemological endeavor “on the ground” is revealed. Dewey wanted us to act for a greater purpose but not for the sake of acting… “Zeal for doing, lust for action, leaves many a person, especially in this hurried and impatient human environment in which we live, with experience of an almost incredible paucity all on the surface….” (p.46). It is in this space of deliberation I agree with you. We want growth, but have not thought through what that means or the consequences. Read the wrenching narratives in Kotlowitz (1992) “There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in The Other America” or Sizer’s (1984) “Horace’s Compromise” and you will feel and possibly associate with what “growth” should look like in a society.

    Yeats said that “it takes more courage to examine the dark corners of your own soul than it does to fight on the battlefield”…. As schools reorganize and shift for resilience in the coming decade, I hope we realize that their are dark corners of education needing systemic change and that these are daunting places. We do need to illuminate them through social imagination and stop manufacturing our educational battles.

    I look forward to your next post.

  3. John Gulla March 13, 2014 at 3:04 pm - Reply

    I enjoyed your brother’s quest post as it pulled me away from my quotidian tasks and set me to thinking about the challenge of answering the big questions in a blog. The few who even bother to think about these topics are often seduced by the apparent teleology of natural science or of a similar principle like J.S. Mill’s notion of utilitarianism. I long to believe (but can’t) in Kant’s moral imperative just as I mourn the loss of certainty a faith-based world view might provide. I’m assured by a conclusion that we can’t truly will faith into our lives as that would frighten me more than the the vastness of the universe frightened Pascal. While education can bring us to confusion and despair, it can also lead us to truth and beauty. There is an existential freedom made possible by education and that is enough of a justification for me.

    • glichtman March 13, 2014 at 3:12 pm - Reply

      How I would love to listen to a panel of those commenting on this blog post! I never had or took the time (as did you and my brother) to really read philosophy, and yet we see how it shapes our core vision and purpose in each school, each classroom, each student interaction. Thanks for commenting, John; I love your last line “There is an existential freedom made possible by education and that is enough justification for me.” (And by the way I am searching for your new direct email so I can ask a favor of you related to my new book.)

  4. Brad Lichtman March 13, 2014 at 8:57 pm - Reply

    Thank you, Angel, Thomas and John for wading through my ramblings. And, for your insightful replies. It’s gratifying to know that, in this age of results, we have committed educators willing to tackle uncommon questions. Some of those questions are simply passed over because few are asking them in our professional communities or we think they may be beyond our purview. I believe it’s healthy for Angel to consider faith, for Thomas to look to imagination and the realization that Yeats had a point where there are dark corners that need examination and illumination, and that John is correct that education can provide existential freedom.

    I continue to ask, “what’s the point?” Is it freedom? I might ask, freedom from what and freedom to do what? I’m not being critical here. I actually like freedom a lot and rank it right up there! It’s just not my ultimate value. Is it the capacity for wisdom, for critical or imaginative thought? Another strong draw but, for me, not an ultimate value. And, if we don’t believe in ultimate value, do we prioritize them explicitly or implicitly in the learning we design? Or do we believe that those values are completely relative?

    As purveyors of experience, hopefully we integrate questions of meaning and ultimate value. As Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” In the rush to ensure our young people acquire skills and capacities, do we pause to have them consider why it is that these skills and capacities are important? As I implied before, there’s a whole lot of abstract language about being life long learners or productive members of a global society (potentially good things). But absent any overarching objective, I happen to believe that these principles can actually result in hollowness and a sense of meaninglessness. Look at the explosion in the number of therapists who serve the productive and educated classes.

    I’ll stop there and, if Grant allows, continue with some of this soon. He did me a kindness but disservice by referring to me as smart, by the way. I’m humbled by the much greater wisdom and capacities in others every day. Thank you for including me in the conversation. Brad

    • Angél Kytle March 13, 2014 at 9:08 pm - Reply

      So, I will jump in with what I consider an answer that perhaps leans on faith, imagination, purpose, etc. Perhaps we do all this so that we can contribute and move– such that the world/our existence is a different place (of course, I would hope for better, but that opens up the same conversation about value again in the eyes of the beholder). We deepen our connections not only with our inner selves but also other beings and our world. I am reminded of something that Angela Maier reiterates over and over again: You Matter! You have something important to contribute to this world. I think that this matters here– the lodestar is to strive to have an impact, recognizing that the value of such impact will vary based on the assessor, but just the act of striving for impact is inherently valuable in my opinion.

  5. Josie Holford March 14, 2014 at 9:18 am - Reply

    It’s good to see a little thoughtful probing of what trips so lightly off the eduspeak tongue and into the airwaves often without passing through any grey matter filters. And – to stay with all the mixed and muddled metaphors and cliched claptrap: Words, purposes and airy concepts have ancestors and relatives that can be more than problematic (think ‘grit’ and eugenics) and need anchors and targets. But whose? How identified and established? And to what ends? And what on earth would we do if all the children we taught actually became what we declare we seek and strive for them to be?

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