hey! teachers! leave them kids alone!

Ideas matter. I suspect that behind every human conflict or disagreement there is an idea—or more than one idea—at stake, and that in most cases the parties concerned are unaware of it. This means that we argue at cross-purposes, never actually engaging with the issue. Much of the time, we never even come to terms, by which I mean we never come to agree on the meanings of the words we use. We just use them, each meaning a different thing. There is no hope of resolving a conflict conducted in this way.

According to the editors of the Britannica Great Books, a liberal education has 2 components:

  • learning how to think, read, write, and argue
  • applying those skills to the Great Ideas of the Western tradition

When we do this we become fully civilized, at least in the Western sense. We become true citizens, able to engage meaningfully and productively on the issues.

This morning over my corn flakes I was reading the recent special issue of MIT Technology Review, which contains a long piece entitled “The Crisis in Higher Education”. It contains a 1-page sidebar entitled “Another Way to Think about Learning” by Nicholas Negroponte, chairman of the One Laptop Per Child Foundation. His foundation is devoted to delivering computers to disadvantaged children in the developing world, with the idea that even without classrooms or teachers, kids can learn a lot on their own if they have some tools to do so. In two villages in Ethiopia, children have been using foundation tablet-computers to teach themselves to read, and have been making progress. Negroponte notes:

If kids in Ethiopia learn to read without school, what does that say about kids in New York City who do not learn even with school?

He goes on to say that children

can learn a great deal by themselves. More than we give them credit for. Curiosity is natural, and all kids have it unless it is whipped out of them, often by school. . . . Having massive libraries of explicative material like modern-day encyclopedias or textbooks is fine. But such access may be much less significant than building a world in which ideas are shaped, discovered, and reinvented in the name of learning by doing and discovery.

As I munched my flakes I found myself vaguely troubled by this piece. Why? I wondered. Distributing these computers to poor kids around the world can surely only be a good thing. Mr. Negroponte’s foundation is giving the gift of learning to many who otherwise would not have it. What’s not to like?

This thought came to mind: learning is not the same thing as education.

Or, on the other hand, maybe it is. Who knows? Does it matter? If so, why does it matter, and to whom?

Education is one of the Great Ideas. These questions are merely entry-points into it; they have no definitive answers. They are points on which people of good will can reasonably differ. But in thinking about them and discussing them we enrich our understanding of Education.

In the Aristotelian conception, teaching, along with farming and medicine, was regarded as one of the cooperative arts: that is, one in which the practitioner uses his skill to help a natural process along. In the case of the teacher, that natural process is learning. For we are curious and we do learn on our own, as do many other animals. In the same way, nature provides food for us if we take the trouble to harvest it, and when we are injured or fall ill, we usually recover. Usually.

Again in the Aristotelian conception, an art is a branch of knowledge concerned with making or doing things. The art of teaching consists in helping the student learn a lot more, a lot faster, than he can on his own. But it means more than that: it also means guiding the student so that he’s learning what will benefit him most.

But what will benefit him most? I’m going to say: putting into his head and hands the means to work toward his own happiness. But in what does his own happiness consist? Well, it happens that Happiness is another of the Great Ideas. I’m reading a book on it right now. Who is the best judge of where a student’s happiness may lie? The student himself, with his callow, unformed thoughts? The teacher, with his limitations and prejudices? Their society, with its fixed beliefs and coercive expectations?

Who knows? It’s a discussion worth having.

Mr. Negroponte’s foundation is seeding many of these poor villages with sophisticated devices on which children are learning to program computers—a skill that he rates highly. That’s his privilege; it’s his foundation. But those devices, however helpful and useful they are to their recipients, still represent the ideas and values of those distributing them. Or, to put it another way, they represent a position taken on one or more of the Great Ideas.

I’m sure it’s a good thing. I’m less sure that teaching, or education, can be automated.

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