Education is one of the most important issues that faces modern society. State budgets are created around it, town hall meetings convene on it. Even the federal government, especially in recent years, has brought education to the forefront. When Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton was First Lady, she began the mantra, “It Takes a Village to Raise a Child”. Among other things, this ethos expounded upon the fact that each child’s education should enable him or her to be competitive in society. President George W. Bush has created the policy of “No Child Left Behind”, a policy with similar goals, that is overseen by Secretary of Education Rod Paige. And current First Lady Laura Bush has made it her platform to encourage literacy among all children. Clearly, education has become so critical that national politicians recognize it as an issue that can win or lose votes. Each person wants to create a platform where education is successful.
But what is the hallmark of success for education? Is it a fancy degree to lord over others who don’t have it? For the longest time, education has been used as cultural distinction. It is the one thing that will mark class difference in a supposedly classless society. Some people choose a particular school bearing this in mind. This leads the idea of wanting a “better education” for themselves, or for their charges. This leads to ideas such as private school is better than public school, or Yale is better than SUNY at Plattsburgh. This mode of thinking is the kind that is likely to get a lot of people angry. Who wants to hear that some guy who spent a hundred grand to sit in a library is better than you, when you were out fighting wars in Iraq for the Army? Or for that matter, you’re struggling with bills, and working two jobs so you can take a class at the community college?
There are also the “school of life” proponents. These are the people who, regardless of education level, find more reason to be educated in practical areas. They feel being educated book-wise, but having no way to place the education in a real life context is a waste of time. The stereotype of this group is a person with a high school diploma or less, who feels he or she has to justify his or her life to those with more formal education. But those with some college education or higher are just as likely to be in this category. Sometimes this person comes off in the same as the high school stereotype; a person with a bachelor’s degree feels he or she has to say he or she is into doing “real things” when compared to those with master’s or doctorate degrees.
Sometimes, though, the “school of life” person, regardless of education level, really just believes that it is better to do than to read. The high school graduate who sees college graduates unable to change a tire would be an example. Or there is the college graduate who found he learned more climbing rocks than deciphering Aristotle. To these people, education is not exclusive to a classroom, and they cringe when they think they hear it being reduced to books only.
Some see education as a ticket to more money in the bank. It is almost cliche to hear of immigrants, farmers and other people of earlier generations pushing their kids to get a great education, so that they “don’t have to work as hard as I did”. But then again, with so many people pursuing college, the numbers don’t seem to be as clear as they used to that education is the ticket to success. With tight labor markets, some college graduates, and even some who have post-graduate education are forced to get low-end paying jobs until they find something else. Studies that claim salaries rise with the level of education seem to be somewhat suspicious when you consider entrepreneurs like Bill Gates, the richest man in the world, is a college dropout. Not to mention a host of other well-known actors and businesspeople. So it doesn’t seem like a great truism to claim that education is automatically going to make you comfortable financially.
There is also an argument that suggests that education is a way to instill morality in the populace. This again causes ire among those with less education. Despite their lack of degrees, they are smart enough to surmise the implication of this premise easily: those with the fancy degrees are more moral than the masses who can’t get them. Again, this is something that shows class struggle in a society that denies there is any class structure at all, even though the nature of capitalism is such that there needs to be a top and a bottom. Social critics have accused this truism of keeping most people on the bottom and widening the economic chasm between them and the top ones. After all, if the uneducated are not instructed in the proper morality, what good are they other than being enforcers? The ones at the top will be the ones who have received proper instruction as to why the society is laid out the way it is. Those in the middle can be the messengers; those on the bottom, the henchmen. Critics of the morality premise use this as evidence of the society degenerating from a republic into an oligarchy.
And, of course, those without this education don’t really care to hear that they are less moral than those at the top. They resent hearing that they don’t have the knowledge to function in a representative republic, or to make decisions regarding the society they live in. For a time, this was part of the aftermath of the Civil War: the stereotype was that the South was less educated than the North, so it was better if decisions were made by Northerners; after all, they were the Harvard and Yale folk. Even now when it is evident that people in South Carolina aren’t any less educated than those in Massachusetts, Southerners bristle with the cultural stereotypes placed on them. A stereotypical Southerner, done in Northern caricature, is one with a beat-up Ford truck with six rifles and an AK-47 on the front seat, a Confederate flag flying out of his of her pants, and have half of his or her teeth missing. This person will have kegs of moonshine on his or her beat up back porch, along with every electrical appliance that has broken down in his or her life; That is, if this person has ever heard of electricity.
All of this comes from a simple stereotype, perhaps stemming from the part that the South fought the North and the North won: the North is more educated than the South. Never mind that President Bill Clinton was a Rhodes scholar from Arkansas, or Vice-President Al Gore was a Tennessean and a graduate of Harvard. And George W. Bush, a transplant to Texas, graduated from Yale. The stereotype of education depicting character has been so instilled that even when evidence exists to contradict it is glaring it still holds weight. Needless to say, it doesn’t paint a good picture of education. Education looks like one big snob scene.
So, why are we wasting all this time and money getting people educated? Perhaps an argument can be made that a good education makes a person curious about his or her world. This is where the argument really gets interesting, because it hits probably more of the root of what people envision when they think of education. Obviously, when people receive information, one of two things can happen. They can inculcate propaganda, or they can learn to think for themselves. This runs into a major paradigm of what education’s purpose is: Is education designed to create innovation, or induct future generations into dominant thinking to make them compliant citizens when they reach adulthood?
It seems that instilling curiosity would be a logical job of educating the young. It probably is the genuine motive of many educators. Instill a love of learning, and you have a person who will learn for life, asking questions, discovering as much as he or she can over the course of a lifetime. But the problem is that curiosity is only cute when someone is seven years old. As a person climbs through grade school through high school and college, curricula become more and more regimented. This may come as a surprise to those who see college as a place where you can expound your ideas in a long essay rather than pencil in a circle for A, B, C, and D, as you did in high school. But the specificity of subjects throughout an academic career lends more to the idea that one is indoctrinated, rather than taught to think. College essays are just ways of testing to see how deep this indoctrination has gone; else one would get more points for creativity than for anticipating what the professor wanted you to say.
This is why education is such a vital issue for those at the top reaches of the federal government. People need to think, but they are needed to think so that they maintain the status quo. If you have too many smart, innovative thinkers, they might revamp society so that it becomes a different animal than what it was before. You could say that education is part of the “checks and balances” philosophy that is codified into the federal government. The society needs the best and the brightest to keep the machine going, the middlings to process it, and the bottom to enforce it and entrench it firmly. Poland’s popular uprising “Solidarity” is hailed only because it overthrew Communism and led to a society that is comparable to ours; Poland is one of the few real effective allies that the United States has in the war on Iraq. The education system is designed so innovation comes slowly, and the governmental system remains intact. This conservative approach has allowed technology to augment, but revolutions to only be something you see on TV.
Is this a bad thing? Maybe not. The idea of the people getting together and taking over sounds great, until you realize that you have to create some new bureaucracy to keep it all in place, and create a new paradigm to instill stability. This is where the dire warnings of Communism come in; would you rather have the United States and all its problems, or create a new Soviet Union? But this cautious ethos does pose an ominous warning for those who expect the education system to make creative, wondrous people. Creative people will be creative regardless of what education they receive; it is something inherent in them. There will be those who will unfortunately have it in them to be creative, but find their education too hostile to receive them, and squash their innovation. Quite frankly, if education instilled a love of learning, why would reading be so out of fashion among kids and adults alike? Society needs to have contributors feeding into its cogs so it can exist. It will not create an educational system that will lead to its demise.
Education is the best chance society has to rope people into its goals. If society is bad, then this is a bad thing, but who would want to take a wrecking ball to a good one? So the idea that society educates to maintain itself may not be so bad. But an individual must take care that he or she is not swallowed up in the process, and remembers to think his or her way through the process.
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