Some thoughts on education

April 2, 2010

Education’s etymological roots lie in Latin – from the word educare which means to draw out.  The right to education is now considered a basic human right under Article 13 of the United Nations’ International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Most countries now have some kind of compulsory education.

 When did education start? According to Dieter Lenzen, president of the Freie Universität Berlin 1994, it began either millions of years ago or at the end of 1770″ I would take the broader view. We are a species that transmits knowledge and skills. In pre-literate societies, education was done orally and through observation and imitation. As nothing was written down, different versions could not be compared. When oral language was superseded by written symbols and letters, there was an exponential growth in what could be learned and transmitted. But there was also an insistence on orthodoxy. It is an instrument of power and non-literate societies could not compete with literate ones. (I have already done a post about the enormous significance of writing, The write stuff.) Literacy in pre-industrial societies tended to be concentrated in areas such as civil administration, law, trade, commerce; only a small part of the population could afford a formal education. The earliest known universities, or places of higher education, started teaching a millennium or more ago. But the mass education that we see nowadays is a recent phenomenon. In fact, UNESCO has calculated that in the next 30 years more people will receive formal education than in all of human history.

 What I find almost impossible to grapple with is what should be taught at school and how to deal with all those problems we face I am divided between an idealistic side and a more pragmatic viewpoint. I firmly believe in the importance of passing down culture to the next generation I think that there is a core knowledge that citizens should possess. I’m afraid David Beckham Studies doesn’t fit in there. We have to know our Western history. But I am also passionate about learning about other cultures. Where can we find the time? There is just so much to learn. I am not a fan of what is happening in the Spanish educational system with this obsession with the autonomous regions. This is a step backwards. I am fascinated by an interdisciplinary approach. If you could combine maths, economics, history etc in one class, it would be fantastic. But it is probably difficult to organise in an education system designed for the masses. I am worried about the aversion to reading that many have youngsters have. Youngsters have so many alternatives, that it is very difficult to persuade them to sit down with a book. I remember a student telling me she couldn’t think of a single book that had moved her. I know that I may well never have read Shakespeare if it hadn’t been compulsory But forcing pupils to read doesn’t seem to be the answer. In Hollywood films teachers are able to inspire their students with their passion. The real world, however, is different.

 It is also typical to hear about standard of education going down. I am not really sure about this. As I mentioned before, I am worried about the lack of reading. Concentration seems to be a problem both in school and when kids get home. Discipline is another serious problem. This is not just about teachers but it is a question of society. We need to be more demanding of kids. But I can also say that they now do more homework than I ever did. Parents are helping them more with their homework but maybe we are depriving them of the chance to learn things for themselves. We just have to make sure that their efforts are well-directed. I would like to be more ambitious but we need to concentrate on the basics – probably maths, the native language and literature, and a foreign language. We cannot forget the economic aspects of education. We live in a competitive world and it is impossible to ignore the effects of education on GDP.

 I would like to end with a thought experiment. It may be completely unreal but it does serve to shed light about what we value in education. You can choose between two options:

  1.  You can go the best university in the world and receive a wonderful education in the subject of your choice. However, you will have no certificate or proof of your having stayed there.
  2. You don’t go to any university but you are given a certificate as if you have graduated magna cum laude from a prestigious Ivy League university.

Which one would you choose? It’s not easy. You want the value of a good education but you also want the signalling effect of the paper qualification. There are many jobs where they wouldn’t even consider you without this type of qualification.

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Education quotes

April 2, 2010

A little learning is a dangerous thing; drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring: there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, and drinking largely sobers us again. Alexander Pope

Education, education, education. Tony Blair setting out priorities in 1996 speech.

You can lead a boy to college, but you cannot make him think. Elbert Hubbard

Education is learning what you didn’t even know you didn’t know. Daniel J. Boorstin

A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops. Henry Brooks Adams

Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself. John Dewey

I think everyone should go to college and get a degree and then spend six months as a bartender and six months as a cabdriver. Then they would really be educated. Al McGuire

My education was interrupted only by my schooling. Winston Churchill

Too often students are given answers to remember, rather than problems to solve. Roger Lewin

I’ve been making a list of the things they don’t teach you at school. They don’t teach you how to love somebody. They don’t teach you how to be famous. They don’t teach you how to be rich or how to be poor. They don’t teach you how to walk away from someone you don’t love any longer. They don’t teach you how to know what’s going on in someone else’s mind. They don’t teach you what to say to someone who’s dying. They don’t teach you anything worth knowing.  Neil Gaiman

He who opens a school door closes a prison. Victor Hugo

The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires. William Arthur Ward

The teacher who is indeed wise does not bid you to enter the house of his wisdom but rather leads you to the threshold of your mind. Kahlil Gibran

All my life, as down an abyss without a bottom. I have been pouring van loads of information into that vacancy of oblivion I call my mind. Logan Pearsall Smith

Knowledge which is acquired under compulsion obtains no hold on the mind. Plato

You can always tell a Harvard man, but you can’t tell him much. Anonymous

 Budget cuts will mean Britain’s universities will no longer be able to teach young people how to read newspapers and smile at tourists, it was claimed last night.

… Dr Cook, who has a PhD in the films of Chevy Chase, from Caddyshack to Goose on the Loose, warned that many of Britain’s leading higher education institutions could be forced to teach science.

He added: “And I would like Lord Mandelson to explain how we’re supposed to take less than three years to train hospitality workers to smile, carry things and not be a sullen, belligerent, moronic pain in the arse from the very second you check in.

“People are not born with a natural ability to smile and perform really simple tasks in exchange for money. It takes tens of thousands of pounds and a huge amount of public relations. From The Daily Mash


Who said Mickey Mouse?

April 2, 2010

In English we have a couple of idiomatic expressions about worthless college or university courses: Mickey Mouse degrees and underwater basket weaving. Articles about this kind of course have become a staple of the tabloids but it’s the type of quirky stuff I like.  Here are some of my favourites. They may be degrees, courses or seminars. Here is the list:

Art of Walking Kentucky’s Centre College

Border Crossings, Borderlands: Transnational Feminist Perspectives on Immigration University of Washington

Campus Culture and Drinking Duke

David Beckham Studies Staffordshire University

Daytime Serials: Family and Social Roles University of Wisconsin

Equestrian Psychology The Welsh College of Horticulture

Finding Dates Worth Keeping University of Sioux Falls

Herbal Medicine Middlesex University

Learning from YouTube Pitzer College, California

Outdoor Adventure with Philosophy College of St Mark and St John in Plymouth

Philosophy and Star Trek Georgetown University in Washington

Queer Musicology UCLA

Star Trek and Religion  Indiana University at Bloomington

The Phallus Occidental College

The Science of Harry Potter Frostburg University, Maryland

 The Times also listed these examples of university research:

 The perfect piece of toast

Food scientists at University of Leeds revealed a formula which took into account the density and temperature of the bread and the ratio of bread to butter. The equation took three months and £10,000 to work out.

The perfect spot kick

Researchers at Liverpool John Moores University studied hours of television footage of football matches to settle upon the optimum length of the player’s run-up, the angle of the shot and the speed of the ball. The resulting formula would, they said, guarantee a goal every time.

The perfect cheese sandwich

Sensory analysts at Bristol University developed a formula for the perfect cheese sandwich. The nine variables included mayonnaise thickness and whether or not lettuce was added, and the tests involved specially-trained human tasters, colorometers and pressure sensors.

Tarzan and Jane

In 2004, a £4,711 government grant allowed University of Reading historian Sarah Smith to go to Hollywood to research the moral panic which saw the Tarzan films of the 1930s evolve from soft-core pornography in which Jane swam naked and men took communal baths, to a picture of domestic bliss which saw Jane equipped with a treehouse kitchen.


My media week 04/04/10

April 2, 2010

In a typically provocative Spiked article Brendan O’Neil argues why humanists shouldn’t join in this Catholic-bashing.

 In this short video – Disastrous Economic Fallacies – Terror as Stimulus? – Tom Palmer, attacks the broken window fallacy. The parable of the broken window was created by Frédéric Bastiat in his 1850 essay Ce qu’on voit et ce qu’on ne voit pas (That Which Is Seen and That Which Is Unseen) to show the hidden costs associated with destroying property of others. Thus some economists argue that destruction can be good; the video quotes Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman analysing September 11th:

“… the terror attack – like the original day of infamy, which brought an end to the Great Depression – could even do some economic good.”

 Open Democracy has a fascinating piece about IKEA’s failure in Russia: Kafka’s Castle is collapsing. It is an illuminating example of the importance of creating the right environment for wealth creation.

 The Onion has this excellent video: Scientists Successfully Teach Gorilla It Will Die Someday