Education – The Work of Whom? Part 1: Learning vs. Being Taught

Thanks to Dale J. Stephens of UnCollege, I came across an editorial by New Republic editor Leon Wieseltier, entitled “Education is the Work of Teachers, not Hackers”. In it, Wieseltier makes the case that all knowledge comes from others, and that the hackademic is dangerous to society as we know it. He begins the first paragraph with a reflection on his own education, declaring that his surprise is not “by how much I learned but by how much I was taught”. It’s easy to get confused by the frequent exchange of words on any subject, so I will offer some definitions below.

Education, according to George H. Smith, is any general process by one person transmits values, ideas, principles, &c. to another person*, which can occur anywhere.

[*Taken from George H. Smith’s talk “The Success of America’s Public School System”, 4:30 in.]

Learning is “knowledge or skill acquired by instruction or study”, according to the online Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Webster’s 1828 Dictionary gives two definitions:

1. The knowledge of principles or facts received by instruction or study; acquired knowledge or ideas in any branch of science or literature; erudition; literature; science. . .
2. Knowledge acquired by experience, experiment or observation.

To teach, according to Webster, means “To instruct; to inform; to communicate to another the knowledge of that of which he was before ignorant”. Merriam-Webster defines “teach” as knowledge imparted or caused by someone (1a, 3).

So it seems that Wieseltier is not surprised by what knowledge he acquired, but what knowledge was imparted upon him. Notice how Wieseltier credits teachers for his own learning:

Even what I learned on my own I owed to them, because they guided me in my sense of what is significant. The only form of knowledge that can be adequately acquired without the help of a teacher, and without the humility of a student, is information, which is the lowest form of knowledge.

I honestly believe people like Wieseltier will never be able to understand people like me and Dale Stephens, although it will be a lengthy explanation.

Dale J. Stephens’ project – UnCollege – follows the tradition of informal learning, which is often associated with the current “unschooling” movement. Education historian John Taylor Gatto points out in his Weapons of Mass Instruction (section republished here) that several of America’s founding fathers, as well as Farragut and Edison, did not receive formal schooling:

“. . . until pretty recently people who reached the age of thirteen weren’t looked upon as children at all. Ariel Durant, who co-wrote an enormous, and very good, multi-volume history of the world with her husband, Will, was happily married at fifteen, and who could reasonably claim that Ariel Durant was an uneducated person? Unschooled, perhaps, but not uneducated.”

Wieseltier attacks such a view:

Yet the prestige of teachers in America keeps sinking. . The new interest in homeschooling—the demented idea that children can be competently taught by people whose only qualifications for teaching them are love and a desire to keep them from the world—constitutes another insult to the great profession of pedagogy. And now there is the fashion in “unschooling,” which I take from [Dale J. Stephens], the gloating founder of UnCollege. His deeply unfortunate book .. is a call for young people to reject college and become “self-directed learners.”

In other words, what worked for Wieseltier should work for all students, and what Stephens suggests for students is irrational and demented. This reminds me of a quote from la Chalotais’s Essai d’éducation nationale:

I claim the right to demand for the Nation an education that will depend upon the State alone; because it belongs essentially to it, because every nation has an inalienable and imprescriptible right to instruct its members, and finally because the children of the State should be educated by members of the State.*

[*Taken from George H. Smith’s talk “The Success of America’s Public School System”, eighteen minutes in.]

The fundamental difference between learning and being taught is whom one belongs to. If an individual form of learning is possible, then it must presuppose the ideal of self-ownership – no one has a claim on any other person’s life. This is a basic justification of Stephens’ project; who is to say that all college-aged persons must attend university? As John Locke would say, “Reading is for the improvement of the understanding”.

Wieseltier’s justification for being taught follows the classical argument for state education: “. Surely the primary objectives of education are the formation of the self and the formation of the citizen. . An ignorant citizen is a traitor to an open society”. An ignorant citizen can only be a traitor to “an open society” if his liberty is that of the ancients: “. . among the ancients the individual, almost always sovereign in public affairs, was a slave in all his private relations”. Wieseltier, then, is trying to imply that some people have a claim on another person’s life.

These two frameworks are not arbitrary. They have real life consequences. If the individual controls his education, he must then ask, what will his education consist of, what does he wish to learn, &c.? If others have a claim over his education, he must then ask other questions along these lines: To what extent? What will others tell him to learn? What will others keep him from learning?

As I will explore, the issue of homework is more comfortable with Wieseltier than Stephens.

To be continued. . .

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