What’s the Point of Education? Announcing a New Publication

 

But backstory first! In April 2012, I was busy getting ready to move from Georgia back to Texas, and then from Texas to Pakistan to teach at Forman Christian College. I was also working on setting up syllabi for my fall semester courses, and I was much displeased to learn that I would have to deal with “student learning outcomes” in Pakistan just as I had in the U.S.

I launched a string of laments on my Facebook account of unhappy memory. I think the best sentence of the whole spiel was “Never have educators measured so much without a measuring stick.”

The thing is that education has always had a moral purpose. If nothing else, education is supposed to make life better, and that’s a moral purpose. But there’s so much more: Education isn’t just how we pass on rudimentary math skills; it’s also how we pass on values and keep a civilization going. Education isn’t just for facts about electrons and whether the sun orbits the earth or vice versa; it’s also about moral facts.

Yes, I said “moral facts.” The golden rule is a true moral statement — a moral fact. And it’s not the only one.Venn

The problem is that in the modern world we’ve grown skeptical of moral facts. (I blame logical positivism.) At the same time, the teacher (and his overlords in the administration and the government) is more committed than ever to confirm that education is achieving its purpose, and that means that he must measure, measure, measure the results of education. Results, always results, aimed at making life better but measured by people who are among the most reluctant to acknowledge any actual facts about the good life.

And thus, the deep irony of more measuring than ever but without a measuring stick.

In an April 2012 Facebook elaboration:

Never before has the institution of education been so committed to the view that there is no final moral standard by which the success of education is to be measured. Never have educators been subjected to so much measuring of their sucess at educating.

Picard memes: Patrick Stewart's best viral Star Trek moments - CNET

(Yes, I see that typo, and I bury my face in my palm for shame.)

My favorite elaboration of it on Facebook was:

It’s like a madman running around his living room measuring his furniture and saying:

“I don’t know how long an inch is! I don’t know if there is such a thing as an inch!

“This couch is four hands high for me; how many hands high is it for you?

“Would you care to invent a substitute for inches, since we aren’t sure they exist?

“I think the chair is eight blars high and two narfs wide. What do you think? I don’t care what you think as long as you think something.”

A little bit later, I added this:

I don’t think I was fair to SLOs today. There are some advantages. When philosophers write the philosophy SLOs they can make them about Aristotle; a Christian institution can make SLOs about Christian theology; and so on.

And, somewhere in there, I also added this:

Plato’s student learning outcomes:

The student will learn to control his bodily appetites and keep them within the bounds of the natural moral law.

The student will subject his own personal interests to the laws of justice and to the good of society.

The student will learn that being rich is not his goal in life and that he must not have sex whenever and with whomever he wants.

Augustine’s student learning outcomes:

The student will learn the basics of Christian orthodoxy.

The student will learn to love God.

The student will learn to love his neighbor.

Because, of course, education was always concerned with morality, and the great moralists of the past were always concerned with education.

But it was years before I properly wrote up any of this, and, when I did, I didn’t focus on Plato or Augustine; and, by then, I was at Hong Kong Baptist University. “The Master’s Student Learning Outcomes and Assessment Methods: An Alternative Perspective on Pedagogy” was about Confucius instead. I presented it at a couple of convenient conferences, and, by the grace of G-d, got it published in a new book: “Whole Person Education in East Asian Universities: Perspectives from Philosophy and Beyond.”

The article talks about how Confucius in the “Analects” has some pretty explicit and detailed moral principles that are the goal of education, and about how he tracks his disciples’ progress in them. I also did some brief compare-and-contrast work looking at Confucius in relation to two of my western homeboys, Augustine and John Dewey.

It’s not like it’s crazy to talk about student learning outcomes, despite my extreme distaste for how we talk about them these days. Confucius did it first, and Tian (天) knows he’s much smarter than I am. The mistake is measuring educational outcomes all the time without adhering to any serious account of the good life.

Here’s the official publisher site for the book, and here’s the Amazon page. The other articles in there are good too. If any of you are nerd enough to read it, I’m sorry it’s not cheaper. Someday, if and when copyright requirements allow, I’ll plan to get some version of the paper up for free at PhilPapers.org or something like that. In the meantime, I cover the Dewey, some Confucius, and some Augustine on my YouTube channel, TeacherOfPhilosophy, in the The Philosophers in Their Own Words playlist and other playlists.

Published in General
This post was promoted to the Main Feed by a Ricochet Editor at the recommendation of Ricochet members. Like this post? Want to comment? Join Ricochet’s community of conservatives and be part of the conversation. Join Ricochet for Free.

There are 22 comments.

Become a member to join the conversation. Or sign in if you're already a member.
  1. CarolJoy, Not So Easy To Kill Coolidge
    CarolJoy, Not So Easy To Kill
    @CarolJoy

    I wish I could say I am shocked about the issues you have faced. But it was apparent to some of us by the early 1990’s.

    High schools no longer took charge of students. If something occurred while students walked home, parents could either call the police on the bullies, or ignore the activity. Why?

    It seemed like school administrators thought that they should not be over eager to establish a prevalent morality.

    Back in the day, students were scared to even chew gum 500 feet from a HS classroom door. But by the Nineties, HS aged kids could torment whomever they liked, and even if it was just shy of the school parking lot, the school would enact no punishment.

    To me, it seemed like as long as a student did the misdeed inside the school, then the school admins could point to school rules. But if the activity occurred outside the school and its property lot, then the school admins would need to be calling on a higher moral authority, and that was already being frowned on.

    Because after all, we didn’t want to be an overly Christian nation by implementing the Ten Commandments or Christ’s Golden Rule and have those moral dictates standing in the way of students who had rejected those principles, did we?

    • #1
  2. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Saint Augustine:

    My favorite elaboration of it on Facebook was:

    It’s like a madman running around his living room measuring his furniture and saying:

    “I don’t know how long an inch is! I don’t know if there is such a thing as an inch!

    “This couch is four hands high for me; how many hands high is it for you?

    “Would you care to invent a substitute for inches, since we aren’t sure they exist?

    “I think the chair is eight blars high and two narfs wide. What do you think? I don’t care what you think as long as you think something.”

    1 hand = 4 inches

    • #2
  3. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    I only remember “moral issues” arising twice in my education. One was a fifth grade teacher nearing retirement who seemed to be concerned that we were all growing up into savages. Another was a rather young English teacher who enthusiastically endorsed the Swedish health care system because she had broken her leg while skiing  in Sweden, and it hadn’t cost her anything. “Except the rest of your vacation” I thought.

    • #3
  4. Zafar Member
    Zafar
    @Zafar

    The purpose of education is socialisation. Schools socialise to the values of their society. Iow what students learn in school reflects society. If you don’t like the values that schools are teaching you need to go upstream and change society. No?

    • #4
  5. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    Zafar (View Comment):

    The purpose of education is socialisation. Schools socialise to the values of their society.

    Good old Dewey.

    Iow what students learn in school reflects society. If you don’t like the values that schools are teaching you need to go upstream and change society. No?

    In theory, yes. But society tomorrow is also downstream of schools today.

    • #5
  6. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):
    Good old Dewey.

    Good? Feh.

    • #6
  7. Zafar Member
    Zafar
    @Zafar

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    Zafar (View Comment):

    The purpose of education is socialisation. Schools socialise to the values of their society.

    Good old Dewey.

    Iow what students learn in school reflects society. If you don’t like the values that schools are teaching you need to go upstream and change society. No?

    In theory, yes. But society tomorrow is also downstream of schools today.

    Sure, but it’s also downstream of society today.  Schools are just a part of that, I think.

    • #7
  8. Lawst N. Thawt Coolidge
    Lawst N. Thawt
    @LawstNThawt

    @saintaugustine

    Have you started a philosophy group here on Ricochet or did you just now think about starting one?

    • #8
  9. Lawst N. Thawt Coolidge
    Lawst N. Thawt
    @LawstNThawt

    Zafar (View Comment):

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    Zafar (View Comment):

    The purpose of education is socialisation. Schools socialise to the values of their society.

    Good old Dewey.

    Iow what students learn in school reflects society. If you don’t like the values that schools are teaching you need to go upstream and change society. No?

    In theory, yes. But society tomorrow is also downstream of schools today.

    Sure, but it’s also downstream of society today. Schools are just a part of that, I think.

    I think it would be parents driving the bus, except the schools, in the US anyway, have been compromised by legislators playing educators and they mess up anything they think about too long.

    • #9
  10. HankRhody Freelance Philosopher Contributor
    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher
    @HankRhody

    Saint Augustine:

    It’s like a madman running around his living room measuring his furniture and saying:

    “I don’t know how long an inch is! I don’t know if there is such a thing as an inch!

    “This couch is four hands high for me; how many hands high is it for you?

    “Would you care to invent a substitute for inches, since we aren’t sure they exist?

    “I think the chair is eight blars high and two narfs wide. What do you think? I don’t care what you think as long as you think something.”

    In the History of Herodotus he describes a maiden, fair of form, who was four cubits tall, less three fingers. The translator’s note helpfully adds that a finger is the twenty-fourth part of a cubit. How tall was she?

    For those of you who’d rather not play the story problem game, it works out to just shy of six feet tall. 

    • #10
  11. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    Zafar (View Comment):

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    Zafar (View Comment):

    The purpose of education is socialisation. Schools socialise to the values of their society.

    Good old Dewey.

    Iow what students learn in school reflects society. If you don’t like the values that schools are teaching you need to go upstream and change society. No?

    In theory, yes. But society tomorrow is also downstream of schools today.

    Sure, but it’s also downstream of society today. Schools are just a part of that, I think.

    And society is downstream of schools, too. They’re all interconnected, and society today makes the schools of today that make the society of tomorrow that the schools of tomorrow.

    If I could fix just three things, after fixing churches and marriages, I think I’d have to fix schools.

    • #11
  12. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    Lawst N. Thawt (View Comment):

    @ saintaugustine

    Have you started a philosophy group here on Ricochet or did you just now think about starting one?

    I think we already have one. “Meat Robots,” I think, is the name.

    • #12
  13. Zafar Member
    Zafar
    @Zafar

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    And society is downstream of schools, too. They’re all interconnected, and society today makes the schools of today that make the society of tomorrow that the schools of tomorrow.

    Did the madrasahs make Pakistan or Pakistan make the madrasahs?

    (Trick question. Everybody knows that Saudi made Pakistan, haha. Oh and India did too.)

    • #13
  14. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    Zafar (View Comment):

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    And society is downstream of schools, too. They’re all interconnected, and society today makes the schools of today that make the society of tomorrow that the schools of tomorrow.

    Did the madrasahs make Pakistan or Pakistan make the madrasahs?

    (Trick question. Everybody knows that Saudi made Pakistan, haha. Oh and India did too.)

    Yes.

    And Persia and Britain too.

    • #14
  15. JoelB Member
    JoelB
    @JoelB

    Plato’s student learning outcomes:

    The student will learn to control his bodily appetites and keep them within the bounds of the natural moral law.

    The student will subject his own personal interests to the laws of justice and to the good of society.

    The student will learn that being rich is not his goal in life and that he must not have sex whenever and with whomever he wants.

    Augustine’s student learning outcomes:

    The student will learn the basics of Christian orthodoxy.

    The student will learn to love God.

    The student will learn to love his neighbor.

    What are the quantifiable metrics? 

    • #15
  16. Mark Eckel Coolidge
    Mark Eckel
    @MarkEckel

    Good for you @saintaugustine !

    Can’t wait to read it! I will contact the publisher to see if I can get a review copy for my book review responsibilities at Christian Education Journal.

    I fully agree with your jeremiad (as you know) and consistently argue for the “What is best?” question to be answered in classes (as you know) and I am constantly planting seeds that we hope will come to fruition (Heaven knows). Well done my friend!

    • #16
  17. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    JoelB (View Comment):

    Plato’s student learning outcomes:

    The student will learn to control his bodily appetites and keep them within the bounds of the natural moral law.

    The student will subject his own personal interests to the laws of justice and to the good of society.

    The student will learn that being rich is not his goal in life and that he must not have sex whenever and with whomever he wants.

    Augustine’s student learning outcomes:

    The student will learn the basics of Christian orthodoxy.

    The student will learn to love God.

    The student will learn to love his neighbor.

    What are the quantifiable metrics?

    I didnt write that paper.

    • #17
  18. Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patriot) Member
    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patriot)
    @ArizonaPatriot

    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher (View Comment):

    Saint Augustine:

    It’s like a madman running around his living room measuring his furniture and saying:

    “I don’t know how long an inch is! I don’t know if there is such a thing as an inch!

    “This couch is four hands high for me; how many hands high is it for you?

    “Would you care to invent a substitute for inches, since we aren’t sure they exist?

    “I think the chair is eight blars high and two narfs wide. What do you think? I don’t care what you think as long as you think something.”

    In the History of Herodotus he describes a maiden, fair of form, who was four cubits tall, less three fingers. The translator’s note helpfully adds that a finger is the twenty-fourth part of a cubit. How tall was she?

    For those of you who’d rather not play the story problem game, it works out to just shy of six feet tall.

    5 foot 9 3/4, I think.

    • #18
  19. Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patriot) Member
    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patriot)
    @ArizonaPatriot

    Mark, good post.

    I think that you and I have one notable disagreement.  I blame the Enlightenment, not Logical Positivism.

    • #19
  20. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio… (View Comment):

    Mark, good post.

    I think that you and I have one notable disagreement. I blame the Enlightenment, not Logical Positivism.

    Thank you.

    I like far too much of Kant and Mill and Locke and Reid to just blame the Enlightenment as such.

    But the Enlightenment guys definitely made some mistakes.

    Chief among them were the mistakes that led to Logical Positivism.

    Trying to do ethics without the old Aristotelian concept of human proper function was one of those.  But the big one was Hume.  Dang old Hume.

    • #20
  21. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    Saint Augustine: Results, always results, aimed at making life better but measured by people who are among the most reluctant to acknowledge any actual facts about the good life

    Ricochet Editors, did you add this bad grammar? I know you put a book title in quotes and removed two italicizations.

    • #21
  22. JoshuaFinch Coolidge
    JoshuaFinch
    @JoshuaFinch

    “Education is the process of forgetting everything they taught you at school.”

    Arthur Schopenhauer

    • #22
Become a member to join the conversation. Or sign in if you're already a member.