Today we’re tackling what I think is one of the most important topics facing us as a society today – education. Now, I’m probably biased because I work in education and I come from a family of educators.
But let’s think about what education does for us for a minute.
First, there’s the obvious and the shallowest – education gets us ready for the workforce. But honestly, I think that is the least important. Most people learn how to do their jobs ON the job. They have on the job training and they learn as they go, and they build on what they learned in school. That is obviously not true for a lot of technical fields – if you’re a scientist or engineer of some variety you learn the science in school and you just continue that in the job you get. But for many jobs that’s why experience is so important in a job – because you learn how to do a job by doing it. The stuff you learn in school is just the first inkling of how to do a job. And to be honest, if you go to school thinking “I’m going to learn how to do a job,” you’re probably setting yourself up for failure. The world, and therefore jobs, are changing so fast that whatever you learn about your “job” in school is going to be outdated within five years. And statistically you’re going to have multiple jobs in your life. If you go to school to learn a “job” then what are you going to do when you have to change jobs? Go back to school? No, that’s nonsense. Because if you do school right you aren’t learning to do a job.
But school DOES get you ready for the workforce by teaching you things that make you marketable for ANY job, not just for A job. And that’s helpful.
In school you shouldn’t be learning how to do a particular job. You should be learning how to problem solve, research, work in teams, communicate effectively, learn new skills, apply what you have learned to posed questions and problems, critically assess information, lead when it is necessary, cooperate more often than not, meet deadlines, follow directions, think creatively, manage your time and your workload, and be persuasive. THESE are skills that are adaptable and will make you a valuable worker in a VARIETY of jobs. If you can be successful at ALL of those you will be good at ANY NUMBER of things. Those are the keys to success in ALL jobs. Unfortunately too many people come with a corporate mindset to school and they think they are getting on-the-job training instead of an education. And then they are shocked when they graduate to find they are unprepared for the workforce because they focused on all the wrong things while they were in school. That’s because we have been telling kids for years that school is for getting a good job – and that’s true – but not telling them WHY. And so they think they’re going to learn how to DO A JOB at a college or university.
There’s nothing wrong with vocational training. But that’s not what higher education is supposed to be. And if you treat your college or university years like vocational training, you’re actually less prepared for today’s market than you would be if you treated it like an education – or if you got actual vocational training.
So school is for more than getting a job. It’s to make you a better decision-maker, for one thing. We don’t have to look far to see examples of people making questionable decisions. We have grown adults in this world arguing that vaccines are bad. And that climate change is a hoax. And that COVID-19 is no worse than the flu or the common cold. This is simply BAD decision making and a failure of critical thought. School is supposed to teach you how to assess evidence. And how to understand if an argument is rational. And what’s great about education is this comes at you from a variety of angles. You have the rationality of the scientific method teaching you critical, evidence-based decision making. You have mathematical thinking teaching you logical thought processes. You have the humanities teaching you textual evidence, how to make arguments, how to understand human relationships, and how big ideas connect to the real world. And you have the social sciences teaching you how humans work together as people.
But for some reason all of this gets lost in the works. Students fail to see the connections and the value of these things and think, “well, THAT won’t get me a job” and that’s how we get bad decision-makers. But that’s one of the reasons you were required to take classes from so many subjects in k-12 and in college, if you went. Because they all had different, valuable insights into the way the world worked, and as we talked about a few episodes ago, if you don’t understand multiple methods of inquiry, you don’t understand the world you are living in.
Finally, school is supposed to make you a better citizen. Now, I don’t necessarily mean school is supposed to teach you “Citizenship” per se, though k-12 certainly tries to do that. I know in NY patriotism is part of the curriculum. But school is supposed to make you well-rounded – ready to understand the world as a whole – not just a small slice of it. This is what a liberal education is for, and it’s some many students don’t understand. I get a lot of students who are frustrated because they have to take classes outside of their major. Those students aren’t looking for an education – they are looking for vocational training.
The thing is – when you hit the real world, unless you never do anything outside of your job, and even then it is possible, you will be hit with questions about economics, science (and health and the environment), and the world outside of your experience. And even in your job you’re going to have to deal with how to read, write, and effectively communicate. If you’ve NEVER learned anything about any of those things – you’re up shit creek. It does not pay to be completely ignorant about the world and then try to go and function in the world. It’s bad for you and it’s bad for your fellow citizens.
So an education makes you ready to be a functioning adult. It makes you ready to handle real world problems – or at least understand them. In this week’s blog post we talked about how the American legal system works under the assumption that school is where you learn to be a citizen. That is loaded, but it has a lot of meaning – education prepares you to be a functioning member of the society into which you are born.
Now, I could talk AT LENGTH about what has happened to make education become something other than these things. We could talk about the corporatization of education and neo-liberalization of learning (a favorite topic of academics of everywhere). We could talk about the monetization of time that has been a particular issue for Millennials (taught to them by their Boomer parents) that has just ruined the ideas of learning, leisure, and play. Millennials are trying to fight back on that, but things like the 2008 recession and the current economic crisis are making it REALLY hard. We could talk about the privatization of public goods and how that has weakened democracy in general, and since education is definitively a democratic good it suffers from those efforts to privatize and becomes more stratified and focused on the needs of business as opposed to the needs of the community (sorry to my libertarian friends). But as is our wont here at Kairoticast we’re going to talk a little bit about some rhetorical ideas to try and make sense of some things
So I would like to tell you about a fellow named Quintilian.
Quintilian was a Roman rhetorician practicing in a day and time that was not kind to rhetoric. In Quintilian’s day it could be fatal to express views that contradicted the emperor. But good legal and ceremonial oratory were still needed, so teachers were necessary. In Quintilian’s day rhetoric was suffering from a scourge of excess and unnecessary emphasis on style as opposed to content. Quintilian always looked to Cicero (more on him in a bit) as the ultimate orator but in Quintilian’s day there was no opportunity for that kind of powerful, resounding rhetoric. So many historians and theorists have taken Quintilian a lot less seriously than Cicero, and honestly that’s probably fair.
But today I’m as much interested in Quintilian the educator as I am Quintilian the rhetorician. Quintilian’s great works were about how to teach people rhetoric, and he positioned himself as an instructor as much as a speaker for much of his career.
Quintilian focused on the life-long development of the student. A student never stopped learning.
First, we DO have to understand what Quintilian thought he was teaching people. He was, after all, a rhetorician, and focused on teaching rhetoric. So his definition of rhetoric is important to understand. Quintilian thought rhetoric was “a good man speaking well.” Now, this actually tells us a lot about Quintilian and his ideas about education in and of itself. Quintilian was a teacher of how to be “a good man speaking well.” He was teaching BOTH of those things. Quintilian obviously thought he should teach his students to “speak well.” That’s the heart of any rhetorical study. But he also thought he could, or should, teach them to be “good.”
Now for Quintilian these were connected. He believed studying rhetoric would improve your ethics and your character. If you really put your heart and soul into your studies, you would become both a better speaker and “good.”
Now, there’s some elitism here that needs to be addressed, I suppose – the idea that studies breed character. Does that mean that the educated are somehow more noble than the uninformed? That’s a real problem you have to address with ANY kind of educational philosophy, and it has led to a distrust of the learned for centuries, right? Oh, you can’t trust those bookworms, they think they’re so much better than we are. But Quintilian argued that by studying ethics and logic you could become more ethical and logical. That there are elements of an education that CAN improve your character – education can breed ethics, rationality, judgment, and discernment, and all of those are pretty generally agreed upon positive characteristics.
But you have to tread very lightly here. It’s a fallacy to say that the educated are inherently “better” than the uneducated. I don’t think we have to look far in the world to see examples of educated people who are trash. But you MIGHT argue that education can cultivate positive character traits if taken seriously. That’s a different statement.
Quintilian honestly believed learning was a way to better yourself. He wrote “Still it must be allowed that learning does take away something, as the file takes something from rough metal, the whetstone from blunt instruments, and age from wine; but it takes away what is faulty; and that which learning has perished is less only because it is better.” So Quintilian approached education as something that was a combination of ethics and skills. He should teach his students how to DO something, but also how to BE someone. But, in his mind, those things were intimately connected.
Quintilian also believed in a strong relationship between tutor and student. He said that pupils “are to love their tutors not less than their studies, and to regard them as their parents, not indeed of their bodies, but of their minds.” The ideal teacher in Quintilian’s mind wasn’t just imparting a set of skills and letting the student go. This teacher was a mentor – somebody who truly connected with the student
Of course, in Quintilian’s mind the ideal teacher had few students. The teacher had the mental and emotional capacity to really connect with and focus on their students and meet them where they were. He believed teachers should be as parents to their students – shepherding them through their mental growth the way a guardian guides a child through emotional and relational growth. But to do that a teacher needs time, energy, focus, and resources. A teacher cannot be that kind of support for innumerable students at once with no support for themselves. If we want our teachers to be good mentors for our children, we have to allow them the space to do that.
Also, Quintilian didn’t believe in teaching his students a prescribed set of rules to follow but in teaching them to respond to each individual case. He taught them to know the subject backward and forward. To assess information quickly and efficiently. To apply what they had learned to particular situations. To problem solve and understand each problem individually, not make blanket generalizations. But at the same time, understand that with each solution one could start to understand general working rules of operation. The point of education, he said, was not to memorize a set of rules, but to study, exercise, explore through trial and error, and develop judgment so you could operate effectively in a variety of situations.
This approach to education requires deep understanding, study, and creativity on the part of both the student and the teacher. It is easy to say “Do this in this way. Period.” But that does not solve problems. Quintilian’s approach to education both required and produced leaders with in-depth understanding of their contexts.
Quintilian argues that to be successful a person must have a broad base of knowledge. Quintilian’s students should be able to speak on all subjects, which requires study across the board. Quintilian believes it is necessary to be familiar with the arts AND the sciences. One cannot be a successful leader/orator if one is only learned in a single discipline. You need a broad understanding in order to function in a diverse world. If you are going to be a successful leader in a world that is made up of many different people with many different interests and areas of work, you need to broadly understand that. Hyper focusing on one subject will make you an ineffective communicator and leader.
Now, Quintilian took many of his cues from a man named Cicero, so it makes sense to give him some time here, too. (Somebody once told him his name was actually pronounced Kickero. I’m having no truck with that nonsense)
Cicero may have been the greatest public speaker ever – at least in classical times. He was a lawyer in the early 80s BCE. He overcame a lot of class barriers through the power of his public speaking and made it to some pretty prestigious political offices – as in, something analogous to President of the United States. Cicero had a lot more style than many of his contemporaries and was not afraid to appeal to emotion. He believed it necessary to understand law, philosophy, ethics, and other heady subjects in order to be a good rhetorician. He believed rhetoric was present and modern. He believed in studying contemporary models, not ancient ones to set standards and that good orators should be able to master a variety of styles for different occasions. Cicero’s works on rhetoric became the standard for teaching oratory for centuries. He was the standard by which all others were measured.
Cicero was such a powerful speaker and writer that it followed him even unto his death. According to tradition Cicero was killed because of his opposition to Mark Antony. When soldiers killed him they cut off his hands and head, and removed his tongue – because it was his hands and his tongue that had made him such a dangerous and effective man (that’s a cartoonish re-telling of a complicated tale, but you get the picture). It was Cicero’s ability to speak, write, and his capability as a leader that made him dangerous to despots. His learning and his application of his learning made him a target for those that would stamp out opposition in all its forms.
Now, what, you may ask, does this gruesome story have to do with Quintilian and high-minded ideas about education?
Cicero became who he was because of his education. He was born in a rural town in Italy to an upper-middle class family who were able to obtain for him the kind of education usually reserved for the elite. He was sent to Rome to study rhetoric with Greek teachers and he was apprenticed to one of the most notable lawyers of his day. Cicero became who he was because of the tutelage of a string of strong mentors.
So what does any of this mean for education today? Let’s think about what’s going on right now.
COVID has uncovered what was a long-coming and slow-moving crisis in education. And it is really highlighting our values.
We are willing to bailout banks, airlines, and cruise lines, but when it comes to education, we are making DEEP cuts to education budgets from K-12 to colleges and universities. What does this say about us? Or to our children? Southwest is too important and too big to fail but your education is negligible? We are okay with our tax money to go to PPE money for corporations, but we don’t want it to cover inclusive learning or music classes? Carnival Cruises is more important to the well-being and democratic functioning of the United States of America than any number of state college and university systems?
What the hell, man?
And the divide in education is overwhelming as well. First, we are expecting teachers to teach students remotely who may not have access to any internet and some who have MULTIPLE devices to themselves at the same level. The gap that existed between low-performing and high-performing students is widening AS YOU LISTEN TO THIS. We expect teachers to be counselors, mentors, and substitute parents as it is, which is ridiculous because some of them have 40 10 year olds, and college professors will have literally hundreds of students a semester, and now we are asking them to have that kind of connection via Zoom? Students who were doing well and connected to their teachers in the beginning are okay. Students who struggled or were disaffected – we may well have lost them.
And none of this is the teachers’ fault but all of the structures put in place to assess education are designed to place the blame solely on the teachers.
The thing is right now we should be investing in education MORE than ever before, not less. If we are going to save anything, it should be our schools, not a freaking cruise line. We need scientists who can address this problem, and be there when future problems like this happen, because we can’t be caught unawares again. We need social scientists and mental health professionals to help us understand our reactions and relationships and manage our emotions through difficult times. We need writers and journalists who can explain what is going on. We need artists and creators to produce the content that is getting us through the tragedy. We need leaders who are effective and competent, so the crisis isn’t worsened.
These people will be produced by a strong education system – a system that, like Quintilian wanted, teaches people to understand their surroundings, assess the situation, problem solve, and apply their copious knowledge. We will be best served by leaders who have cultivated those things which make for strong character – and that is done by having both broad and deep learning and a strong mentor.
We need to move away from a set of rules type mentality for solutions and focus on problem solving – but that will require resources and energy from our teachers and leaders.
But if we want to salvage ourselves, we cannot rip the rug out from underneath ourselves
We need to produce more Cicero’s. Cicero was dangerous not because he was an autocrat, but because he was learned, convincing, and bold. People like Cicero address and solve problems. People like Cicero provide leadership in a time of crisis. People like Cicero make history. And people like Cicero rise through the ranks because of a quality education.
So what can we do?
Tell people to support education, from pre-school up to the community college, four-year university, and grad school levels. Let your state and national leaders know that you want to support your schools, not savage them. Support teachers. Give them what they need. Tell powerful people that education is a public good and to treat it like anything other than that is dangerous and immoral. If you have kids, emphasize to them the value of an education. The REAL value of an education. If you don’t have kids combat the monetization of time and the rhetoric of the neo-liberalization or corporatization of education when you hear it. And be nice to people you know who are instructors at the end of the semester and/or year. They are grading and they are frazzled.
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first licensed under CC-BY. Music modified by cutting and fading where appropriate.
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