A couple of months ago, I was speaking with a man who teaches computer programming part-time at a university in the Midwestern United States. At some point in the conversation, he asked me what I thought the biggest problems facing the USA were. Knowing that we both had shared interests in science and philosophy (two vast and fascinating subjects with, as I have previously written, a lot of overlap), I wanted to give him a solid answer.
After a moment’s consideration, I told him that I thought there were two upper echelon issues, from which stemmed—to varying degrees—all of America’s other problems: the first, I said, is our unequal, low-quality (and so perpetually self-diminishing) education system, and the second is corruption among powerful public and private members of society. He quipped that I had really presented just one issue, as the latter is a product of the former, and the lack of consistent, high-quality education for every citizen is then the only candidate for the top spot.
I am not particularly sure that I can agree with him, as I find it entirely possible that intelligent and well-educated people can still exercise power corruptly in the absence of proper transparency and regulation. But the notion that many of the commonly noted big issues in any given country can be traced back to some manner of inadequacy in that country’s education is a point of definite agreement between us.
And this goes much deeper than statistics like the oft-cited PISA rankings from a few years ago, which determined that large swathes of Europe and Asia are handily outperforming America in teaching math and science to students, despite spending fractions of the money America spends per student. No, this pertains instead to America’s general cultural attitude toward both basic and extensive learning, whether in the sciences or the humanities.
But at this point I’ve said nothing that you haven’t heard. It’s a very predictable fire-and-brimstone account that concludes that we really ought to be allocating plenty of resources and attention to the country’s education system. So, you might be surprised when you hear that I’m really quite optimistic about the country’s education. And I’d like to direct your support to the reason for my optimism—net neutrality. But before I make that logical link to the internet, let’s look deeper into the philosophy of the contentious-yet-vital process that is education.
Conflicts in the Philosophy of Education:
As a matter of fact, although that professor and myself were casually lamenting the present state of education, the lacking rigor and depth of the modern student, and the ever-present current of anti-intellectualism, we were reading from a rather old script.
It is a script which covers the twentieth-century debates between traditional and postmodern conceptions of a liberal arts education; a script which includes the legal and popular fever-pitch of the arguments about evolution in the classroom; and a script which was co-written by over two millennia of philosophical figures like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Plato.
In order to get into the meat of this topic, first I shall provide a definition of ‘education’ from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on Philosophy of Education:
Among the most influential products of [Analytical Philosophy of Education] was the analysis developed by Hirst and Peters (1970) and Peters (1973) of the concept of education itself. Using as a touchstone “normal English usage”, it was concluded that a person who has been educated (rather than instructed or indoctrinated) has been (i) changed for the better; (ii) this change has involved the acquisition of knowledge and intellectual skills, and the development of understanding; and (iii) the person has come to care for, or be committed to, the domains of knowledge and skill into which he or she has been initiated.
There is already some lasting controversy here regarding the idea of “normal English usage,” but what you may notice right away is that there is, at any rate, nothing about power or work or even societal responsibility in that basic definition. This is because those are all rightly considered auxiliary topics, related instead to such areas of thought as political philosophy, moral philosophy, and civic education. Education in the abstract is merely this process by which a person is changed for the better due to the acquisition of (and dedication to) knowledge and skills.
Over the past century, the biggest philosophical divide has been between proponents of progressive education systems (most famously championed in the modern era by John Dewey) and proponents of traditional education systems (including perennialism and essentialism).
Very roughly, a progressive education is focused on students before instruction, and approaches each student as an individual with particular needs—as such, the resources, expectations, assessments, advancements, and subjects of learning vary from case to case.
On the other hand, also very roughly, a traditional education is focused on instruction before students, and approaches all students as needing to be brought up to a normalized standard—as such, the resources, expectations, assessments, advancements, and subjects of learning are identical in all cases.
But I would like to argue that there is a problem with allying oneself entirely on either team. And, as a matter of fact, my reasons for doing so have been laid out by philosophers throughout the ages, dealing with historical incarnations of the schools of thought underpinning these modern labels.
Indeed, one potent articulation of the problem comes from Friedrich Nietzsche, and just precedes John Dewey’s rise to prominence. Nietzsche was deeply concerned with the process of maturing and achieving education—in a similar fashion to how Nietzsche was concerned with the project of defining truth—and he points out that there are two unappealing alternatives that must be considered (and possibly intertwined) when it comes to motivating a curriculum.
At one extreme, contends Nietzsche, there is the pure equation of education and monetary worth, wherein the best education possible would be the one that is the most economically productive. At the other extreme, he writes, there is the pure unfettered facilitation of diverse, individual-oriented education, wherein the best education possible would be the one that most matches the will and capacity of the learner.
The problem with the former (pure traditional education) is that it may result in terrible or even ignorant people, so long as they are still productive workers. It may, in effect, produce a society in which no one would rationally want to live. The problem with the latter (pure progressive education) is that it may result in an anarchic, atavistic, and systematically unviable society, ordered according to succeeding echelons of downwards-resentful autodidacts. It may, in effect, produce no society at all.
Compromise in the Philosophy of Education:
Much of my own philosophical writing is focused on the idea that most seemingly intractable philosophical debates have ample room for compromise. And, unsurprisingly, I think the divide in the philosophy of education is no different.
The best possible educational system, to my mind, is one that is like the best possible legal system or the best possible ethical system—one that is robust yet flexible, standardized yet reasonable, and open to experimentation in order to refine itself.
Let me make that a bit more specific. What is needed is a path forward which both respects the intellectual progress which humanity has made thus far—which tours students through a broad construction of what is known and what has been done in history, science, philosophy, and art—and respects the textured and varied needs of students who are individuals (robust yet flexible).
What is needed is a system of assessment which can make use of its assessments to meaningfully improve the educational program for a particular student (standardized yet reasonable). And what is needed is a willingness to see the successes, however radical or unexpected, of new systems of education like the internet (open to experimentation).
And if that sounds like a lot of wishful thinking, then consider one specific example related to curriculum: the western canon. This loosely composed collection—ostensibly listing history’s most influential and significant works—sat at the direct center of the aggressive debates about liberal arts education in the twentieth century. But it does not need to be rigidly defined or closely guarded for it to be useful as an educational construct.
As philosopher John Searle has written in his essay on the traditional versus postmodern conceptions of the liberal arts and the western canon, the two sides of the debate, however staunchly opposed, nevertheless seem to end up putting together curricula (and especially reading lists) that are exceedingly similar for any given era.
In many ways, education is a unique issue because there is such a high degree of consensus on the fact there is a problem, but such an immense amount of disagreement about the solution. This indicates to me that there are some people who would never be satisfied, even if changes with which they disagreed began bringing about positive results. And, speaking of unexpected sources for positive change, look no further than the wild west of the internet age in which we are living.
The Internet’s Productive Capacity:
Two topics that seem continually left out of discussions of education are humanity’s increasing knowledge and humanity’s improving technology. I’ll get to the second shortly, but as for the first, every passing generation of humanity is accompanied by a further staggering amassment of knowledge, and with the population explosion humanity’s scope of attention and knowledge is increasing at an increasing rate.
People are wont to ask (usually with a wistful tone in their voices) what became of the incredible polymaths of yesteryear, like Newton and Leibniz, who individually furthered our understandings of physics, philosophy, mathematics, and more.
Well, I would give two answers to such people. The first is that such polymaths still exist, and populate many of the university classrooms and faculties of the modern world, but that the fringes of these areas of study have been pushed farther than such historical figures could have rationally imagined. The second is that the individual fields of study involved have each ballooned out so hugely that they require additional years of careful learning just to catch up with the intervening centuries of progress.
This touches on a heretofore unacknowledged notion which you may have considered in the prior section: where do we find the time? Students only have a certain number of hours and a certain number of years to be students. How can a student possibly be fully brought up to speed on, as I said above, ‘what is known and what has been done in history, science, philosophy, and art?’ And yet somehow it doesn’t seem right to say that a person who doesn’t know those things is well-educated.
My solution, and one that I share with thinkers throughout the ages (e.g. Aristotle), is that education does not reach its proper end until a person is middle-aged or beyond. Aristotle insisted that various activities of a person (including activities whose utility I disagree with Aristotle regarding, such as conscription and rote memorization of moral rules) should all be considered part of an educational program which would end around the age of 50. The general idea that education can be more broadly construed, and can stretch throughout life in both formal and self-directed situations, is one with which I wholeheartedly agree.
And this is where, at last, the open, neutral internet comes in. For the first time in the history of humanity, most of the intellectual progress of our species exists in a singular repository that can be accessed worldwide (with obvious caveats). I would contend that communication, entertainment, and, yes, education are being irrevocably revolutionized by this resource. As an aside, speaking of availability, I am overjoyed at the incorporation of internet access into most of this country’s already-very-impressive public library system.
My formal education has (at least for the time being) come to an end. Still, last year, I learned HTML and CSS from Codecademy. In the past half-decade or more, I have been listening to freely available lectures and debates from top scholars on—to give just a few more prominent examples—Yale’s open course website, the website for Oxford’s department of philosophy, and YouTube. I wrote a simple little article last year about some basic ways to find almost any book you want to read—for free, legally—on the web. And almost as far back as I can remember, I have used the internet as a means for conducting research on various projects (including my university thesis, and including this article that you’re reading now), with bodies of knowledge from the SEP and IEP to JSTOR to even Wikipedia.
Indeed, the educational opportunities presented by the internet are myriad. And the only things which could slow or cease the flow of online information into willing minds would be confirmation bias or the end of net neutrality. As to confirmation bias and the notion that even interested folks will insulate themselves in online communities, I concede that such is the case. But this is no less a problem offline, and at least the online space holds up no barriers between curious people and the tools for reevaluating their beliefs (a possible slogan: “The internet, where no books are ever banned”). As for net neutrality, that is a hairier issue.
The whole value of the internet, from my perspective, is its convenient, even availability to almost any viewer. This is challenged by the efforts of heavy-handed governmental censors (like those in China) and greedy owners or runners of internet providers (like those in America). An end to net neutrality would mean the restriction of information through both active means (censorship) and passive means (prohibitively expensive or fast-track internet services).
Such restrictions are disastrous for education, as one can see in formal education. An article on this very website recently detailed a report showing that minority students and disabled students in America are disproportionately removed from classrooms via suspension and expulsion. Whatever your personal opinion may be regarding why these statistics are the way they are, it is nevertheless clear that a situation which should be solved by more and better education is being treated by restricting access to education.
The internet can’t solve those systemic issues. It can’t do everything. But it can supplement lacking education. It can provide a vast array of information to the lifelong learners that we will need to be, if we intend to be well-educated. And, finally, to turn to an outward (sociopolitical) focus like that possessed by Aristotle: whether or not we intend to be well-educated pertains to not only the success of an individual, but the longevity, quality, and progress of the country and the species.
Whether you see the concept as essentially inward in focus (i.e. bildung, as Nietzsche considered) or essentially outward in focus (i.e. paideia, as Aristotle considered), education at its most basic level is improvement. What’s more, if social or intellectual progress is important to you, then you should take the questions that the philosophy of education raises about methods and subjects very seriously. If the professor mentioned in the introduction is correct, then improvements to education may even help solve the seemingly unconquerable problem of corruption.
In my estimation, the best path forward incorporates the most useful aspects of both progressive and traditional educational systems (studiously presenting our accumulated history, science, philosophy, and art without neglecting individuality or flexibility). While the quality (and equal distribution) of America’s education systems are presently lacking, there is cause to hope.
This hope derives from a number of considerations, among which are the underestimated excellence of today’s top scholars; the century-long trend toward (relative to the prior millenia) rapid, positive social change; and the constantly expanding technological means of education like those presented by the internet (to whose expansion I personally try to contribute through my art and philosophy website The Gemsbok, one article at a time).
As the formal definition of education provided above suggests, education is any process whereby a person is changed for the better via the acquisition of knowledge or skills. That makes the internet a clear instance of educational infrastructure, alongside its many other uses. Calls from various sources—like the recent call by Congressional candidate Russ Feingold—to make internet a public utility (like gas, electricity, or water) are highly promising steps toward guaranteeing the long-term existence of net neutrality.
The best path forward with regards to this specific technology is to support such efforts, and thereby to guarantee that this colossal bastion of cultural, entertaining, and educational information is not significantly degraded or impeded. And finally, the best path forward more generally is to oppose anti-intellectualism wherever you find it; intellect and education have more usefulness in approaching the other problems we face than any other resources we can bring to bear, and as a consequence they should be cultivated whenever possible.