Education: The key question

The missing curriculum: How to think

Regimented schooling, as seen in 'Pink Floyd The Wall' (1979).
Regimented schooling, as seen in 'Pink Floyd The Wall' (1979).

"We don't need no education; we don't need no thought control." Thus sang Pink Floyd more than 30 years ago in The Wall. (Click here.)

Today the question is not whether we need education, but what kind. The idea that an education should encourage the pursuit of learning and knowledge as an end in itself seems to be going by the board. It's now possible to take college courses in ghostly apparitions, surf science, stained-glass windows, funeral services and other ephemera that might just as well be absorbed from a few books rather than a few classroom years and upwards of $30,000 per annum, not to mention, in many instances, college loan repayment liabilities that can run into the tens of thousands.

In the U.S., more than 14 million students are engaged in undergraduate study, with another 3 million in graduate school. Are they getting value? The 750,000 students who come to study here from other countries— more than 160,000 from China alone—must surely think so.

The United Kingdom, which as recently as 1960 had only 30 universities in the entire country, has added more than 100 in the years since.

Prepackaged thinking

Are we getting any smarter as a result of this burgeoning industry? It seems not. The U.S. ranks 35th worldwide in math proficiency and 39th in science. In a recent study by the National Council on Teacher Quality, only eight Pennsylvania colleges were ranked "high"; a further 22 were regarded as "mediocre"; and another 20 as "very weak."

Meanwhile, constructing a logical and even aesthetically pleasing sentence has given way to Facebook with its misspellings, errant apostrophes, u's, r's and LOL's. Even where actual adjectives are in play, these appear to be largely of the "awesome" and "cool" type.

Pink Floyd was on to something with its thought control issue. Today's undergraduates come largely to environments where thinking is prepackaged for them. Thus invited speakers whose views don't conform to any kind of academic perceived wisdom are often booed and hooted off campus. Universities have often seen speakers shouted down or prevented from speaking.

Upon Margaret Thatcher's death, Oxford University's vice chancellor was somewhat damning in his faint praise of the former prime minister and Oxford graduate for fear of incurring the ire of his academics, most of whom voted against awarding Thatcher an honorary doctorate back in 1985. Her (conservative) political views were clearly not congruent with those of the University.

My boarding school

Curricula today are often unfocused and largely unhelpful in creating sentient and thoughtful human beings; instead, the focus is on understanding oneself as opposed to understanding the world. It's an atmosphere in which everyone must win; all must get prizes. The notion of competition to excel seems to have disappeared.

When I was a young boarding school lad in Britain in the 1950s, we didn't have homework"“"“ because we didn't go home. Instead, between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. we had something called "prep," which took place in a large room surrounded by the works of Scott, Dickens, Conrad and other classical authors. If we finished our "homework" early, there was no escaping that room: Our only option was to read those great writers.

Schools today have largely failed to teach reading and language skills. Nor can we expect much help from the lowest common denominator language of TV, the Internet social media and, increasingly, newspapers.

So, Pink Floyd, we do need education. But we have to start with the basics"“ proper and early teaching about the structure and beauty of the English language, through wide and eclectic reading.

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