Column #13, posted 2/8/02

What is an Educated Mind?

For a few years, in the early 90's, I was on the Board of Editors of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Most everyone else on the board were octogenarians -- the foremost of these, since he seemed to have everyone's great respect, was Clifton Fadiman, a literary icon of the 40's. When I tried to explain to this board the technological changes that were about to come that would threaten the very existence of the the Encyclopedia, there was a general belief that technology would not really matter much. There would always be a need for the encyclopedia, and the job of the board would always be to determine what knowledge was the most important to have. Only Clifton Fadiman seemed to realize that my predictions about the internet might have some effect on the institution they guarded. He sadly commented, "I guess we will just have to accept the fact that minds less well educated than our own will soon be in charge."

Note that he didn't say "differently educated," but "less well educated." For some years the literati have held sway over the commonly accepted definition of education. No matter how important science and technology seem to industry or government or indeed to the daily life of the people, as a society we believe that those educated in literature and history and other humanities are in some way better informed, more knowing, and somehow more worthy of the descriptor "well educated."

Now if this were an issue confined to those who run the elite universities and prep schools or those whose bible is the New York Review of Books, this really wouldn't matter all that much to anybody. But this nineteenth century conception of the educated mind weighs heavily on our notions of how we educate our young. We are not educating our young to work or to live in the nineteenth century, or at least we ought not be doing so. Yet, when universities graduate thousands of English and history majors, it can only be because we imagine that such fields form the basis of the educated mind. When we choose to teach our high schoolers trigonometry instead of, say, basic medicine or business skills, it can only be because we think that trigonometry is somehow more important to an educated mind or that education is really not about preparation for the real world. When we focus on intellectual and scholarly issues in high school as opposed to more human issues like communications, or basic psychology, or child raising, we are continuing to rely upon out dated notions of the educated mind that come from elitist notions of who is to be educated.

We argue that an educated mind can reason, but curiously there are no courses in our schools that teach reasoning. When we say that an educated mind can see more than one side of an argument we go against the school system, which holds that there are right answers to be learned and that tests can reveal who knows them and who doesn't. Indeed the entire government testing campaign is all about learning the right answers. It is not about debate or being able to show that you can see both sides of an issue. We are training parrots not reasoners.

It seems to me that understanding the basics of telecommunications is more important than understanding basic chemistry in today's world. And, as heretical as it may seem, I believe that knowing HTML is more important than knowing French for today's high school student. There are choices that have to be made, and even if you don't agree with the ones I might make, where is the national debate about this? It will not take place until our fundamental conception of erudition changes or until we realize that the schools of today must try to educate the students who actually attend them as opposed to the students who attended them in 1892 when the current curriculum was put in place.

And while we are at it, how about ethics, or child raising, or marriage? These non-intellectual subjects are unimportant in a high school's academic curriculum. Why is that? because we still think we are educating the elite who will have to little more than debate the classics and show off their erudition. But, it just isn't so. The average college student isn't erudite despite our attempts to march him through a liberal arts curriculum. The average college student is just trying to get through the ordeal of college and get his degree so he can go off and pursue his life as an investment banker or lawyer.

The 21st century conception of an educated mind is based upon old notions of erudition and scholarship not germane to this century. The curriculum of the school system bears no relation to the finished products we seek. We need to rethink what it means to be educated and begin to focus on a new conception of the very idea of education.

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