The following is the transcript of Mr. Paul Yingling’s speech, “Aim of Education” from our episode 14. It’s one of the more eloquently and honestly written assessment of the state of the education in the US. Paul’s keen sense of situational awareness and his ability to influence and move his audience with words truly exemplifies him as an inspiring educator. I’m honored to share his thoughts here:
The Aim of Education
Delivered to Inspiringeducators.net on July 10, 2014
When Roman centurions would inspect their forces before battle, soldiers would strike their breast plates and say integritas! Roman soldiers had two breast plates – a thin, light piece meant only for parades and a thick, heavy piece that would stop a spear. When soldiers struck the heavy breast plate, it made a low solid, thud. With this sound, coupled with the single word integritas, Roman soldiers stated, “I am neither a fraud nor a fake; I am what I appear to be.” I am concerned about the American educational system. I am concerned that it lacks integrity; that it is a fraud, a fake, that it is not what it appears to be. I am concerned that many of us know this to be true, but lack the courage to address it.
Today, I’d like to spend our time together in a discussion about the aim of education. Aristotle began the Nicomachean Ethics arguing that “every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good.” What good does education aim at?
My argument is that the proper aim of education is the moderation of appetites, and elite private schools and public schools are failing to achieve this aim. To make this argument, I’ll first examine the popular but flawed answers to our question. Some argue that education aims at the accumulation of wealth, others at the acquisition of power or glory and still others at the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. Before developing my own argument, allow me to address each of these alternative hypotheses in turn.
By far, the most popular viewpoint is that education is essential to the accumulation of wealth. Parents, professors and presidents never tire of reminding students of the correlation between educational attainment and lifetime earnings. This correlation is generally sound and the underlying argument is not without merit. Education does indeed reduce the likelihood of poverty and all of the ills that come with it – poor health, shorter life expectancies, and greater vulnerability to violent crime among them.
Nevertheless, this viewpoint is flawed from both an individual and a social perspective. Wealth is not good in itself, but is useful primarily as a means of increasing consumption. Up to a certain point, increased consumption may increase human happiness. Consuming clean water, fresh food, adequate clothing and shelter certainly add to a human being’s quality of life. However, most consumption in modern societies such as ours goes far beyond these essential needs. Indeed, most of the diseases that are killing us are born from excessive consumption – cancer, heart disease, and diabetes among them.
Consumption is even more lethal collectively than it is individually. The population of the United States accounts for just 5% of the world’s total, yet produces 25% of the world’s greenhouse gasses. The consumption of fossil fuels is literally killing our planet. If the other 95% of the world consumes and pollutes at the same rate as the United States, our demise will only be accelerated. Consumption cannot be the good at which education aims; practiced on a large enough scale for a long enough time, it will kill us all.
A second argument is that education aims at the exercise of power. In its most benign form, this viewpoint holds that only an educated public can exercise power properly. Washington and Jefferson both advanced this viewpoint, and most of their successors have followed suit. The more malignant form of this argument is rarely spoken but often acted upon. It adopts the view advanced by the sophists of classical Athens – that education allows one to sway the crowd, help one’s friends and harm one’s enemies.
The benign form of the power argument does not stand up well to empirical scrutiny. If this argument were true, governance of democratic societies would improve as education became more widespread. The American experience does not confirm this hypothesis. A semi-literate society of less than 3 million produced Washington, Jefferson, Madison and authored the world’s most enduring written constitution. Today, our literate population of 300 million routinely elects leaders incapable of or uninterested in performing the basic functions of government.
The malignant form of the power argument has stronger empirical support, as it describes how educated people actually behave. Seven of the ten wealthiest counties in America are those surrounding Washington, D.C. The most lucrative activity in that most lucrative location is a form of legalized bribery that bends public power to private advantage. Oil companies buy regulations that enable them to pollute the environment. Bankers purchase regulations that allow them to gamble with the public’s money. Arms dealers purchase weapons contracts to combat threats that do not exist. These predatory elites behave exactly as the sophists predicted, striving to help their friends and harm their enemies. They may be morally bankrupt, but they are among the most educated people in America.
The malignant power hypothesis fails not on its evidence but rather on its logic. Remember that Aristotle argued that every art is thought to aim at some good. No good comes from predatory elites struggling to reward their friends and harm their enemies. Collectively, they produce pollution, poverty and pointless wars. However profitable these activities may be to their practitioners, they are harmful to society as a whole. The exercise of power cannot be the good at which education aims, for the educated have proven better predators than shepherds.
A third argument is that education is useful in winning glory. By glory, I mean the approval of a great mass of humanity. Such approval, apparently, is something to be valued. Caesar declared that he would rather be the first man in a remote Trsnsalpine village than the second man in Rome. Napoleon declared that “glory is fleeting, but obscurity is forever.” Satan tempted Christ with glory in the Garden of Gethsemane, and Hobbes declared the appetite for glory to be among the primary causes of conflict in the state of nature.
The value of glory is more apparent than real; there is no more worthless trifle than the approval of the crowd. One in four Americans does not know that the earth revolves around the sun; one in seven cannot read a daily newspaper and fully half do not believe that human beings evolved from lower species. A mob of professors is no wiser than one composed of street sweepers. When informed of the existence of a group called One Hundred Scientists Against Einstein, he replied, “if I’m wrong, one will be enough.”
Glory is worse than worthless; it is by its nature anti-social. Wealth at least may be pursued cooperatively. Through specialization and trade, two or more people or nations may grow rich together. Glory, on the other hand, must be wrenched from another’s hands. The only way to finish first is to ensure that someone else finishes second. As Caesar and Napoleon knew all too well, when glory is the end, intrigue and violence will inevitably become the means. If glory is a worthless trifle that spawns intrigue and violence, it cannot be the good at which education aims.
A fourth argument is that education aims at the accumulation of knowledge as an end in itself. This argument has deep roots in philosophy, from the Greek meaning love of knowledge. It presumes that the deepest human need is not to eat or to rule but to know. It is the least objectionable of the arguments thus far examined. We can think of many examples of people made worse from consuming too much food or seeking too much power or glory, but nobody seems to suffer from being too wise.
Nevertheless, this argument founders upon a close examination of science. Karl Popper shows us that the scientific method cannot show us what is true. Science proceeds from falsification of hypotheses, and the scientific method is valuable because it shows us what is false. No scientist worthy of the name declares that she has discovered the truth; at best she has uncovered a law that has not been falsified. Quantum mechanics and relativistic physics do not agree on the nature of matter and energy. Logic tells us that at least one theory is wrong, and experience suggests that both are flawed. The universe and everything in it are merely matter and energy, and yet we do not have a coherent understanding of these basic forces.
In the rarest of coincidences, ancient philosophy and religion concur with modern science as described by Popper. After a lifetime of inquiry, Socrates declared, “I know nothing.” The Apostle Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians argued that man sees only “through a glass and darkly.” Where Popper, Paul and Socrates concur, we ought to at least pause. The accumulated wisdom of the ages leaves us with this paradox – truth exists, yet we will not know it in our lifetimes. If the accumulation of knowledge is the good at which education aims, then the entire enterprise has failed because all we know is that we do not know.
To review, the good at which education aims cannot be the accumulation of wealth, or power, or glory or knowledge. The first two are harmful in large doses, the third is worthless altogether and the last tragically exceeds our grasp.
Finally, let us examine the argument that education aims at the moderation of appetites. To do so, I’ll continue to examine the American experience through the lens of Aristotelian thought. In The Politics, Aristotle asserts that we develop our humanity fully only in community with other human beings. One who lives outside the city must be “a god or a beast.” Our experience confirms this observation; Socrates died rather than leave Athens, and even Thoreau did not remain at Walden Pond.
If we accept this premise, then we ought to inquire what factors threaten the communities in which we acquire our humanity. In Federalist 10, Madison argued that the greatest source of conflict (what he called “faction”) is “the various and unequal distribution of property.” Again, our experience confirms this observation. America’s history is replete with struggles between slaves and freemen, debtors and creditors, labor and capital. Our history is in no way unique; in Ancient Rome there were plebeians and patricians, and in medieval Europe there were peasants and nobles.
The labels may have changed, but the conflict has not. Income equality in America is greater today than at any time since the 1920s. The increasing concentration of wealth in the U.S. is not the result of merit, hard work or skill, but rather accidents of birth. The Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development has found that the US lags behind most developed countries intergenerational social mobility. In other words, if you want to get rich in America, pick rich parents. The American dream may be alive and well, but it’s more likely to reside in Oslo or Toronto than Philadelphia or Colorado Springs.
Our unequal and unfair society is reflected in our unequal and unfair school system. The United States does not have a public education system, but a patchwork of private and semi-private schools. Private schools overtly exclude students who lack the wealth to pay the tuition. Nominally public schools are actually semi-private as well. American public schools are funded largely through property taxes. Poor students are kept out of good public schools by home prices rather than tuition bills, but the effect is the same.
Many elite private schools fancy themselves as places where students learn to live honorably. By definition, an honor code demands that students reject actions that give them an unfair advantage. However, the very existence of elite private schools and exclusive public schools confers an unfair advantage on their students. Access to elite private schools is dependent on wealth, and wealth in America is increasingly dependent not on hard work or merit but accidents of birth. I respectfully suggest that this system is dishonorable.
True education must be universal, public, equal and aimed at the moderation of appetites. If patricians and plebeians learn side by side as children, the former will learn that they are not gods and the latter that they are not beasts. In such an educational system, children would fully develop their humanity in tiny communities that are microcosms of the larger society in which they will live their lives. Unlike the accumulation of wealth, power and glory, the moderation of appetites is universally beneficial. Unlike the accumulation of knowledge, it is achievable.
Imagine what our society might look like with a universal public education system aimed at the moderation of appetites. Children might imagine sustainable means to transport society’s material needs, whether they would become energy company CEOs or truck drivers. Children might imagine a sustainable means to provide safe, affordable housing, whether they would become lenders or borrowers. Children might imagine sustainable means to preserve peace, whether they would become generals or soldiers. Such a system would produce neither predators nor prey, but human beings.
More than ever before, the 21st century cries out for a moderation of appetites. Agrarian and industrial economies demanded a certain cooperation between rich and poor. Feudal nobles required peasants to till their land, and robber barons needed laborers to operate their factories. Today, automation and globslization have placed Ayn Rand’s fantasy within reach – that the rich may grow richer without any need for the poor. Manual and menial work is increasingly performed by robots, computer applications or cheap foreign labor. Even medium skill work is increasingly automated or sent abroad. Travelocity has replaced travel agents and Google is replacing librarians. Amazon imagines a world in which delivery truck drivers are replaced by quadrocopters.
Many public schools to prepare our students for this world. Too often, we cling to the 19th century model of preparing students for manual or menial jobs that no longer exist. We warn children of the dire economic consequences of failing to comply with this model. We treat the children as if they were merely beasts, and that the greatest good they can imagine is a full stomach. The children are unconvinced, perhaps because their parents followed this model and go hungry nonetheless. Too many children leave my classroom without the ability to imagine, let alone alone achieve, anything greater than the gratification of animal appetites.
Elite private schools fail in a different way. Admission to such institutions carries an implicit promise of wealth that will allow students to consume as much as they like. They will acquire the power to help their friends and harm their enemies, and imagine the day when that power will grow exponentially. They will have god-like powers to write the rules of the game. However, they grwduate without the ability to understand people with empty stomachs because they have never known hunger.
Alcibiades was a famous student of Socrates – brilliant, handsome, wealthy, and athletic. His ambition seemed out of all proportion to his times; his critics called him “a young man in a hurry.” Consumed by an appetite for glory, he plunged Athens into a pointless war by swaying the crowd with promises of wealth and power. When things didn’t go his way, he betrayed Athens to its enemies. As a result, classical Athens – the city that produced Plato’s philosophy, Pythagoras’ mathematics, Sophocles’ dramas – came to ruin. A great mob of humanity that sees itself as a beast is a grave threat to a city. So too is one young man in a hurry.
If students graduate from elite private schools as modern day Alcibiades, as young men in a hurry, it would have been better had they not been educated at all. The world scarcely needs more predatory elites toying with the lives of those whom they do not know.
Teachers at elite private schools have a unique responsibility to their students. They must teach their students that they do not know. They do not know the full extent of the unequal and unfair system in which they live. These students do not know the dishonorable advantages conferred upon them by accidents of birth. Worst of all, they don’t know what to do about it.
Teachers at elite private schools must instill above all curiosity in their students. They must graduate wishing to know the least privileged members of our society and to challenge the corrupt system which keeps them in that condition.
I recognize that my view are controversial and I appreciate your patience in hearing them out. I look forward to your questions and comments.
Paul Yingling is a high school teacher in Colorado Springs.