What Does It Mean To Be Well Educated?

That’s the title of my latest book read. Alfie Kohn compiles a variety of essays on education, standards, grading, “and other follies” into a interesting book.

He starts with his most provokative essay titled the same as the book. He asks “What is purpose of education?”

Ned Noddings of Stanford urges us to reject “the deadly notion that the schools’ first priority should be intellectual development” and contends that “the main aim of education should be to produce competent, caring, loving, and lovable people.” Alternatively, we might wade into the dispute btwn those who see education as a means to creating or sustaining a democratic society and those who believe its primary role is economic, amounting to an “investment” in future works and, ultimately, corporate profits. In short, perhaps the question “How do we know if education has been successful?” shouldn’t be posed until we have asked what it’s supposed to be successful at.

He continues by discussing the qualification of an “educated person”:

How much do you have to know about neutrinos, or the Boxer rebellion, or the side-angle-side theorem? If deep understanding is required, then a) very few people could be considered well educated, and b) the number of items about which anyone could have that level of knowledge is sharply limited because time is finite. On the other hand, how can we justify a cocktail party level of familiarity with all these items – reminiscent of Woody Allen’s summary of War and Peace after taking a speed reading course: “It’s about Russia.”

Next, he cites Deborah Meier in her list of the importance of developing five “habits of mind” in schools: the value of raising questions about evidence (“How do we know what we know?”), point of view (“Whose perspective does this represent?”), connections (“How is this related to that?”), supposition (“How might things have been otherwise?”), and relevance (“Why is this important?”).

He concludes the chapter citing Dewey: To be well educated, then, is to have the desire as well as the means to make sure that learning never ends.

He then dives into a blistering critique on standarized tests, grading, the costs of overemphasizing achievement, and more. While I agree with most of his stuff, I do take exception with one assertion in the chapter “Confusing Harder with Better.” He says “No student should be expected to meet an academic requirement that a cross section of successful adults in the community cannot.” I disagree. If this were the standard, how do we achieve progress? How do we stretch our minds deeply to find out what we want to do with our lives?

If you are interested in new thinking about education or have kids in schools, check out Kohn’s work.

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