An old Sufi tale begins with the character Nasrudin crawling on his hands and knees under a street lamp late at night. Passing by, his friend Mansour stops to ask Nasrudin what he is doing. Nasrudin explains that he has dropped his house key and so the two continue searching the ground carefully and systematically. After some time and frustration, Mansour asks Nasrudin to recall exactly where the key was lost. Nasrudin looks up and replies, “At the other end of the street.” “At the other end?” the confused Mansour exclaims, “Then why are we searching here?” “Because,” Nasrudin calmly responds, “here there is far more light.”
Walk around any high school, college, or university and you will eventually come across the mission statement of the institution, sometimes printed boldly on large poster board, sometimes chiseled expensively across a granite arch, always unknown to students who show it little more than cursory attention. They are all essentially the same, making the claim or promise of creating well-rounded individuals, seekers of truth, responsible citizens of democracy, concerned members of a global community. What you will not see in the same wandering of hallways and corridors is any claim that the goal of the school is the transmission of an enormous catalog of factual and procedural knowledge whose absence of immediate utility is destined to make nearly all such learning ephemeral. And yet, veer into almost any classroom and that is just the process you will see: a teacher standing before a group of students, dispensing information on a subject in which they possess, more or less, some measure of expertise. Sometime in the next few days, the same teacher will distribute a test to the same students who will then attempt to volley-back the same information in some slightly modified formulation. Minor variations of this process exist, but the essential call-and-response structure remains consistent and ubiquitous.
Just what is the source of this dichotomy, this divergence between the lofty aspirations of academic institutions and the lowly means with which they attempt to achieve them? We can quickly discard the notion that the one somehow fulfills the promise of the other, that to inform students is to educate them. Teaching someone a miscellaneous assortment of knowledge and then claiming you have prepared them to be well-rounded global citizens of a complex political economy is like buying someone a shoestring and claiming you have trained them for a marathon. While knowledge has a rightful place in the foundation of any intellectual development, to recognize its necessity and disregard its extreme insufficiency is either dishonest or myopic.
What little remains of the argument presumes that what is learned by students is then carried with them throughout their lives, but this supposition is radically far from the truth, as could easily be demonstrated if we simply tested all students in each subject after two years’ absence from any study of it. In doing so, we would achieve a much better awareness of what we have meaningfully accomplished and such likely diminutive results would raise an entirely justifiable question for administrators, teachers, and students alike: Just what, exactly, was the point? Even courses which challenge students and demand significant intellectual effort are unlikely to have the long-term effects we imagine in our simplistic analogies. The human mind is not a muscle strengthened through mental exertion, nor is it some kind of all-purpose machine in which aligning the gears through specific acts of reasoning ensures a subsequent continuous rationality. And though schools generally do provide students with useful practice in managing schedules, following directions, and navigating bureaucracies, assigning them twelve or sixteen years of this is essentially giving them all the joys and responsibilities of being Sisyphus with a locker combination.
To understand the whole of this strange schizophrenia, we need only remember the plight of our Sufi protagonist and recognize that schools are guided far less by the ideals of what they should be than by the constraints of what they can be. Fundamentally, the disconnect exists between the unique, personal, difficult, complex intellectual development that is true of any real education and what schools are able to provide with their necessarily streamlined and efficiency-oriented structures, processing dozens and hundreds and thousands of students at a time. Teachers trained to be craftsmen find themselves working in an assembly line, wanting (and often able) to do far more than their situation allows. Students roll by, unaware and uninformed of any alternative. There are occasional successes, but most leave the end of the conveyor belt much as they entered the front, save for a few spots of paint somehow staying fast and a sticker on the bottom certifying their education. Outgoing trucks carry the boxes away, labeled brightly with diplomas and standardized test scores, assuring onlookers in the community that all is well on the factory floor.
There is one significant fault to this analogy in that it misleads us into thinking education is something done to students rather than done with them. It is not. Education requires cooperation between teachers and students and, though it may be difficult for many academics to believe, there is a vast population of students who simply don’t want or don’t care to be educated. They are either apathetic towards the goal or have other interests and priorities felt far more important and deserving of time. This is not to say these students don’t want to appear educated. Certainly, many might be ashamed for failing to graduate high school, college, or a sufficiently elite university, but wanting the appearance of being well-educated and wanting to be well-educated are two vastly different goals and often require entirely different strategies. If a student is forced to choose between them, the social status and career options conferred by the first and not the second makes the contest no real contest at all.
In the end, schools are simply unable to achieve, en masse, the goals they profess. Instead, they do what they can. Is such an analysis too critical, too harsh? Perhaps, but it does not entail a complete absence of hope. There are certainly many good teachers and students in schools today, though the bureaucratic structures through which they must often weave their efforts may be far less necessary than we imagine. Without overturning the whole of the system, is it possible to create small regions of freedom in which students who simply want to learn can do so without constantly needing to prove themselves under the glaring light of test scores, transcripts, and grade point averages? Can we trust these students and their teachers with some small rein as they wander off into the darkness of doubt and debate, false starts and uncertain accomplishment? To do so may be the best chance we have of finding such a key as we have never yet found.