US Problems Today. A Follow-up: The Purpose of Education by Hal O’Leary

US Problems Today. A Follow-up: The Purpose of Education by Hal O’Leary

Pencils in circle. Photo attribution Rostislav Kralik

A Follow-up: The Purpose of Education by Hal O’Leary in the weekly section Just Hal! on Yareah magazine. What is your opinion?

Having stumbled onto an article at the blog SpeEd Change by Ira Socol, I want to follow up on my previous article, “The Purpose of Education.” There is little more satisfying in life than to have one’s position on a controversial question validated by others. Ira Socol does just that for me in his brilliant article, “Why we think 1970s Open Education failed, and considering what the truth really is . . . ” In his article, he supports my contention that in addressing the problems we face in education, we cannot begin to arrive at solutions until we realize that before we consider the question of “how” to educate, we must first have a firm understanding of exactly “why.”

In this regard, Socol defines his basic premise as follows:

“So, this tension between industrial education–education as a combination of filtering the population into “useful careers” and education as a method of instilling moral rules on the poor and different–and human education, where children were expected to be children, learning, playing, exploring. And the power in this battle has shifted back and forth over the 180 years of public (state) education.”

With the power in this battle shifting back and forth, the decade of the 70s found the Humanist School riding the peak of a rather brief ascendency. That prodigious decade also found me on the faculty of Bethany College, “A Small College of National Distinction.” The only distinction I found was the fact that an extremely progressive Dean of Faculty, Dr. Barrie Richardson, had the temerity to take on, as a member of his faculty at a church-related Disciple of Christ institution, a Secular Humanist (myself) with no college degree. But, by the end of the decade, the power fluctuation had once again set in, and I was terminated by a new and far less progressive administration.

The decades of the 60s and 70s have been billed as periods of open or human education, with a focus on the individual student’s needs. In an attempt to correct a system the opposing faction has declared a failure, they are reinstituting the rigors of discipline and standardized testing which focus on the needs of a questionable society. But Ira Socol questions the assumption that Open Education has failed:

“So, did “Open Education” fail? That’s a key question–because it is that assumption which lies behind every teacher, administrator, politician, or parent who says, dismissively, “We tried that before.” But to answer the question, perhaps we first must decide whether the purpose of education is social reproduction and wealth preservation, or if it is to expand opportunity for the widest range of children and for society itself.”

This is the very question which I raised in my article, “The Purpose of Education”: before we ask how, we must ask why. In that article, it was the professional politicians who know nothing about education and the professional educators who rely on their largess, that I called to account and identified as products of an incestuous system that corrupts both the moral and intellectual objectives that should determine first why and only then how we educate. Prior to and since this brief attempt at reform, we’ve had a system of education that neglects the needs of the individual student in an effort to meet the demands of a sycophantic society and voracious education industry. But in this article, I would like to take my accounting a step further.

Since there is no doubt that the actions of these individuals (supposed servants to the citizenry) are ill-advised, it is in our interest to question the motivation for their behavior. I suppose it is beyond plausibility that these pompous proponents of an anti-humane system of education, designed to indoctrinate rather than educate, actually desire to inhibit fulfillment for the students and/or the society they represent. I believe that most of them sincerely believe that they are acting in the best interests of both. However, it is my contention that if we probe deeper we will find an allegiance to Mammon, and any possible solution must be found in an awakening by a public that demands freedom of choice over societal accommodation and acceptance. In short, it’s our system of values that must be changed. Of course, in saying so, we must recognize that those who make up the public we speak of are also products of the same education and value systems which frown on deviation from the established norm. What will it take to help them recognize that they are being cleverly oppressed by a system that strongly favors the “haves” as opposed to the “have-nots?” We boast of our democracy and freedom most vociferously but forgo our voice in governance, allowing the very freedoms we boast of to be taken from us either from apathy or in the name of a false security.

It’s a very different society now than the one that was ushered in with the 60s. Those years brought more than a breath of fresh air. They brought a gust of wind that blew away the long-held sacred cow of sexual inhibition. They shattered some glass ceilings that denied equal opportunity to women. Social compliance was replaced with creativity. There was a demand for accountability, which led to the unheard of resignation of a President. As a teacher, however, I watched as the spirit gradually gave way to a desire to succeed according to the dictates of society’s indoctrinated standards. By the end of the 70s, things had begun to revert to the rigidity of the past. While the rights of minorities continued to make legal strides, their piece of the pie shrank as the attack on the middle class saw incomes actually decline with the war on unions replacing the war on poverty, along with a shrinking economy. There is little doubt in my mind that it was the election of Ronald Reagan that began the shift. As we recall, it was Reagan who broke the Air Traffic Controller’s union. It was Reagan who made a hero of Joe Six-Pack. It was Reagan who made the government an enemy of the people, and vice-versa. It was Reagan who made E Pluribus Unum a joke. It was Reagan who began the gradual redistribution of wealth from the poor and middle class to the super-rich. It was Reagan who turned need to greed.

And, the current paradigm will only continue to worsen unless and until once again the spirit of the 60s is revived with a new generation. Only then will the concept of Open Education reinvigorate a desire on the part of students to learn. Only then will educators acknowledge that there is no system that can teach a student with no desire to learn. Only then will our society find value in pursuits other than the simple acquisition of money.

So, again, I fear that if we are to identify the real culprit in our failing system of education, we must, as I have said on other issues, “look to the mirror,” and ask why we educate before we ask how.

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Hal O’Leary is an eighty-seven-year-old Secular Humanist who believes that it is only through the arts that one is afforded an occasional glimpse into the otherwise incomprehensible. He has been awarded an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from West Liberty University.

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