What Schools are Expected to Do

Educational establishments are places where people are expected to gain knowledge that will enable them to live well. How well are universities discharging these responsibilities? The answer depends to an extent upon whom we ask, for different people have different notions about what schools are and what they are expected to do.

What Happened to Excellence?

Do schools, especially public schools, place enough emphasis on academic excellence? Only recently have people started to talk about excellence again. It appears that excellence almost became one of the vanishing words. The lack of emphasis on excellence is evident in the absence in many schools of the so-called ‘classical’ texts, books that have withstood the test of time. This may be due to the fact that we no longer believe that books can be classics in the sense that they stand out and apart from the others.

Excellence is avoided for several reasons, none of which is convincing. One, it is alleged that it is impossible to define excellence. And even if we succeed in defining excellence, such a definition is necessarily subjective. Everyone has his or her own idea of what excellence is.

Yet the fact is that very definite notions of excellence are used in achievement (Nobel Prize), in sports, and business activities. If a standard of excellence may be identified and applied in these activities, why could such standards not be articulated and applied in education? The fact that teachers grade students’ work proves that some standards are used to determine what constitutes higher academic achievement.

The second argument against excellence in education is that, even if excellence were definable, it would be elitist to teach it. Elitism, as everyone knows, cannot be encouraged in schools.

This argument does not hold water either. There is already much elitism being practiced in all walks of life, only under different names, such as performance or competence. An athlete that performs at a very high level is regarded as an excellent athlete. If improving the performance of the students is elitist, and if we cannot identify high standards of achievement, how can we possibly expect to improve the performance of the students, or anyone else, for that matter?

Another reason why excellence is avoided is psychological. We avoid identifying some students’ work as excellent for fear that we might thereby hurt the feelings of other students. Yet by assigning either letter grades or percentage grades to students’ work, we are already saying that some students’ work is of a higher quality than other students’ work. If students can be made to live with the feelings arising from getting a lower grade than others, why should they be deemed not to have what it takes to accept the fact that some students’ work may deserve the description of excellent? In any case, receiving a grade that indicates less than excellent achievement should help motivate students to try harder.

What Happened to Student Manners?

A distinguishing feature in schools is a lack of good manners on the part of the students. Not infrequently, students show little respect for teachers. A few act in arrogant, even threatening ways. In many schools, teachers spend half of the valuable learning time controlling the students’ behavior, the practice known as “classroom management.” In other schools, bullying and even violence are on the rise. Such schools have to go to the extent of hiring full time security guards, and checking students for possession of firearms and other weapons upon entering the school premises. In a few schools, students commit crimes.

We seldom ask whether the degree of freedom afforded to the pupils is proportionate to what they are able to handle at a particular age. The result of all this freedom is that a substantial number of people are confused, dispirited, and demoralized.

Students feel there is a problem. They rightly suspect that they are being deprived of something. Accordingly the develop an adversarial attitude to school. These feelings find their expression in popular music.

Equality of Teachers and Students

Students should not be treated as equals of the teachers. Students and teachers are very different people. A friendship between a student and the teacher is very different from the friendship between one student and another. The teacher is older, more educated, and more experienced than the student. For these reasons the teacher is expected to fulfill responsibilities that may not be delegated to the students.

Students should address the teachers formally. Teachers should remain at arms length from the students. A teacher cannot and should not be expected to become a friend of the student in the same way as students become friends of each other. There is an underlying assumption that teachers do not really know anything important anyway, so they should not give themselves airs. This view shows how cynical we have become about knowledge.

Freedom and Discipline

Many permissive tendencies in education systems were a response to what was perceived as an excessively authoritarian character of the system. The teacher was the sage on the stage rather than the guide on the side. The learning process consisted of a one way communication process, from the teacher down to the student. Discussions and questioning were not encouraged. Students were spoon-fed and were expected to memorize and regurgitate the material when tested or examined.

There is excessive emphasis on external rather than internal control. We control students by restrictions applying to their movements, but we hardly have a rule applying to their character. Instead of setting more rules designed to control external and visible behavior, we need to teach students how to control themselves. They have to take responsibility for their actions and know why it is important to do so. Incorporating ethics courses into the curriculum is one way to accomplish this. Students need to be taught good habits.

Freedom and Structure

Many debates have taken place over the mix of freedom and structure in teaching. Those who call for more freedom tend to see the main problem in education as consisting in excessive authoritarianism, rigidity, regimentation and conformity to preconceived notions. The assumption made by this group is that the students will, on their own, somehow naturally gravitate towards realizing their potential. Interference by teachers in this process is more likely to harm rather than benefit the students. Unless students get guidance, they will get sidetracked and thus fail to grow to their full potential.

Experience and Ethics

Testing ethical principles using oneself as the subject of the experiment, may get us ‘burned,’ like the proverbial professor experimenting with hazardous phenomena. Roentgen used his wife to experiment with radiation. She subsequently died from it. In order that people may avoid those risks, we teach through instruction.

Yet instruction at times appears to be ineffective. Why is it that people rarely pay heed to advice? They do not believe that the effects of different actions are as bad as the teachers warn. Not until they find out – the hard way – through experience.

It may be misleading to draw the distinction between instruction and experience. Instruction itself is an experience. When the instructor tells us that a particular action is wrong, our imagination may provide us with an example of the significance of respecting and not respecting advice. For example, suppose someone says, “do not take drugs because they will destroy your mind and life.” Is it necessary to experiment with drugs to accept this advice? A vivid imagination, complemented by pictures or documentaries about drug addicts, will render any further ‘experience’ of the life of addiction unncessary.

Learning and Shame

Many teachers are against the use of shame for the purpose of learning because it damages the self-esteem of the shamed person. Women have recently shamed persons who allegedly raped or tried to rape them. The men were usually in a ‘position of authority’ in relation to the women in question. They were either executives of businesses, teachers, or even relatives.

A shamefull act violates the person who commits it, his or her victim or both. A rape, however, is more than a shameful act. By refraining from reporting perpetrators, we remove a powerful incentive to restrain themselves.

In teaching, incentives for learning such as praise, become less effective. In psychology, people talk about positive and negative re-infprcements.

Shame is a powerful factor, precisely because no one wants to be shamed, feel ashamed. Without feeling ashamed, there is little incentive for the person to refrain from acting the wrong way.

Morality and Education

Teaching good manners requires the teaching of ethics and behavior. An argument frequently made is that schools have no business teaching ethics to the students, because teaching ethics is a kind of brainwashing. Brainwashing is undemocratic because it takes away a person’s autonomy.

Non-autonomous persons are not able to think for themselves. Democracies require people that are able to think for themselves. The implication is that people with morals are not open-minded and likely to be prejudiced and even bigoted.

This view is flawed. Not only are people with morals not a threat to society; democratic society requires people with high ethical standards. A democratic way of life requires people with standards precisely because so much freedom is available to them. Democracies require people with principles in order to help protect the society from demagogues and extremists. Opposing intolerant views is always risky, especially if those views are propounded by the established authorities or by those who wish to become the authorities.

Purpose of Education

There is a difference between education and training. The latter equips people with knowledge to earn a living; education equips them with skills tp live well. Pupils should learn how to put themselves in other people’s shoes, how to see things from other people’s points of view. That way they will become more tolerant of other people and their diverse ways of life.

Moral Relativism

By propagating the view that “there are no right answers,” we take away the moral ground from under the feet of people. We eliminate the basis for maintaining any difference between right and wrong. Young people become thus become morally handicapped from the beginning.

It is ironic that this takes place in education. If there are no right answers, there can be no right ways of behavior either. If there are no right ways of conduct, can there be any wrong ways? The insistence that ‘there are no right answers’ implies a far-reaching moral relativism, with potentially catastrophic effects. Moral relativism implies that there are no moral limits on personal behavior. Since there is no line between right and wrong, there is no danger of ever crossing such a line. Anything goes. Is this the message we should be conveying to young people, or to anyone else, for that matter?

It is better to say that while there may be questions to which it is difficult, if not impossible, to find a right answer, there are many questions that have right answers. For example, to the question “is honesty a desirable quality?” the right answer is “yes.” To the question “should we respect our parents?” the right answer is also “yes.”