Of Course Education Doesn’t Work

A few thoughts on Freddie deBoer’s updated article on why education doesn’t lead to educational mobility (children moving from one level of educational attainment to another, over the course of their formal education).

First, people failing to appreciate how percentiles work always causes me to languish. I have a son who is over the 99th centile for height for his age. Notice I don’t say at the 100th centile, because that is not a thing. When he was a baby, it baffled me that his size garnered concern from our health visitor despite his obvious health (and proportion, he was and is uniformly tall), because someone has to be on the outskirts of ‘normal’ in order to have a centile chart. And if you don’t occasionally have children who are that tall, or if you end up with a lot of them, you will still have a few who are above the 99th centile – the chart will just look a bit different. It does seem to me that centile charts for academic achievement simply don’t give a great picture of what is actually going on.

Secondly, it’s important to finish the sentence begun in the title. Education doesn’t work to improve educational mobility. I think deBoer argues this pretty clearly in his article. But from my perspective, this is like saying that my car failed to fill in potholes on the road as I drove over them. It would be nice if it did so, but the function of a car is not to repair roads, and to judge it based on its inability to do so is silly.

What is the purpose, then, of education? Charlotte Mason had much to say on this, but before I move on, she firmly believed in a sort of ‘universality’ of education. An ‘adequate’ theory of education had to be the best option on offer for as many people as possible. School, right now, might work well for people with money, or people who are reasonably ‘smart’, or who just like to sit around learning, but there are many, many more for whom it doesn’t work.

So what would work? First, a system that recognizes that children are persons. “Heart-soul-mind-strength” complexes. Second, one that aims to help children grow as persons, by helping them establish many relationships so that they are connected to the created world, people of past and present, and (I realize that this is not really an option for public schools) and their Creator.

Instead of pushing children toward the same level of attainment, this education would aim to give children a common set of ideas – not that they would all form the same opinions, but that they would all know the story of Little Red Riding Hood and the Three Little Pigs, other cultural stories that reflect where they live. They would know something of the history of their country and other countries. Their own town or city, their local geography would form a starting point for understanding the geography of other places. The natural world would be familiar to them and be a place where they recognize friends. Schools, and those who evaluate them, would recognize that children all have a capacity to love and care, even if they do not all have the ability to jump through the hoops of exams and college applications.

In other words, the years of formal schooling would draw on a child’s natural inclination to learn and to care, and would direct that inclination toward that which will nurture a child through their entire adult lives: meaningful relationships with other people, purposeful work and a joy in doing it well, and many ‘vital interests’ that infuse their leisure time. Maybe this comes across as ‘pie in the sky’, but I would argue that educating children as persons (rather than as products of an assembly line education) would lead to healthier and happier adults without reducing the intellectual achievements that have been accomplished in the last hundred years or so. And in the fractured world we live in, of increasing disconnection, loneliness, and mental health crises, we should be paying attention to how education, rightly oriented, can play her part.

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