During the course of the conversation at a dinner party, I became involved in a discussion about the purpose of education with two men who had begun second careers in high tech after having finished careers in the military.
Both believed that the purpose of education is to keep the nation strong and to make America competitive in the world economy. Both also believed that we aren’t doing very well in reaching that goal.
The Japanese are killing us.
I guess national defense and competitiveness in the world economy weren’t what I had in mind when I went into teaching. My interest was with individuals rather than the collective us.
But, at the same time, I still haven’t defined the purpose of education.
Why is it that we educate human beings?
This isn’t an easy one. Granted, we need to be safe and secure before we have other options. But then what do we do with our safety and security?
The purpose of our education system is to explore and expand upon the talents of those we teach in order to allow them to be all that they can be. But that will not be the same for all. That is the strength of our system. In our history and tradition of diversity, individuals follow different paths, often towards destinations unknown. That is creativity. That is enrichment. That is growth. And, in the long run, that is strength for the whole.
A colleague, in discussing just this issue, put it into a nice perspective:
Our education system is geared toward the success of the individual. Japanese education is geared toward the success of society.
Which works better?
This same colleague quoted a Japanese Secretary of Education, who was on a tour of U.S. schools when he was asked why he was visiting us.
I thought your schools were better than ours? (asked the interviewer).
No (replied the Secretary) your schools are better. Our students are better.
What he meant, I assume, is that Japanese students work harder.
Not long before this evening, my journalism class had had the opportunity to interview a group of visiting Japanese students Near the end of the period, I asked the Japanese students if they would give us their greatest impression of our country.
After a bit of discussion amongst themselves in Japanese, one girl, the one most fluent in English, replied, “The NICs.”
I didn’t understand.
The NICs (she repeated). The Newly Industrialized Countries. I was surprised at how many things here are from Taiwan and Korea. It makes me want to go back and study more for my country.
In other words, the NICs were cutting into the Japanese market in the U.S., and she felt a responsibility to her country to help rectify the situation.I was reminded of a segment on 60 Minutes about the Japanese education system. The Japanese attend school 220 days a year. In addition, about half of them, after completing the regular school day, then continue their studies far into the night at special tutorial schools. This occurs from primary school all the way through secondary school, the goal being always to get into the best school at the next level, with college as the top goal. But here the Japanese system comes apart. Once accepted at college, the goal has been met, and there is a letdown.
A Japanese critic of this system pointed to the lack of creativity in this approach. Of the past thirty-some-odd Nobel Prize winners in science, he said, thirty-something had been American, and only one had been Japanese.
So, we must be doing something right.
And what is that?
We offer freedom and opportunity to all. Indeed, that was cited as the whole purpose of our education system by the colleague who had given me the quote by the Japanese Secretary of Education.
The purpose of our education system is to provide equal opportunity (he said).
One never knows where one will find creativity and genius. Or at what stage of development. Or in what form beyond paper and pencil test.
The freedom part is more difficult. Freedom involves the option to explore—in an area of one’s own interest and at one’s own pace. Freedom isn’t always efficient, but creativity and genius can’t be rushed.
As another colleague said:
If we give kids freedom and then complain about what they do with it, then we haven’t given them freedom.
So what is the message in all this?
I guess it’s another question. Can we have hard-working students in an atmosphere of freedom and opportunity that will keep the country strong and competitive in the world economy?
Yes, but not by abandoning our philosophy and system of education. Rather, we must inspire our students within our system to pursue their individual potenials.