Education Can Do for Society What Law Cannot

I just finished watching a very interesting PBS documentary tracing the history of discrimination against Alaskan natives by the U.S. government.  There was one moment in the program that really resonates with me, and I think has a sort of significance to a contemporary issue I’ve been reading about….. the poor state of America’s educational system.

Since 1988, February 16, has been celebrated as Elizabeth Peratrovich day in Alaska, in honor of her civil right’s activism on behalf of her people, the Tlingit, as well as all Alaskan Native Americans.  In 1945, as leader of the Alaska Native Sisterhood, she testified before the Alaskan territorial legislature in support of the Anti-discrimination Act which would have outlawed what was unofficially Jim Crow in Alaska.  In the film, they performed a re-enactment of her testimony and before she stood up and spoke, the Senators had been publicly debating the bill.  One of the Senators objected to the bill on the grounds that the law really would not change anything, something akin to this law will not prevent racism but will just force two sets of people who have never  gotten along and never will to desegregate.

And her response was this

“Have you eliminated larceny or murder by passing a law against it? No law will eliminate crimes but, at least you as legislators, can assert to the world that you recognize the evil of the present situation and speak your intent to help us overcome discrimination.”

For my purposes,I would like to take the fragment “No law will eliminate crimes but, at least you as legislators” and alter and replace it with “Education will eliminate crimes and you as teachers and administrators and the rest of the major players in our educational system”  I will explain my reason for this radical change to Elizabeth’s words but just bare with me here…

A few months ago, on this blog, I posted the final paper I wrote for a “Philosophy of Education” class  took two semesters ago.  The assignment was to devise a societal goal for education.  Basically, what type of society would your educational system produce?  This goal was called the “Aim” in the outline.  My aim was that the ultimate goal for a compulsory, publicly funded educational system should be to create a mutually supportive society. (The Green is from my paper) I defined a mutually supportive society as one in which each and every member recognizes the common conditions that unite them, but just as but just as well respects the differences that may separate them.  By this creed, the notion of one for all and all for one becomes self-evident in a mutually supportive society.  The society supports each of its individual members with their inherent differences and the individual members support society as a whole.  By support I mean working together for the common good of the individual and society, because ultimately these two should never conflict with one another.  When we live for one another, we live for ourselves and this is why the good of the individual and the good for society should never conflict.

A society of mutually supportive people would be devoid of economic and social stratification and therefore much of the hatred that fosters conflict.  Goods and services would be exchanged on a fair basis with everyone being treated equally except in regards to their individual personalities.  What I mean by this is even though everyone is committed to supporting one another, each still retains individuality so society does not become lifeless and robotic.  An individual in a mutually supportive society would be devoid of any sort of bias that creates division in society whether racial or ethnic or anything else.  They would view their fellow individual as an equal in terms of deserving of respect and basic rights and services.

My point is that while I agree with Elizabeth, that it the responsibility of our legislators to recognize injustice and enact laws to combat injustice regardless of their doubts about the affect those laws will have on changing society, laws are not and never will be enough.  If human civilization wants to progress past the many injustices that plague our world today, if masses of people around the world (that includes especially our leaders and the wealthy), not just small pockets of concerned citizens, are ever going to take a look in the mirror and reflect upon their potential role in forging a better today and tomorrow, institutionalized education not only should stand at the forefront of this effort but needs to.  Why?  Because if you think about it, what is the life of a human being at its essence.  It is an education.  The education that we receive from the day we are born to the day we die shapes our minds, our attitudes, and our beliefs.  It is the main deciding factor in how we live our lives and interact with one another. 

I ask you what kind of an education drives racism?  What kind of an education drives discrimination?  What kind of an education makes so much poverty possible in this world?  What kind of an education makes so much war, violence, bullying, hatred, bloodthirsty revenge, poverty, racism, wealth disparity, discrimination and all the other bad things that characterize our race not only possible but so pervasive and rampant?  As intelligent and as innovative as human beings are, we have failed to devise a sustainable, efficient, and logical plan of action to deal with the underlying root of all these problems. That stubborn root would be the education, I spoke about earlier which shapes our mind, beliefs, and attitudes.  Indeed John Dewey says it best in an excerpt from his essay entitled How We Think: A Restatement of the Relation of Reflective Thinking to the Educative Processes, 1933,

It sometimes seems, upon surveying the history of thought, that men exhausted pretty much all wrong forms  of belief before they hit upon the right conceptions.

And by god, we are still doing it, even though we know all the right forms of belief.  Notice I used the words “sustainable” and “efficient” when describing a plan of action to sever the root of all those problems like poverty and discrimination.  But so far, at least according to Dewey, our effort in severing has not been sustainable and efficient, because, still, we continue to get it wrong despite the knowledge and potential we hold.  The right kind of education will change that.

Yes, we do have elementary and high schools, universities, colleges, dubiously termed institutions of higher learning, but do our schools, especially in America, make the primary aim of institutionalized education congruent with the betterment of the human condition??  It would seem the logical thing to do, since we do start school at like 5 or 6 years old and  have our whole lives ahead of us, but alas it has not happened.  The mistake has been in hoping that laws will take care of everything. Essentially hoping that telling other people what to do and how to do it, can be the primary driver, in building a better society.  This is a grave miscalculation.  We see it every week.  In the news, some new financial scandal pops up.  People with a lot of money and a lot of power using it for no good, or preferably just letting it languish in secret tax havens to the tune of at least $21 trillion.    And then all of us with a sense of moral decency ask the inevitable questions “How do these people sleep at night?  What makes people so selfish and callous?” My answer:  It is these rich person’s education (the mind, attitude, and beliefs kind) that causes them to hoard away $21 trillion for themselves, while governments across the world remain cash-strapped and in the process of dealing with rightly disgruntled citizenry.  Ironically, it is laws on the books that allow these people to do this.  But then again we return to the same two questions.  What kind of education prompts these solvable problems to continue to occur?  The second and more important question is what kind of an education will strike at the root of these distinctly human problems.  The second is a question I was asked to address in that final paper I spoke about earlier  But, John Dewey answers both these questions, I think quite well, in an essay entitled How We Think: A Restatement of the Relation of Reflective Thinking to the Educative Processes, 1933.

To answer the first question, Dewey cites seventeenth century English philosopher John Locke and his three classes of men

1) Men who blindly follow the source of authority, whether it be family, friends, neighborhood, country, ideology, rather than reason and think for themselves

2) Men who allow passion and emotion to trump reasoning and logic, whether it be their own or the reasoning of others.  If it does not suit them, it does not matter whether it makes sense or not.

3) Men who reason but who choose to essentially live in a box when it comes to their exposure to knowledge and new ways of thinking.  They restrict themselves, and remain apprehensive about even putting potential new knowledge and potentially new truths to the test of reason.

I said before that we have the power and the knowledge to to deal with our problems more efficiently and sustainably.  We know all the right forms of belief, right forms of thought that makes human society flourish.  The problem, Dewey says, is attitude.

Dewey then proceeds to talk about the importance of cultivating certain attitudes to answer the second question.  He calls these attitudes habits of thinking which constitute a “readiness to consider in a thoughtful way the subjects that do come within the range of experience.” (Dewey 227)

  • Open-mindedness- What constitutes an active scientific invitation to new ideas, questions, and facts.  If an idea can stand the test of logic, critical inquiry, and scientific process than it is worthy of our full attention and consideration and in the process we throw out all irrational prejudices that only serve to close the mind.  I think of our intractable Congressmen and how they would have benefited from an education that cultivated open-mindedness.  I know our country would not be in such dire economic straits if they had been.
  • Whole-heartedness- What constitutes the exact opposite of divided interest.  A student who is merely studying to get an A or avoid a stern lecture from his parents, but indeed the focus of his mind is elsewhere.  He or she is not fully intellectually committed to the contents of his or her studying.  It is merely an obstacle to be overcome, so that certain  unfavorable repercussions can be avoided.  As you can see, school is often the very environment where the spirit of whole-heartedness is often suppressed.  Remember yourself in class daydreaming while staring out the window at the rain or snow or sleet or hail or whatever form of precipitation happened to be falling that day, and your teacher snapping you back up to attention.
  • Responsibility- What constitutes fully considering, knowing, and adopting the ramifications of taking the next step.  This kind of attitude translates to integrity.  Again, I think of the politician who rather dodge pointed questions from the media than fess up to the consequences of their policies when I think of people who don’t practice intellectual responsibility and therefore don’t have any integrity.  They will defend their beliefs to their dying day, but when anything goes wrong, their mouths stop running or they run plain BS.

These are not the only attitudes that education needs to cultivate, but certainly they are three of the most important from the standpoint of building a better society.

Works Cited

Archambault, Reginald, ed. John Dewey on Education. New York: Random House Inc., 1964. 212-228. Print.


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5 thoughts on “Education Can Do for Society What Law Cannot

  1. I agree with the majority of what you have said. If I interpret you correctly, you are asking that there be some leverage and individuality in learning. The basics have to be taught of course, but by the 6th grade those foundations are laid and the next 6 years reiterate and expand on what is already known. If in the 6th grade, children could isolate their own path of learning to what interests them and soley concentrate on that throughout the rest of their education process, think about what advances in society we could have. We would not only have kids loving school and studying what interests them, but proficientcy and experts in areas that formerly would have been just a blend of learning with no real insight. I am not exactly sure this is what you mean, but it is what I think you mean. I have long been a proponent of change in education. It takes the community however to make the change. We have one really innovative school here in Kansas City where kids study the last 4 years in their area of choice. Community members who work in those fields bring the kids to work with them 1 day per week and they get hands on learning in a field they love. This is an impoverished area with students who might otherwise not make through the 8th grade(as is proven by the schools in the same area with the forced learning of our education system), but their graduation rate and college attendance rate is 100%. The learning is fun and the work is hard, but they love it because it is what they care about. Hopefully, they will be a model for other schools in our area soon. If I am way off base in your ideas, please don’t hesitate to tell me. I would love to talk more about this issue.

    • Although I do agree with your main argument, you were off base just a little bit. I believe that education has to stand at the forefront of building a better society. What I mean is that the aim of education needs to be social. It must have social implications. It is true that schools must foster individual development as you say….but to what end? And how do we measure development? I cited a lot of twentieth century educational philosopher John Dewey in this post, and to quote him again “There are two outstanding reasons why in the conditions of the world at present a philosophy of education must make the social aim of education the central article in its creed. The world is rapidly industrialized. Individual groups, tribes, and races once living completely untouched by the economic regime of modern capatilistic industry, now find almost every phase of their lives affected for better or worse–and often for worse by the expansion of that system. In a world that has so largely engaged in a mad and often brutally harsh race for material gain by means of ruthless competition, it behooves the school to make ceaseless and intelligently organized effort to develop above all else the will for cooperation and the spirit which sees in every other individual one who has an equal right to share in the cultural and material fruits of collective human invention, industry, skill and knowledge. The supremacy of this aim in mind and character is necessary for other reasons than as an offset to the spirit of inhumanity bred by economic competition and exploitation. It is necessary to prepare the coming generation for a new and more just and human society which is sure to come, and which, unless hearts and minds are prepared by education, is likely to come attended with all the evils that result from social changes affected by violence. Unless the schools of the world can engage in a common effort to rebuild the spirit of common understanding, of mutual sympathy and goodwill among all peoples and races, to exercise the demon of prejudice, isolation and hatred, the schools themselves are likely to be submerged by the general return to barbarism.” Now Dewey’s rhetoric seems kind of harsh and obviously he was writing in the early twentieth century but the general theme really speaks to me. Poverty is rising in the U.S. Unemployment is high. Among the countries of the OECD, we are the one with the most inequality. Imagine that? We tout ourselves as the richest country on Earth and yet among the richest countries we have the biggest gap between rich and poor and its continuing to grow. Meanwhile our government is largely unresponsive to people’s concerns. Our politicans are more corrupt than ever before. Election 2012 has just been a slew of negative advertising, rather than an honest talk about substantive issues. Big money has never before enjoyed a bigger stake in presidential politics. The individual citizen barely has a voice with the powers that be. It makes me angry. It makes me sad. But these problems are fixable. They did not just happen in a vacuum. If really go down to the root of all these societal problems, it has to do with people’s attitudes towards each other. It is that lack of understanding, it is that lack of good will, it is that lack of mutual sympathy which Dewey talks about. Education can solve these distinctly “human” problems over successive generations of course but it can be done, for the purpose of building a better today and tomorrow. Law is just telling people what to do. Alone, it will never be able to solve the truly pressing issues of a world that is rapidly growing more complex. In terms of materials and things and luxuries this world may be growing rapidly, but what about our souls, our attitudes towards eachother, how we view one another. Because it is these questions which determine how equitably material wealth is spread. It is these questions which determine whether we will have peace or war. It is these questions which will determine how successful the human race will be in the future.

      Sorry if my response is kinda long and I kinda sound like a preacher…

      • I need to ponder your thoughts. You have gone much deeper into your idea than I have allowed myself to go, so thinking it over is the route I need to take now. My general first impression is that I agree with most of what you say, however, I need to read this several times to ensure I am getting the full understanding. There is a lot here to digest. I value you your thought process and ability to articulate your thoughts. You are not a preacher, you are just passionate about your cause. Those are the people who change the world.

  2. Pingback: Progressivism vs. Conservatism: The Millenial Generation | Reflective Thinking

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