Emptying the Soul of the Nation One Person at a Time

            I had my hair cut this past week by the same man who has cut it for more than 20 years. But this time, beyond the catching up on how my children were doing—my barber and friend has seen them grow up and knows their life stories—he indicated he had a question for me. His son, his only child, currently a high school junior who has always done well in school, is now struggling in an advanced placement history class. That fact was proving revelatory for his father.

            The teacher in that course demands original critical reasoning and my friend has realized that his son, whatever his natural aptitudes and despite the fact that he has excelled previously, has never developed the elemental capabilities his instructor requires. His teenager is therefore at sea when asked to demonstrate them, not because he could not acquire them, but because he was never assisted to develop such reasoning faculties in the first place. In consequence, my barber informed me, his son can tell his teacher the facts of Fort Sumter (where it was located, the day the siege began, who shot first and so on), but is unable to contextualize and analyze the significance of that historical turning point at the start of America’s bloody Civil War.

            His father was shocked to learn that his child could not offer arguments concerning the why of the events whose meanings he was being asked to assess. Indeed, my friend was so taken aback that he asked me how he might help his teen learn to reason (and write) analytically before it was too late. “Too late,” for my friend, implied an inability to gain entrance to and succeed at a college of his choice. As with most parents, my barber, while surely a success by most measures, wants more for his child than life’s circumstances have permitted him.

            In response to his concerns, I said I was aware of the trend that had left his son without real analytical capacities and that it was the product of an ill-conceived understanding of the nature of education as something other than, and less than, the active pursuit of knowledge and the development of capacities to continue to engage in such efforts across one’s life, irrespective of one’s professional and career choices. I also suggested that one can teach critical reasoning and I shared some possible resources with him. I also argued that developing such abilities requires discipline and wide reading. I said that attaining such skills would not simply be an “assignment” for his son. He said he shared my view and expressed his fear that his teen might not develop the capabilities he requires in the time he now has available.

            But his concerns went further than his son’s situation alone. He realized that his son was hardly alone in his plight and he said I should “get ready” as colleges and universities would shortly receive an entire generation of students, who had never learned to reason critically and to think independently and write analytically.

            In fact, as my distraught barber was well aware, his teenager’s plight was not simply the product of the young man’s own making, but of the choices that have shaped our nation’s elementary and secondary educational system for more than 30 years. In our fearful pell-mell rush as a culture to commodify and marketize everything, we have pressured our schools at all scales to teach knowledge and capacities perceived as useful, practical and immediately vocational, while failing to equip millions of students with deeper abilities to think and write. As our citizens and leaders have paid increasing obeisance to the market, they have emphasized the proximately expedient while apparently inadequately ensuring that future generations with the abilities they shall need to confront a changing marketplace in a globalizing world. Reading widely and with curiosity and wonder, and with the ability to ponder the human condition such activity engenders, is today seen by millions of well-meaning parents as “impractical,” because they have been taught to believe that education should be harnessed to the immediate goal of “getting a job.” What we have gained thus far from this orientation is a generation filled with many students who cannot reason on their own, let alone reason by analogy and apply those insights to novel or emergent contexts. What we have wrought with this perspective are individuals who can, like my friend’s son, recite all matter of facts, but cannot offer arguments regarding their meanings, or engage in conversations concerning alternate explanations of those phenomena.

            What is lost in this constricted self-regarding utilitarian view of education, as my barber realized, is social support to equip the nation’s children with the critical capacities they shall require to grow personally throughout their lives and, more deeply, to prove self-reflective and deliberative democratic citizens with some sense of how to regard others different from themselves, with whom they share responsibility for the polity. The fears produced by a rapidly evolving global marketplace have obscured a broader awareness of how society might collectively ensure that its members not only are able to cope with that swiftly changing context, but to shape it as they do, while preserving a democratic citizenry and their freedoms.

            As I was musing on this singular episode and my barber’s realization of the profound impact that our population’s broader choices concerning education have had for the character and reach of his son’s life, I happened to be reading Brian Doyle’s Grace Notes. In that provocative and poignant book Doyle (the editor of the University of Portland’s magazine and a faculty member at that institution) captured the possibility and grace that university education can offer for those who are open to its possibilities.

            Doyle, as millions had done before him, experienced an opening-out in college that for the first time allowed him to see his immature and selfish adolescence for what it was. In his case, the pieces fell into place following a traumatic incident. After suffering a concussion and spending a night under the care of kind and gentle nurses allowed him space for personal reflection—Doyle came to an epiphany:

I called my parents that day [following his discharge] and admitted I loved them and apologized for having been such a selfish ass. My mother was delighted. My father, a wise man, wondered why I was really calling. I didn’t see those nurses again, but I didn’t forget them, and something about their quiet humor and intent grace was a seed in me as far as savoring the grace of people who serve other people, especially lanky children secretly desperate to find out who they are and what they will do with their wild and lovely lives, which is the definition of Undergraduate. … I know very well that the moment I stopped thinking only of myself was the moment college mattered the most to me. I’ve been going to college ever since. [1]

            Understood this way, education is not simply the quest for self-aggrandizement or of one’s first professional post, but an opportunity to develop intellectual and reflective capacities that will allow one to grow as person and citizen for the rest of one’s days. So viewed, our education system should not be focused alone on the selfish and self-absorbed pursuit of individual gain or mastery of factoids. Instead, it should seek to develop a people who can reason for themselves, recognize their interdependence and deal maturely with the tensions and paradoxes that inevitably arise from those realities in their shared journey to support themselves and their families, and to preserve their freedom.

            Put differently, education may indeed be a vocation, but it is not simply vocational, as Doyle and my barber came to know powerfully. The nation’s rapid descent into a narrow view of education as job preparation is now placing at risk not only the collective ability of its residents to compete in the much-mythologized market place, but also their ability to behave as mature adults and democratic citizens. A fearful people has imposed this path on itself. Nonetheless, the individual costs and pathos that this direction daily creates are no less real for that, as my friend has realized as he worries about his son’s future. The risks of the country’s present course are by now well-known, high and growing. It remains to be seen whether our nation’s citizens will demand a change or will continue methodically to destroy their educational system’s capacity to produce mature, adaptive, engaged and deliberative citizens and workers.

[1] Doyle, Brian. (2011). Grace Notes. Chicago: Acta Publications, pp. 125-126.