Alfie Kohn on “well educated”

In 2004 Beacon Press published a set of Alfie Kohn essays.  The book title is, What Does it Mean to be Well Educated? Naturally I was interested.

Social Science Crap

Here are Kohn’s points in the first essay, which carries the title of the book:

A. We should talk about the purpose of schooling, not what it means to be educated.

B. “Well educated” can refer to either the qualities or experiences of a person.

C. We cannot agree on what it means to be educated.

D. American public schools are based on poor definitions of “educated.”

E. Being “well educated” depends on who decides its meaning. This should be an ongoing, local debate. Kohn describes how national and state policymakers privilege certain knowledge and skills over others, which advantages some students and disadvantages others. Educators and policymakers then punish the disadvantaged.

F. Instead of defining “well educated,” we should identify the qualities of a good school.

Cut the Crap

Response to A. Kohn’s first essay and book title ask what it means to be educated. Instead of addressing the question, though, he immediately changes it. Why does he turn away from a philosophical question? Is it because he is a psychologist, not a philosopher? Shouldn’t all educators be philosophers? Isn’t education grounded in philosophy:
What is real? (metaphysics)
What is the meaning (value) of human life? (ontology)
What is a good life? What is virtue? What is right and wrong? (morality)
What is beauty? (aesthetics)
How do we know things? (epistemology)

According to Dewey (Democracy and Social Ethics, 1916, p. 383), “If we are willing to conceive education as the process of forming fundamental dispositions, intellectual and emotional, toward nature and fellow men, philosophy may even be defined as the general theory of education.”

Teachers must be philosophical about their work.  How did we get so far away from this idea?  Oh yes — I forgot — the “education as a social science” experiment fooled teachers, researchers, administrators and policy makers into believing schools improve when we apply the findings of educational research.

When are teachers going to take back their profession?  When are they going to require researchers and policymakers to say what it looks like to apply research findings in the classroom?  Is there any classroom situation in which research findings have the right prescription?  How do teachers know when they are in such a situation?

On the other hand, is there ever a situation in which philosophy and aesthetics do not have the right prescription?  Don’t teachers want to model and teach understanding, imagination, strong character, courage, humility and generosity in every situation?  Don’t they want to make every situation more beautiful?

Response to B. My book refers to being well educated in terms of the qualities of a person — not their experiences. Everybody has experiences that are more or less educational, but the question of what it means to be well educated (Kohn’s question) is not about those experiences, is it?  That discussion would be endless because there is literally an infinite number of educational experiences.  Defining “educated” with specific experiences leads to endless debate — Core Knowledge? International Baccalaureate? Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM)? 21st Century skills? phonics? whole language? math algorithms? problem solving? etc.

Because Kohn does not define “educated” in terms of qualities (I would say, “virtues”), his essays describe the experiences he believes students should have and the knowledge and skills that should be taught. He recognizes that all of these are open to endless debate, so he concludes two things: (1) we cannot define what it means to be educated because educated people have different experiences, and (2) we should have local debates about the knowledge and skills that should be taught because local debates can address student needs better than state and national ones.

I agree with the second conclusion; but, even at the local level, there will always be an infinite number of ideas about the experiences young people should have.  Scholars like Kohn and Deborah Meier want policymakers and educators to debate curriculum and school purposes at the local level. I do, too. The difference between them and me is I believe such a discussion can lead to an agreement on the qualities of the educated person; they believe we can never agree. This difference brings us to the next point.

Response to C. Because Kohn and other scholars believe we can never agree on what it means to be educated, they favor a democratically governed system of public education — one in which the meaning of “educated” is always open to democratic debate.  As long as “educated” represents the sum of knowledge and skills a person possesses they are correct in arguing that the following should be our debates:

(1) What knowledge and skills “should” be taught?
(2) To which types of students should they be taught?
(3) How should they be taught?

These debates never end, which has been our experience throughout the history of American public education — endless debates about these questions

The irony is that all who believe we cannot agree on a definition of “educated” stand in the way of improving American public education. Their belief prevents them from defining the qualities of the educated person, or even debating that question.

Saying we cannot agree on what it means to be educated is a belief. It may be true, and it may be false — just like my saying we can agree on what it means to be educated. We can’t know which belief is true, until we examine all possible ways to define “educated.” Because we have never defined it in terms of the most basic of all virtues we want our children to develop, the belief that we cannot define “educated” is groundless. It is floating in the air, with no basis in human experience because we have never debated the virtues of the educated person.

If there is a set of virtues that everybody wants their children to develop, how is that not the definition of the educated person? What are your experiences with defining “educated?” Are they the following?

1. You have never developed an inspiring, useful definition of “educated.”
2. If you tried, you pointed to the knowledge and skills you learned in school.
3. Others’ definitions pointed to the knowledge and skills they learned in school.
4. This discussion covered multiple knowledge and skill experiences, and it became apparent that we could never agree on the knowledge and skill experiences of the educated person.

Based on these four experiences, American educators and policymakers believe we can’t agree on what it means to be “educated.”

But the following is also their experience:

5. They have never considered a virtue definition of “educated.”

The failure to define “educated” with the virtues that lead to knowledge and skills causes many to conclude that we can’t agree on what it means to be educated.  What it really means, though, is that we haven’t considered a virtue definition of the educated person.

Response to D. Kohn and I agree.

Response to E. Isn’t the purpose of asking what it means to be “well educated” to offer insight into the meaning of “educated?” Instead, Kohn condemns using standardized tests to measure the achievement of national and state standards. (BTW — I agree with his condemnation.) And he wants the question of “whose knowledge and skills?” to be debated at the local level.  Those who insist on the democratic governance of public education believe in this ongoing democratic debate.

They can keep debating if they want. They can debate curricula, textbooks, characteristics of good teaching, the purposes of schools, etc. If they stop debating long enough, however, they might notice that a virtue definition of the “educated” person resolves the debates.  Because there are only six virtues of the educated person, students always need the same thing from their teachers — the modeling and teaching of those virtues in all disciplines and school contexts.

Unlike Alfie Kohn, I delivered on the title of my book. I provide a definition of what it means to be educated. As he said in our email exchange, a definition of “educated” is not an empirical question. One definition is not truer than another, but some definitions are more useful than others.

His point caused me to ask two questions about the claims in my book: “What makes a definition useful? Is the six virtue definition useful?”

A useful definition is one in which the definition, itself, tells educators how and what to teach.  The six virtue definition does exactly that. When teachers are confronted with ignorance, they should model and teach understanding. When they see intellectual incompetence, they should model and teach imagination. When they see weak character, they should model and teach strength. When they sense fear of truth, they should model and teach courage. When they see pride standing in the way of learning, they should model, teach and encourage humility. And when they see selfishness, they should model and teach generosity.

I am sorry if the usefulness of this definition makes teaching too simple for the psychologists devoted to making it complicated. As I have argued elsewhere on this blogsite, it is precisely because of this simplicity that philosophy is more useful than psychology. Unfortunately, teachers have been brainwashed to believe otherwise.

Response to F. Re-read “Response to A,” and this blog is complete.

1 comment so far ↓

#1 Wendy on 07.26.11 at 3:52 am

The resistance reminds me of the current debt ceiling “debate”. A disservice to all.

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