We hold opposite beliefs

My colleagues agree that we should define what it means to be educated, and then they ignore the question. When I ask why they don’t do the philosophical thinking needed to define “educated,” I find that we hold opposite beliefs. I believe a universal definition is right in front of us. They believe there is no such thing.

Let’s examine both beliefs, starting with theirs.

The American reverence for democracy has created 51 systems of education in which “educated” is a political concept. All 50 states and the District of Columbia elect politicians to make education policy based on unstated definitions of “educated.”  Make no mistake about it, though — their personal definitions of “educated” determine their policies.

The democratic perspective says that is fine. Democracy has a built-in way of dealing with multiple, unstated definitions. When enough voters disagree with either the policies or the definitions behind them, a politician with different policy beliefs and definitions will be elected to office.

That is the perspective of those who believe there is no such thing as a universal definition of “educated.”  For them there can’t be because what it means to be educated is always subject to democratic debate and vote. And they believe that is the way it should be. Some believe anyone who says there is a universal definition is undemocratic and autocratic.

Hey, wait! That’s me! I believe there is a universal definition of the educated person. Am I undemocratic? Am I autocratic?

Let’s look at my belief, presented on the last page of chapter 3 (TSVOTEP, p. 38). After citing Golden’s (2004) description of the “inevitability trap,” I asked readers to reconsider the need  to democratically govern public education:

It is time to confront the inevitability trap of believing education must be governed politically.

Why shouldn’t education be governed educationally? Other institutions are governed in ways that align with their purposes. Business is governed by rules of the marketplace.  The legal system is governed by legislation and court decisions. Religion is governed by sacred texts and the interpretations of those ordained to preach. Why can’t public education be governed in a way that models what it means to be educated?

It can be, when our model is driven by a core belief that is educational   . . .

. . . Instead of being driven by a political core belief that assumes we will always be in debate over purposes, the alternative model is driven by a universal definition of what it means to be educated.

The next chapter explains the universality of this definition.  For now, readers should challenge the trap that says public education must be governed democratically. Democracy does not require us to believe in either its desirability or its inevitability. Instead, it requires that citizens be educated enough to sustain it.

That doesn’t sound undemocratic or autocratic to me.  I will be discussing why it is neither this coming October, in an address to the Midwest Educational Research Association. I will talk about two ideas. The first is from designer Stefan Sagmeister.  One thing he has learned in life is that, “Everybody always thinks they are right.”  The second idea is from Winston Churchill.  According to him, “Men (sic) stumble over the truth from time to time, but most pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing happened.”

Which is your belief about a universal definition of “educated?” According to Sagmeister, you believe you are right, and so do I. Either there is a universal definition of the educated person or there is not. What are our reactions to stumbling across a truth that is the opposite of our belief?

If there isn’t a universal definition, and I stumble across that truth, I learn that the democratic perspective has been saving us from autocratic educators for the last 160 years. I learn I am an autocrat for teaching that educated people demonstrate (1) understanding, (2)  imagination, (3) strong character, (4) courage, (5) humility and (6) generosity. If I “pick myself up and hurry off as if nothing happened,” nothing is lost.  American public education continues to be governed with multiple, changing definitions of “educated,” and education progress continues to look like a pendulum swinging back and forth.

But, if the six virtues are a universal definition of the educated person, what happens when those with a democratic perspective stumble across that truth? If they “pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing happened,” everything is lost.


#1 Jan on 11.18.11 at 6:26 pm

Could a community leadership organization jump start this in their local public schools?
We have an adult leadership program in our affluent, land-locked community that has long-term city wide support (an excellent reputation with city and school administration). The leadership class is a 7 month commitment that intends to teach a class size of 12-18 adults about city governance and various volunteer and philanthropic organizations within the community. The class is charged with coming up with a project that will benefit the community.
In our course in Leadership Theory, taught by a guest speaker, we ultimately concluded that the problem facing our current lack of effective leadership in our elected officials has, at its root, “rabbit minds” – no moral gravitas, no deliberation. And our hope for future leaders rising up seems a dim possibility. And that’s when I happened upon your articles.
The group is not comprised of educators, although one member is a young middle school principal. We would expect to meet a great deal of resistance from our very haughty school administrators, so we would need to be extremely solid in our approach. As an experienced educator that believes the ultimate goal is an educated person, could you imagine a way that a community leadership group could be a part of injecting much needed values into our public schools? If so, could you possibly point us in a realistic direction of how to get this done?
My sincere best wishes and gratitude,
Jan Loar

#2 casey on 11.19.11 at 1:11 am

Ms. Loar (I assume Jan is female.)
You wrote,
“We would expect to meet a great deal of resistance from our very haughty school administrators, so we would need to be extremely solid in our approach. ” That is exactly the point of my blog.

I provide a “solid” approach by contrasting the social science paradigm for school improvement with the aesthetic one. The differences are explained in this blog and more extensively in my book’s chapter 8.

Regarding your questions, I will email you to see if we can talk about the possibilities you ask about.

#3 Tom Crane on 02.11.12 at 7:51 pm

Dr. Hurley –

I more than enjoyed your book because it was not only passionate, but packed with practical purpose. My confusion comes from the fact that we are not debating to define the term education. I believe that words, goals, mission statements set the tone for the culture of the communities that we are trying to impact – how can we even start this process without defining what it is we are attempting to do? Don’t we need a tip to this spear to focus on the target of change? I was wondering what role (s) and/or action (s) you have taken in this matter and what reactions have you received – thanks for your time and efforts with the book!

thank you – tom

#4 casey on 02.12.12 at 10:13 pm

Thanks for your comments about the book and your questions about my efforts. This is my life’s work. I go anywhere, anytime to talk with people about the six-virtue definition of the educated person.

I get a whole range of reactions. Many non-educators are like you — they appreciate the insights they get from the book. Some have said things like, “This is a philosophy of life, not just education.” Of course that is true because what it means to be educated is a philosophical question that has been debated for millenia.

The K-12 teachers who read the book react in different ways. Many agree with the six-virtue definition, but they are frustrated with it because their school experiences are dominated by “effectiveness” thinking. In other words, they don’t adopt the language of the six-virtue philosophy because they would feel silly telling other K-12 teachers about a philosophy that puts appreciation at the center and effectiveness at the perimeter. Many K-12 teacher readers believe that by “appreciation” I mean they should “like” their students.

They don’t understand that, when I say “appreciation” I am talking about it in the sense of the appreciation needed by those who are art critics. A person does not get to be a movie critic or a music critic without having an in-depth appreciation of the art form. My suggestion is that K-12 teachers should regard themselves as “critics” of the arts of teaching and learning their subjects in the context of classrooms and schools. In order to do so, they need appreciation for their subject matter and students.

I have heard of only one K-12 teacher who has adopted the six-virtue definition of the educated person in his classroom. He wrote that the students love it and they are scoring well on the tests. They like it because high schoolers like challenges that are philosophical and within their reach.

Others have written to me about some of their experiences that support this definition, but they say they are caught within a public school system that works just the way I described in the book — dominated by politics, unable to define what it means to be educated, bureaucratic, and always referencing social science effectiveness, instead of aesthetic appreciation.

We read Ronald Wolk’s book before we read mine. In Part 2, where he was supposed to provide answers to the problems identified in Part 1, he admitted that our current system is probably beyond reform. Therefore, he looked to innovative programs and charter schools to improve education.

Although Wolk and I agree on the problems facing public education, my school reform beliefs are completely opposite his. He looks to the top of the political, bureaucratic hierarchy and sees little chance of successful reforms.

I agree. That is why I have given up on political governance.

I say teachers should ignore their political and bureaucratic superiors and simply tell their students and parents that the six-virtue definition of the educated person is the basis for everything that happens in their classrooms. What are administrators and policy makers going to say? “You can’t model and teach the six virtues of the educated person.”

#5 Jo Hamilton on 02.19.12 at 1:39 am

Dr. Hurley,

It is a constant struggle for me to understand why it would be such a stretch for a teacher to appreciate their students and subject matter. If you can’t do this, then why did you go into education in the first place? We don’t even have to agree with someone to respect their “human-ness.” Isn’t the act of learning/discovering new thoughts and ideas something that all educators appreciate?

Your message is inspiring and a little daunting when I consider the changes needed to move from the current system to one driven by the six virtues. It will take courage to challenge so many accepted assumptions and to engage our colleagues in this discussion. Thank you for your commitment to a new definition of the educated person.


#6 casey on 02.19.12 at 2:30 pm

Thanks for your comment and your understanding of the six-virtue philosophy. You are right about how daunting this is. So much in public education is currently going in the wrong direction that we see a daunting task. If we change our focus, though, we can see that it is simple for a teacher or principal to frame everything with the six-virtue definition. The beauty of this definition is that it tells us how to approach every situation that needs to be improved. It is not easy to do, but at least it is not complex.

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