Thoughts on Education

From the Analects of Confucius:

“I do not instruct the uninterested; I do not help those who fail to try. If I mention one corner of a subject and the pupil does not deduce therefrom the other three, I drop him.”

As a teacher, this sounds like a luxury – only teaching those who want to be taught. As a math teacher, this goes beyond luxury into the realm of fantasy. None the less, what would be the consequences if US public schools did a complete about face and adopted some version of this attitude?

Confucian attitudes toward learning aren’t an integral part of American culture, since historically we haven’t viewed education as a pathway toward becoming a high level bureaucrat – as Confucius often does. On the other hand, if the public sector continues to grow as a portion of our economy, and as occupations like interior decorator or manicurist require certification – then the Confucian model seems like it offers an interesting path for Americans.

The more I think about this, the more I want to do the boring thing of quoting myself. Here goes.

Personal values have played a starring role in American education from its inception. The belief in a sinful personal nature drove the creation of the early mandatory school system in New England. The local, communal values of the various European settlers in the Middle Atlantic colonies resulted in a wide range of schools. I know that many parts of the Middle Atlantic colonies did not have English-speaking schools until the middle of the 19th century. And the Southern colonies tried to replicate the social structure of conservative England with their school system.

Every society uses education to create the adults it hopes for. That is the goal of education. In America, we have many intertwined threads that correspond to authoritative versus authoritarian versus indulgent parenting styles – and a few unfortunate instances of negligent parenting in education. Much of the New England model can be thought of as authoritarian. Much of the treatment of Native American and African American students in the 19th century and parts of the 20th can also be considered authoritarian, with the unfortunate twist that those cultures were not well-served by a European-style authoritarian education. Some of the Middle Atlantic styles, for example the Quaker schools, can be considered authoritative. And some of the non-standard schools (Montessori, for example) can be considered indulgent.

Because Americans have resisted a national school system, and have generally championed state and local control, these various strains have all had their days at different places and times. In poorer places, especially with large numbers of minorities, education has often been focused on a vocational track. The notion that the scarce local resources should be used to teach marketable skills that anyone can acquire can be very attractive in that circumstance, with more abstract academics considered an unnecessary luxury. In more middle class areas, schools are focused on getting students into college – where training for professional careers are more the norm. Living conditions, along with personal values, often lead community leaders to modify their educational system to address the goals and needs of locals.

I do not think we will ever see a victor in what one could think of as a contest between Horace Mann and Allan Bloom. People have remarked that America’s constantly evolving foreign policy can be seen as tension between Wilsonian idealism, Jacksonian preservation of honor and populist values, Hamiltonian protection of commerce, and Jeffersonian protection of democratic values. Much the same set of personal values are played out in American education: the Wilsonian-like desire to use education to create an ideal person and an ideal society, the Jacksonian-like desire to have education reify a common culture, the Hamiltonian-like desire to have education create commercially productive adults, and the Jeffersonian-like desire to have education create engaged citizens.

The full-on Confucian attitude in that quote is possible in a society where universal education is not a mandate. In our society, it’s simply not a viable choice. For us, one of the larger questions is “How do we get more young people who want to be students?” One of my colleagues mentioned that his teaching philosophy was embodied in the title of a book that he had purchased, but not read: Teaching As A Performing Art. One of my professors has commented that as math teachers, we need to recognize that only a few of our students will be intrinsically interested in our topic. So we need to do our best to make the class time interesting. He is also very much an advocate for teaching for students to achieve mastery, and not just for a “hey, math can be a fun time.” So, on the teaching side of the relationship, we have a responsibility to make as much of our topic as interesting as possible. In America, we have spent the last few decades emphasizing the responsibilities of teachers. That’s completely reasonable, since we are the adults in the situation.

On the other hand, the Confucian attitude emphasizes the responsibilities of the student – that a desire to learn and a willingness to work are also necessary. The consequences of a widespread adoption of that mindset would be a wonderful thing.


I wrote this more than 4 years ago. My thinking now is that we could consider giving students a voucher for 13 years of education that they could redeem at any point. And we could have schools send home students who are simply unwilling or unable to behave in a way that’s appropriate for learning. When those students are more mature, they get to come to school. We may wish to modify the system so that 11 year old sixth graders are not in the same classroom as 18 year old sixth graders. But we could create a system where those older students, who are now ready to learn, would be given instruction. I believe that education is a something that should be available to all, but students who are not able to exercise that opportunity in a responsible way (or at least in a way that does not disrupt from the learning of others) should not be kept in a classroom. I really enjoy my situation now, where I am tutoring students on line. My students may not love math or physics, but they take seriously the effort to learn the subjects. I hated classroom management. I think that’s a pretty common situation for teachers. Get the immature students back into their homes (because we are told that schools aren’t warehouses) until the students and their families can take proper advantage of the opportunity that we as a society have decided to provide for all members.

About mutecypher

Old. Bold. Deal with it.
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