Modern Education is a Cargo Cult

I originally published this on Svbtle on February 26, 2013. I’m republishing some of my older content here to create a single repository of material.

The American education system is slipping, mostly because we don’t understand what education is anymore.

At the end of World War II, as the American military departed from the Pacific theater, some intrepid island cultures began mimicking American behavior in the hopes of attracting blessings from the sky in the form of supply drops. They cut airstrips into the jungle, built imitation planes and control towers out of wood, and dressed and marched in military style. These “cargo cults” believed that they could induce positive results by recreating the associated circumstances, never realizing that the circumstances were just byproducts of the real cause.

The modern education system is a cargo cult. We’ve identified the positive traits that lead to an educated citizenry – reading comprehension! math skills! social studies! – but forgotten that they are mere byproducts of something deeper. Without having developed a love of learning for its own sake, our students will be lost.

Education isn’t supposed to be pragmatic. Treating it as a means to an end is missing the point. It isn’t about getting good at a skill, it’s about becoming a better person. It isn’t about learning to do, it’s about learning to be.

We instill our children with the belief that education is a stepping stone to bigger things: a better job, a bigger paycheck, a nicer car. We’re cultivating a view of education as nothing more than vocational training, drained of its intrinsic value.

Learning a trade is worthwhile, but as an education it’s incomplete. Well-roundedness comes from exposure to a variety of fields. In classical civilization, the liberal arts were considered essential to the development of a free – liber – human. We’ve reduced it to a half-implemented afterthought next to its diploma-mill counterparts.

Our schools are great at teaching students how and what to learn. We need to start teaching students why to learn.

It can’t just be “to get a better job.” That’s the kind of mercenary thinking that got us where we are now. Education exists for its own sake, and any other benefits are a bonus. We need to instill a love of learning in students as soon as they enter school. If our students want to learn, nothing in the world can stop them from figuring out the rest.

Addendum: To give credit where credit is due, there are some fantastic teachers who have devoted themselves to developing their students’ love of learning. In my (admittedly limited) experience, their efforts usually fly in the face of the school administration’s policies. The teachers who had the biggest impact in my life were those who said “screw it” to the administration, who didn’t care about teaching to the standardized curriculum, and instead taught us what they thought would edify and enrich our lives. I will be forever grateful to those teachers for helping to shape who I am.