Commentary: Education for education's sake

Apr 23, 2013

I was struck by something Superintendent of Schools Mike Flanagan said yesterday at the Governor’s Education Summit.

This year’s summit was largely designed to examine how educators at all levels could better work with business to help students be ready for the careers for which there are jobs.

Nothing wrong with that, I suppose—up to a point. We probably need more high schools offering Chinese, for example.

Students in vocational education, or learning computer applications need to work on state-of-the-art technology. But I think having education be too narrowly focused is as ominous and scary as having kids insufficiently trained.

What Flanagan said that bothered me so much was this. “Most of us in education have grown up with an ethic that was something like this: Education for Education’s Sake. That’s just silly.”

Well, excuse me, Dr. Flanagan, but no, it’s not silly. There’s nothing wrong with education for education’s sake—if that means teaching people how to think, and how to learn.

There is also nothing wrong with knowing lots of things that are part of culture and civilization, even if they aren’t knowledge that can immediately be converted into cash.

The schools cannot possibly teach students how to cope with the technology or the tax structure that they’ll need to know in the year 2035, because we have no idea what that technology will be.

The woman with whom I share my life spends her days digitizing archives and designing and creating online catalogs for special library collections. These are not things she learned in high school or college, because the technology hadn’t been invented, and partly because she hadn’t developed an interest in that field.

Instead, she studied languages and comparative literature. She didn’t learn how to do modern computer coding till she was in her 50s. I didn’t study journalism until graduate school. But I studied other things that equipped my mind with a set of intellectual furniture and the tools to try to keep learning and figuring stuff out.

The governor was certainly correct yesterday when he said that students should be exposed to the world of business and manufacturing as part of their education, and should do internships whenever possible.

But whenever I hear people say that education should be geared to the needs of a particular set of employers or a specific job, I think of Aldous Huxley’s nightmare novel, "Brave New World," where humans were rigorously selected for certain tasks before birth, and the lower orders kept dumb and ignorant.

That was science fiction. But State Representative Ellen Cogen Lipton told me last week that she fears something like that might happen before long. She worries that the governor's Educational Achievement Authority, the state agency for underperforming schools, might evolve into something to create docile cogs for the needs of corporate America. Workers, for example, who think being locked into the factory during the day is perfectly fine.

Doug Rothwell, the CEO of Business Leaders for Michigan does understand what education is, and said so yesterday. “We need people with the skills to adapt to changes in their careers,” he said, adding, “A lot of that comes from a good liberal arts education.”

From where I sit, I couldn’t agree more.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.