Education is the way to freedom
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 11 October 2003)

Lives there anyone with heart so cruel that it never bleeds over the sorrows of teachers? Everything works against them. In a society that believes hard-cover books are overpriced but basketball shoes are not, teachers must persuade young people that history, geometry and Shakespeare deserve attention. Teaching is the easiest job in the world until you try it; then it quickly becomes the hardest. Few professions are so likely to induce despair. Even so, many brave souls persist, and so civilization endures.

As new or newish governments in Quebec, Ontario and Ottawa consider their responsibilities in the next few months, we'll hear more arguments about what governments do and don't do for education. Politicians and journalists will speak of funding formulas, class size, deteriorating buildings, objective tests. Unions will complain about overworked, underpaid teachers.

Such things matter, but I suspect we concentrate on them partly because we don't know how to talk about what counts most. That would be, of course, our common attitude to education and what it takes to get one. If we start thinking along those lines, we may decide that the flaw in our education system lies in the social environment that we collectively tolerate.

Woody Allen expressed it in Crimes and Misdemeanors, when the character he played took his niece to the movies. She was playing hooky, so he said: "While we're waiting for a cab I'll give you your lesson for today. Don't listen to what your teachers tell ya, you know. Don't pay attention. Just, just see what they look like ...." His message: If you want to turn out like one of those pathetic losers, then do your schoolwork.

That's an outrageous and anti-social idea. Still, we who watched the film just smiled knowingly, proving what Hitchcock always said: Audiences have no morals, we can be as crass and brutal as anyone on the screen. The Allen character (speaking Allen's own thoughts, I imagine) was giving aid and comfort to the enemy. He was reinforcing the peer pressure that can turn high schools into places where you learn not to let teachers and education bother you. An adolescent who absorbs the rampant anti-intellectualism in the schools can spend years idly turning the pages of books without ever glimpsing the central lesson that the books (and the best teachers) try to convey: Education lies, above all, in the hands of the student. Teachers help, but students educate themselves.

At a recent academic dinner, someone described me as an autodidact. As a notorious high-school dropout, I pleaded guilty. But I also argued that all education (as opposed to training) is self-education. Students choose what they want from what the world (meaning everything from algebra teachers to public libraries to TV shows) offers. They decide for themselves what they will learn, and their success will depend on resisting the pressure to see education the way that Woody Allen character saw it.

Interestingly, black writers discussing this problem often see it as peculiar to black communities. Henry Louis Gates of Harvard, for whom museums were a major source of education, was appalled when a survey of black kids revealed that they never visited museums because they consider that a white thing to do. In The New York Times recently, Bob Herbert wrote about the anguish of young blacks who discover they have insulted their peers by going to university. He described a black woman from Washington, D.C., who went off to college and then discovered that lifelong friends back home had turned against her. "You're acting white now," one said. Herbert claimed that this perverse pressure holds back "large numbers of black Americans, especially black boys and men." Most of it is too subtle to be quantified. It emerges mainly in small talk -- but, as Herbert said, "These are not small issues. They are the day-to-day reality for millions of people."

True, no doubt, and perhaps a special burden for blacks. But the attitudes Gates and Herbert describe sound much like those you can encounter among young North Americans in general. Somehow, we have lost the ability to convince children and adolescents that education is the way to freedom. We have let them think that education will constrict them with its demand for discipline. One of our great teachers, the late Northrop Frye, argued the reverse, and expressed it not through what he found easy, reading books, but through what he found hard, his lifelong private study of the piano. Pianists know the endless patience it takes to turn conscious learning into unconscious skill. But once it's done, or partly done, they begin to experience the intense pleasures of spontaneity. Only the educated, they realize, know how to take liberties with the rules. Frye's conclusion should be on the wall of every school: "Education, then, is a movement toward the spontaneous, not a movement away from it."

That's a toweringly significant truth that we find hard to describe to the young. Somehow, though, we must build it into our shared public consciousness. Perhaps our greatest problem in education, greater even than money, is conveying how it works.

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