Knowledge is Not Power

27 Mar 2012

William Johnson for the New York Times

My best teachers, the ones I still think about today, exposed me to new and exciting ideas. They created classroom environments that welcomed discussion and intellectual risk-taking.

It wasn’t Ms. Leonard’s fault that 15-year-old me couldn’t process this lesson completely. She was planting seeds that wouldn’t bear fruit in the short term. That’s an important part of what we teachers do, and it’s the sort of thing that doesn’t show up on high-stakes tests.

Information is no longer cheap, it has become free: libraries were the beginning of this devaluation, but it was only when paired with the ease of access provided by the Internet that repositories of knowledge were able to radically transform human beings.

We have shed one aspect of our mortality and journeyed closer to the posthuman ideal: to be better, faster, stronger than those that came before us. Technologies are used in such a way that allows us to overcome natural selection. The contemporary human has near-instantaneous access to information, which brings into question the role that our educators fill. If we do not need the gift of memory (instead calling facts to our attention when we require them), is there still a need for the institution of school as it exists today?

This is how I view debates on education, although I am starting to realize that I may be in the minority on the subject: No Child Left Behind and the Race to the Top are programs guided by the belief that students need to know trigonometry and amphibian anatomy; teachers themselves are graded based on the number of students able to pass standardized tests; and extracurricular or non-standard programs are treated as frivolous and low priority. It is an education system that is rooted in the idea of knowledge as power, but by that standard, those with the fastest Internet connections should be the strongest of us all.

The Information Age has revealed to us how useless knowledge is without the capacity to understand it (and, understand it, to find a way to make use of it). Education is the process through which we are taught how to learn, not the passage of information from the knowledgable to the unknowing. Our teachers should not simply fill us with facts and numbers, as one would fill an empty glass. A good teacher is one that instills a drive to learn, that teaches ways to make use of knowledge, and that creates the capacity for curiosity and wisdom. This is not an easy task. Think back to those teachers (both in and out of the classroom) that fostered such tendencies in you: was it without struggle that they altered the path upon which you were on?

I am not claiming that all education occurs in a classroom. I am simply suggesting that we start all conversations about education policy from the question of what role we wish our instructors to fill: if we wish them to be merely glorified babysitters, watching over children and young adults that are incapable of being left alone, acknowledge the difficulties that come with such a job and pay them accordingly; if we desire curriculums that develop human beings capable of wisdom and greatness and beauty, fix the clearly apparently hurdles that prevent such educations, and pay the teachers accordingly for their services.

Or leave our education system as is: broken and without much merit. Most students will struggle along, meeting the minimum standards without ever recognizing any greater potential within themselves. A rare few will thrive despite the environment due mostly to the efforts of those who choose to instruct in spite of a thankless teaching environment. Is this what we want our schools to look like?

(Via Matt Thomas)