Back to the roots of education

If you ask most people in Academia, we are living in Dark Times. It’s the age of Stackable Credentials and Verifiable Skills, of the “professionalization” of university leadership, standardization and fragmentation of the curriculum, and denigration of expertise. We didn’t ask for it, but knowledge- and skill-acquisition are being steadily off-loaded from Academia onto other types of institutions. It’s the End.

Actually, I have a somewhat different view. Knowledge- and skill-acquisition were not historically the end of education, but a means to transformative experience. The purpose of education, for dead guys like Plato, was the formation of a certain type of character, involving the reorientation of the soul. Knowledge is important, but not the last word. Even the etymology of education tells this story: e (out) + ducere (to lead) = to lead someone out. It’s worth some thought. Out of what? Out of the confines of a smaller self? Out of the provincialism of a specific place? Out of the myopia of this moment in history?

At a particular moment, we began to realize that the “character” at which we were aiming in the transformative experience of education is itself constraining, merely one version of what it is to be human (mostly white, privileged, wealthy values and aspirations), instead of asking the hard question What values should inform the transformative experience of education?, we seem to have retreated to Education was never about transformation to begin with. That’s when an education started to mean knowledge and skills, adrift in the specificity of locations in time and geography. What is the self, if there ever was one? 

Meanwhile, in our daily engagements, most of us spend at least some of our time presuming that we are selves who have lives to manage.

We may have another chance. Your phone, where practically any knowledge is available in the next YouTube video, offers us an unnerving, unwanted opportunity to join Plato in the conversation: What is education for? Is knowledge enough? Can we still believe in striving for excellence?

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