For Wittenberg Academy Michaelmas Term Newsletter, 2017.
“That’s just academic. What about the real world?” If you are in middle school or above, you have surely heard that question. It assumes that there is an insuperable wall of separation between the academic and the practical, that never the twain can meet. There is the academic, which is completely irrelevant to everyday life. There is, on the other hand, that which is real. The real is completely divorced from the academic.
I wax poetic, but, in fact, this topic calls for a certain amount of vigor. It is sadly not entirely false when we say that academic work can prove impractical and that practical understanding is often far separated from anything we would learn in school.
In the past two decades, mostly spent on the teacher end of academia, I’ve probably worked with about 5,000 students, not to mention those I’ve known personally and professionally in my work as a parish and campus pastor. Here’s what I’ve noticed about teachers and parents. Most of us would really like students to “play the school game.”
What is this school game? Hockey? Golf? No, not at all. The school game we would like students to play is that of docile compliance disguised as eager curiosity. We want our students to seem really excited and interested. But we want them to be excited and interested about the subject we are teaching, in the direction we are teaching it, using the resources we are making them use.
To some extent, playing the school game effectively is a good thing. There’s some wisdom in using the methods and resources recommended by a master teacher. I observe that during 20 years of teaching Latin, the only students who did badly in my classes, in follow-up classes, and on nationally normed tests were the students who chose to focus their efforts on something other than the priorities I urged upon them. They needed remediation, while those who played along with me would fit into anyone else’s Latin classes also.
What kind of end goals do we find when someone plays the school game? We see some great results, like good grades, a strong class rank, and high SAT scores. We usually count it as a success when our students end up with good scholarships to prestigious academic institutions. We like to hear that they find themselves in positions of influence and respect as they continue through life. And we do hear about it. After all, those people who were 20 year old undergraduates in 2000 are now getting pretty close to 40 and are well established in their careers. It’s great to hear what they are up to!
These are all good things, but they aren’t always strong predictors of what we normally consider “real world success.” The person who plays the school game well might run into trouble on a more practical level. For example, I’ve seen suggestions of practical education on social media in the last few years. Maybe we should have school classes in cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, growing a garden, fixing a faucet, and changing a tire on a car.
There are a few problems with these suggestions. First of all, there are many teachers and students who will remind you that we still have courses in cooking, household management, horticulture, and mechanics. They are underenrolled and underfunded, but they do exist.
There’s a much deeper problem with the suggestion. That is related to the appropriate roles and responsibilities of our educational institutions. Is it the job of the school teacher to be sure you know how to get your clothes clean? How about Dad or Mom? Do you really need a school class to tell you how to change a tire? There’s no teacher like a flat tire and a rainstorm. That teacher can even persuade you that you want to keep your tires in good shape so as to avoid trouble in the future.
Some people would suggest a more radical change. “Ditch all that book learning. It just makes you stupid!” In other words, we might have a temptation to take an entirely pragmatic approach to education. Teach people skills. Teach them to work with their hands. Teach them by moving them into the work force and get them active with something useful.
A pragmatic view of education starts by asking what skills are needed. It then teaches those skills so the laborer can engage in productive effort to achieve a measurable goal. This seems almost like factory labor. In fact, advocates of these systems will talk about “productive units.” It’s been tried before. It will be tried again. And there’s some value to mastery of specific concrete skills. However, when this is done in a vacuum it has always produced obedient and servile revolutionaries incapable of weighing theoretical options or outcomes. Think of drone bees who will slavishly do what their elite masters tell them to do. But it’s actually much worse than that. These workers don’t only do what they are told, they also think what they are told.
Given time, this sort of pragmatic education always falls to pieces. Putting it poetically, Dr. Gene Edward Veith once said in my hearing, “The problem with pragmatic education is that it doesn’t work.”
What can we do instead? We want practical skills. We want intellectual power. How can this be done? We find a truly balanced education as we purposely apply knowledge to life situations.
This is harder than it seems. That’s probably why it is done so rarely. A well rounded education will give students a strong knowledge base. The class will know a lot of facts and figures, names, dates, and ideas. But those facts, figures, names, dates, and ideas are not the goal of education. The goal is to be able to use all the information in a meaningful way. The application may be to complete a circuit which powers the stove rather than giving the homeowner a jolt of electric current. We might find simpler or more complex applications of our knowledge - nutrition, physics, recognizing historical problems and solutions, finding what has moved people’s emotions in the past, recognizing whether a creature is a different species or a variant of the same species, and deciding whether or not it is a good idea to use two chemical substances together. We apply our knowledge of history to new political and cultural ideas. We apply our knowledge of logic to legal propositions. We take information and apply it.
Sometimes our work is very practical and concrete, such as the time my friend and I became tired of waiting for his moving crew to help load a piano, so we did it ourselves. The four guys who arrived later were speechless when we told them, “It’s just science.” All we did was account for a few variables and calculate how much leverage we needed. It worked out fine.
Sometimes our work is much less concrete. We may find ourselves asking or answering “what if” questions in theology or philosophy. However, we use the same procedures, procedures which build on what we learned in school.
These real world situations demand intelligent, well-reasoned planning and actions. If we are busy honing those skills in school we will be prepared for all sorts of challenges. That includes getting good grades, a fine class rank, great SAT scores, and even solving really difficult problems.
The fact is, it’s all academic. It’s also all practical. Just a matter of application. Are we ready for school? Maybe we’d better ask if we’re ready for life. Once we’re ready for life, real life, then school is not a problem.