There is a problem with education in this country. It isn’t the usual suspects of cost, class size, teacher workloads, mediocre test scores, or Common Core. No, the problem goes much deeper and is reflective of a societal change in attitude concerning the purpose of education: learning. We have allowed ourselves to misapprehend the structure of the thing (education) for the thing itself (learning). When we think “education” we think nice and tidy classes, desks, lectures, tests – a regimen. We don’t think unplanned conversations, spontaneous readings, curiosity driven experimentation. Learning is the random walk of the ant who never knows what he’ll discover. Education is the regimented march of the military battalion. We have become so accustomed to the structure of the former that we fear anything that differs (homeschooling, un-schooling, etc). If we want worker bee drones to work in our factories then perhaps regimented education is the best approach. But if we want free minds to push the boundaries of human knowledge then it is learning, and not education, that we should encourage.
Learning flourishes where the individual is not prohibited from following their passion and curiosity. Today an ever-growing plethora of rules and regulations smother the spark of curiosity that would otherwise ignite a passion for learning. This process has been slowly accelerating over the past few decades. I’ve seen this change in my own lifetime. My science fair project in high school utilized (expired) human blood as part of the experimental procedure. Today the hysteria over “blood born pathogens” would make such a project either impossible or a regulatory nightmare. Fear is what drives all these ridiculous restrictions. In recent days fear has once again struck, this time to new heights of stupidity. The recent arrest of Ahmed Mohamed at his school for making a homemade digital clock (that some mistook for a Hollywood-esque bomb) is symptomatic of this anti-learning pro-education-only-as-we-define-it mentality. After it became abundantly clear the device in question was not a “bomb” the entire matter should have been dropped perhaps only to be reflected upon years later as a humorous anecdote. But that is not what happened. Despite it being a mere clock, Ahmed was still handcuffed, arrested, and hauled off to jail. Although the charges were eventually dropped the school has still suspended him, for what it is unclear. Some have claimed this is evidence of an anti-Muslim attitude in this country, unfortunately I think it is indicative of something far worse: anti-intellectualism. Those that do things we don’t understand are scary and must be stopped. Time to start passing laws to restrict access to electronic parts – that will keep us safe.
This fear driven anti-intellectualism has already infected the natural sciences at the K-12 level. Some wonder why science is on the decline in this country, but when it comes to the venerable science fair a mountain of regulations scares off all but the most persistent or well-connected students interested in chemistry or biology. Both of my sons have gone through the science fair process and the message was loud and clear: unless you enjoy filling out forms and getting multiple approvals, choose a topic in an area other than biology or chemistry. Science in this country is dying a slow death of attrition. With each new generation there is yet another layer of regulation winnowing away those that pursue that path until one day I suspect one will need a law degree before they can even consider a science career.
I will offer up one more personal example. When my father was a teenager he actually made nitroglycerin. Why? He was fascinated by chemistry and wanted to see if he could do it (he discreetly detonated it in his backyard when done, much to the chagrin of my grandmother!) My point is that today if he could even manage to get his hands on the starting materials he’d be branded a domestic terrorist and thrown in jail. But because he was fortunate enough to live in a time when society was not so fearful and uptight, he took that passion for chemistry and turned it into a career that eventually gave rise to one of the few remaining US manufacturers with worldwide sales. People ask “where are all the jobs going?” – they aren’t going anywhere, they are being aborted before they ever even had a chance. Every rule and regulation or absurd response smothers a student’s curiosity and quenches the possibility of future companies and jobs. As with cancer, it is the damage we do not see that is far more insidious.