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The End of Education

by Russell Hvolbek - February 06, 2012

I argue that as we absorb the socio-economic values of our age, an age ruled by business, we have drifted away from what we in the educational community should be doing: teaching students to think, to see, to read, and to write.

Education as a dwelling in the human experience of reality is ending. As with the Roman Empire, it is ending with a whimper, not a bang.

The root of the problem is that we have absorbed the socio-economic and intellectual values of our age, an age ruled by business and science. The pragmatic values of business and science have become the values of our educational practices. Within these two orientations there is little understanding of and no place for the life enhancing studies of philosophy, history, literature, and the arts. Today we train students. A practical utility determines our thinking.

Pragmatic and useful things, of course, are easy to evaluate and quantify, but when the useful is quantified it precipitates a judgment: 5,500 square foot houses are superior to 1,500 square foot houses. An “A” is superior to a “B” and an “A” student is superior to a “B” student. Measurements. Judgments. The accountant’s truths are what are now deemed important.

That the accountant’s truths seem clear and distinct to us is a statement about the seriousness of the problem. For such ideas have become our common sense. The objectifications we now deem as truths are merely the dominating judgments our age. We have forgotten that they are all based upon ingrained and unanalyzed prejudices, and that every judgment is a statement about the values of the person making the judgment. Today we have fallen in love with objectively quantifying reality and see it as a solution to our problems. Today students are judged and judge themselves based upon such pitiful scales, the scales of measurement.

Moreover, the goals of business humans are to make money and do it as efficiently and quickly as possible. They desire exact facts and data to help them make money. Business humans live for a goal.

We have created educational institutions that do the same. We have reduced education into a goal, a goal that is antithetical to education itself. Our educational practices are ruled by haste, guided by the belief that acquiring information is important, but simultaneously and contradictorily that the information serves a higher end, viz., getting a good grade; which in turn serves a higher end: getting into college; which in turn serves a higher end: getting a good job; which in turn serves a higher end: getting a house on Mullholand.

This prevents students from entering into the process of learning itself. They are taught to learn information for a reason ulterior to learning itself: a grade. This alienates them from the simple joy of learning, an activity that is a process and cannot be quantified. Examinations are reduced to the recollection of data and facts as though disparate data can fascinate anyone, much less be retained.


Learning for an objectively determined social goal has serious consequences: It justifies cheating and lying and deceptions of all kinds. Why not cheat if the only concern is the grade?

There are personal consequences to this orientation. Since we all become what we do, when we cheat, lie, and deceive for our goal, we become cheaters, liars, and deceivers in quest of our goals. Barry Bonds ended up playing baseball for the record books, not for the love of the sport. Cheating the system was justified and rewarded with fame and the money that our social and business values dictate as our ultimate success.

The reduction of things to the quantifiable and to an end makes shallow a world that is deep; it makes dull a species that should be complex; it makes unthinking, uninvolved humans; it reduces human life to quantities: more money, more fame; more things, higher test scores. We aren’t interested in education; we are interested in getting things out of what passes for education.

Strangely, even in educational institutions the word education is not analyzed. It is a word that everyone believes they clearly understand. Like the words love, spirit, evil, justice, the word education fits easily into each and every culture’s biases, into each and every human’s prejudices. Thus it flits between being used by anyone and everyone for their own benefit.

The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, responding to what he saw as the dismal state of education in Germany after Bismarck unified the Reich, writes that an education is learning to see, to think, to read, and to write.

These are fundamental and powerful words, and they can be applied to any subject in the educational curriculum. In every subject students need to learn how to see, to think, to read, and to write.

Let us think about these words. They are all verbs. They are not like our goal-oriented cultural assumptions about education that posit goals as the point of education. Verbs are not closed, exact words. They are not facts, and they are not mere information. Verbs designate activities. This means that education is an activity, a process, and an ongoing involvement done for the sake of the involvement itself. When one applies oneself to this task, this thinking and seeing what thinking and seeing might be, one is in the process of being a student. One begins to get an education when one initiates the process of seeing and thinking.

Nietzsche elaborates by writing: “to see” means “accustoming the eye to calmness, to patience, to letting things come up to it postponing judgment, learning to go around and grasp each individual case from all sides … not to react at once to a stimulus, but to gain control of all the inhabiting, excluding instincts. Learning to see, as I understand it, is . . . called a strong will: the essential feature is precisely not to ‘will’—to be able to suspend decision.” In education, haste is not the path.

Thus education in all matters demands openness to the other and not imposing a knee-jerk opinion upon the subject matter. The subject must be allowed to teach the student.

When one learns to see one will have become altogether “slow, mistrustful, recalcitrant. One will let strange, new things of every kind come up to oneself.” Seeing is to lie “servilely on one’s stomach before every little fact, always prepared for the leap of putting oneself into the place of, or of plunging into others and other things.”

Seeing allows oneself to be struck by the seen, the other, the flowers, the poem.

In this sense, seeing requires that we forget the name of the thing being seen.

All objectivity is bad taste, merely a symptom of one or another prejudice. The businessman may want objectivity. The student wants nuance.

Thinking, writing and reading are separate but similar skills that must be learned. “Thinking wants to be learned like dancing, as a kind of dancing.” “One must be able to dance with one’s feet, with concepts, with words.” Writing is learning to dance with a pen, a brush, a basketball, on a wrestling mat or on a soccer field. Reading is learning to dance with a text, a mathematical formula, a technique, a physics equation, an atom.

What a strange point! Dancing? Reading, writing, and sports are a type of dance? Yes. Dancing is relating, it is being moved by the other and moving with the other. Dancing is a relationship of movement, a relationship of evolving steps and meanings. Education is an evolving dance with intellectual ideas.

In conclusion, the fact that students are not getting educated is not their fault. They were weaned into these socio-cultural values. Students are not participating in their education. Students are being trained to live for goals and new electronic devices. Goals have become a narcotic that society accepts as education, which they are not.

Education is not chasing a grade. It is not chasing a college or a job. If you do that you may get what you want, an “A” or a “B,” but you will never be educated. An education is a process. It has a beginning but no end. It continues throughout life. It is learning to see and think.

Ultimately an education is a deep unfolding involvement with life here on earth. The deeper the involvement in seeing and thinking, the more complex is the dance in which you participate.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 06, 2012
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16686, Date Accessed: 5/25/2022 11:54:39 AM

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