4/9/2011 19:28

Fundamentals of Education

We tend to look for what is fundamental in education in the various subjects to be taught to students -- in the proverbial reading, writing, and arithmetic, for example. But if education is to be true to its etylmology and lead people out of childhood into responsible adulthood, it must do something more fundamental. I propose four basic skills.

The skill of receiving information is first. For human society to function, its members must be able to discover what others know, and what they need and want. For society to persist, the young must receive traditions, knowledge, customs, and skills from previous generations. We expect our citizens to be able to read books and ballots, to listen to campaigns and conversations, to watch movies, hear music, and follow maps.

An active citizen is presenting ideas to others, contributing to society by sharing information and opinion. The educated person therefore learns to write, to speak, to draw, to perform.

Questioning is the third basic skill. The educated person is constantly asking whether assertions are true and positions are consistent, whether programs are helpful or informants are reliable, what more there is to be known on any given topic. The basic skill of questioning expresses the recognition that none of us are omniscient and that each of us and all of us -- individually and together -- can grow more informed and more competent.

Asking questions leads naturally to verifying the answers. Educated people search out reliable sources, conduct experiments, perform calculations, and take careful account of events in order to validate our understanding of actual reality.

I offer these four, receiving, presenting, questioning, and verifying, as the true "basic skills" of the educated citizen. Specific techniques must be used to implement these skills. For example, reading English prose is one specific technique for receiving information from others; oil painting is a technique for presenting ideas to others.

(A single technique may be used in the service of multiple skills. David Haines uses poetic English composition in presenting philosophical and scientific questioning in his song "Bacteria" in the choral work "Powers of Ten" when he writes, "What am I in truth? What am I in reality? When only one in 10 of my cells in genetically humanity?" Haines' work represents multiple skills exercised in concert -- and performed in a concert.)

There are higher skills which are built over the basic skills. I think of the skill of cooperating to accomplish a goal by working in concert with other people as exemplified in sport, theater, and management. I think of the skill of anticipating future needs through planning, legislation, or design. These skills are secondary only in the sense that they depend on mastery of the four basic skills; they are in no way secondary in their importance to society.

I would like to see elementary and secondary education reformed on the basis of these basic and secondary skills.