School – that business of sitting at a desk among thirty or so others

Okay, so he wrote it some 15 years ago, but what Kieran Egan had to say in his The Educated Mind (1998) still seems relevant and readable! He wrote:

Education is one of the greatest consumers of public money in the Western world, and it employs a larger workforce than almost any other social agency. The goals of the education system – to enhance the competitiveness of nations and the self-fulfillment of citizens – are supposed to justify the immense investment of money and energy. School – that business of sitting at a desk among thirty or so others, being talked at, mostly boringly, and doing exercises, tests, and worksheets, mostly boring, for years and years and years – is the instrument designed to deliver these expensive benefits. Despite, or because of, the vast expenditures of money and energy, finding anyone inside or outside the education system who is content with its performance is difficult. Many task forces, commissions, and reports have documented the inadequacies of schools throughout the Western world and have proposed even more numerous remedies. The diagnoses of illness are so many and the recommended remedies so varied that politicians and educational authorities cannot address the evident deficiencies with much confidence of success or of general support.
Consider the community school along with other major institutions that developed into their modern forms in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The factory, the hospital, the prison, and the school have become prominent and integral components of twentieth century societies in the West. The factory [-p.10] and the hospital are generally accepted as successful institutions. There may be arguments about whether American, Scandinavian, or Japanese styles of manufacturing are more efficient or socially desirable, or about iatrogenic diseases and ‘spiralling health care costs,’ but generally these institutions are viewed as being well designed to achieve their proper aims. Prisons are more problematic. They were developed in the West to achieve two aims – to punish and to rehabilitate. The problem is, these aims are not entirely compatible, the more a conscientious civil servant tries to achieve one, the more difficult it is to do the other.
In the case of the modern school, three distinctive aims have attended its development. It is expected to serve as a significant agency in socializing the young, to teach particular forms of knowledge that will bring about a realistic and rational view of the world, and to help realize the unique potential of each child. These goals are generally taken to be consistent with one another, somewhat overlapping, and mutually supportive. …however, each of these aims is incompatible in profound ways with the other two. As with prisons’ aims to punish and to rehabilitate, the more we work to achieve one of the schools’ aims, the more difficult it becomes to achieve the others.” (pp.9-10)

Ref: Kieran Egan (1998) The Educated Mind: How cognitive tools shape our understanding. The University Of Chicago Press: Chicago and London

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About backyardbooks

This blog is a kind of electronic storage locker for ideas and quotes that inform my research... literary research into fiction for young adults (with a special focus on New Zealand fiction). Kiwis are producing amazing literature for younger readers, but it isn't getting the academic appreciation it deserves. I hope readers of this blog can make use of the material I gather and share by way of promoting our fiction. Cheers!
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