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On the Supposed Importance of Education

By Roger Schank / May 2011

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On the Supposed Importance of Education

May 5, 2011

I hope my audience will excuse a personal story, but I feel that it illustrates some important misconceptions about education.

I had a discussion the other day with someone who remarked that some ethnic groups have always valued education, which helps their children succeed. Since I am a child of two parents with that attitude, I thought perhaps the story of my parents would be helpful for thinking about the real value of education.

My father's early life well exemplifies my friend's notion. My father grew up in the Catskill Mountains in New York where his parents owned a (very small) hotel. He graduated high school at 15. His mother simply sent him to college. She herself had never even been to high school (in Russia) as far as I know, but she knew he had to attend college. My grandmother had a sister in Brooklyn so he was sent, against his teenaged objections, to live with her. He was given no money and I doubt his mother even knew the name of any colleges, but somehow, quickly enough he was attending NYU and working as a coat checker in a night club. My father graduated at 19 and, following the lead of friends, enrolled at Columbia Law School, graduating at the ripe old age of 22.

My mother had more or less the opposite experience. Her older sister had gone to college (again NYU) and had, according their father, learned to smoke cigarettes there. Therefore my mother was not allowed to go to college, nor was she allowed even to graduate high school. Instead she was sent back to the old country (Hungary, in her case) to live with family.

We live in an age where it is seen as very important that one attend college and where the generally accepted idea is that college is on the road to success. Indeed, my mother made me go to college (at 16). I never had a choice. She always felt less than whole, and even unintelligent, because she had never attended.

Of course I have left out the ending of this story. I grew up without much money in cramped quarters because my father had a low paying civil service job with the State of New York. My life, and theirs, improved significantly when I was 11.My mother decided that I no longer needed her to stay home and be there for me. She went to work for her father; she had apprenticed with her father all her life. She knew how to run his business and became quite successful after her father died. She took over, expanded his business and suddenly we were all much better off financially.

Anyone who knew both of my parents would, I think, agree with what I am about to say.

My father was a very interesting and intelligent man. If you wanted a good conversation about history or about the issues of the day, he would have been the one to talk to. But, on the other hand, if you wanted advice about life or about a decision you were about to make, my mother was where you went. My father could talk about mistakes he had made and I indeed learned from what he had to say about that, but my mother was who I went to for daily advice, even as an adult.

John Adams said that education should teach one how to live and how to make a living. I wonder who was the more educated of my parents. The current definition of education, the one that values degrees over practical knowledge, clearly favors my father.

There is a lesson here for those of us who toil daily in the field of e-learning, of course.

We have a choice when we build e-learning courses. We can try to imitate traditional academic courses, emphasizing content and testing to make sure that the students in the course "know" the content. My father knew the content. He would have done fine in any e-learning course he took.

But, we have another choice and that is to think about what it means to be successful in life, or to be successful at one's job, or really what it means to function well in the real world. Such discussions always come down to what is often demeaned as "practical knowledge."

My mother would not have done well in most e-learning courses. She didn't know much content really. But I learned how to run a business from her, just by watching initially, and then by trying it out myself, just as she had done when learning from her father.

Learning (e or any kind really) is about practice and about non-conscious knowledge. The schools tell us that content matters because they know how to test content. E-learning programs need to be smarter than that if their intent is for students to actually get better at working or living.

About the Author
Roger C. Schank is one of the world's leading researchers in AI, learning theory, cognitive science, and the building of virtual learning environments. He is president and CEO of Socratic Arts, a company whose goal is to design and implement low-cost story-based learning by doing curricula in schools, universities, and corporations.


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