The Primary Failure of Modern Education

There are many criticisms that can be made of the present system of Western education, which, in both its form and objectives, has been greatly influenced by the false ideas of that ignoramus Plato, who was thoroughly corrupted by his teacher and hero, Socrates, to the grave detriment of vast numbers of people in succeeding ages around the world, even unto the present age. That our modern system of education has been so greatly influenced by the ideas and beliefs of an ignorant man who lived more than two thousand years ago shows how little we understand about these important matters.

Chief among the many faults of modern education is that so many students leave school with little or no desire to read books. In ancient times, only a tiny portion of the human population was able to read, both because of the difficulty of acquiring this skill and the scarcity of books and other reading materials. Although modern education has succeeded in teaching the majority of students how to read, it has not been nearly as successful in transforming them into lifelong readers, which very clearly should be one of the main goals of any system of education. When one compares the amount of time that people spend in school to the much greater time which they spend outside of school, both when they are going to school and after they have finished their studies, this is a serious failure.

Reading is not simply another of the many different activities that people perform in their spare time, such as watching movies or television, surfing the Internet, listening to music, travelling, exercising, playing sports, dining in restaurants, going out, attending musical, social, artistic, or sporting events, and so on. For reading, at least in the case of factual, informative, accurate, and well-written books about history, politics, economics, biography, science, and other topics, is a way for people to increase their understanding of both their and other people’s behaviour, the society they live in and their place in the world, acquire new skills and interests, and remain informed of important discoveries, developments, currents of thought, and criticisms of widespread beliefs and practices. Moreover, continuing to perform this activity throughout their lives is vital so that people can fulfill their civic duties as citizens of a democratic society, which includes voting to choose their leaders. A people that is well-informed is more likely to choose a good leader, while a people that is ignorant and easily swayed or manipulated is more likely to choose a bad or unqualified leader.

In a capitalist society that is saturated with marketing and advertising images, books are among the last bastions that are free from the advertising and media manipulation that many of us are constantly subjected to in our daily lives, at times without our being aware of it. Those who primarily gain their information about the world from television, newspapers, and the Internet often have a distorted view of the world, which is due to the insidious media – or corporate, since many media companies, whether they are television, movie, or newspaper companies, are owned by large corporations and operated in accordance with their narrow corporate agendas – manipulation of our desires, opinions, tastes, standards, and beliefs. Hence, this widespread educational failure is also a civic and societal failure, with implications in many different areas, such as in politics, economics, commerce, people’s health, the way we raise our children, and our social and personal relationships.

In order to keep learning after a person’s formal schooling ends, the most important practice is that one continues to read, just as a person needs to keep eating if one is to maintain one’s bodily weight and physical well-being. Moreover, one needs to be able to distinguish between good, well-written, and independent books from books that are trendy, sensational, worthless, or merely a printed form of propaganda. Provided one performs this activity with interest and pleasure, one will retain some of the book’s contents, ideas, facts, criticisms, and so forth. Even if one doesn’t understand or remember everything in a book, it can be reread if one thinks the book merits this effort. But instead, a great many people stop reading books once they finish school because they derive no pleasure from this activity. Of course, there are other reasons for this deplorable result, including the invention of new mediums of communication and alternative forms of entertainment, such as cinema, radio, television, video games, the Internet, popular music, and so on, which compete with books for people’s time and attention. But there is also the obvious fact that most people enjoy performing these other activities more than they enjoy reading books, which is why so many people don’t read books. So why do so many people, including those who have received what is considered to be a good education, dislike reading books?

Instead of simply encouraging students to read good books, in the present educational system, they are forced to study books, in particular those groan-inducing paperweights, bag-fillers, and tree cemeteries known as textbooks. This has a number of unfortunate and undesirable consequences: first, it greatly reduces the speed at which they read, which in turn reduces or eliminates their pleasure at reading. However, in the case of most books, their contents do not need to be memorized, especially considering the ease with which information can be looked up nowadays on the Internet. It is only to do well on tests that one needs to study and memorize things; but tests are artificial educational constructions that often have little relation to a person’s competence, whether to perform a certain occupation or the possession of certain skills. For example, making students memorize grammatical rules in the belief that this will help them learn a foreign language is a very common but largely useless practice, since many people who learn a language in this manner have little or no ability to speak or understand it. Even students who score well on a written language test may be deplorably incompetent when it comes to speaking or understanding the language. In the past, those who knew facts precisely and made a point of correcting other people’s mistakes were called pedants, a term that was dismissive. In the classroom, most teachers are forced, by the dominant Platonic educational system, to behave like Socratic pedants, by imitating that pompous ass Socrates, who greatly annoyed many of his fellow citizens with his incessant questions, and his dogmatic insistence that he knew better than everyone else how they should live their lives.

The practice of studying, or fixing certain things in one’s memory, is not necessarily good or even necessary, for it gives an undue preponderance in one’s brain to certain facts, ideas, thoughts, and beliefs. When these things are wrong, such as is true of much of psychology, sociology, and economics, then this practice is obviously bad. But even when they are true, this is not always good because of the effect of selective bias, since emphasizing only certain facts or features about the world can give students a false impression, picture, or understanding of the world. This is nowhere more evident than in all our mediums of communication, which show a highly abnormal incidence of images and voices of other human beings, which gives many people an extremely distorted impression about the importance of our species in the world and Universe. In addition, when a person reads a work too often or too intently, this can lead to fanaticism and intolerance, whether in the case of sacred texts like the Bible or Koran, or in the case of secular texts like Karl Marx’s Das Kapital.

Instead of studying and memorizing, which process makes reading slower and less enjoyable, children and adults should simply read books. By making reading an unpleasant, irksome, joyless, dreary, tedious, and obligatory task for many students, education has failed these students in an important way. The belief that one can make students understand the meaning of a given text is tantamount to believing that one can make their brains grow in exactly the ways one wants them to grow. But, like any living thing or process, true learning that becomes part of the way the student views and understands the world is an organic process, and therefore it cannot be forced or controlled in such a rigid, predictable manner. Just as a farmer or gardener can only provide the suitable conditions for a plant to grow, a teacher can only provide the suitable conditions for learning to take place. Chief among these is stimulating and encouraging the desire to learn, which in turn is dependent on the desire to read good, useful, factual, and informative books. To kill the desire to read in students, as the present educational system so often does, with the result that many of them never read another useful, informative, and accurate book during the remainder of their lives, is an educational crime of the highest order.

The method of lecturing in front of a group of students, while they busily try to record everything the lecturer says, is a method that was employed in ancient Greece by such luminaries as Aristotle. But this archaic and inefficient method, since the student has no opportunity to stop the lecturer if one misses something that is said, could be replaced by providing the students with the text of the lecture and, during the class time, making them copy out the text by hand while they hear a recording of the lecturer reading the text. In my opinion, this would be a more efficient and accurate method of making them transcribe these notes in their own handwriting. Later, once they have had the opportunity to read their notes and try to understand their contents, they could question the professor about the things they don’t understand.

Ideally, the result of education should resemble a sticky spider’s web, which consists of a series of interconnected threads that are able to catch any insect – or retain a fact or piece of information, in the analogous case – that flies into it, provided, of course, the insect is not too large – or the information is not too complex or unfamiliar to what the student already knows. The neural connections that result from memorizing certain facts that are contained in a textbook in order to pass a test or examination are different from the neural connections that result from reading, with interest and pleasure, many different books, papers, articles, and other materials on a subject. The human brain is a living organ, and instead of being filled with dead, inert, and disconnected facts that are regurgitated during tests or exams, after which, in many cases, they are forgotten because they have no relevance or practical value in the student’s life, it should instead resemble a tree, which incorporates elements from its environment into itself, while it constantly grows, year after year, throughout its long life, by absorbing nutrients, water, and sunlight, in a complex but highly organized manner. Moreover, just as a tree can lose a limb and survive this loss, the brain needs to be able to adapt, such as when it discovers that something which it was taught is true turns out to be false, or a person whom one thought was trustworthy or reliable turns out to be untrustworthy or unreliable.

This is the important difference between a person who can apply and connect the things one has learned to one’s personal life and the world one lives in, and someone who is unable to do these things. Many of us know individuals who have received little formal education but are able to figure things out on their own and learn to do things that we cannot do; conversely, we also know individuals who are highly educated in a formal way but have little or no practical sense, and are deficient, sometimes maddeningly so, in that quality called practical or common sense. Although some teachers tell their students the importance of applying what they are taught to the real world, they fail to understand that, for the most part, this is not a voluntary process. Whether or not one will be able to do so depends primarily on the manner in which one has been educated – whether one has been forced to memorize and regurgitate a large number of dead and disconnected facts during one’s schooling, or whether one’s brain, a truly astonishing living organ that is capable of doing so many different things, but only if it is fed in the right way, is allowed to grow naturally and organically, and thereby assimilate new information and abilities into its constantly growing and highly complex mass of neurons and neural connections.

Once students have learned how to read, in order to guide them, they should be provided with a list of good books, suitable to their reading ability and comprehension, so they do not waste their time reading the many books that are insignificant, outdated, wrong, poorly written, biased, trendy and of the moment but will quickly become irrelevant and forgotten, or may mislead them by inculcating in them erroneous beliefs or bad habits and practices. What is absolutely essential is that the child’s pleasure at the activity of reading be enhanced rather than diminished or destroyed, as it frequently is during their formal education. Moreover, this practice will show the student how many books there are, and how much there is that one does not yet know. The present system, which summarizes all the important facts and theories in a field of knowledge in long, heavy, and generally dreary textbooks, deludes many students into believing that they have acquired all they need to know by having spent so many laborious and tedious days, weeks, and months pouring over, studying, underlining or highlighting, and memorizing the contents of the textbook’s pages.

There are many educators who constantly pester their students with questions, whether in the classroom or in written tests and examinations. Most of them are probably not aware that they are imitating the aggravating method of inquiry that was practised in ancient Athens by a conceited ass named Socrates, which practice led to his being condemned to death, after Socrates deliberately outraged the jury during his trial by proposing that, rather than being punished for his boorish and offensive habit of accosting prominent individuals in public places and seeking to embarrass them in front of others by demonstrating how little they actually knew, he should be supported for the remainder of his days by the state so that he could continue performing this discourteous behaviour, which he regarded as an invaluable service to his fellow citizens.

The belief that students need to be constantly questioned in order to help them learn is mostly false. To give an example, we do not learn the meanings of words by being constantly asked what this or that word means, as Plato was fond of doing in his dialogues. We learn their meanings, along with how to use them, by seeing and hearing words used correctly in many different contexts and situations. This, and not incessant questioning and testing, is how learning occurs. In the case of practical skills, they are acquired by repeatedly observing models of correct or proficient behaviour and then practising the skills ourselves in order to improve our abilities. Occasional criticism and advice can certainly be helpful, but it is important to recognize that mere verbal instruction without the observation of models of behaviour is largely useless and a waste of time, especially in the case of practical skills.

Another important point is that Plato had no understanding whatsoever about how human desires arise, and so he completely overlooked this vitally important topic when he formulated his ideal system of education. Instead of asking silly or trivial questions like “What is truth?” “What is beauty?” and “What is the good?” he should have asked, “How does the desire to perform a certain activity arise?” The consequences of this Platonic oversight have been catastrophic, both for individuals and the societies in which they live, which are filled with numerous unmotivated workers, and thus has led to the primordial importance of money as a means of motivating people to work hard and continue to perform jobs which many of them dislike.[1]

Plato’s belief that the human soul is reborn after death, but before being reborn, is made to drink from the memory-obliviating waters of the river Lethe, is, of course, complete nonsense. Based on this mistaken belief, Plato believed that the regular use of the Socratic method was the best way to help people remember the things which they knew in a previous lifetime. The Socratic method has been misapplied, for instead of teachers constantly asking questions of their students, it is rather students who should ask questions of their teachers, whenever there is something they don’t know or would like to find out. To get them to do this, students need to observe the model of someone whom they respect asking a question when there is something one doesn’t know and would like to find out, such as their teacher asking a person who is more knowledgeable a question about something of which one is ignorant. These episodes could be filmed in cases where the knowledgeable person, or expert, does not have the time to go to the school to be questioned by the teacher.

This practice would also reveal to students the limits of their teacher’s knowledge. The way students are presently taught, by teachers or professors who speak constantly while scribbling things on blackboards, gives many students the false impression that their teachers know everything there is to know about a subject, since they only present the things which they know, while they give absolutely no indication of all the many different things which they don’t know. This is due partly to the teacher’s desire to avoid the embarrassment of having to admit that there are many things one doesn’t know, and, moreover, that some of the things one believes one knows may in fact be wrong. Such a realization on the part of the students is important for two reasons: first, it will show them how much more there is to learn beyond the things they are taught in school, which will motivate some of them to continue on the lifelong path of learning; and second, it will show them that some of the things which their teachers tell them may be wrong.[2] The extremely misleading sense of certainty and completeness which the present system of education gives students are some of its other serious shortcomings.

The beliefs and practices of a tiny number of ancient Greeks continue to influence the way that children are educated, or it were better to say miseducated, in the present day. This influence is primarily due to the mistaken attitude that we have towards those three Greek philosophers – the fact that we continue to hold Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle in such high esteem. That they failed to understand a number of important facts about human behaviour and the world we live in is not at all surprising, considering how long ago they lived. What is much more astonishing is that we have yet to recognize their many errors and mistakes, and have yet to devise a better educational method than the one which they devised more than two thousand years ago, and which still forms the basis of our so-called modern system of education.

[1] Economists have failed wholly to understand the effect that the dominant Platonic system of education has had on people’s motivations – or lack thereof – and hence, the preponderant importance of money to motivate them to do many kinds of work. However, the widespread belief that work is inherently unpleasant is wrong. That many people find work unpleasant is due to the fact that students are forced to spend their early years in classrooms, where they are not able to observe workers performing their jobs.

[2] Since no teacher, except one who is malicious or perverse, would deliberately teach one’s students something that one believes is false, it follows that this misinformation is taught in good faith, meaning that the only way that students can later discover it is wrong is if they encounter someone who criticizes it, or they themselves acquire the habit of questioning and criticizing commonly accepted wisdom and beliefs. Of course, from uncritically believing everything one is taught, one must be wary of going to the opposite extreme, of criticizing merely for the sake of criticizing, or doubting everything, as René Descartes did, who foolishly believed that he had discovered an infallible method of discovering the truth about the world we live in. Life is not a logical game, and human logic is most certainly not an infallible – or even a necessarily reliable – guide to discovering the truth about the world we live in, as some philosophers like Descartes believed it is, and the phenomena of the world cannot always be neatly categorized into simple, mutually exclusive, logical categories.