Does a Solution Exist to the Persistent Sense
of Crisis Surrounding Public Education?
One had to cram all this stuff into one’s mind for the examinations, whether one liked it or not. This coercion had such a deterring effect on me that, after I had passed the final examination, I found the consideration of any scientific problems distasteful to me for an entire year.
To end the crisis in institutional education we need to recognize that the ultimate goal of education is not preparation for employment; nor is it knowledge, understanding, the ability to think critically (whatever that means), the inculcation of values or the development of character—though all these things qualify as lesser or intermediate goals. The end and ultimate final goal of education is simply enjoyment. Strictly speaking, enjoyment is the ultimate goal of liberal education. Obviously, technical education and skill training do not have enjoyment as their immediate end. But most of the time spent in school and university is not devoted to technical education but to liberal education, and this is the kind of education we mean when we talk about “the crisis in education.”
The idea that we can make enjoyment central to education will strike many people as unrealistic, if not utopian. But it’s not a matter of thinking that we can enjoy ourselves all the time while in school any more than we think we can enjoy ourselves all the time when out of it. Rather, the thesis is that if we would only aim at enjoyment, and not only for the student but also for the teacher, all will be well with education—or at least very much better. The fact that those who promoted and organized compulsory state sponsored education hardly gave a thought to enjoyment, and that all is not well with education, could be seen as evidence that by neglecting the value of enjoyment public education was crippled from its birth. Nor can any other goal be substituted without perverting the educational experience. This means, for example, that transmitting and fostering values—other than the value of enjoyment of course—is not the primary function of education, especially in a pluralistic society. Moral and metaphysical values are the prerogative of the family and of organized religion (or of organized irreligion when it exists). Any attempt by the educational system to usurp these responsibilities will only sow confusion and discord, sex education being the perfect example.
However, the moment anyone attempts to raise “enjoyment” to the level of a value, and a supreme value at that, any number of people from across the philosophical spectrum will jump to their feet and warn against the dangers of hedonism, of pleasure seeking, of a cult of softness and self-indulgence, of a culture of instant gratification, of the anti-social pleasures of cruelty, violence, snobbery, and the abuse of power in general. Well, these dangers will always be with us, but it is not self-evident that these tendencies in human nature would be encouraged by making the educational experience more pleasant and interesting than most people find it to be. However, to meet this criticism we will modify our claim slightly: To end the crisis in education we need to recognize that the ultimate goal of education is rational enjoyment. Of course, what constitutes “rational enjoyment” will depend on one’s world view to some extent, but a working definition that might be broadly acceptable is maximizing our own and our neighbours’ enjoyment over the long term.
There is another objection that is sure to be raised, an objection which arises from the ambiguous nature of language and the failure to distinguish the concept of enjoyment from the concept of happiness. Happiness, when it is not being used in the sense of “mere” enjoyment, often has a religious or metaphysical dimension. For example, if you’re a Marxist the solution to the problem of happiness involves the destruction of the bourgeoisie by the working class, the abolition of private property, and the withering away of the state. If you’re an orthodox Christian or Muslim it involves believing in a Divine or Divinely appointed messenger, following his teaching, and perhaps belonging to one of the many churches or communities set up in his name. If you’re a secular humanist, it involves freeing oneself from fantasies of an otherworldly happiness and trying to maximize one’s enjoyment of the good things that the natural world has to offer here and now. Given these different world views, it is obvious that no unique solution to the problem of happiness is available.
No such difficulty attaches to enjoyment, however, because that is the word we use for the finite, temporal, non-controversial part of happiness. We know perfectly well that different people enjoy different things. Unlike happiness (in the strong sense of that word), we know that getting enjoyment for ourselves or giving it to others is often within our power. If enjoyment is something we have some control over, then we can make it a priority in our educational system. Although individual teachers and administrators have occasionally succeeded in making learning enjoyable, either by design or by accident of personality, I think it is accurate to say that enjoyment has never been given a high priority in institutional education. Athletic glory, academic achievement, social prestige have all been given a high priority, but enjoyment almost never.
Partly, no doubt, the cause can be found in the nature of institutions. With their passion for regulation and uniformity they are inherently inefficient in addressing the needs of the individual. But I think there is a more fundamental cause that is rooted very deep in human nature. Basically, people don’t like others to have what they don’t have. More to the point, they don’t like to see others enjoying themselves if they’re not enjoying themselves. Thus, even though the pursuit of enjoyment is almost a private religion for most of us much of the time, trying to give enjoyment to others, or, at least, cooperating with others to create opportunities for enjoyment is not something we often think about, much less focus on. In any case, “enjoyment” is the exact word and concept required for this thesis, and its validity depends on how much enjoyment can be introduced into the educational process by the desire and the effort to do so. For there can be no doubt that the more enjoyable we make the educational experience the more learning will occur. But we must reject once and for all the false and ridiculous notion that a painful effort must always accompany anything worthwhile—a persistent delusion in many minds.
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