Education is a process, not a product

Education is a process, not a product

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School’s starting. It’s time again for young people to learn what society hopes for from them. I know and appreciate many splendid teachers upvalley. They engage the young people skillfully, which is not an easy task. I wish them every success.

We who do not teach formally can do our part as well, because our homes are schools too. 

Do you think of your home as a learning center? It can be one. In your home university, the TV is not usually on, and video games are irrelevant. But the ideas and stories in books, conversation, newspapers, magazines and the Web challenge and provoke you. In your home university, screens are cool tools but not gods. 

Of course, not everybody likes school; school means rules and conformity. But a conscious conformity might not be so bad. 

Besides, there’s another reason we might not like school: Education reminds us of the complexity of the world. We yearn for the simplicity of black/white, but education often offers gray, because though “uncertainty may be uncomfortable, certainty is ridiculous.” (That’s one reason theology, whether in school or not, can be so important in education: It acknowledges spirit, mystery and paradox.) 

So education is a process, not a product. The most interesting diversity to celebrate is not racial, but ideological. A sad moment in my teaching career at Napa Valley College occurred when I suggested to a struggling student an alternate approach to solving an equation, and she responded with dudgeon: “That’s not the way I learned it.” I was floored. At 19, she was firmly fixed in her ways and unwilling to change. 

But why should I have been surprised? She’s part of that public that for years has been sending righteous letters to editors in newspapers that begin, “I was taught that ... ” as if the issue is therefore settled for all time. But mostly, education is not fixed, but evolving, as its etymology implies. Or as no less a sage than Muhammad Ali is reported to have observed, the man who thinks at 50 the same way he thought at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life. 

Fortunately, lucky little people don’t have much in the way of baggage or agendas to defend. A St. Helena kindergarten teacher I know always appreciated that her charges came to her really ready to learn, and I was impressed year after year how the opportunity they represented was never lost, and under loving and directed tutelage her students invariably progressed, testimony to skillful pedagogy. 

Some Upvalley civic clubs commendably encourage students with awards. Most impressively, conscious of our heterogeneous society, some offer accolades to Upvalley students even regardless of which school they attend. I applaud families who consider which school best serves their 

purposes. It’s asking a lot of any one school to accommodate every single kind of child. Having the choice is important. No one need feel apologetic or defensive about the choice he makes for his child’s education. 

In the media, sometimes education news is reduced to hand-wringing about test scores or funding. But I bet a lot of learning goes on beneath the radar of standardized tests; and as for funding, lots of good schools get no government money whatsoever. I don’t think we ought to be neurotic about either. 

As September approaches, where should we be, in our schools and home universities? Aware of content, certainly, conscious of the nature of our world. And appreciative of skills, to build on that information. Also, we should be alive to beauty, the arts. My ideal education also includes respect for the spirit of adventure, which might entail uncomfortable change, or something eccentric, unorthodox, unconventional or dorky.

In addition, human dignity is fundamental in education. So may the education we embark on this year not so much console our fears as confirm our hopes.

(Donald Williams lives in Calistoga.)

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