At the start of September every year, newspapers begin to publish a salvo of articles bemoaning the death of education: high school students are dropping out; college graduates cannot find work; students are disinterested and unmotivated. Every year, legislative bodies attempt reforms, and every year, the bemoaning continues. The problems with the education system today are chronic problems, and like with all chronic problems, a complete reappraisal of the nature of the crisis is necessary. I believe this reappraisal should begin with an analysis of W.B. Yeats’s quote: “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”
In today’s world, the importance of SAT’s, AP’s, and GMAT’s in determining levels of education are increasingly affirming the idea that standardization is taking on a dominant, rather than supplementary, role in the learning process. To achieve higher education, a student must first learn to gear himself towards these tests; those who fail to do so abandon school or are abandoned by it. In other words, we are increasingly educating our students to memorize and study for certain multiple choice tests where creativity, i.e. thinking differently from the test makers’ intentions, may be punished with low scores. A student is limited to the items in his pail, and to ignite himself and his curiosity in this system may result in self-immolation.
The problem with today’s education system, then, lies with a misunderstanding of the nature of education. I agree with W.B. Yeats when he writes, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” Education must, ultimately, concern itself with imbuing in the student the ability to think, a goal unfulfilled through standardization. In this manner, education resembles a fire rather than a pail in three important ways: its active process, its expansive nature, and its ability to enlighten.
A full education requires the student to actively engage with rather than passively accept the material taught to him. A pail indiscriminately, even unwillingly, admits information supplied to it. In contrast, a fire vigorously reacts to what it is fed, burning and decomposing an object before consuming and incorporating the item. Similarly, true education involves the student’s inquiry and analysis into the material. A teacher should desire to provoke and stimulate a child into engaging with information, much like the Socratic Method. However, the standardized system expects students to simply regurgitate what is placed in their “pails.” By misinterpreting the interactive characteristic of education, educators may be inducing its death.
Furthermore, unlike the effects of a pail, the effects of education are not limited to the individual alone. A pail is contained to itself only, but an educated man, like a fire, affects his surrounding area and evolves with it. If multiple flames come together and form a larger fire, the effect can even be as grand as the eighteenth century Age of Enlightenment, when scientific thought and intellectual ideas sprouted at unprecedented levels. If education is treated as a pail, however, the effects will have to be limited to the individual students alone as they study to test themselves on rather than discuss and analyze the material. By ignoring the expansive potential of education, we seem to have diminished its utility.
Finally, education resembles a fire because it enlightens rather than burdens. Many people have begun to doubt education’s role in modern society as the number of unemployed college graduates continues to increase. However, education is not inherently meant to be burdensome. A pail becomes heavier with the material it includes; however, a fire serves as a guiding light and allows the individual to view or reassess those things initially kept dark from him. Similarly, genuine education is not a heavy cargo of facts that must be memorized and kept; it is a guiding light that allows the individual to see the world in different ways and see aspects that were kept dark before. In this sense, an educated man is a liberated rather than a burdened man. For example, Frederick Douglass, a former slave, was able to become an influential abolitionist through the power of education. By educating himself, Douglass was able to see the truly heinous nature of slavery instead of the minced portrait fed to him by slave owners. If education is treated as a pail and a burden, as it is when students are forced to memorize large amounts of facts, this enlightening effect will dissipate.
All in all, the education crisis today seems to arise from a misunderstanding of the true nature of education. Education is not the standardized pail it has become today; it requires active participation, involves extensive effect, and enlightens its beneficiaries. By instead mandating students to remain passive learners, value testing over discussion, and memorize lists of information, educators have removed three fundamental aspects of education. One must remember that even a fire cannot exist in certain environments; without oxygen, a fire cannot start. The problems with the education system today seem to be concerned more with the current environment where learning is done rather than the general nature of learning itself. Legislative bodies and educators alike must focus on providing the many potential young fires with oxygen to breathe; by doing so, many of the problems will fix themselves.