Three missions of education

Author and teacher David Masciotra wrote recently “the most consequential offenders in the dissemination, and success, of fake news are not the Russians or social media company executives, but the American education system, and the parents who are content with raising children who know little about their country, much less about the rest of the world.

“The documentation of American ignorance on fundamental issues of history and governance is by now so thorough that it hardly bears repeating.”

For example, it’s claimed that only 20 percent of Americans can name all three branches of government. In a democracy where intelligent citizen-participation is required, ignorance, coupled with unethical/immoral behavior can spell disaster.

According to psychiatrist Lawrence Kubie, education has three essential missions vital to the preservation of our constitutional democracy — namely: “to enable human nature itself to change, to enable each generation to transmit to the next whatever wisdom it has gained about living, and to free the enormous untapped creative potential which is latent in varying degrees in the preconscious processes of everyone.”

1. Mission number one, to enable human nature itself to change, requires development of flexibility in the application of personally held values. Lacking flexibility results in being out of touch with reality in this rapidly changing world. If this orientation dominates citizen behavior, it indicates varying degrees of declining mental health, which contributes to social ills.

How are we doing?

Wars are being fought over rigid applications of values. Today’s hate crimes and conflicts over religion are motivated from rigid application of values. Rigid philosophical and political differences among individual citizens erupt in a loss of friends and retaliation against neighbors and members of society. Traditions in education are accepted over needed changes that could address these problems.

2. Mission number two is to enable each generation to transmit to the next generation whatever wisdom it has gained about living. Wisdom means “the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment, the quality of being wise,” manifested in common sense, intelligence, judiciousness, judgment, logic, circumspection, rationality, prudence and maturity.

Kubie explained that “education without self-knowledge can never mean wisdom or maturity. Without self-knowledge we can have no adults, but only aging children who are armed with words, and paint and clay and atomic [and other] weapons [and instant global communications], none of which they [fully] understand.

“Self-knowledge is not all there is to wisdom and maturity; but it is an essential ingredient which makes maturity at least possible. Yet it is the one ingredient which is almost totally neglected. This lack is both an index and a cause of the immaturity of our culture.”

How are we doing in the achievement of mission number two?

Pervasive problems persist in efforts to accomplish this mission. There is a lack of clarity about how wisdom is acquired. The word “transmit” suggests developing wisdom through instruction. Experience has demonstrated this does not produce widespread wisdom within the public.

Widespread resistance prevails against whatever seems not to fit with rigid personal assumptions and beliefs. Just suggest that education needs to be changed, and watch defensiveness emerge. Rigid beliefs, often based on unexamined traditions, have become the hallmarks of the school and other institutions.

3. Mission number three involves freeing the enormous untapped creative potential which is latent in varying degrees in the preconscious processes of everyone. Preconscious processes are an essential part of learning that operate in conjunction with conscious and unconscious processes. Preconscious activities of mind are spontaneous, subliminal processes that precede consciousness and awareness; its products are revealed through hypnosis and acts of creativity, intuition and dreams. This subliminal activity is automatic, swift and inclusive when allowed to proceed undisturbed by other influences such as developmentally inappropriate instruction. 

The preconscious is considered the central processing unit, the CPU of the mind. It automatically processes and reprocesses sensory data under the direction of unconscious programing — the attitudes, values and beliefs acquired from past experiences. The conscious mind takes whatever output that emerges from the CPU and organizes and communicates its biased messages.

Only some of the creative output of preconscious processes reaches conscious awareness, and self-knowledge is acquired by paying attention to that which emerges having been shaped by the unconscious and expressed through language at a conscious level. Introspection leads to discoveries in oneself of a presence or lack of logic or critical thinking and the existence of rigid response patterns that must be changed to allow wisdom to develop.

Where do we stand in accomplishing mission number three?

In this era of instant communications and fake information, the process of learning must be defined by all three dimensions of mind as part of an internal construction of meaning in life. Facebook and Google are researching ways to curtail the existence of fake news on their sites, but they acknowledge that it is impossible to fully eliminate it in a free-speech society.

To prevent proposed solutions that would restrict our freedom of speech, we rely on our elementary and secondary schools to begin the process of developing wisdom and maturity that can differentiate facts from fiction, ethical from unethical behavior and fake information from truth that is based on verified facts.

Schools operate as if the preconscious and the unconscious dimensions of mind are insignificant or perhaps non-existent. For most students, narrowly defined conscious activity is what reflects the standard curriculum that most often results in shallow language simply memorized and remembered long enough to pass a standardized test. Rigid belief systems and a lack of wisdom remain intact in this process.

The need for flexibility in the application of values, for wisdom and maturity, for knowledge and self-insight has never been more critical in preserving our democracy. Systemic change is required in our schools where the current practice finds teachers doing the work and students are the consumers of their pre-digested content. This must be changed where learners are the workers and their products are personally developed knowledge and insight and ethical/moral behavior.

Robert L. Arnold lives in Willsboro and is a professor emeritus of education at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh.