Some Reflections on Education
DECEMBER 01, 1967 by W. A. PATON
Dr. Paton is Professor Emeritus of Accounting and of Economics, University of Michigan, and is known throughout the world for his outstanding work in these fields. His comments here are excerpts from an article in The Accounting Review, January, 1967.
The education of the individual, in a broad sense, consists of the impact on his mind of the entire stream of phenomena encountered during his lifetime, including the resulting reflection and pondering. Formal education — training in schools and other institutions devoted in some degree to teaching and learning — is only one sector of the whole process, and presumably not the most important element in many cases. Nowadays almost everybody goes to school until the age of fifteen or sixteen, at least, and college training, including a substantial amount of graduate work, has become the regular route to entry into the major professional fields and the executive levels in business.
To note that education can be — and has often been — acquired without schooling is not equivalent to suggesting that people should stay clear of schools. Having been connected with formal education for more than a half century, I am unwilling to go that far. But I feel that we should avoid the conclusion that going to college assures intellectual growth and a successful life. The college degree may help to open the door to a job upon graduation, but it doesn’t guarantee that the graduate has the stuff essential to good performance.
It follows that a school should be regarded as a specialized undertaking, not as the embodiment of all human experience and activity in miniature. In other words, a school should concentrate on the training and learning that can be accomplished more speedily and effectively in an institutional setting than through general day-by‑day experience, at home or on the job or while spending time otherwise. Moreover, the school should not only restrict its efforts to fields which lend themselves to attack in classroom and laboratory but should give primary attention to subjects that are acknowledged to be especially significant and worthwhile. Even in these high-spending days no school has unlimited resources, and hence there is need for care and good judgment in determining the nature and scope of an institution’s activities.
The tendency to try to cover the whole waterfront, to include in the curriculum all sorts of courses for which no solid justification can be found, is one of the explanations of the sorry showing made by many present-day schools at both college and precollege levels. Somewhat related is the disposition to expand, proliferate, splinter the offerings in areas both worthwhile and questionable.
Even if the generalization be accepted that the role of the school is limited, there remains ample room for debate as to the subjects to be included in a school program and the time and effort to be devoted to each. In making a start on the task of setting standards for selecting subjects to be taught, it may be helpful to take note of some broad principles. A review of the mental activities of the human animal suggests a possible grouping under two main heads.
In the first place there is the process of observing and sizing up the phenomena encountered. Watch a small youngster and you’ll note that he is busy looking the scene over and doing some appraising of what he observes (including, of course, hearing and feeling as well as seeing under the term observation). In the second place there is the process of transmitting or communicating impressions, views, and desires to others, beginning with parents and other members of the family.
In other words, the individual’s mental activity boils down to: (1) absorbing, appraising, pondering, pigeonholing; (2) purposeful arraying and communicating. Or to put the point very tersely: brainwork consists at bottom of (1) measuring and (2) reporting. Needless to say, this stab at underlying classification is subject to plenty of objections, but this is true of all taxonomic efforts, in all fields, even at the dichotomy level. (This comment, incidentally, brings to mind another twofold division of the thinking process:
(1) breakdown or analysis and
Applying the basic criteria indicated, it is evident that the traditional three R’s come out well. Reading and ‘riting are major means of absorbing and transmitting, and arithmetic is indispensable to measurement. Writing in the calligraphic sense is not to be disdained; achieving a good hand is worthwhile, like learning to spell accurately, and a host of other accomplishments. But writing ability in the sense of first-class composition is a more rare and much more significant attainment. If I were faced with the problem of selecting the outstanding subject deserving rigorous and continuing attention in the school system, in preparation for a useful career, I would not pick physics or accounting but would give the edge to English composition. In professional work of all kinds the ability to write well (reflecting the ability to think well) is of paramount importance.
In stressing writing I am not forgetting the great importance of being able to speak well, and I believe that a college or university curriculum may properly include some courses in this field. I am also not forgetting that reading ability is the underlying talent, and that without at least fair reading skill it is difficult to make real headway in any direction in the formal educational system. Extensive reading of good writing, of course, is a great aid in building a vocabulary and developing the ability to write.
Vocational vs. Cultural
An example of the human habit of setting up contrasts and controversies where there is no basic clash, plus the exaggeration of such differences as may be present, is the long-standing discussion of the relative merits of vocational and cultural studies and pursuits. Without fully understanding what they have been aiming at, many teachers and school administrators have been clamoring for more emphasis on the cultural as opposed to the vocational or career-building approach in setting up college programs. "Let’s develop a social consciousness," "Let’s learn to be good citizens," "Let’s broaden our understanding" — such are the slogans of this group. Above all, so they say, "Let’s avoid the mere bread-and-butter courses."
This kind of talk is pure tommyrot. When is a person going to get ready to be productive if not during his school days, now lengthened into a long stretch of years, a substantial slice of an entire life span? I would not advise any young man to go to college unless his primary objective is to prepare himself for some profession or field of endeavor, unless he hopes that the college training will help him to get hold of a rung of a career ladder. (This doesn’t necessarily mean that he need make a final choice of a vocation before entering college, or even that the matter has to be settled during the first year or two; there’s something to be said for retaining flexibility, and having more than a single string to one’s bow.)
Learn the Native Language Before Dabbling in Others
But there is more to the story. Upon analysis and appraisal of the so-called cultural courses one finds little support for their pretensions. Foreign language study is generally regarded as an outstanding part of the cultural curriculum, and some schools require all students to take one, two, or more years of work in this field. In some cases, indeed, this is the only universal subject requirement. What are the results for the mine-run student: a bare smattering of knowledge of a language in which he will never become proficient and which he will never use. In puttering, halfheartedly, through one or two years of classes in a foreign language, the time and effort of the student are largely wasted. The futility of such courses is especially clear in the case of students inadequately trained in English — who have trouble composing a postcard to mother — and this means the great majority.
For heaven’s sake, let’s try to do something to equip students in their native language, and means of communication, instead of sidetracking them into a feeble introduction to another language. I am not objecting, of course, to serious, intensive study of a foreign language with the end in view of mastering the language and making use of this equipment in a career in foreign service or elsewhere.
This brings me to the main point. A thoroughgoing course in physics, chemistry, or accounting — to mention only a few possibilities — which opens doors to professional activity and a good living upon graduation, obviously has more genuine cultural value than a superficial attack on a foreign language that leads nowhere.
There is no good reason for labeling an interesting, vigorous, significant subject "noncultural" because it has a vocational aspect. It is not at all difficult to select a four-year program of college courses rich in Kultur, in the best sense, as well as valuable from a professional career standpoint. A course doesn’t have to be impractical to be eminently worthwhile.
Breadth of training has some appeal and merit, but breadth that amounts to shallowness, with no depth anywhere, is not a suitable goal of educational effort. Jack-of-all-trades but master of none remains a dubious calling.
Student Aptitudes and Attitudes
Today’s college students in the mass are less able and less studious than those of fifty years ago. Growth of the view that everybody should go to college, fortified by the widespread and very silly notion that all of us have the same package of native abilities and that all our limitations are of environmental origin, is partly responsible for this condition. Another factor is the softening of precollege training to the point where even the most backward students are pushed along grade by grade at the elementary level and generally don’t find it very difficult to obtain a high-school diploma. The result is the flooding of colleges with students lacking the inherent mental equipment to handle staple college subjects effectively, as well as students of ability who have never been called upon to exert themselves scholastically and hence find it difficult to make a decent showing in college. In this situation it becomes increasingly hard to maintain traditional standards, to say nothing of strengthening such standards.
Affected by the watered-down training experienced in precollege school days, and infected more or less with the spreading sentiment to the effect that everyone has a right to share in the pie regardless of contribution or effort, the attitudes of many college students have become very trying to the serious teacher. Indifference to the point of impudence seems to be on the increase in college classrooms. "Here I am, and what are you going to do about it" seems to be implied by the slouchy postures and yawning unshaven faces now confronting instructors in increasing numbers. (The tendency toward indifference, it must be admitted, is often aggravated by a boring, ineffective performance on the part of the instructor.)
A student’s attitude, beyond doubt, has an important bearing on his performance and success throughout his school experience. Ability is important, but ability not accompanied by gumption and drive is likely to go to waste. The chap with fair ability who stays in there pitching may do better in the long run than the person with superior talent but lacking in determination and staying power. The teacher may have little spark, and the subject may not be exciting, but usually a bit of juice can be squeezed out of the orange by the reasonably capable student if he really tries.
The squandering of several years in college by persons who will not profit from the experience because of lack of ability or other deficiencies should not be encouraged. Aside from the funds wasted is the resulting serious loss of manpower. There is also the fact that the squandered years may well crystallize the personal deficiencies and decrease the potential of the student when he finally does try to go to work.
Perhaps mention should be made here of the beatniks and troublemakers who are infesting college campuses in increasing numbers these days. On this subject it is my feeling that although cleanliness may not be next to godliness, there is still something to be said for good appearance and deportment. I see no reason for spending a lot of money, furnished by taxpayers or otherwise, to provide facilities for the bums — real or imitation — to strut their stuff.
Values in the Classroom
If a list of the most inspiring and influential teachers of the past could be drawn up, it might well show the majority were men who were strongly and even passionately committed to certain values and who communicated these values both in the classroom and outside it. Education is, after all, not a one-sided process aimed exclusively at the communication of facts and the development of skill in correct reasoning. Education of the whole man is also moral, that is, it involves the inculcation of values. To abdicate this responsibility in the name of a spurious scientific objectivity is to create a moral vacuum in the minds and hearts of our youth.
PATRICK M. BOARMAN