Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Education as Power

I have been musing, since I wrote this post about Susan Jacoby and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, about education. Everyone who works with women in the poor parts of the world says that education is the key to improving their status. Education, says Nick Kristof in his review of Hirsi Ali's new book, is "the best way to open minds, promote economic development and suppress violence." Educating women improves the health of their children, their incomes, their self-esteem; it reduces the number of children they have and the likelihood that they will be victims of violence. From some of these accounts, learning to read, write and do arithmetic operates by a kind of magic to make everything about life better.

This is fascinating to me because, as my friends know, I am full of doubts about education as it is practiced in America. The education my own children are receiving in public schools sometimes seems strange and pointless to me, corrupted by politics, teacher ignorance, and the need to somehow keep the attention of disdainful students. The only thing my eldest son had to say about his first day of school this year was a rant about how lunch has been ruined because they can't go outside any more. College seems, sometimes, equally strange to me, a world in which professors teach whatever interests them to students who have no idea why they are learning it.

And yet somehow from this mess of bureaucracy, bad textbooks, bored students, teachers with every degree of competence and energy, and a near complete lack of coherent goals, something quite wonderful emerges. People learn, and they are changed by it. How this works remains, to me, a mystery, but I cannot deny that it does happen.

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