January 15, 2010

Formed, not just Schooled

By Deacon Patrick Moynihan *
Mark Twain claimed, “I never let my schooling interfere with my education.” Robert Green Ingersoll likewise proffered, “It is a thousand times better to have common sense without education than to have education without common sense.” While I disagree with Ingersoll’s well known pessimistic views on religion and try to resist falling in with Twain’s overly taciturn approach to life, I, too, have become to believe that institutional education is indeed overrated.         

Now, in the spirit of full disclosure, I have to admit that I went to a top university after spending three years in a private boarding school. On the other hand, I recently disrupted my four children’s wonderful education at our local public schools to take them on mission to Haiti where I run, you guessed it, a school for academically gifted kids from the poorest neighborhoods in the Western Hemisphere. Without this school, these children would have little or no chance of formal education. So, I may be a bit intellectually schizophrenic. But, I am being honest when I say that everything I have learned from these polar opposite approaches to life leads me to believe that formal education is given far too much importance.  

There is nothing wrong with a good academic education. But, unfortunately, its overemphasis has resulted in the downplaying of several other factors important to our mental, physical and spiritual development, such as cultural interaction, faith development, service to others, mentoring relationships, and practical work experience. These all contribute to our overall formation—something much larger and ultimately more important than mere education.

Many educators will claim that their educational program contain these elements. However, ask for a greater emphasis to be given to community service or work-study over the traditional subjects, especially in the case of intellectually gifted students, and most educators will reflexively respond, “Oh no, we cannot cut Calculus class.”  There are several alternative programs, but generally traditional academics continue to be the strong focus of schooling. The system’s dependence on test results is proof of this and of how narrowly we provide and evaluate education in our schools.

Top students come out of high school with a year’s worth of college-level classes under their belts, but less and less have real work experience. The percentage of teens holding jobs has declined from 60% in the eighties to nearly 40% now. The biggest decline has been among teenagers for whom work is elective. It appears that middle class parents have changed their tune from “Get a job” to “Get A’s.”  Even summers have been taken over more and more by academic and sport camps.

Certainly, teens are active enough. However, they are involved in hours and hours of activities constructed specifically for them. This tailored world of extracurricular activities does not replace what we learn from having a job. In fact, it obscures it. The world is not really our oyster, it’s a workplace. Nothing teaches that life lesson earlier or better than a part-time job.  

My teenage skeptic doubts Twain—and me. Offered the opportunity to pursue self-education in Haiti, not unlike the path taken by Benjamin Franklin and other great self-educated American heroes, he retorts, “I need structure.” To be honest, I am not getting a lot support from friends and family on this one either. Where are the leaders of the countercultural generation when you need them? I suppose they are too busy revamping healthcare to meet their aging medical needs to lend me a hand. I am not kidding here; Ira Magaziner, for one, was an inventive educator before cricks in his bones led him to join Hillary for the first push on healthcare reform. He is not the only turncoat.

Before you plan a rescue intervention, let me point out that my son, who aspires possibly to be an architect, has access to tutors and an internship with the top architecture firm in Haiti.  I continue to argue that this trumps structure. Still, he is concerned that he will miss something by not following the normal path through high school. Who can blame him? He is looking at life from sixteen going forward, not forty-five looking back. It is only now that I realize I learned more from working as a busboy and cold chef then I did in much of my years in school.

I am not advocating for putting an end to formal education.  I just think the improvements we are currently looking for in our youth through our educational institutions could be more effectively and economically achieved outside the classroom. More emphasis on work and service might bring the maturity, leadership and decision skills we really need, especially in the work place. We have put both a lot of support and pressure on the traditional educational system—maybe, it’s time to look beyond schooling for answers.

Deacon Patrick Moynihan graduated Culver Military Academy in 1983, from Brown University with BA in Sanskrit and Classics in 1987, and from Providence College with an MA in Religious Studies [Theology] in 1999.

He taught Latin and English in a Catholic High School from 1987 to 1990, traded commodities, futures and options for an international trading company from 1990 to 1995 and directed a free Catholic mission school in Haiti for academically gifted children from the poorest areas around Port au Prince from 1996 to 2006.

Deacon Moynihan was ordained in October of 2001 as a permanent deacon for the Diocese of Rockford [IL] where he was the director of formation and later the Office for the Permanent Diaconate from 2001 to 2006. He has since gone back to Haiti and is currently the president of The Haitian Project.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.


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