Friday, May 08, 2020

What Does the Word "Education" Mean?

Yesterday, I made an assertion that I suspected was true, but upon reflection I began to wonder. What I wrote: 

For most of the experience of Homo sapiens, work, family, and play were inseparable, an aspect of the human survival strategy that allowed our species to thrive. For ninety-five percent of our existence we've been evolving brains that function best in the context of communities that include the whole family, many families, young and old, work and play. And one of the results of living in these communities is what we could have called, had we the word for it, education. But we didn't need a word because what we today call education was, as John Dewey wrote, "life itself."

Specifically, what I began to wonder about was the actual origins of the word "education." It appears that there are two distinct roots of the word, both from Latin: educare and educere. Educare means to train or mold someone, and specifically refers to a process of passing along knowledge from one generation to the next, with the goal of shaping youth in the image of their parents through rote learning and future employment in the economy. Educere, in contrast, means to "lead out," in the sense that we are preparing youth for an unknown future, which calls for thinking, questioning, and creating. That these two very different concepts have merged into the single thing that we today call "education" is only really understandable in the sense that they are similar sounding words, because the intended results -- preservation of knowledge v. creation of new ideas -- are really quite different things.

Anyone conversant in Latin can probably quibble with my definitions because I have never studied the language and am relying upon the internet to inform me. And they would probably be correct to note that I've taken some freedoms, but I nevertheless find the contrast enlightening in the sense that this is exactly the debate around education we continue to have today. We expect our schools to do both and, depending on your point of view (job training v. creative thinking), we are judging results by wholly different criteria.

According to the online version of Merriam-Webster, the first use of the English word "education" was in 1531, the tail end of the Middle Ages. This was a time when most European children spent their lives as agricultural laborers. Their "education" was often brutal and was intended to make them compliant workers in the mold of educare. Over the course of the next couple hundred years, however, as feudalism gave way to the Enlightenment, when thinkers like John Locke proposed that the purpose of human institutions like schools was not to control others, but rather to help them achieve their highest potential -- educere.

And this, in a nutshell, is the central debate around education we continue to have today. There are those still clinging to the feudalistic notion that education is about preserving knowledge through rote learning and preparing children for the workplace. And then there are others, among whom I include myself, who seek to prepare children to make their own future through thinking, questioning, and creating. Many, if not most, would assert that there must be some middle ground, that we can find a balance between the two, but from where I sit these are mutually exclusive notions because educare and educere aren't even on the same spectrum. One negates the other. You can have one or the other, but not both.


My new book, Teacher Tom's Second Bookis at the printers! We're offering a pre-publication discount through May 18. I'm incredibly proud of it. And while you're on the site, you can also find my first book, Teacher Tom's First Book, at a discount as well.

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