Education Versus Society

The relationship between an institute of higher learning and society is undoubtedly complicated, complicated because this relationship is based on diversity, and unfortunately diversity does not always equate to successful relationships. Today's society, specifically the diverse culture that makes up the United States, and institutes of higher learning continuously struggle to foster positive relationships because of conflicts that exist primarily due to issues of diversity. Issues such as defining what it means to be educated; and exploring how education can best meet the needs of a diverse society. Diversity is a force that people struggle against rather than using to enrich society's progress, contributions, and unity. In the articles "Learning in the Key of Life" by Jon Spayde and "Lives on the Boundary" by Mike Rose the relationships that exist, and should exist, between higher education and society is explored. Both articles argue that education needs to be open to all, encouraging different contributions from all individuals. Both Rose and Spayde question a traditional approach to education because of the exclusionary nature that often ensues. It is common for individuals to view the world of higher education as elitist and impractical, resulting in many students being unable to relate to many aspects of the college and/or university learning environment. Rose and Spayde both point the finger at higher education stating that students graduate without being able to function in the real world, are discouraged from applying their personal experiences to learning, and are learning material that is impossible to relate to.

The word democratic means, in simple terms, social equality. Mike Rose suggests that much of the conflict that exists in the relationship between higher education institutes and society is due to a lack of democracy in higher education. Rose uses the term democracy when referring to education because of his belief that education needs to be open to all. Roses's exploration of education determined that the traditional historical and literary curriculum, or according to Rose, the canonical approach to education, often does not make education democratic in nature. This traditional educational approach "promotes rigor and quality control" by "misreading American cultural history" (117) states Rose. Today a democratic education must, as Rose sees it, understand the polarities of American culture, incorporate the diverse languages into our perspective of literacy, and revise our ideas of what academic excellence means.

Rose provides examples of how individuals from diverse cultures must achieve independence from traditional educational institutes. According to Rose, escaping traditional education is often necessary because our society does not incorporate differences of cultures, languages, and experiences into traditional learning and teaching processes and methods. Rose gives a descriptive portrayal of his oldest uncle, Frank Marell. Frank was born in Italy and came to America in 1921 to join his grandfather. Soon after arriving in America, Frank quit school because he did not understand what the teacher was saying, and couldn't "catch on" to how to speak English.

Therefore, Frank had to find an alternative to traditional education that would meet his needs as a culturally different individual. Frank tells how he spent every afternoon in the back room of Pete Mastis's Dry Cleaners and Shoeshine Parlor shining shoes, learning to operate a steam press, and running deliveries. Frank recalls attempting to mimic the English he heard listening to the radio; trying to talk to people in English while shining their shoes; and copying words from racing forms onto the margins of newsprint. Eventually these and other everyday personal experiences resulted in Frank being completely engaged in literacy. Frank was able to teach his mother how to sign her name, read sale flyers and announcements, and scribe whatever his mother needed. The story of Frank Marell's acquisition of literacy is an example of how it is often necessary for individuals to create alternative paths towards acquiring an education because traditional paths of learning do not meet the needs of individuals like Frank Marell. The story of Frank Marell supports Rose's statement that in a culturally diverse country such as America "a failed education is [often] social more than intellectual in origin" (107). Frank was capable of learning, but social boundaries such has his culture, language, and socioeconomic status prevented him from learning within a traditional American framework.

Frank Marell discovered opportunities to learn and at the same time be able to make personal connections to what he was learning, fostering a positive relationship between education and the society he was immersed in. Individuals are motivated to enhance and contribute to society when they feel that their unique and personal contributions are appreciated and making a difference. Society needs graduates from institutes of higher learning to be able to interact within the real world. Rose offers a personal example to illustrate the positive relationship between the real world that is today's American society and education.

Rose's relationship with literacy was fostered "within the tight and untraditional confines of [his] home" (106). His early experiences with literacy came from his interests in science fiction escapism, from the Italian stories his relatives told, and from music on the radio. Therefore, as child, Rose was interested in and pursued reading. However, Rose also discusses how negativity ensues when education does not embrace the real world. Rose recalls that although he was successful with reading and was able to foster a positive relationship with literacy when he was reading at home, reading within the confines of a traditional educational environment was a problem for Rose. According to Rose, reading at school was difficult and uninteresting to him because it was often not "real reading". The reading that was expected of him was more theoretical and analytical without any relation to context. This theoretical and analytical approach to reading resulted in some of Rose's poor academic performances in school. As Rose states, The educational system in America faces the challenge of creating "both the social and cognitive means to enable a diverse citenzry to develop their ability[ies]" (107). All of Rose's examples of the different relationships that exist between members of a diverse society and education are about immigrants living in the city of Los Angeles. However, these individuals can be found in any diverse city such as Los Angeles throughout the United States representing the struggles and difficulties that people of our diverse society have when attempting to learn within the traditional confines of an educational system.

Rose pointed out through his examples of Frank Marell and his personal experiences in school that institutes of learning often do not encourage the contributions of those who do not fit into the traditional educational framework. Both Rose and Marell struggled in school because they were unable to contribute personal meanings to what they were learning. Marell and Roses's worlds were different from the educational world they were expected to learn in. Similarly colleges and universities promote learning that is not applicable to the real world. Many colleges and universities emphasize traditional ideas and methods rather than encouraging individuals to make personal connections between what is being learned and the real world. Unfortunately this approach to education is narrow and noninclusive, fueling the conflict between society and education in which society points the figure to institutes of higher education stating that students are graduating without being able to contribute to and interact with the real world.

For example, a prospective employee is much more desirable if they can demonstrate that they have experiences where they have applied what they have learned in the classroom outside of the classroom. The law is a profession that often hires individuals that have graduated from law school and have the passed the bar, but have very little, if any experience in the real world of law. Law students often will have summer jobs at law firms, but they are not actively engaged in work that is required of a lawyer. These students are usually performing clerking duties, not work that is similar to what is expected of attorneys. So although most people will agree that law school graduates are competent and intelligent individuals, most law students that are newly hired by law firms must learn how to work and succeed in the real world of the law profession without any, or very little real world experience.

In Jon Spayde's article "Learning in the Key of Life" Spayde encourages learning that is not only applicable to the real world, but also learning that incorporates the real world. Spayde's ideas about a real world education are supported by his "in-the-street definition of education" (62). This "in-the-street definition of education" (62) is based on learning that occurs not solely in the classroom, but through personal experiences and connections outside the classroom in the, as Spayde puts it, "real world". Spayde further makes his case for a real world education by making connections between his "in-the-streets" (62) definition of education and the Argentine novelist, Ernesto Sabato's thoughts about Nietzsche's statement, "Metaphysics are in the street" (62). Both Spayde's definition and Nietsche's statement relate to viewing the whole world as a classroom. Reflection and knowledge that come from contact with the real world infuses our minds with ideas to ponder, argue, and connect with. Making such personal connections with the real world is a slow process that as David Orr, an Oberlin College environmental studies professor puts it, "gives our lives aesthetic, spiritual, and social meaning" (61).

This conflict of real world learning versus traditional learning that exists between institutes of higher learning and society results in society asking the question, Are college graduates truly educated? or as Jon Spayde asks, "What does it mean - and more important, what should it mean - to be educated?" (58). These questions only seem to raise even more philosophical questions such as, What is important to a society?; What kind of society is most desirable?; and What educational orientation is best and for whom? Questions such as these do not necessarily have clear answers or solutions, but rather prompt society and educational institutes to explore the past, present, and future relationship between society and education. These kind of questions contribute to Spayde's exploration and consequent attack of the current trend of college and university curriculums towards technology skills training.

Unfortunately as Spayde points out, the focus of education today is narrowed and reduced to an emphasis on technical training based education. Much of what students are encouraged to learn to be competitive in today's rapidly changing society is likely to soon be obsolete. Spayde quotes John Ralston Saul, a Canadian historian as saying, "[Technical training is] self-defeating, and it won't get you through the next 60 years of your life. [Training is] learning to fit in as a passive member of a structure. And that's the worst thing for an uncertain, changing time" (61). Perhaps technical training provides college graduates with skills that can easily be applied to specific employment in the real world, but the real world requires individuals to be able contribute to society in many different aspects. For example, a college graduate with highly proficient technical skills is much more valuable to society if they also possess problem solving skills, interpersonal communication skills, and literacy skills.

The mission statements of many colleges and universities provide examples of educational institutions that embrace Rose's and Spayde's ideas about democratic, real world educations that reflect today's society. The mission statement of The Evergreen State College in Washington State is an example of how a college can cultivate a relationship with a diverse society. This college's mission statement states that "teaching across differences is critical to learning" (54), thus supporting Spayde's assertion in his article "Learning in the Key of Life" that "there are as many ways to become educated in America as there are Americans" (63). The Evergreen State College's mission statement emphasizes that successful teaching is about emphasizing the different aspects that make up our society. Their mission statement further emphasizes Spayde's thoughts that learning is more successful when it incorporates the real world into the curriculum by stating, "the only way to thoroughly understand abstract theories is to apply them to real-world situations" (54).

In contrast, the mission statement from Morehouse College provides an example of what is defeating to the relationship between institutes of learning and society. Morehouse Colleges's mission statement does not emphasize that learning should encourage contributions from a diverse population of individuals as Spayde encourages in his article, "Learning in the Key of Life". Rather their mission statement states

Guided by a commitment to excellence, Morehouse, an historically black liberal arts college for men, assumes a special responsibility for teaching students about the history and culture of black people. The college seeks to develop men with disciplined minds, emphasizing the continuing search for truth as a liberating force (53).
This mission statement places emphasis on only a specific section of a diverse society. Yes, black men have often been unrepresented and disregarded throughout history. However, that does not mean that an institute of higher learning should suggest that only a particular culture or people are worth learning about.

I believe that the questions that arise when sorting out the issues that result from conflict between society and institutes of learning cannot simply be answered providing clear and understandable solutions. This is because American culture is an increasingly diverse society. Within such diversity there will never be definitive solutions or answers that meet the needs of all. Therefore, that is why authors such as Rose and Spayde suggest that society and educational institutes collectively embrace diversity. Education should reflect society by promoting teaching and learning that is nonexclusionary, practical, and responsive to changes occurring within a diverse society.


Works Cited