Stupid is as unions does

Mitt Romney hates teachers. Ok, that might not be true. I don’t know if Romney personally hates educators. It’s just that I’ve been hearing that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said that the President’s jobs plan (that stresses more public sector job growth; including hiring more firefighters, police officers, and teachers) goes against what the American public wants.

Even if Mitt Romney doesn’t hate teachers, there are plenty of people out there that do. Or at least they hate the unions that teachers belong to. It’s not just that people don’t these unions — it’s that teachers unions are inherently bad.

Here’s something you might have heard if you attended the North American Association of Educational Negotiators 38th Annual Conference, March 29, 2006:

“The NEA and AFT have long argued that what is good for America’s teachers is good for America’s children—and by implication, for America itself. As a general statement this is demonstrably false, and the willingness of too many superintendents, school boards, legislators, and governors to act as if it were true has had a pernicious effect on the quality of American schooling.”

The “pernicious effect” of teachers and their unions is often cited as the reason why a growing number of parents have opted to home school their children (in case you were wondering the number of homeschooled American children as of 2009 is 1.5 million). I’ve been on this planet for a few years now, and I like to think that I’m observant enough to know that the problem isn’t just with teachers and their unions. The problem is with education in general. Ambrose Bierce (1842-1913?) wrote:

 “Education, n.  That which discloses to the wise and disguises from the foolish their lack of understanding.”

The diminutive half of the 60’s folk-pop duo Simon and Garfunkel, Paul Simon, sang:

“When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school, it’s a wonder I can think at all.”

That’s really what our problem with teachers, teachers unions, and education (in general) is, isn’t it? It’s the fear, that after all the time we spend in school, we will emerge from the academy as fools incapable of rational thought.

Now, if spending one’s days watching television and following the romantic exploits of  the cast of Jersey Shore and Justin Bieber will educate one just as well as spending seven hours a day in a classroom under the tutelage of a member of the NEA, one is left to ponder, exactly what is the purpose of an education, anyway?

Would you believe philosophers have something to say about this?

When philosophers think about education (aka philosophy of education), they sometimes ask questions like this (short list):

  • What does it mean to be “educated”?
  • Who determines educational content?
  • What is the purpose of education?

In Plato’s Republic, Socrates states that not only do children need to be taught in the right manner, but that it is the duty of the state to teach the youth. Socrates (or Plato, if you prefer), argues that the purpose of education is to create the right kind citizens, that is, to create individuals who will be best for the state and to ensure that citizens remain loyal to the city (yes, you are free to think of Huxley’s Brave New World). In Socrates’ ideal city, the right kind of education consisted of gymnastics, music, mathematics, logic, metaphysics, and military training. Ultimately, in Plato’s Republic, an education serves the purpose of social engineering rather than to develop an individual’s talents or abilities. When the state fails to educate children properly, Socrates warns, the result is sophistry  and a lack of wisdom. Worse yet, Socrates says if we are not educated in the right way we develop a love for the beautiful. Like Socrates, Aristotle emphasized education as a means to develop the right kind of person (i.e. a virtuous character) to serve the greater good for society. Aristotle wrote, “the fate of empires depends on the education of youth.”

So, if we understand the ancients correctly, the reason why we need an education is to become wise.

Education –> Knowledge –> Wisdom = Ideal Citizen

Although the purpose of an education according to Plato and Aristotle was ultimately to produce philosopher kings (aka people better than any of us), by the 17th century, philosophers started to think that average folks can be educated, too. John Locke wrote that when we are born — you know this one — our minds are a blank slate (tabula rasa) upon which an education can be impressed.

This means any of us can be educated.

By the time of the Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant and Thomas Jefferson advocated public education. Jefferson believed that the right on suffrage was inextricably tied to the right to an education. Jefferson wrote:

“. . . whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government; that, whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them right.”

Once again, as Jefferson states, the purpose of an education is to make people better citizens.

But is this really the reason why we educate people? If we had no say in our government would we feel that an education is useless? I’d guess not. So why do we insist that our children be educated? To maintain the status quo? To produce workers? To produce wise citizens? Or is an education valuable for its own sake? Albert Einstein would say …sort of.

Albert Einstein (1879-1955) states that education has two functions:

  1. To educate individual as free individuals. To develop and understand critical thinking skills and to determine Truth for themselves.
  2. To educate individuals to be members of society

The American philosopher John Dewey (1859-1952) argued that the value of an education is pragmatic. That is, an education is good if it has practical value. According to Dewey, knowledge is the result of practical problem solving and application in the real world. In the real world, Dewey states, we can see the implications of what we have learned and what happens when we put our theories into practice. Real world use, Dewey argues, is more useful that simply learning facts. Dewey states that each student is a unique individual who learns at his own pace, and that teachers ought to be a facilitator of knowledge rather than Platonic knowledge dictators (you see, in Plato’s Republic individuality did not matter since the state is more important than the individual). Knowledge, according to Dewey, is the product of active participation and reflection.

It’s no wonder why Dewey’s view on education is so popular.

So what does this all mean?

I think this means that Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Locke (kind of), Jefferson, Einstein, and Dewey are all correct. Education is not only has extrinsic value (education “leads” to higher-paid workers and well-informed voters) but is also inherently valuable for its own sake. Educated brains heal from trauma faster, age slower, and are less likely to develop senile dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. Education should not only teach us how to be wise, but should also consider our individuality as well. I also believe that Plato and Jefferson are correct in holding that a properly educated citizen is beneficial to the state — and, as Socrates/Plato argues, that the state has a responsibility to educate its people.

…And that gets us back to Mitt Romney and his teachers union-hating cohorts (ok, I have no independent knowledge that Mitt Romney and/or his cohorts hate unions). When we think about education, specifically, when we think about why we teach and why think learning is important, our arguments shouldn’t get caught up on bothersome unions, but, wait… no, I forgot. I hate unions.



  1. Frederick M. Hess and Martin R. West. “A Better Bargain: Overhauling Teacher Collective Bargaining for the 21st Century”. North American Association of Educational Negotiators 38th Annual Conference. American Enterprise Institute. March 29, 2006.
  2. Stats on homeschooled American children:
  3. “Kodachrome”. Lyrics by Paul Simon. copyright 1973. Universal Music Publishing Group.
  4. Thomas Jefferson quote:


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