aefenglommung (aefenglommung) wrote,

The Seven Levels of Learning

The scandal over bribing one's progeny's way into an elite university is all over the news these days. So is a constant criticism that the degrees granted by universities are frequently not worth the prices paid for them, even when honestly earned. With that in mind, I was reading a homeschooler's post on Facebook just this morning, complaining about the regimentation of schools inflicted upon Kindergartners. Time to drag out the ol' PhD and say something curricular.


There are seven different things we are talking about when we talk about schools, about education, about preparation for life, etc. and so forth. We may mean more than one at a time, but we rarely mean all seven. This leads to a confusion in the minds of those attempting to talk about how our society should pass on to its young the things they need to know. So, let me briefly describe the Seven Levels of Learning for you.

1. Schooling

Schooling, in and of itself, has little to do with education or other, similar goals. Schooling is about acculturating children to schools, so that they swim all together in the same way, like a school of fish. This is admitted by those curricular gurus who talk about the Whole School being the curriculum. In other words, schools don't just exist to teach you things (like all the State capitals), or skills (like long division), or even to provide you with broadening experiences (like a trip to a museum); schools also teach you (mostly) about school life. Learning how to deal with bells and buses and bullies is as much a part of the curriculum as anything listed in a syllabus. Schooling punishes both those who lag behind and those who are ready to run ahead, and it rewards conformity and not making trouble. I once had a teacher friend tell me she thought the best thing about high school is that never again will you be surrounded by so many people just like yourself; I replied that I thought that was a definition of hell. Our way of doing school sorts people into masses of similar ages and abilities and puts them through a highly structured set of activities; its best analog in the workaday world is a factory farm, where piglets move on by stages to bacon-hood.

Those who get the most out of schooling -- that is to say, who enjoyed it the most -- often become teachers, in order to extend their experience of School (only at the top of the power heap instead of at the bottom). School prepares you for life in a large, bureaucratic system indifferent to individuals and to results. In this way, it prepares one to deal with government, I suppose (as well as certain forms of corporate employment). But we could learn that in other ways, and perhaps if we hadn't been so thoroughly schooled, we might create a better way to do government as well. Indeed, we could come up with an entirely different way of transmitting knowledge, skills, and values to children instead of the American (Public) School; we just haven't.

2. Literacy/Numeracy

The three Rs -- Readin', 'Ritin', and 'Rithmetic -- are the basic things we think everybody should be taught. They are frequently cited as the original mission of the public schools, though the mandate for schools was never quite that limited. But still, these are the basic skills everyone should have in order to function in our society; not to have them is to be dreadfully handicapped. These things can be taught at home as well as in a school. They can be learned by some children without any formal instruction. They are not education, but they are necessary to become an educated person in our world.

3. Training

Training is a vocational sort of learning. A person being trained is being taught how to do a particular job. Training is necessary to learn how to be a Mason or an Electrician or a Soldier, but it is also necessary to learn how to be a Physician or a Pastor or a Teacher. Training is also necessary to learn how to manage a household, to do laundry, to make a garden. Some sorts of training -- hobbies and home skills -- are mostly left to individuals to pick up from whoever will teach them, while other sorts -- the type that prepare one for specific jobs that provide income -- are usually done by schools or other training institutes. Training takes place in secondary schools, in colleges, in apprenticeships and boot camp, in graduate school, and in continuing education required by some professions. Training is always practical, rarely theoretical. It is built upon drill and supervised practice.

4. Education

Education is something different. In the old aristocratic societies, Training was for the lower classes and Education was for the upper classes. Aristotle thought only gentlemen had the leisure to pursue the things that made one an educated person. In America, where all opportunities are (at least in theory) open to all comers, we set out to educate everybody. Education is about acquiring cultural literacy. When you know the things that your society values -- including its history, its literature, its received wisdom, its great persons, its holidays and geography, its understanding of science and math, its art and music -- then you are an educated person. With this in mind, I have to say that some of the best educated persons I ever knew were several middle-aged working-class ladies in a church I served back in the 1980s. Most of them didn't finish high school, but they remembered every poem they ever read, they knew their history, they read the paper every morning and voted in every election; they were awake and aware and really quite sophisticated, though they would have blushed to hear me say that. In contrast, I could introduce you to any number of college professors who are, outside of their particular subjects, as dumb as a box of rocks.

In the origins of American public schools, students were to be made literate/numerate, trained for work, and educated -- all three -- to meet two goals: to be able to support themselves and not wind up a charge upon the public; and to appreciate our history and form of government in order to discharge the duties of citizenship and keep the country from lapsing into tyranny. We have largely forgotten these goals, or decided there were other goals we liked better. The goals pursued most enthusiastically in many schools today are inclusivity (in the political sense), self-esteem (or other affective goods), and the provision of social services; which, however much one may think them desirable, haven't squat to do with teaching the young to support themselves and be good citizens.

5. Credentialing

In the early days of our country, very few people attended college. Those that did could enter as young as 14, though the average age was a bit older. Colleges used a form of the medieval curriculum, which was heavy on the liberal arts. They were considered an educational enterprise. After the Civil War, when more and more people finished high school, a commission set up with Andrew Carnegie's assistance separated secondary schooling from higher education, and gave us the tiered form of upper and lower schools we have now. But there wasn't that much more to learn, so that is why we basically educate you twice: once in high school, and once in college (note how you take History, Literature, Rhetoric, Math, etc. in much the same sequence in both places).

In any case, colleges were the key to what are called the Learnéd Professions, such as Law, Medicine, Divinity (and many, many more these days, especially in technological fields). And anyone who had been awarded a diploma was somebody people looked up to. So the diploma became a credential, and even if you didn't earn your living through that credential, it also gave you higher status. Certain prestigious schools' diplomas were valued even more than others, though whether they actually gave you a better education is sometimes questionable. But you certainly met elite professors there, and rubbed shoulders with the children of other elite families. And this is why a diploma from Yale Law is valued more than one from, say, Indiana University. Meanwhile, the desire to provide access to college for everybody after World War Two (and delay the entry of the 16 million men in the armed forces back into the recently-recovered job market) gave us the GI Bill. The children of the GIs, the Baby Boomers, also threatened to wreck the economy by their numbers, and they were, in their turn, encouraged to go to college as a matter of course. This tendency to send everybody to college has not only run up significant debt for many persons, but has also led to inflated degrees: when lots of people have Bachelor's degrees, the people with Master's degrees now have the superior credential; when everybody must have a Master's (e.g., to be a United Methodist Elder), then Doctorates become more common, and not just for those who plan to enter the professorate.

6. Scholarship/Learning

The scholarly, or learnéd, life requires most people entering it to acquire a string of diplomas in ever-narrower fields of study. This is different from how it used to be, when very few earned degrees, especially advanced ones. But when we talk about Learning, as opposed to Education or Training or Schooling, we are talking about a kind of expertise. The scholar in English has read not only the masterpieces assigned to him by his teachers; he has read the dull stuff typical of ages nobody likes. He or she endeavors to know the entire field of study he or she has entered. The desire here is to advance knowledge, not just pass it along. This is why doctoral dissertations require the candidate to produce a piece of original research that (in theory, anyway) adds to the total body of knowledge in one's particular field.

Now, truth be told, most college professors mostly teach classes and advise students, and a lot of "research" pursued for the sake of tenure is of questionable value. Nevertheless, the ideal remains: the scholar is interested in learning, whether or not what is learned has an identifiable use. A use may be found later for what has been discovered, but the discovery of new things is of value in itself. It follows, of course, that one does not have to be employed in a research university or government think tank in order to add to the fund of human knowledge, though some of the fields people pursue require such huge funding that pursuing new discoveries independently is cost-prohibitive. Time was, though, that gifted amateurs added greatly to human learning, and even opened up whole new fields of study. And still can, so long as you don't expect to be paid for it. Snobs and rent-seekers will seek to crowd out the merely curious, or brow-beat them with sheepskins, but it remains to be said: What university did Socrates attend? What did he major in? Yet we are still reading what he said, 2500 years later.

7. Wisdom

The ultimate goal of all learning is Wisdom. Knowing stuff, or being able to do stuff, may make life easier or more remunerative, but all the learning in the world will not give the kind of satisfaction that wisdom brings.
Happy is the man who finds wisdom,
and the man who gets understanding,
for the gain from it is better than gain from silver
and its profit better than gold.
She is more precious than jewels,
and nothing you desire can compare with her.
Long life is in her right hand;
in her left are riches and honor.
Her ways are ways of pleasantness,
and all her paths are peace.
She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her;
those who hold her fast are called happy. (Proverbs 3:13-18)
Wisdom is the ultimate goal of our teaching and learning, and wisdom may be found in unlikely places. Even children have it to share: after all, it was the little boy who pointed out to all the smart grown-ups with their adult status and their fancy credentials that the emperor was stark naked.

All seven of these things are sometimes called education, but Education, properly so called, is only one of them. We sometimes assume that the mission of the public schools and/or colleges should address all of these different things, but there is no essential reason why that should be so. It would behoove us to choose our words more carefully in designing public policy, as well as school curricula, and to keep in mind that there might be entirely different ways of accomplishing our desired goals. Some of those different ways may, in fact, yield a better result than doing it the way we've always done it.

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