Highly-Schooled but not Well-Educated


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As many of you are well aware, an incident involving a member of the SAE fraternity and a racist chant that, by all accounts, seems to be part of a larger cultural epidemic within this fraternity (see here for but one article connected to this event), added to the already fraught racial tension boiling up in our country.

I do not want, nor need, to go into the details of this event, nor do I want to comment on them beyond how they speak to the deeper issues I perceive in what we mean both by schooling and education.

In a previous blog post, I wrote about the differences I see between schooling and education, chief among them that one is akin to a moral and communal exercise, and one is akin to an industrial model of mass institutionalization.

Here, then, in this SAE incident, we see viscerally these differences played out in very tragic ways for all parties involved: the individual involved in the chants, his family and friends, the fraternity itself, the university, those denigrated by the ugliness of this chant, and our culture writ large.

For here is the problem: this young man was, by all accounts, highly-schooled.

That is, he attended a private, prep school whose website boasts of a “continued tradition of excellence” based upon the school’s mission: “to provide an environment which will enable students to develop and to continue the lifelong academic, cultural and physical aspects of learning in order to foster visionary individuals who strive toward excellence with a sense of global and technological awareness and who will go forth to serve the community and world as responsible citizens.”

He passed all the tests, earned all the grades, graduated from one of our finest private schools, and matriculated into one of the finest state institutions around. By all accounts, by all measures currently touted as “excellence in schooling,” this young man succeeded in being well-schooled.

And yet, something, somewhere, went horribly wrong.

Now, this is not a critique of any particular entity in the subjective. I am not commenting on his high school, his family, his university (from which, in full disclosure, I have my doctoral degree), or even the young man himself. That is neither my place nor my position.

My grief lies in our cultural blindness to the wide gap between being highly-schooled and well-educated. This particular case study shows the tragic consequences that can (and do) play themselves out time and again when we shoot our arrows at the wrong target.

Somewhere, in all the courses, papers, tests, assignments, readings, etc. that made up schooling for this young man, he never received the opportunity to wrestle with what Mary Rose O’Reilley calls our culture’s “Hearts of Darkness.”

And this is the problem I wish to correct: the idea that one can receive a full 20+ years of schooling and never once have to grapple with the broken places, the deeper issues, the miseducative cultural stock (to borrow from Jane Roland Martin) we innocuously pass down from one generation to the next.

I’m only conjecturing here based upon my own twenty years in teaching, but I’m assuming that this young man’s schooling consisted of studying the history of slavery, the Civil War, and the Civil Rights movement; that he read Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, MLK’s “Letter to a Birmingham Jail,” and perhaps even Toni Morrison’s Beloved; but somewhere in there, schooling trumped education, to the detriment of all.

Nel Noddings, in her book, The Challenge to Care in Schools, addresses this by stating, “Evidence abounds that people can attain high levels of intellectuality and remain insensitive to human beings and other living things.”

This, then, is the deeper disease of which this one incident is but a symptom: when we ask students to spend the majority of their formative years regurgitating facts with little to no connection to the deeper human condition or communal human experience, we divorce learning from ever really speaking into the great moral, relational, psychological, ecological, economic, political, and spiritual crises of our day. Memorizing the dates and battles and generals of the Civil War to earn the “A” does not allow students the capacity to sit in the grief of what that time period meant, and means still.

Nel Noddings addresses this when she writes, “I believe that a dedication to full human growth will not stunt or impede intellectual achievement, but even if it might, I would take the risk if I could produce people who would live nonviolently with each other, sensitively and in harmony with the natural environment, reflectively and serenely with themselves.”

While fault must be found in this young man for allowing himself to get carried away into a torrential current of racist, bigoted, hateful speech, I must also offer my apology for the countless ways in which I, as an educator and human being, have failed too many students by buying into the myth that being highly-schooled matters at all, to anybody. I must apologize for the countless times I allowed grades, testing, tracking, and AP scores to dominate my classroom decisions. I must apologize for the many times I failed to see the students themselves as human beings, and not just grades in PowerSchool. I must apologize for staying silent too long in the face of institutionalized violence masking itself as business-as-usual. I must apologize to my African-American friends for choosing my own attainment at the cost of our shared humanity.

In the end, if we are to see racial reconciliation occur in our communities (or any other version of all things made new), we first sit in the grief and seek repentance for the ways in which we have allowed (and continue to allow) schooling to trump education.


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