Throughout the 19th century and much of the 20th, a liberal arts education meant basic knowledge of Greek and Latin, an understanding of mathematics, the basics of science, proficiency in music and art, in depth discussions of philosophy, and a working knowledge of history. Granted, this was a privilege that most people were unable to afford, but anyone with the means was expected to be able to master all of these topics, with the possible addition of some trade skills.
This seems extravagant by today’s standards, but is it really? Remember that these students did not have the benefit of the internet for research, nor of calculators for math, nor of interactive educational tools of any kind. What they had was books, and teachers who knew what they were talking about and were free to teach as they saw fit. As a model for education, this seemed to work just fine, and the minds produced by this system came up with many of history’s greatest breakthroughs and innovations.
Why, then, do we seem to think that it is no longer possible for this model to work today? What has changed that requires an iPad in every classroom just to barely keep kids literate? The truth is, very little has changed, at least in terms of the way children learn. A recent report reveals hat Finland, with consistently scores high on international education rankings, takes a positively Luddite view towards technology in the classroom, disallowing mobile phones and failing to employ any of the modern tools that American educators seem to value so highly.
The fact that Finnish students are able to learn just fine without fancy computers and Powerpoint presentations proves, at the very least, that technology is not a necessary condition of a good education system. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, we have pretty conclusively shown that neither is it a sufficient condition.
We can argue all day about what makes Finland’s schools successful. Some will claim that it is their strict government control (which it almost certainly isn’t), while others will claim that there is a more fundamental cultural difference (which there almost certainly is). I like to think the sheer lack of technology and focus on old fashioned learning is a contributing factor, but of course I can’t know for sure.
At the very least, though, Finland has demonstrated what many of us have known all along, that children’s minds are perfectly capable of learning without having to resort to high-tech (and extremely expensive) trickery. The underlying problem of western education is more likely attributable to a lack of interest on the part of the students, who are forced to learn subjects that bear little relevance to them at ages when they should be outside playing or at least pursuing their own interests.
Instead, the state insists, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, that the only way to improve educational outcomes is to tighten its grip. The concept of recess is already all but forgotten, school hours have been steadily increasing, the age at which schooling begins has been decreasing, and now there is even talk of eliminating summer vacation and keep students locked up all year long. Throughout it all, is the unrelenting call for more and more money, as the greedy, insatiable bureaucracy of public education expands without improving.
If we want to improve the education system, we would do better to focus on hiring competent teachers, allowing students and parents more choice over their curricula, and trying to spark the interest and imagination of children, rather than investing taxpayer dollars in ever more expensive and less effective technologies.