Is There Still a Crisis in Education?

By Tyler Bonin

In her 1954 essay, “The Crisis in Education,” political philosopher Hannah Arendt affirms that the modern theories of learning go astray in several crucial aspects, one of which exists in the following point: the act of doing is too often conflated with learning. She further discusses the prioritization of pedagogy over subject mastery, with schools transforming into “vocational institutions” as a result. It is easy to see these notions playing out in education today. For instance, Common Core has placed an emphasis on technical reading and informational texts, a requirement which grows stronger as students move through high school. This aspect is bolstered by SAT’s alignment with Common Core, a set of standards which ACT endorses as well.

What, then, is the problem? Certainly, students need these skills to go on to become productive members of the workforce. After all, establishing economic opportunity through education has become a priority for our society, and elements of this purpose are certainly not devoid of merit. Then doesn’t this suggest that reading literature—or keeping dusty, outdated books in circulation among students—is simply superfluous in the digital age? With all of the recent changes emerging as a result of technological advancement, globalization, and a changing domestic labor market, can we still say this is a crisis in modern education?

Yes, there is a problem. It lies in both the continuing and ever-increasing priority of only those academic pursuits which are solely practical in nature. If the only thing worth knowing is that which is attached to a vocational end, then it necessarily assigns a higher weight to top-down approaches and vague, collective concerns than it does to individualism and the cultivation of wisdom, both of which operate as a necessary condition for human flourishing. However, when the moral worth of the individual is considered in all things, then society has a foundation from which prosperity may be built. Thus, education viewed simply as skills-transfer not only fails to recognize the inherent dignity of human beings, but also fails to adequately prepare students for engaging critically with the problems that are permanently affixed to humanity.

When the moral worth of the individual is considered in all things, then society has a foundation from which prosperity may be built.

A quick glance at today’s headlines illustrates that the current moment is not absent of the political and economic difficulties which have afflicted past generations. We have not progressed past such things as war, famine, or oppression. These events still exist, as they have for generations, despite the technological and scientific advancements that define this era. The consequences of education are thus naturally much greater than assigning a basic level of numeracy and literacy to a student, and pushing them out into the world to seek employment. Education must lead a student to embrace their humanity and develop his or her intellect to not only navigate the world, but to understand deeply the moral quandaries they will face, many of which are of the same manner and scope faced by previous generations. Assigning primacy to only vocational considerations thus neglects the sheer importance of giving students the tools to become self-reliant and discerning of the institutions that preserve dignity and individual liberty.

Thus, it seems that in reaffirming the notion that a crisis in education exists today, one must also attempt to reassess what perpetuates it. All of the benefits of a truly humane education are lost when tests such as the SAT and ACT reinforce a model of education measured along strictly utilitarian terms. This is not to suggest that testing is undesirable. However, if entire systems of education are to be supported and evaluated by a test, then the test should move deeper, using the texts that have underpinned pivotal intellectual and social movements. Unfortunately, these texts are too often (ironically) deemed inessential in modern education, yet are actually indispensable for understanding the modern world. One cannot read John Locke or Karl Marx and deny their profound effect on shaping societies, while remaining central to the ongoing debate on the role of the state today. Yet, they are too often treated as an afterthought.

The Classic Learning Test provides an important metric for learning, but does so by embracing the fundamental principle that education is a humane endeavor. Its standard in testing is underpinned by the thinkers and writers whose intellectual impact is crucial for developing a robust knowledge of the world. Promoting this intellectual heritage for posterity must be central to the ends of education. The CLT assesses what truly matters, and thus stands well-poised to remedy the crisis of purpose in education today.

Tyler Bonin holds degrees from Duke University and Campbell University, and he is a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps. CLT is excited to welcome him as our newest team member.


If you liked this piece, you may also enjoy our series on “the Great Conversation,” discussing the history of ideas from angels to oligarchy. Or take a look at an essay from one of our top students on the poetry of Edmund Spenser.

Published on 6th August, 2020.

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