Mr. Murdoch, an accomplished pragmatist, criticizes the public education system for failing to deliver enough exceptional workers into the job market. In presenting the problem from the corporate perspective, he echoes the concerns reported time and time again by business leaders who are struggling to find the talent their firms need to compete in today’s fast-paced, technology-driven economies. Interestingly, the chairman and CEO of News Corporation starts off his article by stating that “everyone” today is in favour of education reform, but that the hard part is determining which model to adopt.
So far so good, and this is where we would want to jump into the conversation to advocate for classical education.
For his part, Mr. Murdoch suggests that the answer – or at least a significant part of it – is to use technology to transform the educational experience. He finds that children today gravitate naturally to new technologies, but that schools have not changed their approach to capitalize on the new reality. He also lashes out at the traditional classroom model. Here in concise form he exposes some of the structural problems with the system:
The top-down, one-size-fits-all approach frustrates the ones who could do more advanced work. And it leaves further and further behind those who need extra help to keep up. Teachers are likewise stunted. Some excel at lecturing. Some are better at giving personal attention. With the right structure, they would work together like a football team. With the existing structure, they are treated like interchangeable cogs.
Unfortunately, when it comes to the proposed solutions, what Mr. Murdoch proposes is somewhat simplistic. He suggests that with the right technology, learning would be less of a chore, almost as if we could find a technology solution that would trigger some previously-untapped, innate learning instinct, making the whole process easy. In this line of thinking, Mr. Murdoch essentially falls into the same trap that Dewey pedagogues fell into. Certainly 3-dimensional animations, online video clips, or interactive iPad presentations can be for today’s students what diagrams and charts were for the previous generation, but there is a limit to what visual aids can do. This is why those who promote classical education argue exactly against visual-based learning, maintaining that it is an inferior kind of training. A student might get a rough idea of what the Bernoulli principle is from a video, but he or she will never become one of the expert aerospace engineers Boeing wants to hire without spending hours, weeks, and months wrestling with the equations of fluid mechanics, solving problem after progressively more difficult problem. His or her brain will finally respond by opening up new neural pathways, recognizing and saving new patterns through this laborious struggle. It is the same in every field of study and human endeavour.
Never forget that it is the mind we must train. Learning is less of a natural process than it is a discipline. It requires work, often hard work. If Mr. Murdoch were to reflect on how he managed to become a successful practitioner in his field, he will certainly remember that it took many years of extreme effort and mental exertion, with each new skill building only slowly upon previous skills. What’s more, he had to make many mistakes (an almost-foreign word in today’s educational discourse), and realize that they were mistakes, in order to get the feedback required to improve his capabilities. We are now starting to describe the real process whereby the human mind learns. It is through the crucible of hard experience, complete with pain, frustration, and finally satisfaction at accomplishment, that each of us becomes who he is.
But there is more. The classical model also does not neglect the spirit. We will take up that critical component of a complete education in the next post.