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bennett's picture

What is an education?

I feel, as it seems several of my classmates do, that it might be useful for us to begin at or somewhere near the/a beginning: what is (an) education, really? Is it a thing? Is it a process? Who does it? To whom is it done? Is it something we "have," and so capable of being discarded or abandoned? Is it a part of us? What is its relation to power/money/success/control? What does it have to do with the brain? I doubt there are obvious answers, never mind any definite ones. How might we work towards understanding these questions and imagining what their answers might look like?

Here I think we'd do well to be careful, and maybe even a little skeptical; education is something that most people think is important (maybe for a litany of reasons) but, it seems, eludes even a simple definition. To rely on a simple (and almost certainly wrong) "definition" of education, how is it possible that so many people who have been through years of schooling can hold such a broad plurality of often contradictory beliefs about the world? How can a system be complex enough to effectively accommodate the staggering degree of difference between individuals? When educated people agree on a particular belief about the world, does it reflect a common knowledge, or rather a kind of conditioned of receptivity toward a particular kind of belief about the world? These are all things that a lot of people vastly smarter than I am have been thinking about for hundreds of years, and have come to different conclusions about. Just because we are in school does not mean that we know what education is -- in fact it seems more likely that we would be self-serving in how we think about it.

In class I made a pretty unfortunate passing remark about Foucault. I only brought it up because it's sort of easy to summarize (if imprecisely) the gist of Foucault's central argument in his probably most famous book, Discipline and Punish, and by now the general shape of his worries about education and what he calls normalization seems well-disseminated enough that you can just make a reference to his thought and it's already a cliche. I think everyone's probably heard of "normalization" and the Panopticon and all that already so even if Foucault's name isn't familiar some of his ideas probably are. And I think that however we feel about those ideas, they remain important to keep in the background: education is tremendously powerful because it determines *at least* the context and foundation of all of our (educated) thoughts. Knowledge is power in at least that sense: truth claims can shape and determine the course of behavior in ways too systematic and complex to try to reproduce here. We should, I think, constantly challenge our assumptions about education: about what it is, who it works for and on, etc.

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