“We don’t need no education.” (Pink Floyd)
Pink Floyd’s iconic song is an anthem to those who see schools as assembly lines to produce brain dead cogs for the factories of industrialism. “We don’t need no education.” flouts the decorum of what goes for “civilized” society—claiming that such rituals are artificial at best and, at worst, ingrain conformity and stifle creativity.
Philosophically speaking, there is a great deal of support for such a position. The French Romanticist, Jean Jacques Rousseau, held the “Noble Savage” as the epitome of humanity and bemoaned the rationalism of the 18th Century Enlightenment. (Never mind that Rousseau sired a number of children by a number of women, persuading his lovers to leave them to orphanages for the sake of public honor.) Religiously, Jesus routinely railed against the legalism of the Pharisees and said that “unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3) In 18th Century European Jewish history, the Hasidim preferred the devotion of a pure heart to the exhaustive learning of the Mitnagdim—though, in the present, the Hasidic devotion to Talmudic study is as extreme as the Mitnagdim ever were.
There is a similar tension in the East where the Taoist Lao Tzu rejected the proprieties of Confucious (“If the mat was not straight, the Master would not sit.) with, “In the pursuit of learning, every day something is acquired. In the pursuit of Tao, every day something is forgotten.” (Tao Teh Ching vs 48) For Lao Tzu, traditional education filled the mind with useless abstractions that distracted the individual from experiencing the harmony of the universal Tao.
Of course, all such “either/or” propositions are misleading. The most diehard Rousseauian presumably did not walk the streets naked and the most rigid Confucian sometimes had a creative, unprecedented thought. The real question, then, is about emphasis. To paraphrase the Irish (and, therefore, “Romantic”) William Butler Yeats, it is not whether, but to what extent, should education be about filling empty pails or lighting incendiary fires.
It is indicative that there is no direct answer to that question. Just by acknowledging that everyone is different is to recognize that either total conformity or total innocence is essentially unhuman. People are individuals AND social animals. For that matter, even the Buddha’s “middle ground” is too formulaic. He was more on point with “Be ye lamps unto yourselves.” In other words, the goal is not to achieve some external standard, but to identify one’s own priorities and see how they can be integrated into society. Martin Luther, probably the first formal “Protest-ant” in the 1500’s, agreed when he insisted “Do not bind yourself to Aristotle, or any other teacher of a deceitful philosophy, but read the Word of God (on your own) with diligence.” He then proceeded to translate the Bible into German so that the text would no longer be the exclusive property of professional clerics.
So, with all due respects to Pink Floyd, maybe, if we so desire, we can have our pudding before we have our meat…and maybe something on the side, too.