Saturday, May 7, 2011

The "evolution" of education

In his Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America, Louis Menand writes of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species:
The purpose of On the Origin of Species was…to debunk the concept of supernatural intelligence – the idea that the universe is the result of an idea…Darwin wanted to establish…that the species were created by, and evolve according to, processes that are entirely natural, chance-generated, and blind (121).
Menand also goes on to write:
Darwin thought…that variations occur by chance, and that chance determines their adaptive utility…Natural selection is a law that explains why changes occur in nature…Since some members of the group must die, the individuals whose slight differences give them an adaptive edge are more likely to survive. Evolution is simply the incidental by-product of material struggle…Organisms don’t struggle because they must evolve; they evolve because they must struggle (122-123).
I have been thinking about these passages and asking myself “how or if” these principles can be applied to thinking about schools and education. Later in the 19th century, such thinking was the foundation of the Social Darwinism movement, which was not very successful in examining class and social structures in society. Can a generally accepted work, such as the idea of evolution as put forth by Darwin, be applied to educational reform? Is reform simply the evolution of education being observed in the struggles faced by many of our schools?

In some ways, an analysis of education through a Darwinian lens may provide some interesting insights. For instance, if we examine the history of education, there may be some pedagogical aspects that have remained in place over the course of time. If so, then the Darwinian approach suggests that the evolution of education that has taken place, and the subsequent struggles inherent in that evolution, have determined these consistent pedagogical approaches provide an “adaptive edge” in effectively delivering an education.
On the other hand, a Darwinian approach to examining education may not be useful. Education is a field of inquiry, not a living organism. In order to make a realistic application, we need to accept Darwin’s thoughts apply equally to organisms and fields of study. The concept that “species were created by, and evolve according to, processes that are entirely natural, chance-generated, and blind” (121) would have to also apply to education. Essentially, we would need to accept that any change in education has been the result of natural, chance-generated, and blind forces. As the field of education is a human created and promoted endeavor, I’m not sure Darwin’s theory can be appropriately applied. In other words, changes in education are typically not left to chance, they are the product of human experience, experimentation, and adjustment – trial and error with the quest being to discover new and innovative methods.
So, has education “evolved” or has it simply grown as a field of inquiry with a fluid body of knowledge? I think it is safe to say that we view education and we instruct students today differently than ever before. The science of learning and motivation adds an insight into the educational process that was unknown in the not too distant past. The experiences of teachers in the classroom and the research in the field and in universities should add to our understanding and appreciation for the educational process.

Maybe education is less like an evolving organism and more like the law. For as Oliver Wendell Homes, Jr. states, “The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience.” But that is the topic of a future article.

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