I am often asked about the relevance of education in an age when access to information is ubiquitous. It’s a fair question: why should I have to learn something when I can find it faster on my phone? The answer lies in what the “something” is.
While schools historically have been places where students had to learn facts, good schools like Dana Hall also have focused on the why of those facts. For example, students have long been required to learn the difference between the active and passive voice in writing — possibly a fairly dry grammar lesson — but good teachers always additionally helped students to understand why they were learning this, why they should internalize the notion that the passive voice enables the writer to avoid assigning responsibility. So if a student reads the sentence, “Mistakes were made,” she should ask herself “By whom?” or “Why aren’t we being told who made the mistakes?” (As a teacher, my favorite example is a sheepish student once telling me, “My homework didn’t get done.”)
In our current age, most of us can easily find facts — I’ve witnessed my son copy and paste required information from various websites into a Quizlet stack without any thought at all, to my great dismay — and so the questions “Why these facts?” and “What can we do with this information?” and “Why is this important?” become all the more urgent, and necessarily must be more central to the academic experience than they have been historically. While this represents a fundamental shift in the focus of a teacher’s lessons, it makes the classroom an inherently exciting place to be at this point in history. To help girls from a young age to learn to question information and its sources, to develop sophisticated skills that move her quickly from learning about a topic to imagining how that knowledge is important to the world, and to express her thoughts articulately about what she’s found, is invigorating work.
The focus in classrooms today should be, because it can be, on academic vigor, not rigor. In the era when knowing a great deal of information was crucial, rigor was genuinely important; almost any field, whether it be engineering or medicine or literature or history, required the rigorous accumulation of a host of information crucial for success. Now, although it certainly is necessary for people to continue to master some information, it is far more important that they be vigorous in their thinking and approach to information, and learn how to be imaginative thinkers about it. Without the sense of flourishing strength that vigor connotes, deep understanding is simply not occurring.
I therefore celebrate our Dana girls who ask, in the most genuine and curious fashion, “What is the point of learning this?” or “What am I going to do with this?” since these questions are at the foundation of the classroom experience, and why it is that education is more important now than at any other time in history.