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The Education of Henry Adams (3) – Education is not Neutral

As a young man Adams got the opportunity to study in a German high school and university. This was his judgment. “All State-education is a sort of dynamo machine for polarizing the popular mind; for turning and holding its lines of force in the direction supposed to be most effective for state-purposes.”

In other words, there is always an underlying purpose in education. Those that are being educated may or may not be conscious of the purpose, but there is always an underlying purpose. The question isn’t “does the education my child is receiving have a goal?” but rather “what is the goal of the education my child is receiving?”

Consider the news. Many people want to simply “get the facts.” But this is impossible. All facts are mediated through the observation of people, so when anyone shares facts he or she is sharing an interpretation of the facts; facts cannot be completely separated from interpretation. Consider witnessing something as simple as a car accident. Did it look like the car that was hit stopped too fast? Was the car that hit it following too close? It is impossible to describe what happened without some sort of interpretation.

Added to that there is the question of what gets shared and what does not. What is “news”? We never see the headline “area man goes to thankless job that he hates in order to support his family while his wife patiently disciplines their toddler while he is having a temper tantrum.” This never makes the news and yet it happens countless times every day and civilization would immediately collapse if it stopped. There isn’t enough time or space to cover everything so we focus on some things at the expense of others. Even if we report these things in a completely unbiased way, the very choices we make regarding what and what not to report demonstrate underlying commitments and unspoken goals.

Consider how these two things come together in education. You could teach the Civil War in an obviously biased way e.g. “in the war of northern aggression the tyrant Lincoln sought to….” That doesn’t generally happen. However, there is a more subtle way to introduce bias. For example, one could focus on and emphasize all the atrocities that the Union committed while skimming over those committed by the Confederacy. One could likewise share anecdotes of heroism and bravery and sacrifice from Confederate soldiers while not sharing like stories about Union soldiers.

No education is neutral. There are underlying assumptions that guide all the choices that schools make. Do we include this book or not? Do we slow down and spend time on this chapter or skim through it? Many of these questions are grand and far-reaching: how do we view the history of our country? Like every human society that has ever lived we have done good and harm alike, but how do we interpret our history? Is the United States a great nation conceived in liberty that has been imperfectly, but progressively, making good on its promise of liberty and justice for all? Or is it a place founded on oppression, full of hypocrisy and exploitation? Or think about our faith. Is God our Creator and Redeemer, worthy of our eternal praise and gratitude, the Light that gives light to all knowledge, the Purpose for our lives and the Center of everything we study? Or is faith something private that has no bearing on education? The views one holds will guide not only how things are taught, but what one decides to teach. Those that decide what is taught and how it is taught have some vision in mind, even if they don’t consciously recognize it.

No education is neutral.