A Not So Simple Question: What is Education?

A Not So Simple Question: What is Education?

Karen Gross 05/01/2019 5

I previously read an opinion piece in the New York Times lamenting the funding of "lazy rivers" being installed by state colleges on their campuses. I was struck by the first sentence of this piece, which I quote in full: "In a competition to woo students, public universities are increasingly offering lavish amenities that have nothing to do with education."

Is it that clear what amenities do and do not have anything to do with education? Doesn't it depend on how one defines both "amenities" and "education"? And aren't we trying to do more than "woo" students; aren't we trying to "retain" and graduate them so they enter the workforce?

Let me be clear, I am not defending "lazy rivers" per se. But, I think we need to think about the term "education" broadly and what is an amenity to some is actually a tool in furtherance of education to another. And our obligation to students hardly stops with wooing.

Let me try it this way: education is tough to define for sure but education certainly is not limited to what occurs in classrooms. Indeed, much of education happens in places other than classrooms. It happens in conversations among students and faculty; it happens in collaborative work projects among students; it happens in residential halls and at lectures and yes, even concerts. It happens in dining halls (why else to some colleges place such an emphasis on the look of and the food in dining halls?). It happens on outdoor spaces designed to enable gatherings. It happens in libraries and student centers. And, it is that education that allows us to create graduates who will enter the workforce and succeed there and in their communities.

How we learn and where we learn also seems to me to be the question raised by the NYTimes opinion piece. Not every expenditure external to "academics" is an unnecessary use of public money. Not every "amenity" is bad, although the term itself suggests something pejorative. Why do we spend money on how space looks? It would be cheaper to just paint everything on a campus the same color. And, why not have the same furniture everywhere? Cheaper by the dozen so to speak.

The reason is that there is something, supported empirically, in the experience of place. Tony Hiss was right: space and place do have an influence on how we feel and how we engage. Hospitals figured this out too; that's why rooms aren't painted a miserable green, a color that makes you feel sicker than you already are.

I worry that the argument with respect to "lazy rivers," can be made about art and sculpture and dance. They are additive. They are amenities (so to speak), especially when we think about cuts in K-12 school budgets. And why not argue that athletics is an amenity?

And, might we think about the phrase "lazy" rivers? It presumes a lack of utility -- the word "lazy" is pejorative. What if the campus river was a place for students to study water quality and water flow; biology, physics, chemistry and architecture students -- engineers too -- could be involved in the design and maintenance of these "lazy" (read useless) rivers.

Of course, I am stretching the point but I am making a point: education requires expenditures that do not appear to some to be "educational" in nature. For me, money spent on food, art, quality environment and recreational opportunities are education enablers. We know that the brain only allows us to absorb material in limited chunks. Don't we want students to gather together and work together and talk together instead of being holed up in their rooms (on and off campus) with their technology devices?

By way of analogy, we know that health requires more than physical well being; it requires psychological well being. For real. We know that childhood development occurs not just in schools but in homes and communities; we know that exposure to new experiences expands our imaginations and enables us to learn. We know our brains are plastic and can learn from a variety of experiences and then take that learning and transport it into other arenas.

Back to lazy rivers. First, let's be clear; despite what the opinion piece says, they are not amusement parks. They are a ride to be sure but they seem to encourage engagement. They could have educational value too -- see above. Climbing walls have value too. They challenge you to try something that seems impossible. Yet, they are another amenity that is challenged. How about golf courses? How about tennis courts? How about ponds and groomed open spaces? I find the idea of lazy rivers appealing at a poetic level (and potentially educational) but tend to agree, depending on their cost, that they are an over the top expenditure. True. But, let's not say that amenities are not supportive of education. Wooing is only part of the job of a college for sure.

Education is a big broad umbrella and we learn differently and in different places and spaces. Let's remember that before we slash budgets and assert, directly or by inference, that the only learning on a campus is from professors. That's just not so.

And, let's remember that wooing, at least in other contexts, has other follow-on steps. Wooing does not get you a happy marriage. Getting a student into college isn't enough. We may not need lazy rivers to keep and graduate students but we need to realize that we need to make education work --- and education must work if we are to produce the needed leaders of tomorrow. And we do need them. That is for sure.

Defining education isn't really possible in this short space. We all know that. But, howsoever we think about it, we need to think broadly. Unbounded education .... education in all places and spaces. Start there and then move forward.

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  • Steve Kinnane

    Education is the guiding to light in the path of our success.

  • Andy Webster

    I would say it's a lifelong process which brings change of behaviour in a desired way.

  • Derry Howley

    There is more to education than studying how life is on a plantation.

  • Ryan Shepherd

    Good read !

  • Alison Murphy

    To me education is the gateway to success. Success can be achieved when people have knowledge, skills and attitude.

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Karen Gross

Higher Education Expert

Karen is an educator and an author. Prior to becoming a college president, she was a tenured law professor for two plus decades. Her academic areas of expertise include trauma, toxic stress, consumer finance, overindebtedness and asset building in low income communities. She currently serves as Senior Counsel at Finn Partners Company. From 2011 to 2013, She served (part and full time) as Senior Policy Advisor to the US Department of Education in Washington, DC. She was the Department's representative on the interagency task force charged with redesigning the transition assistance program for returning service members and their families. From 2006 to 2014, she was President of Southern Vermont College, a small, private, affordable, four-year college located in Bennington, VT. In Spring 2016, she was a visiting faculty member at Bennington College in VT. She also teaches part-time st Molly Stark Elementary School, also in Vt. She is also an Affiliate of the Penn Center for MSIs. She is the author of adult and children’s books, the most recent of which are titled Breakaway Learners (adult) and  Lucy’s Dragon Quest. Karen holds a bachelor degree in English and Spanish from Smith College and Juris Doctor degree (JD) in Law from Temple University - James E. Beasley School of Law.


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