I have always been a person who views learning as essentially a practical thing. You take action, you practice in activities and immerse yourself in projects, taking risks and as such making a great many mistakes that you end up learning and growing from. Where does all this learning take a person? Well for one, hopefully we become better people as a result. More confident, more self-aware, more mature, wiser, more capable of living and contributing and continuing to learn and grow.

In another sense, by practicing things our hope is that we become better and better at them with time. Ideally, this continues until one day we are adept enough at using our hands or bodies or minds, creating or building or assisting or leading or discovering, that the talents and skills we have developed over the years are strong enough to devote to a career and to making our own little corner of the world a better place. Ideally also, through authentic living both in and out of the classroom, we learn those practical skills that it takes to survive independently in the modern world, while also knowing when and how to turn to others for assistance and advice.

If this system were to work to its fullest, then all the little pieces would fit together and a kinder, more accepting, more successful, more productive, fairer world would emerge. (Which is of course not to say that there still wouldn’t be problems; hence why we will continue to need policepeople and firepeople and teachers and doctors and electricians and carpenters.) The bottom line is that until rather recently, I viewed the ultimate goal of schooling almost exclusively as one of functionality and productivity and self-fulfillment (and self-fulfillment I believed, and still do believe, is intricately intertwined with contribution). I viewed learning as primarily and ideally interdisciplinary, because everyday living in the real world is interdisciplinary. I viewed education as a means of preparation to ultimately draw from all of the disciplines in order to solve hands-on, practical, real-world problems that need to be solved.

But before one can even begin to think about solving such problems, one needs to know simply how to live, which is a lot more difficult than many people make it out to be. So many people in this world are surviving but not really living; and this is an issue that needs to be addressed by schools every bit as much as it needs to be addressed by the government, by parents, by psychologists and psychiatrists, and by community organizations.

I have learned a lot over the years to say the least, about life in general and about the nature of learning and thus of teaching. I have learned, as everyone must learn, that my views on the world are not universally shared. Regarding educational issues, this important life lesson has been taught to me primarily during my years as a college student, and primarily through exposure to a great variety of unique and intelligent individuals with their own experiences and views to bring to the table. I have discovered an important goal of education that before I had been near failing to address: that of intellectualism, of understanding the world for the very sake of understanding the world. I have come to be more aware, and accepting, of the fact that there are many people in the world who will spend most if not all of their lives essentially being students. School for such people is not preparation for life; it is life. This is true not only in the most obvious sense of people who go on to get their PhD’s (possibly more than one, and possibly also postdoctoral training), but also in the sense of people who devote their lives to contributing further to the existing and continuously growing pool of knowledge. We need these people, and we need them just as much as we need such people as chefs and veterinarians and nurses. For this reason, the disciplines do sometimes need to be isolated, to remain as disciplines. There would be no biochemists or research psychologists if it was not an option to study biochemistry as biochemistry and psychology as psychology, rather than viewing the disciplines exclusively as toolboxes from which one acquires the tools needed in order to solve important practical issues (whether personal, occupational, societal, or some combination thereof).

Additionally, I have come to realize that these two ways of conceptualizing education (“liberal arts” and “vocational” as many refer to them) are not, and should not be, mutually exclusive. Strong skills require a strong base of knowledge (so that one knows not only what to do and how to do it but also why). Also, as much as certain schools would like to pretend this were true, no adult will ever spend his or her entire life doing nothing but thinking. Even academic and primarily research-based careers require one to perform such activities as writing resumes and grant proposals and interacting with others, and the people who hold such jobs will still need to perform such everyday survival tasks as cooking and cleaning and driving. I think that it is terribly unfortunate that there are a great many public K-12 schools that teach exclusively vocational skills, and equally unfortunate that there are just as many (possibly even more) public K-12 schools in existence that teach exclusively knowledge and patterns and habits of thought. We may not know what the world will look like in 10-20 years when the children we are teaching will need to use what we are teaching them, but what we do know is this: Humans think, and humans do. Both thinking and doing were necessary to survive in the past, are still necessary for survival in the present, and will continue to be necessary even in the distant future. As such, I believe that schools need to provide students with both knowledge and skills. That public schools exist that focus on one at the expense of the other is unfortunate not only because students who attend only one type of such a school throughout life are missing out on things that are vitally important, but also because these students are (without their consent, and often without the knowledge or maturity to even know what is happening) being pushed down a track that may not be appropriate for them. How are children who have spent their entire lives in liberal arts, college-preparatory schools to know that service and manual labor jobs are valid options for them? Likewise, how are students who spend their entire pre-college lives in schools with a vocational focus to know of (and accept as a realistic and valid option) the possibility of going on to make a living out of bringing knowledge to the world? High school seniors in this position may think that they have made a decision as to what they wish to do with the rest of their lives, but in reality they have not: other people have made this important decision for them, before they even began to attend kindergarten. If not all of the options have been accurately and fully considered, then a decision made cannot truly be called a decision. If students are to have complete control over their own lives, I think that a major shift in priorities in the educational system is necessary. I am absolutely not suggesting an abandonment of pure intellectualism, as some more extreme progressives seem to be advocating. Rather, I am proposing that teachers and policymakers and politicians find a way to allow intellectualism and practicality to merge in the way that I know is possible, and that I sincerely and strongly believe is desirable.