For those who happen to stumble across this: “Education Manifesto” is a document I usually include in my online course material for the college courses I teach. It is one of two documents that support each other. This is the more idealistic of the two, but together with Sins of the Fathers, it is designed to help college students get both realistic and motivated about their time in csollege in general, and my class in particular. I have done very little to edit this in order to make it make sense outside the context of a Learning Management System (at the time I wrote it, we used WebCT; at the time I posted it here, we were using Desire2Learn), so keep that in mind as you read it over. It is here simply to make it easy to share with educators who express an interest in it. It actually lives inside a walled garden normally accessible only to my own students, and certainly only to people with a login at my college.


“Manifesto” may sound grandiose, but it’s the perfect word to describe this document. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a manifesto as “a written statement declaring publicly the intentions, motives, or views of its issuer.”

I would think any student would like to have such a manifesto from each of his/her professors, because education is a matter neither of piling up pieces of information, nor simply of a “good student” getting a “good teacher.” Matching learning styles matters a great deal, for instance, as well as matching assumptions.

Most never examine their assumptions, however. I intend to make my own assumptions clear and explicit, so you can know what to expect in this course. I call it an “Education Manifesto” because it goes well beyond this particular course, but I include it here because it directly affects this course.

Here’s one example of how assumptions can shape educational experiences: modern students seem to approach education as if they are customers purchasing a commodity called “education.” This model may be more useful than the older authoritarian model of education, but it has its own problems—for the student as well as for the teacher and society at large. We’ll examine some of those problems and then offer a more useful model.

The companion article “Sins of the Fathers” may seem to contradict this document. In fact, the two combine for a fairly accurate, realistic, and useful approach to college education. I intend them to serve both the student and society more effectively, not to “put you in your place.” If people live by unexamined assumptions, then my desire here is simply to be clear.

Principle One: Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire

This principles comes from a quote usually attributed to William Butler Yeats. It gets at the very nature of education, which is not the same as training, although we tend to use the terms as synonyms.

Recognizing this difference doesn’t detract from the value and importance of training. On the contrary, it boosts the value of both education and training. When we confuse the two, we devalue both.

We tend to equate education with absorbing information, which means higher education consists of absorbing more information than ever faster than ever. No wonder college seems so stressful!

Genuine education is about learning how to learn. Students talk about what they can expect to get out of a college education, but it matters more what a college education gets out of you.

Consider the following quotation:

Much of what we call education isn’t education at all, it’s memorization. Somebody stands in front of a room and talks. You sit in your chair and copy down as much of what the instructor says as you can, as fast as you can. At the end of the semester, you reread everything you’ve written, cramming it back into your brain. Then you go back to the classroom, pull out a blank piece of paper, and regurgitate as much as you can as fast as you can. When you’re done, you walk out of the room and quickly forget everything, because the semester is over and you don’t need to remember it anymore.

This is not education; this is bulimia.

Real education isn’t about cramming and vomiting information. Real education is about distinguishing distinctions.

A distinction is a way of relating one thing to another. The simplest way to understand a distinction is to imagine it as a dividing line that distinguishes this from that. For instance, this big plastic container is filled with garbage. But if we start sorting through it and pulling out the plastic, the cardboard, the newspaper, the glass, and the metal it’s no longer garbage at all—now they’re recyclables. We have distinguished each kind of refuse into a specific category.

Source: David Gerrold. 2001. World of wonder: How to write science fiction & fantasy. Cincinnati: Writer?s Digest Books. (189-90).

That’s an elegant, practical way to say the same thing. Education is learning how to think effectively.

That leads to our second principle.

Principle Two: Even if you don’t realize it, you get what you pay for

So ask an important question: what do you pay for?

Answer: You go to college to be stretched.

We do you no favors, therefore, by making it easy on you. If we make it easy, you don’t get your money’s worth.

That doesn’t mean making it hard on you automatically gives you your money’s worth. But if it’s easy, you probably don’t get what you paid for.

People often have no clue as to the purpose of education. They sign up for school because it’s habit, because it’s expected of them, or because the job they want requires a “college education,” and they assume they know what that means. “What do you pay for?” effectively asks, “What does education mean, anyway?”

Key: The word “education” comes from the Latin word “educe,” which means “to draw forth from”—the opposite of what most people think education means. (Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary says, “Educe implies the bringing out of something potential or latent.”)

What do we draw forth?

  • Life skills.
  • Problem-solving skills.
  • The ability to set goals and persist to achievement.
  • Character.
  • The confidence that you can tackle difficulties.

We can’t possibly teach you in four years the information and techniques you will need for the next forty years. But we can work with you to help you develop the skills and abilities to continue learning and growing for forty years and beyond, so you can live each day effectively.

Education is not:

  • Jumping through hoops.
  • Getting your ticket punched.
  • Job skills.
  • Mere information.
  • Subject matter.

The subject matter certainly matters, but mastering it is almost a fringe benefit. Really, subject matter comprises the tool of education rather than education itself. It matters more how you stretch and change by tackling the subject.

Principle Three: We are partners in educing your learning

I’m not your clerk; neither are you my subordinate. The first misunderstanding can result from applying a business model to education. The second can come from an authoritarian model. Neither is particularly helpful. Let’s deal with both of them a bit to get them out of the way.

Myth: “Sit down and shut up while I educate you”

Proponents of “traditional education” often yearn for a time when students knew their place and recognized their insufficiency and unworthiness. The professor knew all, or at least all that was worth knowing, and the student’s job was to absorb it. It has been a long time since many people believed this one, but it still crops up occasionally. I’ll develop this one more if I need to (i.e., if many students question me about this one), but we can boil it down to this: whatever label we would apply to this, it’s certainly not drawing anything forth from the student other than, perhaps, abject fear, and so it doesn’t fit the mold we’re considering. Perhaps this works when people are expected to simply fill their slots at the factory or the corporation. It doesn’t help a society of independent thinkers, information workers, and “Brand You” intrapreneurs and entrepreneurs that 21st Century realities demand.

We’re not the Kmart of education

Ironically, some administrators have begun applying customer-service business models to education at a time when businesses themselves are changing models. The “business model” doesn’t even reflect current thinking about effective business. To oversimplify, the business model considers the student a customer, and “the customer is always right.”

Leading-edge business expert Tom Peters has written an entire book, The Professional Services Firm 50, to counter this notion in corporations. Briefly, “the customer is always right” doesn’t really serve the customer.

Years ago sales guru Zig Ziglar illustrated this with a story about a woman who came into a store demanding to buy a bicycle that was too big for her son. The salesman told her he could not sell her the bike because it would be dangerous for the boy. She insisted on the too-big bike. Because the salesman truly wanted to serve the customer, he refused to sell her the bicycle. “The customer is always right” would have sold her the bike, making the commission but perhaps ultimately losing the customer (and exposing the store to a lawsuit).

I believe those of us in education must similarly serve. We are paid to educate, even if those getting the education experience discomfort in the process. To simply give students easily earned grades with no challenges is to take their money under false pretenses. They may like it at the time; they will curse us later, if they ever realize they have been defrauded and robbed.

“Sure, give us $10 and we’ll tell you you’re smart.” How much stock would you put in the response, anyway?

Tom Peters tells businesses to stop thinking of people as customers and treat them as clients.

Such a business still depends on clients for income, just as businesses traditionally depended on customers. It changes the relationship, however. If I am a professional serving clients…

  • It is a relationship built upon mutual respect.
  • It requires that I respect myself as well as my client.
  • It requires that I offer my best professional advice, offered politely but clearly, even if the client doesn’t want to hear it. Think about a doctor who must tell a patient to lose weight, even though the patient wants to hear otherwise. Think about a lawyer who must tell a client his case is weak, even though the client wants to hear otherwise. Think about an accountant who must explain tax implication, even though the client wants to hear otherwise. (In any of these professions, you can find practitioners who will take the client’s money and say whatever the client wants. Such exceptions debase the profession rather than exemplify it.)
  • It means I have responsibility to my profession as well as to my clients.
  • I may sometimes “fire” clients, if I recognize there is a mismatch between their needs and what I offer or if I realize they will not benefit—even if they still want to “hire” me.

By the way, think a little about who the client actually is in an educational setting. Students sometimes make demands based on, “I’m paying for this!” Even if we accept the customer/business relationship implied, recognize what such an assumption would imply. Even in this era of falling state support, the state still pays more of the cost of your education than you do. Based on who pays for your education, arguably the state is the customer. That means that you are the product. Neither of us wants to think of you that way. The client/professional model allows us to think of serving the needs of multiple clients much more easily.

The above holds true for any professional/client relationship. It has special significance in this course because we are studying communication skills, which includes learning to effectively communicate about your education.

For instance, in the fall of 2004 I got behind in grading because our chronically ill baby was back in the hospital (a circumstance that likely won’t ever affect our class because I’ve figured out systems for handling such things). One student wrote to me sarcastically asking if there was any use turning in other assignments—would I bother to grade them? Another student politely wrote to check that I had received the assignment in question and to ask if there was anything else she needed to do to complete the assignment.

Which one demonstrated better communication skills?

Since that’s what I teach and I evaluate how much students learn, which one do you think wound up with a better grade?

Let’s be clear: I didn’t unfairly grade the first student because she ticked me off. After 20 years in the profession, such behavior doesn’t tick me off anymore; it just makes me shake my head at the ignorance. The student received every point she earned. But she got nothing extra from me. The more polite (and therefore more skilled) second student likewise didn’t receive any points she didn’t earn. But she did earn my respect, and because she asked for it she received some coaching on her speeches that probably helped her to do better speeches and earn a higher grade.

That’s a skill the second student can take into the marketplace. I didn’t have to punish the first student. She will cause herself more problems than I would ever give her anyway.

Ours is to reason why

Most people never question why they’re in school. For some, it’s just August—time to be in school. Basically, it’s just habit. Others know the job they want requires a degree, but they’ve never stopped to ask why. In essence, they also do not know why they’re in school.

At least, you’ll have that advantage. Whether you agree with my manifesto or not, you’ll think about why you chose college instead of going straight to work, going to a technical or other training school, or just bumming around. You’ll get a better sense of your own goals, and how you’re choosing to get there.

And, after all, if you know where you’re going, you’re more likely to get there.

I hope this manifesto helps. At the least, understanding my assumptions will make it easier to deal with me.

I also hope these ideas not only put this course but your entire college experience into perspective.

Now, let’s go out and commit an act of education.

Share this, please!

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