Book Review: What Does It Mean To Be Well Educated?

What Does It Mean To Be Well Educated?:  And More Essays On Standards, Grading And Other Follies, by Alfie Kohn


The author is right that this book is about follies, but not necessarily in the way that he claims.   Just as everything in the contemporary world is the subject of massive fighting, so is education, and the author seeks to present the point of view of leftist activists while demonstrating his folly to everyone who hasn’t shared the kool-aid he is continually sipping from while having written this book.  It would take at least a sizable pamphlet to discuss all of the massive flaws of logic and reasoning, but suffice it to say at least briefly that if the author is seeking to present himself as a well-educated product of our contemporary education system, including the education of teachers, he is more eloquent as a statement of crisis in the education system than anything he writes about in this book, for if such a person as the author can seriously believe himself to be educated and capable of teaching others then we clearly need some massive changes, although it should be noted that they need not necessarily be either the leftist activism the author would support or the sort of changes that he laments concerning his phobias of standardized tests and being held accountable for the performance of students.

This book is less than 200 pages long and about the only positive thing that can be said about it is its brevity and the author’s honesty in admitting his activist and progressive bias.  The book ends with a preface and the author’s unsuccessful attempts to grapple with the conflicting opinions about goals for education.  The author then provides three essays on the purposes of schooling (I) that discuss what it means to be well-educated (1), the author’s hostility towards the business of schooling (2), and the author’s anti-achievement bias (3).  After that the author discusses standards and testing (II), which the author is unsurprisingly hostile to, with essays on the relationship between harder and better education (4), the author’s hostility to standards (5), the author’s concern trolling for the supposed victims of standardized testing (6), the author’s belief that learning is sacrificed by an interest in getting high scores (7), and the author’s premature celebration of the end of the SAT (8).  The third part of the book then discusses grading and evaluating (III), with essays on the author’s hostility to grade (9), the supposed myth of grade inflation (10), and the author’s hostility to people congratulating students for doing a good job (11).  It is perhaps fortunate that no one has to tell the author good job for this book.  The author provides three essays on moral, social, and psychological questions (IV) such as the legacy of American high schools (12), September 11  (13), and Abraham Maslow (14).  The author then stumps for various activist causes for school reform (V) with essays on his beliefs that certain types of reforms are needed (15) to make students more compassionate and caring, the rotten apples of education (16), the folly of merit pay (17), and a plug for activist teachers (18), after which there are credits and an index.

Perhaps what is most notable about this book are the false premises and false dilemmas that fill nearly every page of every essay.  The author claims that private school succeeds because it is allowed to be choosy in terms of its students, not noting that such standards account for all of the public school programs (like the IB Program I went to as a public high school student) that tend to work.  Likewise, the author claims that the contemporary high level of tests are what makes school less intrinsically worth learning, as does grading, not remembering that school has seldom been a place for intrinsic love of learning to blossom, which self-education does nicely without the leftist indoctrination.  The author completely ignores homeschooling in the false dilemma he engages in against private schools or, presumably, some sort of voucher program that would give parents meaningful choices.  Even the author’s statements that a majority of educational attainment results from factors outside of the classroom itself backfire by suggesting that our society, if it wants to do well by parents, would do better to strongly encourage families to be and remain intact rather than adopt models that make the state a surrogate husband or parent to the harm of children.  There is scarcely anything the author talks about that he manages to get right, demonstrating why it is that having an education that focuses on facts and panders less to feelings would have done the author good, much less the poor children who the author disastrously screws up in his classrooms through his misguided activism.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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