posttrib
A-OK 
Weather Updates

Niedner: More to education than creating workers

Frederick Niedner

Frederick Niedner

storyidforme: 60398634
tmspicid: 932445
fileheaderid: 613576

Updated: February 12, 2014 6:08AM



We found ways to joke about the deep-freeze that descended on so much of the nation this week. One friend suggested the term “polar vortex” sounded like a winter sportswear line or a villain in a Star Wars film. Windy City residents took to calling their town Chiberia. And then there were all those Minnesotans who endured their minus-50 degree wind chills partly by laughing at the short hitters down here in the lower Midwest who whined about the cold as though it were some kind of personal affront.

Mostly, however, the polar vortex was dangerous, not funny. It gave us momentary glimpses of the essential concerns that shaped our ancestors’ lives. We fret over our cars’ seat-heaters not working, our snow-blowers proving inadequate, or our Internet connections slowing in the cold. Most who came before us cared only for survival. Winter came upon them like an enemy battalion that could snuff out lives in multiple ways. In the few minutes I helped clear my driveway on Monday, I felt that enemy’s fierce, uncaring breath.

We live in a time when storing up food in warmer months does not require the full-time effort of every man, woman and child. Neither must we hunker down in shelters all winter, stoking the fire and protecting our woodpile as though it were gold.

We have leisure time, time away from the quietly desperate work of merely staying alive. Where and how do we spend that time? We think first of golf or vacation cruises, perhaps, but the bulk of our leisure time we spend in school. For 12 years at least, we free children from work in factories and fields and let them learn to read, write, compute, make music, and more than anything else, we give them time to think about things. Some we put through four or even more years of education.

While passing through these years of schooling, children sometimes consider themselves enslaved, or at least overworked and sorely put upon. Few understand until much later that this may be the only stretch of life when others will pay for them to read, ponder, imagine and dream. We call such activity “the humanities,” because these are the things that separate us from wolves and birds and snakes and all the other critters that work nonstop at survival because life is nothing more than eating, procreating and watching one’s back.

Human beings make meaning. We do it through songs, poems, literature, films and constructing narratives that tame the chaos around us and make our worlds coherent, hospitable as well as habitable. These same things help vastly different civilizations and generations come to know each other, at least a little bit.

Lately we seem to doubt we can afford our commitment to all this leisure time. More and more, the people charged with financing education speak of it as a utilitarian process whereby we fill our children’s heads with facts and train them in skills that will make them useful, effective tools in our complex economic machine. We even speak of teaching preschoolers in ways that will enable us to “more successfully market them” at some future point in their lives and ours.

Even if all we want is a reasonable chance they can pay off their student loans, such talk comes perilously close to proving students correct when they consider themselves slaves. Moreover, it pushes us ever closer to losing touch with our humanity, to joining the four-legged and winged creatures who work ceaselessly to stave off the cold, and never sing, laugh or create something just because they can.



© 2014 Sun-Times Media, LLC. All rights reserved. This material may not be copied or distributed without permission. For more information about reprints and permissions, visit www.suntimesreprints.com. To order a reprint of this article, click here.