Across the United States, most people have shared understandings of the purpose of education (to prepare tomorrow’s leaders today) and a shared language in which they discuss the purpose. Thus, the education system forms a system of meaning across America. The divide, however, lies in the means to the end: public schools are notorious for teaching to an end-of-year test to artificially inflate passing numbers, and public schools in especially competitive areas have caught flack for failing to regulate the cutthroat environments that are fostered– in parts of Silicon Valley, tomorrow’s leaders’ high school years are defined by toil, as the mentality dominates that the only acceptable place to be further educated is an institution that accepts less than 20% of its applicants. However, some laboratory schools are pushing a new way of educating that meets the same goals without the associated stress: one that puts the burden of self-education squarely on the shoulders of its young students and then teaches them how to manage the burden, often with similar results and a happier environment.
We explore the relation of the self to the system of meaning of education, separated into two factions by the schism of methodology.
“Man makes his life-activity itself the object of his will and of his consciousness. He has conscious life-activity. It is just because of this that he is a species being…it is only because he is a species being that he is a Conscious Being i.e., that his own life is an object for him. Only because of that is his activity free activity” (Tucker, 76)
For Marx, the relationship between “conscious” life-activity and man realizing his species being leads to the conclusion that a man that has realized his species being engages in free activity as his life activity. “Free” activity implies that man is not obligated to follow any path other than the one he has chosen for himself. This is backed up by the fact that the life-activity is the “object of his will and of his consciousness,” telling us that man must consciously choose– rather than have forced on him– his life activity. Marx explores labor as a life-activity, but labor is not the only life-activity that is possible in the world: before joining the workforce, students are in school for upwards of eight hours a day. Thus, a reasonable argument can be made that for students, studying and advancing their intelligence is their life-activity.
In the following article, the performance of studying as a free, conscious life-activity is shown occurring in a laboratory school.
Sal Khan, founder of the online educational website Khan Academy, has recently opened an experimental private school in Mountain View, California. Khan Lab School’s platform includes having no grade-levels, letter grades, or homework. Students are given the opportunity to explore their interests without the worry of their education being restricted to one form of instruction. They are given the opportunity to personalize their education by setting goals for themselves, which allows them to achieve in the fields they are interested in. Time allotted for direct instruction is reduced in favor of project-based learning activities and individual goal achievement.
Khan Lab School students are not obligated to follow the “traditional” educational path—continuous direct instruction, lack of individualism, and the constant pressure to excel because of homework and grades. Students are allowed range to fully realize their species being and pursue their education as a “free” activity. They do not have to worry about the pressure of failing or not meeting generalized expectations that are forced upon them. Students have the ability to consciously choose what shape their education will take.
“The only way of living acceptably to God was not to surpass worldly morality in monastic asceticism, but solely through the fulfilment of the obligations imposed upon the individual by his position in the world. That was his calling” (Weber 40).
“Not leisure and enjoyment, but only activity serves to increase the glory of God, according to the definite manifestations of His will (Weber 104).”
For Weber, the lack of finding salvation in life except for in activity that God approves is a crucial factor in the Protestant ethic. “Leisure and enjoyment” do not qualify as life-activity and do not contribute to man’s efforts to find salvation in life. Leisure and enjoyment are subsequently looked on as acts of idleness and are not selected for in communities that follow the Protestant ethic. Weber states that “only activity serves to increase the glory of God,” which makes the commitment of one to their life-activity the salvation in their life. In the selection of life-activity as a primary obligation in life, the execution of obligated life-activity is a constant process, and the time that is spent on leisure and enjoyment are continually reduced.
Leisure and enjoyment are foreign concepts in Silicon Valley, where public schools treat studying as an obligation, reflecting an expression of Weber’s ideals.
In Silicon Valley, children are forced into an ethic that similarly emphasizes the fulfillment of their life-activity. One result of the “pressure cooker” environment is think-pieces with quotes like the following: “I think we have to look at the attitude of all the adults in this community,” one person wrote. “It is we who are to blame putting the pressure on the kids to succeed … No amount of school counseling will change the parents’ attitudes.”
As demonstrated by the quote, the life-activity that is chosen for the students is not the pursuit of intelligence, but the pursuit of success; in Silicon Valley, success is most tangibly displayed by college acceptance letters. According to Mikki McMillion, the teacher mentioned in the article about the Khan Lab Schools and a former public school teacher, some parents do not give approval of anything but excelling in school and in extracurricular activities that go towards the improvement of their competitive status as an applicant from their respective schools. With a loss of leisure and enjoyment comes a lack of idleness, which is unheard of in this system as the students are constantly working. Their only perceived salvation– success in the form of admission into a “top” school–is through these competitive activities. The Protestant ethic lives on in the education system, leading to the increasing unhappiness of students, and as shown in the article, the unfortunate instances of teenagers taking their own lives due to the overwhelming burden of stress.