Deserts or Sponges?

“The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles, but to irrigate deserts.”

    Think of someone in your life that is educated. What makes them educated? Is it because they use words no one else knows? Do they talk for long stretches of time about obscure topics? Or is it hard to come up with an example? Regardless, most of us are involved in education in some way or another: parents educate their children and businessmen and businesswomen are always giving or receiving some kind of training. Have you ever heard the simile about children having “minds like sponges?” I propose to compare two metaphors for education, the sponge and the desert and use these as a resource to better understand what education is.

It is a common idea that young people have minds like sponges. The metaphor implies that the mind is like a sponge, that it’s purpose is to quickly suck up water. This water, by analogy, is information, the stuff of education. The job of education, in this view, is to immerse the sponge in the water so it can soak up the water, to immerse the child in facts and let the child soak them up. Education, in this view, is driven by acquiring information.

    Lewis said that “the task of the modern educator is … to irrigate deserts (Abolition of Man).” In Lewis’s metaphor, the students are like land that has become a desert. What has dried it out? Cynicism. The students have grown cynical and they no longer care about the facts coming their way; likely they don’t care about much at all. But what can wet their appetite and free them from their apathy? Curiosity. They need to be refreshed, to see the world as it really is in all of its wonder. This view thinks that the main problem is an attitude, and the solution is a different attitude.

    Which metaphor is more apt? Clearly the latter; education is far more about attitudes than it is about information. Education is the passing of culture down from one generation to the next by means of stories, exhortations, and formal schooling. Think of the stories you heard from your grandfather as a child. Those stories taught you how to see the world, what is important and what is valuable in a way that no factual instruction could ever do. In short, those stories they taught you an attitude towards the world. This is what education is always supposed to do, to catch you up personally, emotionally and intellectually into new ways of seeing the world.

    Perhaps the educated people in your life use words no one else knows or drone on and on about things that no one else knows about. If this is the case, forget their words for a minute and pay attention to their attitude. Why are they droning on and on about obscure topics? Are they fascinated by them? If so, you may just have something to learn.