The principle function of education is to transmit the culture–to enable new members of a group to profit from what others have already learned. It follows the nth principal task of the student is to learn what others already know. -BF Skinner, 1974
When the famous radical behaviorist B.F. Skinner wrote these words in 1974, they were in opposition to a tradition in education, which sees the teacher’s role as guiding students to their own discoveries, or exploring their own experiences. That tradition dominates American educational systems to this day, although the connections between what we do and why we do it is sometimes rather opaque.
What is called ‘Experiential learning’ in the lingo of higher education includes internships, co-ops, service learning projects, and even in some cases role-playing games and academic simulations like model UN. All of these so-called “High Impact Practices” share a common belief that students learn best when they experience the problems directly, rather than reading about them in a textbook or other secondary source.
Skinner, on the other hand, is resurrecting an older view of education, one that was expressed by the British Psychologist Alexander Bain, when he defined education as a passing down of knowledge from one generation to the next. And another ‘reactionary’ thinker of the 1970’s, Leo Strauss:
Liberal education is education in culture or toward culture. The finished product of a liberal education is a cultured human being. -Leo Strauss, 1959
Aside from the political context of Skinner and Strauss, there is something to this idea. Culture is transmitted between people. Ways of speaking, cooking, performing and expressing ourselves can be passed from one people to another, and education is one way in which that happens. American public education typically includes a primer on the foundational documents and fundamental ideals of the country; and are frequently subject to intervention and manipulation by politicians with an eye on the voters these children will become in future elections.
Cultures that are under threat—such as those colonized by europeans in the 19th and 20th centuries and Native American cultures today—fight to preserve themselves by educating their youth. One becomes a full member of the Jewish community when a child can read the Torah in Hebrew. In the Christian tradition, one joins the church with a ‘profession of faith’, signifying the intellectual capacity to understand and interpret the traditions.