Apodaca: Job of education is to spark fires

"Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire." — William Butler Yeats

The end of the school year is upon us. Our brains are fried, we're exhausted from relentless term-ending activities and our kids checked out mentally weeks ago.

When summer beckons, it's not usually the time when we ask ourselves the Big Questions that keep us awake at night. Still, before we flip the switch to full summer mode, it's worth taking a moment to consider the following:

What is the purpose of education?

It's a big question all right, both philosophically and practically, and yet it's one we don't always deeply ponder. We all agree that education is a bedrock of civilized society, its importance virtually unmeasurable in terms of our collective progress and individual achievement. Yet we diverge in our ideas about what education's endgame should be.

This might seem like an overly esoteric debate, but it's actually at the heart of just about everything transpiring in education today, from the movement to create common standards of learning to teacher accountability, funding issues and the role of technology.

And it takes on added, pointed relevance as we as a nation appear to be moving the dial on what we expect from the vast educational infrastructure we've created.

At the risk of being a bit too simplistic, a purist would hold that education is a worthy pursuit in and of itself, that it is the key to unlocking insight, wisdom, creativity and inventiveness. It's about learning to think and question, and the endless pursuit of greater understanding.

There's a trend afoot, however — has been for some time now, in fact — to view education in a more practical, hard-nosed way. Being educated isn't enough, the thinking goes. We must learn things that can be put to use in a direct, concrete way. Taken to the extreme, if you can't apply what you learn toward landing a good job, it's a waste of energy and resources.

Some of the latter thinking is undoubtedly driven by the economy. As we emerge from a long period of economic stagnation, with jobs scarce and pay levels shrinking, calls have increasingly been raised to align educational goals more closely to the marketplace. It simply makes sense to teach our kids useful knowledge that can ultimately lead to career success.

But take heed: There is some danger in carrying the concept of education as a bankable commodity a step too far.

Throughout much of our history, formal education was the province of the wealthy and privileged. It both reflected and reinforced class divisions.

The growth of our public school system in the 20th century was a huge step toward bridging that gap. Education was seen as the great equalizer, a means to reduce poverty and break down barriers, ushering in improved standards of living. Delivering quality education to all children remains one of the nation's most pressing goals.

But we continually wrestle with the question of what constitutes a quality education, and the push and pull of various constituencies never seems to land upon the sweet spot that we all desire. Proponents of the new Common Core standards promise that the curriculum changes will foster deeper, more analytical thinking and the skills needed in the 21st century work force.

That's a huge promise, and one that certainly won't be delivered if we continue our obsession with standardized testing.

But we also won't get there if we let our worries about whether our kids will be able to land "good" jobs overwhelm the educational process. What's worth learning doesn't always have an immediate payoff.

I'm reminded of some stories I wrote in the early 1990s, when digital technology was transforming the entertainment industry and thousands of new jobs were being created. But instead of filling these high-paying jobs with domestic applicants, studios lobbied Sacramento to increase the number of visas for foreign workers.

The problem? They couldn't find enough qualified American workers. The companies weren't concerned about the level of technical expertise; that could be taught if necessary, they said. The issue was that the American applicants lacked basic drawing and composition skills.

This was the takeaway message: U.S. schools were doing a lousy job of teaching art, and it was costing us in a very real, quantifiable way.

Steve Jobs gave us another way to look at the issue in his famous 2005 commencement address at Stanford University.

In his speech, Jobs recounted how a college calligraphy course later became the inspiration for all Apple fonts. But he noted that he only had the freedom to audit such a seemingly impractical class because he had dropped out and no longer needed to adhere to a conventional curriculum. He had been free to pursue a topic that interested him without knowing if there would ultimately be a payoff.

You could argue that Jobs was a rare genius and his story holds little relevance for most students.

But the finest teachers I've known have taught me that there is a spark of genius in each of us, and it is through education that we can and must light the fire. If we focus too intently on that which we perceive as marketable, we might miss out on some brilliant flames.

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.

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