Let’s abolish education

Let’s abolish education

By Michael Johnston

The term etymology refers to the linguistic origin of a word. An etymological fallacy is committed when the meaning of a modern word is taken to be the same as that of an old word from which it derives. 

Like many words in the English language, education has Latin roots. It comes from educere, which means, ‘to draw out’. Believers in certain progressive theories of education love this. They use it to commit the etiological fallacy. Often.  

“Education”, they say, “means to ‘draw out’, not to ‘put in’. So a teacher’s job must be to facilitate children teaching themselves. A teacher should be a guide on the side, not a sage on the stage”. 

By committing an etymological fallacy of my own, I can prove them wrong. 

The etymology of teacher is the old English word, tæcan, which means to give instruction, train, assign or direct. Obviously then, a teacher’s job must be to do these things, not to ‘facilitate’.  

(Incidentally, the origin of facilitate, is another Latin word, facilis, which means ‘easy to do’. That might help to explain why progressive teachers like this approach so much.) 

A minor problem with the notion that children can teach themselves, is that they can’t. Not, at least, things that took the human race many thousands of years to work out – things like literacy, arithmetic and science. 

Progressive educators would like to avoid this problem by refocussing education on things that children can acquire without being directly taught. In the New Zealand Curriculum, these things are called ‘key competencies’.  

The key competencies include ‘managing self’, ‘relating to others’ and ‘participating and contributing’. Placing these things at the heart of the curriculum leaves teachers free to ‘facilitate’ and releases them from having to teach the hard stuff. 

I propose abolishing education and replacing it with edification. If we did, progressive educators committing etymological fallacies would cease to be a threat to children’s learning. 

The etymology of edify, also from Latin, is aedificare, which means to build or establish. Edification, then, is much more consonant with an etymological interpretation of teacher than education is. A teacher instructs, trains, assigns and directs, in order to build up and establish knowledge. 

If we’re going to commit etymological fallacies, let us at least choose ones that don’t entail wasting human potential. 


Michael Johnston

Dr Michael Johnston is a Senior Fellow at the New Zealand Initiative. Dr Johnston held academic positions at Victoria University of Wellington from 2011-2022 and was the Associate Dean (Academic) in the University’s Faculty of Education from 2020 to 2022. Prior to his time at Victoria, he was the Senior Statistician at the New Zealand Qualifications Authority. Dr Johnston holds a PhD in Cognitive Psychology from the University of Melbourne.