The Words of Education

By Dr. Eugene Maier

Several years ago I acquired a Dover republication of Ernest Weekley's An Etymological Dictionary of Modern English. Originally published in 1921, Weekly's dictionary, according to the blurb on the back of my copy, is "easily the finest such work ever produced." One evening, while browsing my new acquisition, I looked up the origins of as many of the words of education as came to mind.

As one might expect, many of these words no longer carry their original meanings, although one might wish that they did. Here are some of the things I discovered.

The word "student" comes from the Latin studere, to be zealous, which in turn stems from studium, eager attention. Would that it were so, especially in the presence of the "teacher" which, in Old English, is the one who shows or guides.

"School" comes from a Greek word for leisure. "A sense," Weekley notes in one of the tongue-in-cheek comments that dot his dictionary "passing into that of otiose [i.e., idle] discussion, place for holding such." Weekley's comment sent me off to the library to see what more I could find. In his etymological dictionary, Origins, Eric Partridge traces the development of the meaning of "school" from the Greek word skhole "originally a halt, hence a rest, leisure, hence employment for leisure, especially such employment for children." Thus school is what you did if there was nothing else to do.

The word "administer" literally means "to minister" or "to serve." The Latin minister, servant, stems from the Latin minor, lesser, conveying the sense that a minister is one who serves or assists other persons of higher rank. Like teachers, I presume. "Test" and "examine" both evolved from the world of commodities which, I suppose, is appropriate if the educational establishment is viewed as a business enterprise.

"Test" derives from the Latin testum, an earthen vessel, which evolved into the Middle English test, a vessel in which metals were assayed, whence being put to the test, that is, evaluated. "Examine" stems from the Latin examen, the needle, or tongue, of a balance, used in weighing.

"Discipline" has a variety of meanings today: field of study, self-control, punishment. The first of these is closest to its original meaning. The word derives from the Latin discere, to learn, akin to docere, to teach. The latter gives rise to such words as "docent" and "docile." According to Webster's, the primary meaning of docile is "easily taught" and only secondarily did docile come to mean "tractable," that is "easily managed." If one were to remain faithful to its original intent, the goal of discipline would be teachability, not tractability.

What struck me most, however, in my evening's browsing in Weekly's was the contrast in the original meanings of the words "educate" and "train." Whatever their current usage, and I suspect that some use the words interchangeably, their root meanings bring into focus the difference between two styles of teaching mathematics.

"Educate" stems from educere, to lead out, a Latin word that lives in Modern English as "educe". "Train" is from the French traîner, to drag behind one, as in "bridal train." Thus, we have two disparate metaphors for teaching: leading out or dragging behind.

Reflecting on the differences between education and training—in their original sense—these two metaphors suggest, brought several things to mind. In education, the basic raw material of learning comes from within [see the previous article Num·ber Sense, Numb·er Sense ]—it's there, waiting to be educed, that is, as Webster's defines the word, to be brought out, as something latent. In training, the raw material comes from without the learner; it is imposed by whoever is doing the dragging—there is not much the one being dragged can do about it, except to dig in one's heels.

Education is lasting; training is transient. Once something is drawn out, it stays emerged and can be put to use whenever needed. However, if one is being dragged about—being told repeatedly to do thus-and-so—one only knows how to do thus-and-so. If one is required to do something else, all the practice one has doing thus-and-so is of no avail. As a matter of fact it may be a hindrance—one may be so entrenched in doing thus-and-so, one does it automatically, no matter what the situation.

Mathematics training drags the learner along a predetermined course disregarding the learner's readiness or preferences for the paths taken. Mathematics education evokes the inner mathematician that exists in each of us, providing nurture and support as it emerges.

And so the word journey ended. But the images remain.