Many blogs often seem to focus on the negative: they live to criticize. This blogger seeks, generally, to not be negative; the motto here is celebrating 21st century k-12 education. But this evening I am going to step out of my norm, and take a cut at a recent article published in Harper’s magazine, an article which, plainly, boils by blood.
The article is called “Dehumanized: When Math and Science Rule the School,” and argues that the purpose of education has been subsumed exclusively into preparing kids for jobs and advancing the country economically, that science and math are overtaking our schools to the sharp detriment of humanities, and that only the humanities can educate students to be independent minded and fully realized human beings. (the article may be hard to access on-line for non-subscribers, but let me know and I can provide a copy).
To quote author Mark Slouka:
the essential drama of American education today…is a play I’ve been following for some time now. It’s about the increasing dominance—scratch that, the unqualified triumph—of a certain way of seeing, of reckoning value. It’s about the victory of whatever can be quantified over everything that can’t. It’s about the quiet retooling of American education into an adjunct of business, an instrument of production…
From the local PTA meeting to the latest Presidential Commission on Education, the only subject under discussion, the only real criterion for investment—in short, the alpha and omega of educational policy—is jobs. Is it any wonder, then, that our educational priorities should be determined by business leaders, or that the relationship between industry and education should increasingly resemble the relationship between a company and its suppliers, or that the “suppliers” across the land, in order to make payroll, should seek to please management in any way possible, to demonstrate the viability of their product?
Now, there are many, many smaller disputes I have this article. Too many to count, but let offer a few quick hits: One, Slouka claims that math and science are taking over US education, when most of us who study this topic believe that we American educators are failing to educate the quantity and quality of mathematicians and scientists this country desperately needs for our technological era. Two, Slouka complains bitterly that foundations and others are spending money to recruit math and science teachers, but not teachers in the humanities, but fails to acknowledge anywhere that the US has a dearth of the former and a glut of the latter.
Three, and this is really offensive, Slouka again and again suggests that scientists and mathematicians are dramatically less likely to be critical thinkers or independent minded citizens than are scholars of the humanities. “It troubles me because there are many things “math and science” do well, and some they don’t. And one of the things they don’t do well is democracy. They have no aptitude for it, no connection to it, really…Science, by and large, keeps to its reservation.” Perversely, he then offers a confusing footnote which reads entirely as a non-sequitur from the sentence it comments upon, and which entirely contradicts his larger point. This same footnote expresses exactly the message I want to make in reply, (the footnote is not provided in the on-line version of the article, by the way): “the roster of genuinely courageous, politically involved scientists, [such as] Sakharov, is extensive.” Yes it is!
Four, Slouka, in the midst of his defense of teaching the humanities, wretchedly castigates the majority of these teachers, with no supporting evidence of any kind.
our high schools and colleges labor mightily to provide students with mirrors of their own experience, lest they be made uncomfortable, effectively undercutting diversity in the name of diversity. Some may actually believe in this. The rest, unable or unwilling to make the hard argument to parents and administrators, bend to the prevailing winds, shaping their curricula to appeal to the greatest number, a strategy suitable to advertising, not teaching….we teach Walden, if we teach it at all, as an ode to Nature and ignore its full-frontal assault on the tenets of capitalism. Thus we tiptoe through the minefield, leaving the mines intact and loaded. [these]evasions and capitulations [are] made by those on the secondary-school level.
The nerve and the outrage of this guy.
But all of these above are my minor points of contention. My overarching point is this: 21st century educational practices are so attractive to me precisely because their effects are so broad and deep, because they while they do absolutely prepare our kids better for the jobs of the future (which is a good thing) and do prepare our economy to better compete globally, they ALSO prepare students better to be active citizens, to be creative and compassionate contributors to society, to be the independent minded critics Slouka asks for.
Slouka’s argument is based on an excluded middle– on a zero-sum analysis that to argue for the economic advantages of 21st century learning is to necessarily exclude or oppose the value of learning “the ability to understand and empathize with others, to challenge one’s beliefs, to strive for reason and clarity.”
Slouka heaps scorn on those who argue for the economic value of learning to write or mastering the arts as sell-outs and cynics; but for this blogger, they are simply recognizing, articulating, and arguing to all that will listen that EVERY American enterprise has good reason to support this kind of teaching and learning. It is all good. Slouka is so wrong to say that because we can make a good argument for the economic value we are somehow abandoning any belief that there are also many other good arguments for learning these things.
But for this blogger, I go back to the profound simple wisdom of Covey– to seek win-win solutions. Learning the humanities is a wonderful human experience, but learning them in the way that many contemporary thinkers (and commissions and foundations) call for will not only better prepare our students for their economic future, but, contrary to Slouka, will better prepare our students for their human future.