Friday, October 16, 2009
Education in America: Are you appalled yet? You should be.
Healthcare reform, climate change, income inequality, and anti-corporatism are issues that are very important to me, but you might say my long-term passion is educational reform. I've been doing some research in that area recently, and the more I study, the more despondent I become. Since the 1970's, our nation has been systematically dumbing-down what we teach our children. TV has heavily influenced that, and so too has the rise of two income-earner families as well as the laissez-faire attitude many baby-boomers have had towards how we raise our children.
But the curriculum itself is collapsing in on itself, being reduced to a series of overviews and highlights, little more than episodes on a TV show which flash in front of our children, only to be gone and forgotten soon after. Context is slipping. Culture is being lost. Understanding of interconnections and interrelationships is diminishing. Our children are growing up full of knowledge, but in too many cases they are left without the basic philosophical and cognitive tools to put that knowledge to use.
Here's one example of what bothers me:
In 1920, my grandmother graduated from public high school. In 1948, my mother graduated from public high school. In 1984, I graduated from public high school. In 2010, the son of a friend of mine will graduate public high school. Now, let's look at what kinds of courses each of us had to take in school:
My grandmother: Latin (4 years), Greek (2 years), Classical literature (in the original languages), music, drawing and design, penmanship, world history, American history, citizenship, industry & commerce, bookkeeping, economics, ancient philosophy, modern philosophy, theology, psychology, social science, journalism, English composition, English literature, poetry writing, biology, chemistry, physics, basic algebra, advanced algebra, trigonometry, basic calculus, agriculture and husbandry (hey, it WAS the early 20th century), German (2 years), French (2 years), and a few others.
My mother: Latin (4 years), Latin literature (in the original language), music, art, penmanship, world history, American history, citizenship, business, accounting, economics, philosophy, psychology, social studies, journalism, English composition, English literature, biology, chemistry, physics, basic algebra, advanced algebra, trigonometry, basic calculus, French (2 years), Spanish (2 years), and a few others.
Myself: Music, art, world history, American history, civics, business, accounting, social studies, journalism, English composition, American literature, biology, chemistry, physics, basic algebra, advanced algebra, trigonometry, basic calculus, computers and programming, shop class, French (2 years), and a few others.
My friend's kid: Western history, state history, TV broadcasting, English composition, American literature, finance and marketing, accounting, world studies, cultural awareness, general science, biology, algebra, pre-calculus, computer programming, Spanish (1 year), and a bunch of "electives" ranging from engineering technology to technical certification preparation to leadership training.
So what is happening here? My grandmother never went to college, yet she graduated high school with a more profound and in-depth education than many folks today leaving college can claim, and went on to establish a successful real estate business. My mother did go to college, completing a bachelors in social science, teaching for a time and then working for the state health and family services department. They were both avid readers, with impressive libraries, and could hold conversations in anything ranging from horticulture to politics to theology. It would not be unusual to have a verse from Shakespeare used to chastise my wayward self, or to overhear a heated discussion over whether Kant or Hume had a better grasp on ethics. Both my grandmother and mother were, by the standards of their day, fairly average. By today's standards, they would be mistaken for people who attended an elite private school.
My high school education did a fair job of preparing me for college, but just as important and as in my grandmother's and mother's case, it also prepared me for life. Even though by the time I got into school, Latin and penmanship and psychology were not offered, I still got a fairly well-rounded education with a lot of attention on history and literature, though in-depth attention to the classics and philosophical ideas were mostly left up to college. Thanks to my family, however, I inherited the same love for books, and my personal library threatens to push me out of the house.
But what of today's kids? Schools vary, I know, but the average curriculum offering (or at least in most cases, the required curriculum, even if a variety of classes are available) has declined in the very things needed to ensure a good grasp of the context, history, and interconnectedness of knowledge, while pumping up technology and business courses in order to make sure our kids "compete" in the world marketplace. Our expectations for our kids have turned towards technical and business achievement, at the expense of developing an understanding of how it all fits together.
Where is the context? Where is the history? Where is the cultural knowledge? Where is the human element? What binds all this technical knowledge and business learning and leadership training to an understanding of what has come before, where it all leads, and what implications our decisions have in a global context? You don't have to study Latin to read classical texts, but it sure helps to read the classical texts to understand that humanity is not just what you see around you today; the story by Plato of Crito's attempts to get Socrates to avoid his own death have logical and moral applications to today just as much as they did 2,500 years ago. But if you don't teach kids this stuff, they not only can't go around impressing everyone with their Shakespeare quotations, they lack a critical tool towards understanding the world around them. They live in a bubble of now-ness, with only a vague sense of some historical stuff that doesn't really mean much to them.
Over the last 60 years, our average educational requirement for our youth has gone from well-rounded and diverse to limited and career-centric. We are creating, with every graduation year, a new set of adults who have all sorts of technical and scientific skills, but no sense of history, no sense of philosophy, no sense of citizenship and political awareness, no sense of the interconnectedness of our culture going back thousands of years ago through today and on into the future.
We are steadily destroying our nation's understanding of who we are, where we came from, and what we are capable of being. And that is why I am appalled. It's not a matter of finding and laying blame; it's a matter of rediscovering how and what to teach our children so that they are armed with a greater depth and understanding of how the world works and how they fit within it. If we are to have a country populated by people who are worthy of the great trust men like Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, Ben Franklin, John Jay, and James Madison provided to us, we must live up to their steadfast belief that only an educated and informed population can be free.
We must reverse this course, stress the humanities, classics and arts once again as well as the math, technology and science, or by the time our children's children are grown, and all of us who were blessed to have a well-rounded public education are gone, who will stand up and say "This is not right!" when none except a few privately-educated elite are left who knows the truth? We are raising a nation of cultural and historical illiterates, and if this continues, we will cease to be a nation: we will become a land of highly-skilled, technologically savvy contract workers who are left dumbfounded at the depths of a Hallmark poem.