Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Is it So?

Stanley Fish has a column this week on the virtues of what he terms a "classical" education, meaning one much like what was taught in the best schools of the nineteenth century: lots of Latin grammar and mathematics, along with other languages, physics, chemistry, history, and literature. To this he opposes a faddish emphasis on test scores and career training. He describes three recent books about education. One is by Martha Nussbaum:
Martha Nussbaum, philosopher, classicist, ethicist and law professor, starts from the same place. She critiques the current emphasis on “science and technology” and the “applied skills suited to profit making” and she argues that the “humanistic aspects of science and social science — the imaginative and creative aspect, and the aspect of rigorous critical thought — are . . . losing ground” as the humanities and the arts “are being cut away” and dismissed as “useless frills” in the context of an overriding imperative “to stay competitive in the global market.” The result, she complains, is that “abilities crucial to the health of any democracy” are being lost, especially the ability to “think critically,” the ability, that is, “to probe, to evaluate evidence, to write papers with well-structured arguments, and to analyze the arguments presented to them in other texts.”
I have to say that this sort of argument makes me queasy, not because I dislike it, but because I want very much to believe it but doubt that it is true.

Consider: if education makes people better citizens, why are people with advanced degrees more likely to vote Republican? Why does America seem to be full of Ivy League-educated pundits who think Sarah Palin would be a great President? Now there may be lengths to which the best educated will not go, and between 2000 and 2004 George Bush lost a lot of well-educated voters and picked up a lot of high school dropouts. But I think that the Bush-Rove stupification of the Republican Party will turn out to be a short-term phenomenon, and it will move back toward being the party of business interests and nervous white suburbanites. In the long term it will remain true that economic class, ethnic identification, and personality type have a lot more to do with people's votes than anything taught in schools.

I find that my education makes the world much more interesting and meaningful, and I love learning and understanding as much as I love anything. I once thought that this was a universal value, and that if we could only teach other people what I know, they would think and feel as I do. Not so. Most of the world actively resists learning anything about how atoms work or how the world came to be divided into nation states, and they seem to get along quite well without this knowledge. Education is a great joy for people like me and Martha Nussbaum, but most of the world doesn't want it and I can't think of any good reason to force it on them.

Nussbaum and Fish are hard on the Obama administration's policies, and I am not a great fan of them either, but really we are talking about two different things. Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan are focused on teaching poor kids to read and do arithmetic. Neither Martha Nussbaum nor Stanley Fish has any ideas about how to do this better; they simply whine that what they want from education, the joy of learning and understanding, is being slighted in favor of programs that focus intensely on teaching the worst students the most essential things. A discussion of where we should put our resources ought to start from recognizing that there are multiple goals, and if people think we are worrying too much about whether poor kids can read, they should say so up front.

I know I keep coming back to these questions, but that is because they matter to me. I hate to see debates about education staged in a factual and conceptual vacuum where nobody is clear about the purpose of education and what we do know about its effects is ignored.

1 comment:

David said...

The thing I found odd and irritating in this column was the attack on science and technology teaching. American schools actually do very little of this as it is, and if the choice is between, say, 1) science and technology; 2) "management"; and 3) Catullus in the original, I think I'd have to go with #1.