Thursday, January 12, 2006

What Do We Want from Public Education?

I'm in the middle of Jim Goad's The Redneck Manifesto, and it's got me thinking. What do we want from public education? Some basic common cultural knowledge? Useful skills for the job market? A place to warehouse our kids for twelve years? I've been thinking a lot about the common conservative complaint that schools (especially colleges) are just large liberal indoctrination camps. I have to say that my usual reaction to such an accusation is 1.) "Oh, then how come conservatives run things if you're the poor put-upon intellectual minority?" 2.) "Ha, ha." 3.) "You're the ones who want to be rich so you take jobs that pay more than teachers and professors make. If you leave teaching in our hands, how can you expect us not to spread our philosophies?" and 4.) "Ha, ha." again. But the more I think about it, the more I think there's a legitimate criticism here underneath a pile of whiny nonsense. We have this tendency to believe that we should educate people because, if only people knew as much as we do, they would, of course, see the rightness of our position and adopt it. But who doesn't think that or at least some version of that? And why is such a belief so much more offensive when coming from the Left?


Blogger Church Secretary said...

I attended a public elementary school in the middle of a predominantly black neighborhood. I attended an ethnically diverse 'magnet' high school in the vicinity of the University of Chicago. These weren't bastions of conservatism, mind you. However, it wasn't until several years after high school that I learned there was actually a controversy surrounding Columbus' 'discovery' of 'America.' I never considered the blatantly racist absurdity of a European 'discovering' a place where colored folk had been living more or less in prosperity for centuries. I never considered the implications of giving such an obscenity the honors of a national holiday replete with massive parades.

Now, I wonder if there were many schools-- Montessori and Waldorf notwithstanding-- in my day that deviated significantly from that imperialist script. How many taught kids that Truman's deployment of nukes was a combination of lab experiment and Cold War ploy, and that it was completely unnecessary militarily?

I didn't hear any peep of that in my 'librul' public education. When it comes to the college level, well, Aunt B., I think your number 3 reaction is right on target; consider the conservative axiom "those who can, do; those who can't, teach."

I think most important of all is the mythical notion that liberalism-- at least as it is pejoratively conceptualized by right-wingers-- has ever been a dominating or even significant force in this nation's history. This is where I believe the right's greatest skills come into play.

Conservatives and reactionaries have always been masters of projection and the politics of victimization, and the war of words against 'liberal indoctrination' in education is largely a lot of hot air (case in point). That of course, leads right into your first reaction, Aunt B.

I believe this leads back into your earlier post about the agency of the common folk vs. that of the 'elites.' This is just an elongated case of the common folk being given bogeymen and scapegoats to rail against as the 'elites' seek to maintain the balance of power and wealth in their favor. Of course, it is up to us to embrace these political chimerae. It appears that many are happy to do so, and that's why these myths take on such vibrant lives of their own. I'll be interested to see what happens as the middle class continues to shrink in this country; will we be so eager to accept the myths when our share of the loot drops to peasant level?

1/12/2006 10:31:00 AM  
Blogger Kat Coble said...

My complaint is not that the education is "too liberal." Rather, it is that there are too many constraints placed on education by teachers themselves.

Some of those restraints are liberal in origin (not being able to teach anything about ANY religion) and some are just Professional Educator Monkey Business in origin.

I have several family members who are teachers in the public school system. Their lament is frequently that they can't teach using the best methods to impart knowledge because some yobbo has declared that the PEMB method is better for children's self-esteem.

The third and most insidious constraint on public education is the parent. The parent who thinks her child is a Little Emperor and shouldn't be forced to do homework/pay attention in class/lose at any game or contest.

The idea that we "conservatives" are just writing this all off as a liberal rimjob on the school system is not at all the case. I often wonder at both you and ChurchSec's views as showcased here. You both seem to have made your own "bogeymen" as he says out of conservatives. More so than many of us have out of liberals.

1/12/2006 10:49:00 AM  
Blogger Exador said...

I thought the Vikings discovered America.

It's a left wing fantasy that the native americans "lived in prosperity". The native americans were continually at war with one another, and were far from the protectors of the environment they are enshrined to be. They were people dealing with their world with what they had, just like everyone else.

Although everyone can agree that Columbus was a dick.

Of course, WW2 nukes were an experiment. We barely knew what we were doing. That doesn't make it unnecessary. And thank God Truman did it. While your "unbiased" source throws a lot of numbers back and forth, it breaks down far more simply:

Number of US soldiers killed invading Japan >1

Number of US soldiers killed bombing Japan = 0

*not counting how ever many POWs were already there.

I have heard the theory that the Japanese were more afraid of a Soviet invasion than the nukes. (Which might explain why it took two)
We certainly didn't want them claiming half of Japan.
And look at what a clusterfuck Europe became after WW2, compared to Japan. Again, thank Jeebus we didn't allow them to invade. How many Japanese lives did THAT save? The Russian weren't exactly generous with captive countries.

As far as liberal indoctrination, I can vouch that my college was a hotbed of liberalism, and I'm sure it's not unique.

1/12/2006 10:52:00 AM  
Blogger Ryan said...

"If you leave teaching in our hands, how can you expect us not to spread our philosophies?"

B., This disturbs me in so many ways--because I find this to be the actual thinking of many in the profession. My view is that it is a teacher's/professor's responsibility to teach students HOW to think, not WHAT to think. There is a profound difference.


1/12/2006 12:15:00 PM  
Anonymous Sarcastro said...

What does it say about our education system when it is more important for a high school science teacher to have a degree in Education than it is for him/her to have a degree in Science?

1/12/2006 01:00:00 PM  
Blogger Aunt B said...

Ryan, I said it just to be flip, but I actually think it's more complicated because I do believe that public schools have an obligation to give students a basic common culture.

Woo hoo, let's watch me dodge some landmines here.

Um, yes, well, I do believe that one ought to come out of any public school in the United States with some core knowledge: They should be able to come up with a monthly budget and balance a checkbook, maybe some kind of broad consumer economics; they should know basic algebra and problem-solving (see my inability to figure out how much the panhandlers make a year); they should have a basic understanding of the core tenets of all the major world religions and a familiarity with their foundational myths, as well as the foundational myths of influential dead world religions; they should have a basic understanding of earth science and biology; they should be able to read and write; they should have to demonstrate a working knowledge of the Constitution and federal and state governments; they should know U.S. and basic world history; and they should have studied, at least, Hamlet if not also MacBeth. And they should be taught how to think critically about everything on my list.

Yet, obviously, this is a philosophical stance. I think we live in a fucked-up racist, sexist, classist culture, which can and does occassionaly rise above that. I think that teaching a curriculum such as the one I've just proposed is, at its heart, racist, sexist, and classist. But I have no idea how you teach kids to work for a better, less racist, sexist, classist society if you don't give them access to the same knowledge that everyone who runs and has run this country had.

My point is that WHAT we teach or neglect to teach is always a decision based on some kind of philosophy. I don't see any way around that. People have biases and viewpoints. Teaching kids to recognize that is probably the most important thing you can teach them.

Sarcastro, good question.

1/12/2006 01:17:00 PM  
Blogger Kat Coble said...

What does it say about our education system when it is more important for a high school science teacher to have a degree in Education than it is for him/her to have a degree in Science?

It says that Education in America is fast going the way of all other rackets. If you want to be in the club where you get summers off and have two weeks' vacation at Christmas then you have to play by our rules. Those rules include having an Education degree, which means that you have literally hundreds of man-hours of sitting around listening to bubble-insulated Education Professionals contorting common sense and treating a school like a perverse sort of experimental rat maze.

1/12/2006 01:43:00 PM  
Blogger the Professor said...

B., isn't your philosophy racist, sexist, classist, etc. in choosing the content of the US and world history to teach, in choosing what counts as US culture and what does not? I don't see how teaching math, life skills, history and culture is a racist or sexist or classist claim at all.

But WHAT texts and whose stories and interpretations we choose to use in order to teach people HOW to think is based on a philosophy and that is where some accuse others of teaching their liberal bias.

And, that's sooo complicated, at least for me who basically agrees with both CS and Sarcastro on the 'discovery' of America and Truman.

So, I get Ryan's point, but I don't think it undermines B.'s flip point quite so easily.

1/12/2006 01:59:00 PM  
Blogger Church Secretary said...

I thought the Vikings discovered America.

Actually, Exador, their attempt to invade was driven back by people who were already living there. I suppose they should have brought more guns as did the Spanish. Also, the 'myth' of prosperity is no myth. I didn't say it was an Eden, I said there was prosperity (and I was specifically referring to the Arawaks whom Columbus first met). Anyway, there were countless vibrant societies and nations in North and South America prior to the arrival of the European invaders. And yes, there was warfare and other violence going on (the Aztecs, in particular, could be profoundly violent). Is your point that the pre-Columbian Americans' lack of perfection justifies the inhumane cruelty and genocidal avarice of the 'enlightened' European 'discoverers'? Isn't that like saying your daughter deserved to get raped because she was wearing a low-cut dress?

Fittingly, this dovetails with your notion that nuking the Japanese was for their own good. The Japanese were trying to surrender. The Truman administration may actually have rebuffed Japanese attempts at a negotiated surrender to buy time for the nuke deployments. And the myth that the U.S. was afraid of the Soviets overrunning Japan is nonsense. If the Japanese were so afraid of that themselves, why wouldn't they have been begging to surrender? No, Truman wasn't trying to save lives. He was flexing the U.S.'s new-found nuclear muscle in the face of the Soviets.

The notion that such an atrocity as the nuking of civilian population centers was a noble deed is part of the problem I'm talking about, which is that our educational process isn't 'liberal' enough. If children don't learn that their nation's history is rife with the same genocide, cruelty, and oppression as any other historical empire, then how will they be equipped to make things better? Is it any wonder we grow up to be indifferent consumers who are content to complain about how our politicians are "all corrupt"? If we don't know where we came from or how we got here, how will we know which direction we're supposed to travel?

I think this historical fog partially explains the ills of our public education system. The battle isn't just over how schools should be funded, though that is important. I think, Mycropht and Aunt B., you have the central question identified: what is the purpose of education in our country? I believe our understanding and interpretation of history is central to dealing with this question, but, alas, historical education is subject to the same political and economic tug-of-war as the rest of education.

My personal solution will is to educate myself as thoroughly as possible, and to make sure that my daughter will have access to at least the same scope of information to which I've been blessed. Her public (or private, as the case may be) education will only be a facet of that process.

1/12/2006 02:52:00 PM  
Blogger Aunt B said...

Oh Church Secretary, don't you be slandering the Vikings. There's no evidence that they invaded North America with any intent to conquer.

More likely Erik the Red said "Folks of Iceland, I have found a more beautiful land on which to settle, since most of y'all hate my ass. It's called 'Greenland.' Come with me, those of you I have not alienated."

And then his son Leif said, "People of Greenland, I know this whole 'green land' thing ended up kind of being a big fat lie, but come west with me to Vinland. No, I swear, there are vines there. Please, some of you? Come on. Okay, fine, just me and my family then."

[A few years pass and Leif returns.]

"Yeah, it turns out that the people of Vinland thought we were trying to poison them when we offered them cow's milk. It's probably best we left."

I don't think it's fair to equate a failed but mainly peaceful settlement with what later Europeans did.

And it would have been quite a feat for Erikson to shoot any native Vinlanders, since he arrived in America at the turn of the millenium and the first handguns appeared some 400 years later.

Thus ends our tangential history lesson.

1/12/2006 03:32:00 PM  
Anonymous Sarcastro said...

My personal solution will be to teach the young people not to use the word "Actually" at the beginning of a sentence, so that way they don't look like a pompous pedant.

That, and never get into a land war in Asia.

1/12/2006 03:41:00 PM  
Blogger Peggasus said...

Well, getting back to the main question: myself, having gone through 8 years of Catholic school education, and as the mother of wo boys (one in college, the other an 8th grader), my major beef these days is not about the liberal/conservative bias of their educations, but rather the lack of anything substantial whatsoever.

The way I see it, the cirriculums (cirriulae?) these days eschew most things that were previously valued as being part of the common knowledge: grammar; history (both world and American); geography; literature and the classics (mostly Eurocentric, to be sure, but not always); spelling (with an emphasis on Latin roots, which most romantic languages are based on);and the basic foundations of mathematics (algebra and geometry).

Now they've got 'social studies' and 'language arts' and an 'advisory' (study hall) period each day, where they can do the little homework they are actually given. No book reports, no spelling tests. Oh, wait, it's called 'vocab.'

Not only have my boys not gotten the basics that I learned in most of those (and which had the 8th grader coming home and telling me that Columbus was a murderer), but where were the arts in all of this?

And, while I admit I am biased in favor of the arts, the arts are the things that are the first cut in favor of athletics in most school districts these days. Illnois is, I believe, the only state in the country that currently requires Physical Education for all children each day, which I agree is crucial, but how are childen to grow up to be a complete person without an appreciation for music and painting and literature and sculpture and dance?

I mean Geez, have you watched Jeopardy lately? The basic knowledge questions that people miss make my point. It's pathetic.

I've tried to make up for some of it in my own ways with my own kids, but the American system of education is getting our kids further and further behind the rest of the world as each year goes by.

Soapbox? Who, me?

1/12/2006 04:29:00 PM  
Blogger Church Secretary said...

My personal solution will be to teach the young people not to use the word "Actually" at the beginning of a sentence, so that way they don't look like a pompous pedant.

Actually, I'll teach my child that all personal attacks should be relevant, lest she look like a lurking cheap-shot artist with nothing better to say. As long as she knows of what she speaks, pomposity will be allowed.

Pegasus: At least your 8th-grader learned something that was correct. Columbus was a murderer.

Aunt B.: Sorry, no slander intended, but the Vikings were hardly known as flower children. While they may not have been as pointlessly savage as the Europeans who succeeded them to the West, their reputation for conquest and incursion was well-earned. While there is evidence to suggest that there were some non-violent relations between the Vikings and the "Skraelings," something made it all go sour, and I doubt it was the milk.

Pegasus: Our empire has evolved to where we no longer need many skilled, educated citizens. To fill in the gaps in our basic social infrastructure, we can import doctors and other skilled technicians from poorer, more densely populated countries with more comprehensive education systems. We have already perfected the art of farming out manufacturing, skilled or not, to those same countries (and some even poorer ones).

The few good jobs that aren't portable-- gov't. jobs such as police, firefighters, etc.-- are the subject of increasing competition for both educated and undereducated workers. All this is good for concentrated capital.

In the future, as global resources become more scarce, our empire will need even fewer skilled or educated people. We'll need more soldiers, cops, and prison guards. Why invest in education, and jeopardize that supply?

1/12/2006 05:45:00 PM  
Blogger Exador said...

Actually, (that was for Sarcastro) it's pretty well documented that the Norsemen who came to Newfoundland came to trade and settle. There is no evidence that they fought with the natives or came to conquer.
By the way, guns weren't invented in 1000 AD. They weren't "driven back", they just could hack it, being so isolated, in a limited settlement, but their settlement lasted for several years.

As for the Arawaks, they were in Cuba after they slaughtered the previous inhabitants, the Ciboney.

I already said Columbus was a dick. Everyone knows the slaughter and slave trade he did, and that is being taught in school now.

Nuking the Japanese wasn't for their own good. It was for our own good.
We were asking the Japanese to surrender, but they were trying to negotiate for terms and we wanted an unconditional surrender.

The Truman administration may actually have rebuffed Japanese attempts at a negotiated surrender to buy time for the nuke deployments.

CS, forgive me for saying, but your take on everything always appears to come from the same perspective.

1. Start out with "how is America wrong, and everything about it evil from its beginning until now.
2. Try and prove to me that there is some tiny detail about America/Western civilization that is not pure evil.

Every topic you debate. I know there are things wrong with America, past and present. I don't ignore them, but I don't dwell on them either.

I put them in perspective, which I don't feel you do.

1/12/2006 09:12:00 PM  
Blogger Church Secretary said...

1. Start out with "how is America wrong, and everything about it evil from its beginning until now.
2. Try and prove to me that there is some tiny detail about America/Western civilization that is not pure evil.

An exaggeration, but basically true. This comes from my Christian upbringing. See I grew up watching my classmates say the pledge of allegiance every day, and I went to worship and read scriptures like the following, from the mouth of Jesus:

"For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

"Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?"

Now, I know you're not a 'believer,' but I'm not religious, either. It just seemed like plain 'ol sensible humanist advice, anyway. With that in mind, I must point out that I have always been a U.S. citizen. I've never been a Japanese, German, Soviet, Iranian, or any other kind of citizen. Moreover, I've always been taught that once I reached 18 I'd be a voter in a representative democracy, so that my government's actions would always be, in a sense, my responsibility.

So I don't see any point in castigating the Japanese for bombing Pearl Harbor; we have a national annual patriotic sob-fest over that one, anyway. I don't need to browbeat the Germans for the Holocaust, because they've done a fine job of that to themselves, and are much better for it.

No, I prefer to stick to the advice of Jesus, because I need to know what my government is doing in my name. If it seems as though I'm focusing on the evils that are woven into our historical tapestry, then I'm doing something right. Ignoring that evil would be like ignoring an aggressive and malignant disease. It would be the deadly flip side to taking the good for granted.

I believe that our most serious problems as a nation stem from our unwillingness or inability to acknowledge the depth of those problems' historical origins (recent or distant as they may be). When we whitewash or drape a flag over the cynical genocide of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we foster a mentality that can sniff at the use of Willie Pete in Falluja. When we downplay or elide the severity and integrality of slavery and Jim Crow in our nation's development, we make it easy to ignore the brutally racist policies of our "drug war."

As a nation, we're digging our own grave with this approach. Massive self-deception, in such a violent world, is always fatal. Pick your poison.

1/13/2006 06:13:00 AM  
Blogger Exador said...

It's funny that you mention Pearl Harbor. It's always bugged me that we, as a country, asct so indignant and aghast that they attacked us "without provocation."
Everybody ignores the work of the Flying Tigers in China, who were US pilots fighting against the Japanese. Not to mention our fucking with their oil supply to undermine their war with China. No, we were knee-deep in the Pacific before Pearl Harbor.

I would not advocate ignoring the bad side and more than ignoring the good. In fact, I see the two as similar. In a way, you are like Sean Hannity (take a minute to compose). He ignores the bad and focuses on the good. You ignore the good and focus on the bad. Both are inaccurate.

I mean, in the other posting, the subject was panhandlers and you went right to the "US violated a treaty of 1857".

No offense, I just find that perspective curious.

1/13/2006 07:23:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is just an elongated case of the common folk being given bogeymen and scapegoats to rail against
Being common folk yourself, you should realize that common folk don't really need anyone to provide bogeymen and scapegoats for them. Common folk are plenty good at figuring that out for themselves.

I'll teach my child that all personal attacks should be relevant
I'm just going to sit back and revel in the hypocrisy of that statement coming from you.


1/13/2006 07:40:00 AM  

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