Monday, May 9, 2011

Wasting Away in Education-ville

I am very thankful for one of my friends and co-workers who always posts the most informative news articles and social commentaries on her Facebook. Thanks to her I am constantly up-to-date. Today she posted this article from The Nation.

Some great passages:
Nearly all involve technology to drive efficiency. Online courses, distance learning, do-it-yourself instruction: this is the future we’re being offered. Why teach a required art history course to twenty students at a time when you can march them through a self-guided online textbook followed by a multiple-choice exam? Why have professors or even graduate students grade papers when you can outsource them to BAs around the country, even the world? Why waste time with office hours when students can interact with their professors via e-mail?


Our system of public higher education is one of the great achievements of American civilization. In its breadth and excellence, it has no peer. It embodies some of our nation’s highest ideals: democracy, equality, opportunity, self-improvement, useful knowledge and collective public purpose. 

Now the system is in danger of falling into ruin. Public higher education was essential to creating the mass middle class of the postwar decades—and with it, a new birth of political empowerment and human flourishing. The defunding of public higher education has been essential to its slow destruction.  Social mobility is now lower in the United States than it is in Northern Europe, Australia, Canada and even France and Spain, a fact that ought to be tattooed on the foreheads of every member of Congress, so directly does it strike at America’s identity as the land of opportunity.


Yet the liberal arts, as we know, are dying. All the political and parental pressure is pushing in the other direction, toward the “practical,” narrowly conceived: the instrumental, the utilitarian, the immediately negotiable. Colleges and universities are moving away from the liberal arts toward professional, technical and vocational training. Last year, the State University of New York at Albany announced plans to close its departments of French, Italian, Russian, classics and theater—a wholesale slaughter of the humanities. When Garland enumerates the fields a state legislature might want to encourage its young people to enter, he lists “engineering, agriculture, nursing, math and science education, or any other area of state importance.” Apparently political science, philosophy, history and anthropology, among others, are not areas of state importance. Zemsky wants to consider reducing college to three years—meaning less time for young people to figure out what to study, to take courses in a wide range of disciplines, to explore, to mature, to think.

When politicians, from Barack Obama all the way down, talk about higher education, they talk almost exclusively about math and science. Indeed, technology creates the future. But it is not enough to create the future. We also need to organize it, as the social sciences enable us to do. We need to make sense of it, as the humanities enable us to do. A system of higher education that ignores the liberal arts, as Jonathan Cole points out in The Great American University (2009), is what they have in China, where they don’t want people to think about other ways to arrange society or other meanings than the authorized ones. A scientific education creates technologists. A liberal arts education creates citizens: people who can think broadly and critically about themselves and the world.

Yet of course it is precisely China—and Singapore, another great democracy—that the Obama administration holds up as the model to emulate in our new Sputnik moment. It’s funny; after the original Sputnik, we didn’t decide to become more like the Soviet Union. But we don’t possess that kind of confidence anymore.


Perhaps I'm a little biased, having been a history major with a Chinese language minor, but I cannot stress how importance the humanities are to our nation. I wholeheartedly agree with "a liberal arts education creates citizens" because having spent a year in China, I saw firsthand how Chinese people far and wide could spew facts about their nation's history and culture, but had no deeper knowledge of what that meant. They have an ideal, blind worship for the party that rules them, but have little knowledge of the humanities which would help them to see different ways of life outside their borders, and thus possibly, challenge unfavorable constraints imposed by the party. Furthermore, Chinese can argue why Taiwan historically should be a part of China, but they cannot think critically about the impacts and circumstances behind it.

Two months ago I wrote a blog post about China's imminent takeover of international research output, and the need for the United States to step up in terms of research and innovation. However, I do not support this move by slashing humanities or de-emphasizing their place in our society.

I believe that many of these technical and scientific fields should be held in great importance for the future of our nation, but I also think that they are quick fixes to our nation, while a humanities education and background can also help to improve our nation, but not as quickly or as visible as technology.

What's more is I see the beginnings of these beliefs already at the elementary school I'm working at. While the students are (for the most part) a grade level or two behind their peers, they should not be granting additional wealth on certain subjects. In the upper grades, there are benchmark prizes for students with high scores and improvement on these exams for math and reading. The school is placing more emphasis on studying for these tests, because there are tangible rewards, than say, a science or social studies exam. Furthermore, in order to get students to do well on their state and benchmark assessments, the students have longer school days and activities and classes that do not focus on "immediate, next steps" skills are slashed - for example, the students have no recess, and creative outputs are very minimal. Students excel at bubble tests, but have no opportunity to excel in music, sports, or art. Student development is also stunted with the lack of recess and lack of opportunities to socialize and work in groups. All throughout the city these remedial steps are taken to bring students up and onto grade-level, but from what I've seen this year, at least half the students I teach are either on or above their appropriate grade-levels.

Seems like I'm stuck with my history degree in a country that doesn't value it.

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