My mood today is that of despair. Of course, I am not talking about despair generated by my students--those little lamps of bright light at the end of what is presently a very dark tunnel. What I am referring to is the generally accepted assumption that education reform works. Educators in general are simply telling each other what they want to hear. Educational reform has become a business and nothing more. Politicians call on privately owned companies to develop highly complex theories as to why children are not achieving standards. And that is precisely the problem. What does it mean to achieve a standard? It simply means that you can perform a task; simply put, it is little more than what trained monkeys do. SAT? ACT? Get on a cram program and you'll score higher/achieve more. The question being ignored, of course, is "Do you remember anything a week later?" "Did any of the material you studied touched you so deeply at a humanistic level that it literally transformed your life?" I don't have the answers to those questions, and I don't pretend to be the classroom cure for all the ills that plague the American education system. I am simply proposing that we need (and I mean desperately need) more people like Mark Edmundson
and Anthony T. Kronman
. Schools should be in the business of teaching virtue. If we can't teach to how become a better human being, how in God's name do we propose to teach better doctors, lawyers, engineers, entrepreneurs, librarian, teachers, bankers, or real estate agents?
If you believe we fight wars in order to bring freedom and democracy to other countries, I've got a bridge to sell you. American domination (and here I don't mean to go off on a political critique of the former or present American governmental administration) around the world is designed for the purposes of spreading capitalism. How was the first crack on the Iron Curtain measured? A McDonald's in the middle of Moscow! How will we measure success in Iraq or Afghanistan? Perhaps a Walmart, K-Mart or Target department store could be used as a strong indicator of where our efforts have taken us in that part of the world. We have taught the rest of the world the worship of success and the lack of virtue that is necessary to flaunt "your goods." So, turning the argument back to education... how do you secure that you will dominate the capitalist sphere of influence? You turn educational institutions into vocational schools. Never mind that the Great Ideas have been taught throughout millennia, if they don't yield capitalistic results, they are not necessary in a curriculum designed to produce sharper, quicker, hungrier, and perhaps even more criminally-minded business people. Shakespeare has nothing to teach Bernard Madoff; he probably never learned a single lesson from Plato's "Meno" dialogue. Again, those are not "the things that are necessary right now." Don't teach Jane Austen, Charles Dickens or Ernest Hemingway because the students can't identify with those novels. I am, however, appalled at how fast we give in to any book recommendation the head of Harpo Productions (Ms. Oprah, if you are not familiar) makes in her show. The publishers adore her taste in literature; authors jockey and elbow to have their books read by her. What people do not realize is that it is all a business, and those books being sold at alarming rates, and rocketed to the top of (yet another capitalist term) bestselling lists are not there because of the humanistic value of their content, but rather because some celebrity said "this book is very good." Again, I am not trying to convert anyone into socialism or, heaven forbid, communist ideas, but rather I am asking everyone to please examine if what is talking place today is not the triumph of capitalism/consumerism over academia and the great virtues of a humanistic education.
As an educator, I see every day how students devour any humanistic topic I bring up in class discussion. They really are "hungry" for the Big Questions. During a reading of "Crime and Punishment" this year, students did not want to move on to the next novel, they wanted to continue the discussion of Ubermensch and Will to Power and the Napoleonic ideas they so insightfully connected to present-day political and diplomatic issues plaguing the world. But "we don't need those..." what we need is more drill, drill, drill... better scores on standardized tests that will help the student get into a better university so she can "earn" a better degree and make a contribution to some large capitalist endeavour, without wasting a second to reflect on her value as a human being, a spiritually-driven individual whose concern should be to do good toward others. I believe that capitalism has finally triumphed over the last great stronghold that kept it at bay: the Academy.
I do have to apologize for some of my ideas. I didn't set out to write a scalding indictment against who (and what) we are as a country. I am, nevertheless, concerned, very concerned, mainly because I live this every day, and, little by little, I see how the small piece of influence I have over the young minds entrusted to me vanishes before my eyes. I am not saying that I want them to learn solely what I want to teach them. On the contrary, I want them to learn those things that transformed my life and the life of so many others before the world got too commercialized, technorized, capitalized, politicized. God help us all.
(Ps. My apologies for the earlier version... when I "said" rant, I meant it, and didn't stop to revise the many mistakes herein. Again, my apologies).
Labels: Anthony T. Kronman, Educations' End, Mark Edmundson, On the uses of a liberal education, Why Read?