Education: What do we teach and why?

As I listened to President Obama give his speech on education I began to ponder what that meant exactly. What is the purpose of education in this country? As a pre-service social science teacher I all too often hear that history, civics and the humanities in general are okay to know but they are not as important as the subjects that will help students succeed in the work force. Every time I hear that I am reminded of the poem where a poet is actually begging a tax collector to collect income taxes from him because his poetry has value. Like the poet, we humanities teachers have to constantly battle for our “place” in the “workers ranks” by claiming that our subjects will create workers who can think creatively or write well.

Instead we should be arguing that education policy should not merely exist to fulfill a systems need for workers. Successful education should not purely hinge on what the business community calls successful, yet we have allowed them to reframe the debate in that manner. By viewing the humanities as usable purely for the creativity it supplies to the workforce we end up turning it into another commodity for our instant consumption.

I recently read End of the road: After Detroit, the wreck of an American Dream in Harper’s Magazine.  It was about a school in Georgetown, Kentucky which has a course of study called Quest designed by Toyota to supply its factories with qualified workers. In that course, students learn how to hyper-efficiently perform and manage tasks in a factory. I understand the need for job training but this feels like we are merely training cogs and teaching tasks instead of teaching people. By this I mean that education’s goal should be to help shape citizens who are capable of furthering what is best about the human condition and forestalling what is worst. Producing workers should be a secondary, if not an almost incidental outcome. This battle to frame education is one I am afraid the humanities are losing.

A recent Washington Post article, states that “Liberal arts colleges have had to defend the marketability of a philosophy major for as long as competing public and private institutions have offered degrees in engineering and business, often at a lower cost. But never, perhaps, have families weighed the value of a liberal education more carefully than in the 2009-10 admissions cycle, which found the nation mired in its worst recession since the 1930s.”

Why spend money going to St. Johns College a.k.a. “The Great Books College” when it is obvious to everyone in modern society that the only goal of education is economic? Our institutions of higher learning are becoming valuable only so far as they feed into our economic system and produce the next generation of global workers. If you don’t believe me look at our recent history:

In 2008, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills issued the report: 21st Century Skills, Education and Competitiveness.  Its stated goal was to create a “public education system that prepares students, workers and citizens to triumph in the global skills race which is the central economic competitiveness issue for the next decade.”

The opening line of the official U.S. Department of Education’s A Guide to Education and No Child Left Behind declares that, “satisfying the demand for highly skilled workers is the key to maintaining competitiveness and prosperity in the global economy.”

In President Bush’s 2006 State of the Union speech he declared, “Keeping America competitive requires us to open more markets for all that Americans make and grow. One out of every five factory jobs in America is related to global trade…we need to encourage our children to take more math and science and to make sure those courses are rigorous enough to compete with other nations.”

At the opening of the 2005 National Educational Summit on High Schools, Kerry Killinger, CEO of Washington Mutual and vice-chair of Achieve, Inc, declared, “We face the global economy today with workers who are largely not prepared to compete for well-paid, cutting-edge jobs that are fueling economic growth in the world.” The summit’s report: “An Action Agenda for Improving America’s High Schools,” proposes a core high school curriculum of four years of English and four years of math for the purposes of preparing students for the workforce.

Read popular books such as Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat or The Only Sustainable Edge by John Hagel III and John Brown which call for us to keep pace with the rest of the world by focusing on “capability building.” To do so we need to “invest” in the “utilitarian” subjects of math and science.

This past Sunday on Face the Nation, Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan said, “We have to educate our way to a better economy. This is about global competitiveness.”

Are all public school parents committed to having their children educated so that they can help U.S. business compete in the global economy?

I ask this because it is not necessarily true that what is good for American business is good for American schools and students. The primary concern of business is the maximization of profits. Business profits depend on the quality and expense of workers. Although businesses want educated workers they also want workers who are compliant and loyal to the company.

Here is my case for teaching the humanities in our schools:

The humanities teach us to spurn sloganeering, tolerate complexity, and cherish nuance. Encounters with math are unlikely to cause us to rethink who we are or change our internal beings, not so with humanities. As historian Carl Degler stated, “Humanities expand our conception and understanding of what it means to be human.”

Understating of what it means to be human not just today but in the past, not just in America but around the world, not just for your race, religion, age, etc. but for everyone creates a growing understanding of others. This understanding counters narcissism by allowing us to see beyond our own image, beyond our own brief lives and across the tracks or back in time to the worlds of others.

Such an education will produce individuals capable of humility in the face of complexity; an individual to whom questioning is integral to their soul and therefore s unlikely to cede that right to anyone; an individual resistance to hyperbole or demagoguery. In short, an individual prepared to function in a democratic society.

And yet the crisis in education is always an economic one, never a civic one. With Obama’s recent education speech the right wing became obsessed that he was indoctrinating students. Why do they fear political discourse? Why do ideas need to be value free? Is that even possible? Even if we taught just the facts and nothing but the facts, we are creating values in judgments based on which facts we teach and which we leave out.

We should encourage students to listen to and learn about ideas from across the political and social spectrum so they can develop their own inner ideologies and learn how to speak for themselves. Scientist, Dennis Overbye once stated, “Nobody was ever sent to prison for espousing the wrong value of a Hubble constant.” The work of the humanities is to open students up to ideas and thoughts that may very well, in a less democratic society, get them sent to prison. If we keep students away from tough ideas and ignore the complexities of the humanities then we are making them useless, at least as far as democracy goes.


Nicolae Carpathia
Past Member 8 years ago

Principal Skinner: I have caught word that a child is using his imagination and I've come to put a stop to it.

Nicolae Carpathia
Past Member 8 years ago

Principal Skinner: Order, order. Do you kids wanna be like the real UN or do you just wanna squabble and waste time?

Nicolae Carpathia
Past Member 8 years ago

Principal Skinner: That's two independent thought alarms in one day. Willie, the children are over-stimulated. Remove all the colored chalk from the classrooms.

Nicolae Carpathia
Past Member 8 years ago

Superintendent Chalmers: "Thank the Lord"? That sounded like a prayer. A prayer in a public school. God has no place within these walls, just like facts don't have a place within an organized religion.

Nicolae Carpathia
Past Member 8 years ago

Superintendent Chalmers: I've had it with this school, Skinner. Low test scores, class after class of ugly, ugly children...

Nicolae Carpathia
Past Member 8 years ago

Edna: Seymour, you have to think of the children's future.

Seymour: Oh, Edna. We all know that these children HAVE no future.

[Everyone stops and stares at Seymour.]

Seymour: Prove me wrong children. Prove me wrong.

Niki S.
Niki S8 years ago

Scott has brought up an important issue. What are American society's goals in educating our youth? This has been a continuous debate since the beginning of public education. We cannot create "better" schools until we know what our goals are.

My observations of innovators and inventers has been that they are synthesizers of information. If we want to produce these types of people in our society, we need to expose students to everything we can.

Not all students have to be experts at everything. As long as the community has people with diverse educations there will always be someone with the needed expertise.

I, too, am a humanities teacher, i.e. an art
teacher. I think people forget that the arts are where all the other learning comes together into action.

I am a great lover of the sciences, also. It seems to me that it escapes notice how closely aligned the thought processes are between art and science.

Some people worry students will learn something the parents don't believe in. I would suggest parents should realize that what kids see outside of school often has the most influence on their thinking.

In the end, we really don't have control of children's minds. By the time our children will be in power positions most of us won't be around anymore. We need to plant the seeds and let them grow.

If we, the older generations, do the best we can as teachers, in good faith and love, we will have to be satisfied with that.

Lionel M.
Lionel Mann8 years ago

You typically display a very inaccurate knowledge of history.
The U.K., and later Europe, were saved from the Nazis first by no more than about a thousand ytoung men who saw off the Luftwaffe in the summer of 1940 and then by the Red Army (and the Russian winter) who halted and then drove back the Wehrmacht from the gates of Moscow to Berlin. The U.S.A. sat back, supplying arms to both sides and raking in profits, until Hitler foolishlydeclared war on them. Your late participation certainly hastened the end, but did not change the result.
As regards Japan it was U.S. voracious greed in the Pacific that led them to attempt a war thast they knew they were very unlikely to win.

Michael Wakeman
Michael Wakeman8 years ago

"I will confidently affirm that U.S. citizens are some of the most ignorant individuals in the world." Lionel, I see you live in Greece: is that, sir, your native country?. I would guess, that whatever country you're from, you never stop, pause and give thanks to us ignorant "U.S. citizens," our parents and grandparents, with help, prevented you, and so much of the rest of the world from speaking German, Japanese and/or Italian. So many Good, but ignorant U.S. citizens, died so that you could be sitting, back to the camera, and trying to impress us that you can play an organ. Also, brother, are you a worshiper of Islam yet?
Just as a side note, most of us know what individual, from what country, failed miserably in his assignment, and let Hitler go on conquering one country after another. God, I hope I don't sound super smug, like some of my Internet "Friends."
One more thing, you are so very smart, please provide how you came up with these numbers? "Their utter stupidity has completely destabilised(sic) the region and has cost very many thousands of innocent lives,men, women and children, totalling(sic) at least a million by now."
Do you know, are you aware that today is 9/11? Go ahead and play that organ.

D. A. V8 years ago

I would recommend Susan Jacoby's "The Age of American Unreqason" for a good historical overview of our schizophrenic approach to education, split between teaching our children to think and learn and preparing them to work. The parts of my education that have given me the greatest joy and satisfaction in life are not necessarily the ones that help me earn a living.