Monday, May 16, 2011

Our So-Called Education

Living Anthropologically posted this brief item, commenting on two articles in The New York Times:

May 14: On the one hand, "Fast Tracking to Kindergarten." Meanwhile in college it's "Your So-Called Education." As a parent of young children, and a professor, these trends seem intuitively true, and wrong. Are they also related?

I think what we are witnessing now is the further constriction of what counts as education - and parents and everyone else concerned with teaching and learning, from primary school to college and university, ought to join forces to resist it.

Or as William Deresiewicz writes in an essay reviewing a dozen recent books on the state of higher education (published in the May 23rd issue of The Nation):

There is a large, public debate right now about primary and secondary education. There is a smaller, less public debate about higher education. What I fail to understand is why they aren't the same debate.... Education, it is said, is lighting a fire, not filling a bucket.... Learning isn't about downloading a certain quantity of information into your brain, as the proponents of online instruction seem to think.... It is labor-intensive; it is face-to-face; it is one-at-a-time.

Deresiewicz cites Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa's recently published book, Academically Adrift, which found that college students today are not in fact learning all that much in college. At institutions of higher education, the buzzword now is "assesssment," which is supposed to measure "student learning outcomes" - that is, how full are the buckets.

When students apparently fail to learn, the reflexive response of policy makers has been to blame the teachers. Witness the popularity of so-called reformers like former DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, and the attacks upon public school teachers and their unions.

However, consider the conditions in which public school teachers today work. Austerity demands that they make do with less, teaching more children in their classrooms (not to mention having to manage the complexities of the lives of the children whom they teach), cutting "extras" like field trips or recess, preparing children to perform well on standardized tests that are taken as measures of the teachers themselves. How well can teachers teach - and students learn - under such conditions?

A point that Deresiewicz and Arum and Roksa (in "Your So-Called Education") all make is that there are now fewer full-time tenure-track faculty teaching at American colleges and universities: No more than 35 percent. Deresiewicz suggests:

If we're going to make college an intellectually rigorous experience of the students who already go - still more, for all the ones we want to go if we're going to reach the oft-repeated goal of universal postsecondary education, an objective that would double enrollments - we're going to need a lot more teachers: well paid, institutionally supported, socially valued.


Another important reason to resist the narrowing of education is that it reinforces already existing inequalities. Narrowing what counts as worth learning serves the interests of people who know what Kumon is and can afford it. The only hope for democracy is a broad education.

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