Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Education: the overlooked issue in 2016

"Education in America isn't broken. It's doing exactly what it was intended to do."

I heard that from someone at a dinner party about four months back. This guest I sat across from was a twentysomething high school English teacher. I asked him what he meant by that statement. He said something to the following, paraphrased effect:

"Government and corporations don't want people who can think. They want people who know just enough to get by but not enough to question and to form our own ideas. They want people who will be good consumers."

This teacher was a self-confessed Libertarian and I was therefore a bit skeptical. I don't exactly see eye-to-eye with Libertarian political thought, but what he said made too much sense for me to ignore. My own experiences teaching college freshmen were brought to the fore. In the first few classes of each semester, I have these students read a text and then I ask "What do you think about it?" Invariably, at least a few of them freeze. Someone then offers a variation on "I don't know what the right answer to that is." "There is no 'right' answer," I respond. "I just want to know what you think."

In other words they are quite good at filling in the circles on standardized tests. Formulating a thought, however, is quite a different mental exercise than memorizing information and spitting it back down. As I scraped at the fruit tart dessert, I told the English teacher that I certainly did not blame the beleaguered public school teachers of our nation. Rather, I fault George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind Act. "It goes back further than that," the teacher replied. He then went into Horace Mann and his adoption of the Prussian model of education, a pedagogy that this teacher argued was designed to create soldiers, not thinkers.

"Read John Taylor Gatto's The Underground History of American Education," the high school teacher said to me at the end of the night.

I am not finished with that book, but I am now constantly mulling the state of education in our nation. True progress requires an educated and engage populace. As No Child Left Behind has at last been repealed, what is the future? What does our leadership see as the next step? I began to seek the positions the 2016 candidates on the issue of education. Morbid curiosity got the better of me and I went to Donald Trump's website first. Perhaps not surprisingly, his section labeled "Positions" bears no mention of education. I was therefore forced to expand my search and was directed to a nonprofit site called OnTheIssues. While my vetting of the site was not extensive, I did notice that the bulk of its staff hold advanced degrees in political science from respected institutions such as Harvard and Columbia University. The site provides a breakdown of all the current candidates' stances on major issues. Education is one such issue listed. Space precludes a close examination of every candidate (Roseanne Barr is running for President??) If you have a particular favorite, I suggest clicking the link and seeking out their stance. Instead, here are statements regarding education from the two current front-runners of each party:

Donald Trump--Well, he really doesn't like Common Core. In fact, out of five different listed statements Trump made on education in 2015, four were against Common Core. He is also in favor of eliminating the Department of Education. Curiously, neither OnTheIssues nor Trump's own site list just what Trump would replace that curriculum with. Keep in mind that over ten years ago Trump founded Trump University, dedicated to teaching the art of deal-making. The results of said institution have been mixed, controversial, and more than a few would say fraudulent.

Ted Cruz--Like Trump, Cruz wants to end the Department of Education and he really dislikes Common Core. He does however propose an alternative to that curriculum, saying that decisions regarding education are best left to the local level. All right, so passing the buck might not qualify as great vision, but he at least has something as opposed to Trump's mere bluster.

Hillary Clinton--The former senator and Secretary of State has a massive CV when it comes to education going all the way back to the 1960s when she taught reading in Boston inner city schools. She worked towards education reform while in Arkansas and has a voting record in the Senate that is quite teacher-friendly. What are her latest propositions? In the past year, Clinton has supported calls for free community college, but not free four-year college for all. She wants to refinance college debt and "get back to schools where kids are socialized."

Bernie Sanders--Over the past year, Sanders' proposals for education reform have only gotten more grandiose. January of 2015 saw him call for affordable college for everyone. This evolved into a call for $70 billion to make public colleges and universities free for everyone, pointing out that a college degree is now the equivalent to what a high school diploma was in the 1950s.

The upshot? It seems that the two leading Republican candidates have a strategy of slashing and burning programs while Democrats want expansion, meaning higher education for everyone that is free or at least readily affordable. Only one of those could truly be called a progressive vision.

And yet I feel uneasy. I am not reading about how education is going to be implemented. Do we have a national vision for pedagogy or are we taking the Ted Cruz approach and kicking it to the state and local levels? In doing so, are we going to in effect sponsoring local school districts who have banned "obscene" academic texts and thereby contributing to a growing anti-intellectualism and an increasing disdain for scholarship in America? Do we want people who can take information and reason with it critically or do we want the products of a standardized testing system that forces someone to memorize information and then spit it back? Do we as a nation want citizens who are well-versed in a variety of subjects and adaptable in changing times or do we, as John Taylor Gatto argues, want to produce students who are indifferent towards what they study and are emotionally and intellectually dependent on approval from authority? I'm losing confidence that I will hear these questions addressed in the 2016 campaign, but they have haunted my thoughts since that dinner party.

That must have been one heck of a fruit tart.

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