Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The business of America

Martha Nussbaum:

Eager for economic growth, our nation, like many others, has begun to think of education in narrowly instrumental terms, as a set of useful skills that can generate short-term profit for industry. What is getting lost in the competitive flurry is the future of democracy.

As Socrates knew long ago, any democracy is a “noble but sluggish horse.” It needs lively watchful thought to keep it awake. This means that citizens need to cultivate the skill for which Socrates lost his life: the ability to criticize tradition and authority, to keep examining self and other, to accept no speech or proposal until one has tested it with one’s very own reasoning. By now psychological research confirms Socrates’ diagnosis: people have an alarming capacity to defer to authority and to peer pressure. Democracy can’t survive if we don’t limit these baneful tendencies, cultivating habits of inquisitive and critical thought. . . .

And yet, all over the world, the humanities, the arts, and even history are being cut away to make room for profit-making skills.

The White House last week:

Today, President Obama announced the launch of Change the Equation, a CEO-led effort to dramatically improve education in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), as part of his “Educate to Innovate” campaign. . . . In his remarks to day, the President emphasized the importance of providing American students with a solid foundation in these subjects in order to compete in the global economy:

“As I discussed this morning with my Export Council, our prosperity in a 21st century global marketplace depends on our ability to compete with nations around the world.”

News reports also noted:

The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology also released recommendations Thursday: Over the next decade the federal government should help recruit and train 100,000 STEM teachers, support the creation of 1,000 new STEM-focused schools, and reward the top 5 percent of STEM teachers.

I think the survival of democratic values in our country is more important, not to mention more genuinely at risk, than our competitive advantage in the global marketplace. Why is there no blue-ribbon panel trying to ensure that our schools serve that goal? On the other hand, I shudder to imagine the top-down “pro-democracy” curriculum -- with its own standardized tests, no doubt -- that such a panel would probably propose. (On that, more here.)


FedUpMom said...

Chris, could you cross-post this to the Coalition for Kid-Friendly Schools? If you could just do this automatically for all your posts, that would be great. I think everything you write is completely relevant to the discussion I'm trying to have, and I really do want my site to be a coalition, rather than a one-person show. Thanks!

StepfordTO said...

Hi Chris,

I couldn't agree with you more. The so-called reform movement is all about producing competent corporate workers, not about educating citizens. (I think intelligent, critical-thinking Americans like you, who are interested in education, need to reclaim that word "reform.") The emphasis on STEM is pretty strong in Canada too, though there seems to be less general hysteria about education here since Canadian kids perform fairly well on international tests. The newish director of education for our school board is a Twitter-er, and I follow him out of curiosity. He is an ex CFL (Canadian Football League) player, and he's very enthusiastic and seemingly open to new ideas, but he also appears to be very willing to drink whatever Kool-Aid is being passed around. His latest thing is STEM and he recently tweeted:

"In the future 75 percent of jobs will be in STEM, not just STEM careers, it is STEM in every job."

and a few minutes later: "Technology as a 'global knowledge economy' is the future, and it requires different skills."

To the latter, I tweeted back: "But do we want to produce corporate workers for global economy or educate future citizens of a democracy? There's a difference!"

Needless to say, he didn't answer.

Chris said...

FedUpMom -- Sure, I'm glad to cross-post it. Meant to, actually, just having a kind of hectic week.

I guess I was starting to feel a little self-conscious about taking over your site, having posted so much recently. I'm still inclined to kind of pick and choose which things to cross-post -- and I might let a little time go by before cross-posting, just in hopes of generating a little activity over here. But you should definitely let me know if you see something that you'd like me to post.

The existence of your site is definitely one of the things motivating me to keep writing posts -- it's nice to feel like someone out there is actually noticing! And again, I'm impressed at how often you manage to get posts up -- I'm much more sporadic over here. In fact, I've got a crazy week coming up -- might be kind of quiet until the beginning of the month . . .

Chris said...

NorthTOmom -- Ha! I love the image of your education director enthusiastically twittering the latest jargon. I sometimes think that edu-speak is second only to military-speak in its fondness for acronyms . . .

This emphasis on STEM (an acronym that hadn't hit my radar until this week, but I guess I'm behind the times) reminds me a bit of all the talk about "evidence-based" approaches to education and empirical studies "proving" certain teaching techniques superior, etc. It's as if the whole concept of value judgments has disappeared -- that science can somehow tell us what to want. And now the subjects that are most urgently needed just happen to be the ones that are least likely to involve any discussion of values or of what we want our world to be like?

I feel a little bit the same about the push to require more foreign-language instruction. It always seems to be motivated by the desire to produce more effective call-center workers, not more capable world citizens. But I seem to be a minority of one on that issue . . .

FedUpMom said...

Chris, please don't feel self-conscious about posting on the Coalition site. Like I said, I called it the "Coalition" for a reason! I am very happy to have you and others guest posting.