First Things First

A recent essay from the Brookings Institution began with a point about the current  attacks on education that should be obvious–but clearly isn’t.

What is missing from the larger discussion on systems transformation is an intentional and candid dialogue on how societies and institutions are defining the purpose of education. When the topic is discussed, it often misses the mark or proposes an intervention that takes for granted that there is a shared purpose among policymakers, educators, families, students, and other actors.

Eleanor Roosevelt argued for education that builds “good citizenship.” Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote that education transmits “not only the accumulated knowledge of the race but also the accumulated experience of social living..”  E.D. Hirsch added cultural literacy– knowledge of a given culture’s signs and symbols, as well as its language, allows culturally-literate people to communicate with each other.

Privatizers ignore any emphasis on these civic and social benefits; they define education  solely as  a consumer good– the transmittal of skills individuals need to operate successfully in the marketplace. I have previously argued two things: that education is an essential element of democracy via the creation of an informed and engaged citizenry–and that a broad liberal arts education enables human flourishing.

Beliefs about the purposes of education will rather obviously inform approaches to education policy. 

If, as the privatizers and voucher advocates insist, education is simply the transmittal of skills that will allow individuals to succeed in the economy, there’s no particular reason to give government the job. (On the other hand, you might think evidence that private schools don’t transmit those skills as well as public schools would lead to some re-thinking, but evidently not.)

If you are Ron DeSantis, Florida’s “anti-woke” Governor, and you see education as indoctrination, your primary goal will be to substitute yourself as the indoctrinator–to control the educational institutions in your state in order to protect your ideological and/or religious beliefs from examination and the possibility that they–and you–will be discarded.

If you are a college like Marymount,  and education is just a product you are offering, you move to eliminate undergraduate majors in English, history, philosophy and other subjects when your analysis suggests they are less profitable than the job training subjects on offer.

Even the major in theology and religious studies — a staple at many colleges but especially those with Catholic affiliation — would be cut. The plan, which has spurred fierce faculty protest, represents a pivotal moment for a 3,700-student institution in Arlington that describes itself as a “comprehensive Catholic university.”
Marymount President Irma Becerra endorsed the cuts in a Feb. 15 letter to the university’s Faculty Council. In all, the plan calls for phasing out nine bachelor’s degree programs. Among other majors that would be eliminated: art, mathematics, secondary education and sociology. For economics, the Bachelor of Arts would be cut, but the Bachelor of Science would remain. Also proposed to be cut: a master’s program in English and humanities.

Marymount points to the small number of students majoring in these subjects as justification for eliminating them. Opponents of the plan point out that those courses continue to draw substantial enrollment from students majoring in other disciplines.

Among the university’s larger programs are nursing, business administration and information technology. As one faculty member accurately noted,
“What it looks like we’re going to be doing is focusing on majors that are training you for a very specific job. That’s a real change from the mission and identity of the university.”

Marymount and similar institutions are substituting a focus on the bottom line for fidelity to an educational mission. 

Meanwhile, lawmakers’ widespread disrespect for education has led a significant number of K-12  teachers to leave the profession. In Indiana, nearly 95% of Indiana school superintendents say they are contending with a shortage of qualified candidates for teacher openings. Districts are responding to the shortage by issuing emergency permits and using  teachers outside their licensed areas, among other stop-gap measures.

A number of those “emergency” permits are going to people who could not qualify under existing state standards–a situation that members of the World’s Worst Legislature consider irrelevant.After all, if education is just job training, anyone who can impart a set of limited skills can teach.

Who cares if the science instructor has ever read Shakespeare–or anything else? So what if the math teacher is ignorant of history and civics? For that matter, do the schools really need to teach science? A number of the voucher schools don’t–they teach creationism instead, and they still “qualify” as educational institutions entitled to receive our tax dollars.

Bottom line, baby!

It is past time for America to have a conversation about the purpose–for that matter, the definition– of education.


And So It Begins

Duck and cover: It’s a new year, with a new session of Indiana’s General Assembly. Hoosiers will be spared the chaos we are witnessing at the federal level, but what emerges isn’t likely to be pretty.

According to the Indiana Capitol Chronicle, our legislative overlords have a number of priorities–among them, continuing their focus on public education, aka telling educators what they can and cannot do in their classrooms. In addition to fiscal and personnel concerns, the Chronicle reports that

Republican state lawmakers have also hinted at the return of a contentious “curriculum transparency” bill that would limit classroom discussions about race, as well as a bill that seeks to prohibit sexually-explicit content in school library books. Versions of both bills sparked widespread debate during the 2022 session, but both failed to pass.

Top GOP legislators are additionally pointing to a draft “Don’t Say Gay” that could ban Indiana teachers from holding classroom instruction about sexual orientation or gender identity.

I will forego my usual rant about these mean-spirited culture-war assaults to describe an (equally misplaced)  impending effort to “improve” high school curricula.  The article quotes Speaker of the House Todd Huston, who wants lawmakers to “reinvent” that curriculum, and responses to that effort  by the “usual suspects.”

Longtime chairman of the House Education Committee, Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, said the state’s high school curriculum needs to better prepare students to enter the workforce and should include greater emphasis on the importance of post-secondary education.

Part of that could include making math “more relevant” by tying components like financial literacy, simple interest and mortgage rates into coursework, he said. Other options include more apprenticeship programs — and making those types of opportunities more easily count towards a student’s diploma requirements.

Indiana Secretary of Education Katie Jenner has also doubled-down on the importance of adding additional work-based learning opportunities for students and making it easier for high schoolers to access post-secondary education credentials before graduation.

I am so tired of these persistent efforts to redefine education as job training.

Let me begin by saying I have absolutely nothing against job training, practical skills, or the transmittal of “useful knowledge.” The inculcation of skills and information required to obtain and keep employment is clearly an important endeavor–both for the individual and for society–and the increasingly technical nature of work in the 21st Century often necessitates a significant amount of training.

But both individuals and society pay a steep price when we substitute the transmittal of useful knowledge for education.

It isn’t just Indiana. On college campuses, the years since the Great Recession have been brutal for almost every major in the humanities, and for the social science fields that most closely resemble humanistic ones — sociology, anthropology, international relations and political science. Technology and engineering have gained at the expense of the humanities (and with them, majors in things like sports management and exercise studies…)

That emphasis on job training and the neglect of subjects long thought to be necessary to an individual’s ability to live a good life is also reshaping high school curricula.

When an “education” is limited to the transmission of technocratic skills–when we are teaching students how to derive the one correct answer to that math problem or the one correct way to program that computer–there is a very real danger that we are creating a culture in which every issue has a “right” answer and a “wrong” answer, a prescription for disaster in a world where ambiguity and complexity require careful analyses grounded in a knowledge of history, philosophy and science abetted by critical thinking and communication skills.

Life in the 21st century will require today’s students to do more than find a job and reconcile their bank accounts. They will have to wrestle with confounding ethical and moral questions. They will  be challenged to cope with social change, to work with different people having different perspectives, and to appreciate new insights. It will require them to fulfill the obligations of citizenship.

At best, a real education can only provide young people with a “tasting menu,” a sampling of the intellectual riches that generations of scholars and thinkers have amassed. But ideally, that sampling should do three things: foster a thirst for lifetime learning; give them a foundation for understanding the complexities of the world in which they must function; and inculcate an appropriate intellectual modesty–a recognition that there is infinitely more to know.

We are cheating students when we fail to at least introduce them to the intellectual and cultural products of those who have gone before. Making a living isn’t remotely the same thing as making a life.


Chasing Tuition Dollars, Foregoing The Mission

When reasonably knowledgable people listen to today’s political arguments–not just in Facebook posts, or at dinner parties or other venues, but also on cable networks’ panel discussions–it becomes painfully clear that a whole lot of Americans have no idea how their government is supposed to work. I bitch about that constantly.

But ignorance of our legal and constitutional system is far from the only information deficit on display these days. The most dogmatic and smug assertions–on both sides of the political divide– routinely come from presumably educated folks who display absolutely no understanding of the rules of elementary logic, and who appear to lack even the slightest acquaintance with political theory, let alone American or world history.

“Presumably educated” is the key. At risk of over-simplifying a complex phenomenon,  I want to suggest that these low levels of argumentation are an outgrowth of the decline of  liberal arts requirements in our colleges and universities, where genuine education continues to lose ground to job training.

It isn’t only in the U.S. A reader of this blog sent me a link to a report from England:

The University of Staffordshire last year launched its bachelor’s and master’s esports programs, in which students mainly learn marketing and management skills tailored to the industry. This autumn, it’s expanding the program to London while other schools are also debuting esports degree courses, including Britain’s Chichester University, Virginia’s Shenandoah University, Becker College in Massachusetts and The Ohio State University. In Asia, where esports has seen strong growth, schools in Singapore and China offer courses.

The global esports market is expected to surge to $1.1 billion this year, up $230 million from 2018 on growth in sponsorships, merchandise and ticket sales, according to Newzoo . The research firm expects the global esports audience to grow in 2019 to about 454 million as fans tune in on live streaming platforms such as Twitch and Microsoft’s Mixer.

I am prepared to believe that “esports” is a growing field. So are motorsports (which my own campus offers and hypes), web design, hospitality studies–not to mention more traditional business school courses in marketing, accounting and the like. And I have absolutely no objection to programs that teach these skills.

I do, however, have a huge objection to programs that allow students to substitute what is essentially job training for courses that provide them with a liberal education–that introduce them, albeit superficially, to great literature, to the arts, to economic and social theory, to history–in short, to the intellectual products of civilization.

At best, an undergraduate education can only provide young people with a “tasting menu,” a sampling of the intellectual riches that generations of scholars and thinkers have amassed. But ideally, that sampling will do three things:  foster a thirst for lifetime learning; give them a foundation for understanding the complexities of the world in which they must function; and inculcate an appropriate intellectual modesty–a recognition that there is infinitely more to know.

I understand why many universities have gone down this road. We depend significantly on tuition dollars to function, so we compete for students. Telling 18-year-olds that you will help them understand their world is far less enticing than telling them–and their parents–that they’ll make good money.

Universities also depend heavily upon public funding. State legislatures hold those purse-strings, and too many policymakers view higher education entirely through the lens of eventual employment. Along with self-anointed “rankers” of institutional worthiness in the media, they judge the effectiveness of universities by looking only at the rates of employment and salary levels of their graduates.

Esports, “game studies” and the like may pay the rent. However, unless  students in those programs are also required to take significant courses in the liberal arts,  they are unlikely to produce informed citizens, or to provide their graduates with the inner resources they will need if the promised jobs fail to materialize.

We are cheating students when we fail to at least introduce them to the intellectual and cultural products of those who have gone before. Making a living isn’t remotely the same thing as making a life.


Intelligence vs. Skill

Just as there is a difference between job training and education, there’s a difference between intelligence and skill.

A recent DailyKos post by a neurologist disputed the notion that being a neurosurgeon should be taken as evidence that Ben Carson is smart. The author distinguished between genuine intellect and technical skill.

“Smart” is a multifaceted cognitive feature composed of excellent analytical skills, possession of an extensive knowledge base that is easily and frequently augmented, possession of a good memory, and being readily curious about the world and willing, even eager, to reject previously accepted notions in the face of new data. Being smart includes having the ability to analyze new data for validity and, thinking creatively, draw new insights from existing common knowledge….

My point is that neurosurgeons are not automatically smart because they are a neurosurgeon. To get through training and have any sort of practice they must be disciplined, have immense ego strength, a reasonably good memory, and have mental and physical stamina. However, like many other doctors, they are not always smart. Neurosurgeons, like other surgeons, can be outstanding technicians but that is different than being intellectually brilliant. A truly brilliant internal medicine specialist once told me that “you can train anyone to perform a procedure”. I’ve seen surgical assistants, not doctors but physician’s assistants that specialize in surgery, perform technically difficult procedures with stunning alacrity. It’s the old rule: do something enough times and you will get damn good at it.

I thought about the difference between skill and intellect–both of which are important, but which are not the same thing– when I heard Marco Rubio’s astonishing statement in the recent GOP debate that “Welders make more than philosophers. America needs more welders and less [sic} philosophers.”

Not only was Rubio wrong on the facts (philosophers actually earn more than welders), but think about what this sneering dismissal of the worth of intellectual pursuits tells us about his worldview. Clearly, Rubio (and apparently everyone on that debate stage) evaluates  the worth of any profession solely on the basis of what it pays. If welders did make more than teachers, then welders would obviously be superior.

I’m a big fan of market economics, but the fact that the market rewards pornographers more than it rewards nurses doesn’t mean we need more pornographers and fewer nurses.

Let’s be clear: the skilled trades are important and honorable. But scholarship, research, scientific inquiry and yes, philosophy and theology, are essential to human progress. They also give our lives meaning and purpose.

Socrates–a philosopher– said the unexamined life is not worth living. There wasn’t anyone on that debate stage who appears to understand that sentiment, let alone agree with it–and that is terrifying.


A Perverse Idea Whose Time Has Definitely Not Come

I think I’ve written before about how profoundly stupid this is. But I may have neglected to mention that it is also perverse.

And I was shocked to see a Brookings Institute “report” seemingly endorsing it.

“It” is Income-Sharing Agreements (aka “indentured servitude”), currently being promoted by former Indiana Governor and current Purdue President Mitch Daniels as a private-sector remedy for the growing burden of student loan debt.

Income Share Agreements are an innovative tool that will, as I have argued elsewhere, allow students to finance college by selling “shares” in their future earnings. Graduates pay back in proportion to the pecuniary value they get from their degree. If the degree proves worthless, the students will pay little or nothing. If the degree is immensely valuable, then the students will pay back a lot. Either way, the payments are, by construction, affordable.

This is a great idea, if your definition of “education” is job training.

How many “investors” are going to finance that philosophy major’s education? How about the student pursuing a degree in English literature? Or romance languages? or basic scientific research that doesn’t promise a quick payoff, as opposed to training in   technologies that generate prompt turnarounds to satisfy consumerism?

Even for students in more “promising” fields, the plan doesn’t eliminate debt; it simply changes the identity of the creditor and the schedule of repayment.

Ultimately, this is one more step on the road to devaluing scholarly inquiry–one more bit of evidence (as if the current crop of Republican Presidential candidates wasn’t evidence enough) of the triumph of American anti-intellectualism.

If it can’t be monetized, it evidently isn’t worth knowing.