"A little learning is a dangerous thing but a lot of ignorance is just as bad." ....Bob Edwards.

Commentary of the Day - May 29, 2012: School's Proper Purpose.  Guest commentary by Poor Elijah (Peter Berger).

Teachers aren't the only people who wonder, "Why am I here?"  But given the increasingly varied nonacademic responsibilities that get dropped off at the schoolhouse door, from dentistry and diets to family counseling and composting, it's a reasonable question.  Now another in a series of prominent educators has answered it.

According to the executive director of the American School Counselor Association, "education has lost sight of why it exists today."  Back in 1983 A Nation at Risk made a similar declaration.  Except when Risk's authors warned that "our society and its educational institutions have lost sight of the basic purposes of schooling," they meant that schools had abandoned their focus on academics, that curricula had become "diluted" and excessively governed by "student choice," and that American public education had grown preoccupied with "personal" and "social" issues.

The executive director offers a different take on the situation.  He begins by recounting his own high school coursework from freshman through senior year.  In social studies, for instance, he progressed systematically from ninth grade world culture, through world and U.S. history, to twelfth grade U.S. government.  Math advanced from algebra through geometry and Algebra 2 to trig, while his science sequence comprised biology, chemistry, and physics.  But where Risk was alarmed that 1970s education reforms had driven systematic academic instruction from public school classrooms, the director describes that kind of rigorous, content-based program, in his day and in our present day, as an outdated remnant of the twentieth century.

The director voices his concern that there are regrettably "many teachers who believe their job is to teach skills, such as math or science."  In contrast, when he was an English teacher, he "never believed that [his] job was to teach grammar and literature."  Yes, that's right -- an ex-English teacher who proudly declares he didn't teach grammar and literature.  Remember that bizarre, all too common reform sentiment the next time you're wondering why American students haven't been learning much for forty years.

He finds classes focused on content knowledge and skills "far too limiting."  Instead his "purpose was to teach students to love learning."  Now he realizes that "even that's not thinking big enough."  The way he sees it, the purpose of twenty-first century educators should be to "help the students of today become the productive adults of tomorrow," adults who are "contributing members of society, not burdens on society."  Rather than remain stuck in the twentieth century and dwell on "the skills of the past" like math, science, English, and social studies, we need to teach "critical thinking," "inquiry," "communications," and "community."

It must be hard to cram that much empty rhetoric into one mouth.  Find me the school in any century that set out deliberately to train its students to be noncontributing, unproductive burdens on society.  Do today's reformers truly imagine that they invented the idea of preparing the next generation to inherit the Republic, a notion that was already old when Jefferson advocated eighteenth century American public schools for regular people?

Beyond its emptiness, the director's vision is marinated in irony.  It was shortly after his reform philosophy took root in public schools back in the 1970s that American culture began its ongoing slide from self-reliance to entitlement, a decline he now proposes to reverse by redeploying his failed theories on an even grander scale.  Suggesting that schools must abandon their outmoded twentieth century "purpose" and start teaching "community" and "collaboration" ignores the fact that the decades of graduating classes that have passed through post-1970s schools steeped in socialization and personal development have yet to approach the standard of sacrifice and common purpose set by the generation that suffered through "early twentieth century" schools and went on to persevere through World War II.

Rechristening reading and writing as "communications" won't make children more literate.  There's nothing wrong with inquiry and critical thinking, but first students need something to think about, an unlikely outcome if your child’s teacher finds concentrating on knowledge and skills too "limiting."  Emotional, personal, and social development are certainly important, but they’re not the reason we have schools.  They're the reason we have families.  I try to treat my students with respect, compassion, and humor, but my job is to teach them English and history.  Being a decent human being is just something that's supposed to happen along the way.

I enjoy learning.  Sometimes in some scholastic veins I'd even go so far as to say I love it.  But I haven't liked learning everything that’s been set before me since I entered kindergarten.  I still don't enjoy learning everything I'm expected to know.

When it comes to my students, I hope that I'm a model of intellectual curiosity.  I try to make what I teach them as enjoyable as possible.  After all, I have to listen to me, too.  But enjoyment isn't my chief objective.  If my students grow up to love learning, that's more than fine with me.  But I'd far rather they recognize the value of knowledge even when it doesn’t give them a warm, gushy feeling.  Lifelong learners don't just learn the things that make their hearts race.

Once upon a time common sense would have told us that if our children aren't learning enough math, science, English, and history, the solution isn't to shift our focus away from math, science, English, and history.  That catastrophic strategy is precisely what reformers like the director have been preaching for the past forty years.  Yes, they dress their sermons up in clichés like the "love of learning," but no barrage of fatuous platitudes can alter the fact that American schools and students are weaker today because of education reform.

Schools and the children in them have suffered serial bandwagon innovations that aren't new and wave after wave of bright ideas that are manifest folly.  Having slighted the systematic study of the liberal arts and sciences in favor of loftier sounding, hollow pursuits, reformers wonder why American students lack academic knowledge and skill.  It's time we stopped letting the experts fail to solve the problem they helped to create.

© 2012, Peter Berger.
Peter Berger teaches English in Weathersfield, Vermont. Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer messages addressed to him in care of the editor.

The Irascible Professor comments: The IP agrees wholeheartedly with Poor Elijah.  Critical thinking, inquiry, communications, and community all are important.  However, these things are not learned in a vacuum.  Just as you can never develop a love of learning if you have never learned anything, you cannot develop skills in inquiry, communications, and community in the abstract.  These are things that are learned in the context of attempting to understand the content of subjects like math, science, history English, etc. -- writing essays, reading and discussing literature, learning and applying math, learning science both in theory and from practical laboratory exercises are exactly how the more general skills are developed.

Perhaps the problem with so many of these so-called "reformers" is that they never actually learned much in school, and thus they never really developed a love of learning.

Irascible Professor invites your  .

© 2012 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.
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