Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Our Society is Built in Our Classrooms

I'm sitting and listening to a conversation on NPR with a professor who's written a book on the state of higher education today. He talks about trying to teach English to people who are simply not interested in the subject but who have to take the class because it's required (writing, literature, what we used to call English 1A back at UCLA). He suggests that people are being required to get that BA for whatever job they need (the BA is the new high school diploma), even if what they're learning isn't really relevant to their job goal. For the first time, I joined the conversation and posted the following on the moderator's page:

I think the issue is far broader. Our society has changed so dramatically since I was in college in the 60s. We have become far too practicality-oriented, and we are no longer teaching critical thinking. The lower-division basic education we were all required to take before our major work taught us to synthesize, to weave together all the studies we struggled through. Today it's all about getting the degree and getting out to work. The more critically we think, the better citizens we become. I'm not impressed with focused degrees like MBAs. I'm more impressed with the breadth of a person's education, and kids (and schools) don't get that. It's a terrible loss to our society.

The moderator actually read most of my post on air and then the speaker disputed my point, that teaching critical thinking has been tried and it just hasn't worked.

I wanted to weep.

I do believe that we have become far too goal-focused in our society. We don't know how to think. The victory of Tea Party candidates and the belief that the health care overhaul is bad - BAD - even though it's great that this or that provision has proven really useful all point to the inability of many people to listen carefully to what politicians are saying. For a politician to rage at his supporters that "it's not about jobs and the economy, it's about stopping the federal government from funding abortion" even though it's long been prohibited for any abortion provider to receive federal funding for that procedure, and for his followers to cheer as though the man is saying something radical is simply unacceptable. Where is the voice declaring that he's nothing more than a demagogue?

A liberal education would provide people with the ammunition to think back at people who claim that the founding fathers eliminated slavery, would teach people that nothing is black and white, and anyone who tries to divide people into neat us versus them camps is pandering and to be suspicious of that person's motives. Allowing young people to grow up without the ability to think critically produces an electorate (if they even bother voting) too easily led. I remember one of the teaching units back in English 1A where we watched television commercials and looked at print ads and were asked to explain what the ad writer had really meant. What's the hidden message? What fear or need were they addressing? It was enlightening.

Are our kids being challenged? I had a professor of history when I was a freshman who delighted in bursting bubbles every chance he got. We brought all our preconceived notions to class and he destroyed them on a weekly basis. We fumed as we left, but we learned to think, if only to decide that he really had been wrong after all.

Who's teaching our kids to think? And more to the point, what are the expectations in our homes? Are our parents still asking "Did you ask good questions today?" I've engaged in so many debates with my own kids, some that have given me headaches, but at the end we had both grown, both been pushed to look at the issues differently. Are the parents of our school children and college kids also expecting their kids to be challenged intellectually? Or only to get a degree and then get out and go to work?

The liberal education used to be the gold standard. Then back in the 60s, kids started to rebel and say that it was irrelevant. Over the decades, we've repeatedly tweaked our thinking, and education has become less prescriptive - what do we want the society to look like - and more descriptive - let's teach kids what the society has decided is important. How do we build a society if all we're doing is giving people the entry ticket into the job market and calling it a college degree?

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