Perdido 03

Perdido 03

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Defense Of Liberal Education

The president of Wesleyan College wrote a defense of liberal education on Huffington Post.

Here is an excerpt:

We should all recognize that a broadly based education helps people develop capacities that will serve them well for decades after their formal schooling ends. For Brooks this means becoming conversant while in college with a wide range of examples that will serve as compelling analogies for any number of issues that will come up in one's personal, professional or civic life. For Fish it means becoming fluent in the fundamentals even before moving on to post-secondary education: understanding the grammar of intellectual, artistic and social practices so that one can participate in them, or at least understand them from the inside. Both commentators, like many others writing today, worry that in our results oriented regime, the study of history, literature and the arts is being compromised or eliminated in favor of narrow skills that fit into so-called objective tests. Instead of giving students the opportunity to have strong emotional and cognitive encounters with well-told stories, instead of helping them find their way to becoming absorbed in great works of art, we have drilled young people into thinking that effective reading and writing are techniques with measurable outcomes to be evaluated on standardized tests. A liberal education produces results, too, but they are less reducible to questions that can be answered by coloring in a bubble with a number 2 pencil.

There has been great disappointment that the Obama administration has continued the Bush era emphasis on accountability through narrow test taking. This emphasis is a diversion from the one thing shown to make a big difference at the secondary level -- outstanding teachers who can provide students with the kind of education that will make them ready for and desirous of a challenging and broadly based education at the post-secondary level. Despite the fact that the president and almost all the senior members of his administration have had the benefit of a broad, liberal education, their Race to the Top initiatives continue to emphasize technocratic accountability rather than the learning of basic content in the humanities and sciences that will translate from one grade to another, and from one field to another. As Diane Ravitch has recently noted:

Much of what policymakers now demand will very likely make the schools less effective and may further degrade the intellectual capacity of the citizenry. The schools will surely be failures if students graduate knowing how to choose the right option from four bubbles on a multiple-choice test, but unprepared to lead fulfilling lives, to be responsible citizens, and to make good choices for themselves, their families, and our society.

President Obama and Secretary Duncan underscore "that education is the key to our long-term prosperity in a global economy," but if they continue to operate with a narrow vision of an educated work force as a bunch of effective test takers, they will squander our long-term economic capital as well as the moral and political potential of the country.

It is nice to see some pushback against the Bloomberg/Duncan/Bloomberg/Klein/Gates/Broad education deform model.

Of course Race to the Top has already done damage here in NY with the lifting of the charter cap, the tying of teacher evaluations to test scores, and the listing of 32 low performing schools by the state that need to be either closed or "turned around."

But that doesn't mean that we can't CHANGE these things back.

It will be a long and difficult fight, but we have to do it.

Seeing the piece by the Wesleyan president so prominently displayed on Huffington Post yesterday gives me some hope that some people out there are starting to listen to Diane Ravitch and others who say that the Obama/Duncan ed deform model is going to have disastrous consequences for public education.


  1. Part of the problem is that Obama and his basketball buddy Duncan wouldn't know true education if they tripped on it. What remains is gutless, soulless, and relentlessly uninspiring. Children are stripped of opportunities to practice critical thinking and true (not test prep) analysis of information. I agree that this "deform" model will have long term poor outcomes for our society.

  2. I wonder if there will be any mess left to clean up after they get done?

    Or will we be leaving in some corporate fascist state where the primary purpose of the human will be to enlarge the profits of the corporations.