Monday, December 8, 2008

Educational Betrayal

Chris Hedges is at it again on the Truthdig Web site. This time the title of his column is "The Best and the Brightest Led America Off a Cliff;" and, once again, his thesis is a strong one:

The multiple failures that beset the country, from our mismanaged economy to our shredded constitutional rights to our lack of universal health care to our imperial debacles in the Middle East, can be laid at the feet of our elite universities. Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stanford, along with most other elite schools, do a poor job educating students to think. They focus instead, through the filter of standardized tests, enrichment activities, advanced placement classes, high-priced tutors, swanky private schools and blind deference to all authority, on creating hordes of competent systems managers.

This time I have no fundamental disagreement with him. My only question is what took him so long to use the bully pulpit of his column to say these things. My very first blog post (June 5, 2006), had the title “Education with More Permanence.” It was based on an appeal to physics as a metaphor:

I had become increasingly aware of the fact that higher education was getting more and more specialized while the “half-life” of the content of that education was getting shorter and shorter (often by the month, if not by the day). I felt that it was necessary to seek out educational content that would have more permanence to it. This was the original intention behind the idea of a “liberal education;” but this is a concept that seems to have gone out of fashion.

I included a link to a PowerPoint presentation I had given on January 25, 2006. I gave the talk several times, and it always fell on deaf ears. Needless to say, I have no hopes that “liberal education” (or its cousin, “critical thinking") will fare any better under the new Administration than it did under the old one; but, thanks to a Berkeley student who is submitting Truthdig Comments under the name "punkdudeus," I realized that the problem may be deeper than whether or not our universities (elite or otherwise) are deep-ending on specialized education to the detriment of that "liberal education" concept. The first Comment that punkdudeus submitted included the following sentence:

Most people have no clue of what they want to do, and it freaks them out.

Not only do I sympathize, I pretty much said the same thing fifteen years ago when a friend of mine from the Institute for Research in Learning visited my laboratory in Singapore to give a series of talks; and both of us began to confront the magnitude of the difference that separated us from kids who were supposed to benefit from his "research in learning." I did not have the courage to follow my thought through to its bitter prospect; but I would now modestly submit that our entire educational process (push back as far as you like, as long as we do not talk about antenatal Mozart-listening) does nothing to encourage kids to think about what they will do in adult life. (In all fairness Paul Goodman saw this coming as early as the Fifties in his essays that were collected in Growing Up Absurd.) The educational system has thus ceded this particular responsibility to mass media, which basically spin fantasies about high-paid stars (athletes, pop singers, movie actors) and Survivor survivors (so to speak). In the latest New York Review Darryl Pinckney declared, "The Bush-Cheney administration was at war with reality." Is it any wonder that they could wage that war with such success? Indeed, they were so successful that every individual's sense of reality is now in jeopardy, which can only entail pathological consequences.

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