The Philosophy and Politics of Education, Part 1

Author’s note: This was going to be one post about how the ideas contained in my last post might be applied and seen being applied in events taking place across the country, but then it ended up being almost 3000 words, so I’m splitting it up. Also, I’m trying a smaller font. If I have any readers, I would appreciate them letting me know which they prefer.

Actual post:

At the University of Chicago, where I go to school, there is a tradition of the Aims of Education speech. Every year, the first years, during their Orientation Week, are asked to go to Rockefeller Chapel with their houses to hear that year’s speaker discuss the aims of education. This is an honor for the speaker, not only because it’s a long tradition, but because this school so strongly prizes the investigation and application of exactly that question, of what it is that a school is for. Their attempts to reach the proper aims are clear, from the Core to the Fundamentals major. But the search goes on. The tradition stems from Alfred North Whitehead’s address to the Mathematical Association of England in 1916, which was as far from a detailed tractate on the teaching of mathematics as can be imagined. Instead, it was a paean to vision, a plea to progressivism, a fervent request that education and learning never be allowed to stagnate, so that we would create a generation of thinkers instead of simply knowers. As he says, 

“A merely well-informed man is the most useless bore on God’s earth. What we should aim at producing is men who possess both culture and expert knowledge in some special direction. Their expert knowledge will give them the ground to start from, and their culture will lead them as deep as philosophy and as high as art.”

And he’s simply not the only one. I know I’ve discussed this before as I see it, and also as countless others have, but I’m struck by how present these lovely images of the role of education are, even if they do not manifest themselves so proudly in our educational system. And it’s intriguing to me to see how these ideas do and do not play out.

For example, Bertrand Russell, in his own piece on education, said, 

“The conception which I should substitute as the purpose of education is civilization, a term which, as I mean it, has a definition which is partly individual, partly social. It consists, in the individual, of both intellectual and moral qualities: intellectually, a certain minimum of general knowledge, technical skill in one’s own profession, and a habit of forming opinions on evidence; morally, of impartiality, kindliness, and a modicum of self-control. I should add a quality which is neither moral nor intellectual, but perhaps physiological: zest and joy of life. In communities, civilization demands respect for law, justice as between man and man, purposes not involving permanent injury to any section of the human race, and intelligent adaptation of means to ends. If these are to be the purpose of education, it is a question for the science of psychology to consider what can be done towards realizing them, and, in particular, what degree of freedom is likely to prove most effective.”

Don’t you love that last sentence? That in the midst of an imaginative discourse (which is still more rational than most of the uplifting manifestos about the cultivation of excellence in a citizen), he appeals to consequentialism, pointing out that we have a fairly solid idea of what we’d like to see, even if we can’t formalize that quite yet. After that, the role of philosophy is over, and we look for effectiveness in achieving that goal. That’s really all I meant by my support for testing, and for pilot programs, so that we can see what works. It’s also deeply important that once we have a sense of some truth or another, we acknowledge it and work with it.

So I applaud the efforts of many around the country who are following exactly this thinking. For example, in New York, there’s this: “100 New York Schools Try Common Core Approach“. It’s a trial program, put in place to try to change education to be more engaging, more general and more the type of education that could produce well-rounded thinkers. If it doesn’t work, they’ll try something else. Essentially, exactly what we should be doing. I especially like this teacher who “On a recent Wednesday closed a unit on the meaning of the American dream not by assigning a first-person essay, as she once did, but by asking each student to interview an immigrant and write a profile of the person.” 

It not only gives the students a better understanding of the issues involved, but it teaches them personal skills, including how to conduct an interview. It allows them to put a human face to the abstract English and history they’re learning, and is all-in-all a fantastic idea. I hope the students got a lot out of it. I also feel that the program demonstrates a smart approach because it relies on an understanding of pedagogy and the importance of teaching in reformulating education. This trial is not only about the students, but about teachers, and giving them freedom to try new tactics that just might work, as well as encouraging them to raise the standards of the classroom. But the best part is the criticism, which in this article came from Timothy Shanahan, a professor of urban education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who that “the standards make no adjustments for students who are learning English or for children who might enter kindergarten without having been exposed to books”. It excites me because it’s a criticism from within the system, seeking to improve what is a good idea by pointing out the unfortunate fact that exterior circumstance often impact the success of education in powerful ways. It leaves the discussion open to keep looking for what might work better.

And that, in fact, is addressed here: The Limits of School Reform. Social factors, which I discussed last time, play a major role in education. That shouldn’t be something so-called reformers are scared of admitting. Firstly, it’s not as if the schools themselves don’t need changing; clearly that work is still immensely valuable. Secondly, as previously discussed, schools themselves can affect the social environment around them, and in fact, where possible, would seem to have an obligation to do just that. And thirdly, if you’re a reformer, you should be welcoming data which will help you do your job better. This is hard, and it doesn’t have simple answers. Clearly, children who work to support their families, or are often sick, will have difficulty being present in class. If things are difficult at home, they may fail to complete their assignments, or they may exhibit signs of attention disorders or learning disabilities. They’ll also tend to score poorly on IQ tests. But again, that’s an unfortunate truth we should be facing head on. Consequentialism – we all have the same goals in the end, for the most part, don’t we? So, as is said in the article, “To admit the importance of a student’s background, they fear, is to give ammo to the enemy — which to them are their social-scientist critics and the teachers’ unions. But that shouldn’t be the case. Making schools better is always a goal worth striving for, whether it means improving pedagogy itself or being able to fire bad teachers more easily. “
Always a goal worth striving for, indeed.

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