Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Aims of Education

Earlier this year, results from a national test showed that less than one third of all elementary and high school students were proficient in science. 40% of 12th graders tested at the very lowest level in science. Recent tests of school children in Massachusetts showed very discouraging results.

I am quite sure that many people who deplore the continuing deterioration of American education are perfectly sincere in their worries. They expect our schools to benefit all children by helping them learn as much as possible.

But at the same time it becomes clearer all the time that many of our leaders hold a very impoverished idea about the goals of American education.

Not too long ago it was a commonplace that education in the humanities was a essential to develop the minds of students. Knowledge of literature, of the arts and of philosophy was thought to make young people articulate, creative, and clear thinkers. Hence liberal education was considered an important part of everyone's education. The aim of education was to create well-rounded persons equipped to live their lives as well as possible.

In recent years the rhetoric has changed. We do not hear much anymore about the desirability of well-rounded persons. Today, everyone from the president on down repeats that the goal of education is to produce a work force for the coming years. Our leaders no longer seem interested in the development of the capacities of all young people to be creative, articulate and clear thinking citizens. The only purpose education serves now is to prepare people to do a job.

Now it is quite obvious that there are very different jobs in this world. Many jobs are quite routine, the person doing the job has to be good at taking orders, and to fit into a complicated bureaucratic machine. Their main virtue is to follow rules, to go by the book. People who do jobs like that do not need to be articulate. They do not need to be creative or think for themselves. If they did, they might not like their job and might prove to be difficult employees.Better that the people destined to fill routine and bureaucratic jobs should be thoughtless, poorly educated, and not particularly knowledgeable.

In line with this change in thinking about education, the University of Nevada has abolished its philosophy department. Howard University came very close to doing the same thing. The State University of New York in Albany abolished its foreign language departments.

These are just the beginnings of moving against traditional liberal education. In our world where business calls the shots, education no longer is intended to make persons the most capable they can be so that they can have good lives. The role of education now is to provide a workforce for business. Best are workers with limited education who will not complain if their jobs are stupid and boring because their education prepared them for boredom, for doing as they are told and to accept orders from above.

For many students the aim of education is to produce competent drones that are not rebellious but do as they are told.

But wait! Are these drones at work not also citizens? Are they not parents whose job and ambition it is to raise their children to be intelligent, eager to learn and independent thinkers? But we are no longer hearing about that.

Business calls the shots. Business wants drones. Business does not care about democracy; it prefers docile, ill informed citizens who are easily manipulated by advertisers. 

That is the real crisis in American education.