This question was put to our PhD level Curriculum Theory class last night. We were discussing E.D. Hirsch, an education theorist who is often depicted and criticized as an ‘elitist.’ So, the professor asked us: what is wrong with elitism?
And what a question it is! Too often, we use words like ‘elitist’ as synonyms for ‘bad’ without thinking about what is bad about them. What argument is there that elitism – the view which glorifies elites over those ‘below’ them – a bad thing?
Here is my attempt at an answer. In so many words, the thing I find most objectionable about elitism is not (as many would say) its seeming endorsement of meritocracy, but its myopia. Elitism, in glorifying the way of the ‘elite,’ often makes assumptions that everyone should behave the way elites behave and value the things that elites value. To put it a bit differently if bluntly, the problem with elitists is that they assume that their lives are the way lives should be, rather than one way that lives could be.
As well meaning as E.D. Hirsch is, he falls into this error with his program for Cultural Literacy, which suggests that there are certain facts all students should come out of school knowing in order to be culturally literate. In other words, there are ideas or facts that are either necessary conditions to having ‘cultural literacy’ and not having these will be deemed sufficient to make one ‘culturally illiterate.’
What’s wrong with this? First, it assumes a very static view of culture. Culture, of course, is a very fluid and changing thing, and the knowledge one must have to be a part of a culture wholly depends on the people one is conversing with in that culture. (All of this assumes for the sake of argument that there is even a coherent definition of what is a culture.) In other words, the things I would need to know to get in with a group of twenty-somethings in rural Nebraska may be wholly different than what I would need to know to get in with PhDed professors at Princeton University. And the problem with the Hirsch approach is that it seems to assume that my knowledge about Jay Z which may help me get in with the twenty-something crowd simply isn’t as important culturally as my knowledge of Wolfgang Mozart that helps me get in with the professors. (more…)
Below is a passage I wrote for a PhD class in curriculum theory. The questions was “Who should decide what students learn?” particularly in regards to whether intelligent design should be taught in science classes. I post it here because I think it is a decent articulation of my view that families, parents, and children (rather than either education experts or democratically elected board members) should have the ultimate authority over what children learn.
The question is: who is to decide whether intelligent design or evolution (or both or neither) should be taught in schools. Of all the readings assigned for this week, my views allign most closely with McClusky. The problem is that we live in a society that is simulteneously liberal and democratic, while also talking about an institution (schools) that, in some sense, has as its role something neither liberal or democratic. As long as these three ideals are in conflict – and I think they are – one must simply choose which authorty they thinks trumps the other two: experts (nondemocratic and nonliberal), the majority (non-liberal and non-authoritarian) or each individual/family (non-democratic and non-authoritarian). I believe the best way to decide the issue is to leave the decisions in the hands of each individual/ family.
But let me first explain why I believe we are dealing with three incompatible ideals. As a liberal society, we are committed to the idea that individuals have a right to conscience. As a democratic republic, we are committed to the idea that disputes are to be settled by appeal to the vote (at least to vote in representatives whose own votes will reflect that of the majority). And, in the case of schools, we are also committed to the idea that there are certain things which SHOULD be conveyed to children regardless of whether they, their parents, or the majority concur. (In other words, we believe that curriculum is too valuable a subject to be left to non-experts.)
These three ideas, then, are in conflict and, I believe, irreducibly so. That is because recognizing the one negates the other two. (By example, leaving curricular matters up to majority vote abridges individuals liberty to decide educational issues for themselves, and also takes a stand against unelected experts deciding them.) Why do I choose liberalism over the other competing values as curricular guides? (more…)
One common retort to those who criticize the historical ascendancy and stranglehold of “progressivism” in education is to simply deny the charge. Diane Ravitch, for instance, met just this type of denial when she published Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reform. Critics, generally with an affinity for “progressive” pedagogy, told us that Ravitch’s history was hopelessly biased and a bunch of spin. Progressive ideals, they say, did not fail: they were never really tried.
It is too bad for these critics that books like The Diminished Mind by Mortimer Smith, were published. TDM was written in 1954 as a way to chronicle the educational landscape as it looked at the time. Smith’s verdict?
I do not think anyone will challenge the statement that pragmatism has become the official philosophy of the public education; there may be an occasional maverick scattered her and there but the great majority of the professors of education are committed to this philosophy and they transmit it to the future teachers and administrators whom they train to run the American public school system (Smith 1954, PG78-79).
By “pragmatism,” Smith is referring to “the pedagogical principles which formed the basis of what came to be known as progressive education and is now more commonly referred to as modern education.” (PG78) The educational pragmatism Smith judged to be the dominant philosophic force in education (ushered in by Dewey; perverted by followers) included the idea that education is to center around the child’s immediate needs and should serve not to convey knowledge but to “reconstruct experience” (which, of course, Dewey was never really clear on what was meant). These ideas manifested themselves in various curricular theories, two of which Smith examines in some detail: education for life adjustment and education for social reconstruction.
Chapters II and III (Adjustment Replaces Education and Adjustment Replaces Education Continued) discuss and thoroughly document the rise of the “life adjustment” theory of curriculum through the public schools. (more…)
As a libertarian, it pains me to admit flaws with libertarianism as a philosophy. But one problem in libertarian theory I’ve become increasingly sensitive to is the problem of how children are handled in a libertarian society. I believe I know where the problem stems from, and also why certain existing arguments are flawed, but don’t have much idea on how to rectify these flaws without violating a certain amount of libertarian theory. Oh well. Here is my attempt, at least, to look at one of the more interesting arguments for how libertarian theory should treat kids: Murray Rothbard analogies parent/child relations to house-owner/houseguest relations.
Before getting into that, I want to briefly outline why I think libertarians have such a hard time with the “child problem.” Libertarians, I think, are good at dealing with two different ideas: people (in the sense of autonomous adults) and property. To put it bluntly, children are neither of these and are probably best seen as somewhere in between the two in resemblance. Children resemble, but are not, autonomous adults in certain ways: they are physically autonomous and their brains/minds are not linked to other brains/minds in that they can decide certain things for themselves. But in other ways, children resemble, but are not, property: parents are legally responsible for taking care of children and children are in some sense ‘acquired’ by choice, children do not have a real choice in who their ‘owners’ are, etc.
But children are neither persons nor property. They are not quite autonomous persons because we – except some libertarians – recognize that children lack the mental ability to make certain decisions on their own or have the type of absolute freedom we grant to adults. Nor are they property because, morally, it strikes us as horrendous to think about parents being able to do anything they would like to their children. Unlike property, children have at least SOME freedoms.
Below is a review I wrote for amazon.com on philosopher Harry Brighouse’s book On Education.
As part of the “Thinking in Action” series, educational philosopher Harry Brighouse has written this brief, thoughtful book on education. Section 1 is devoted to the larger abstract question of why we educate. The second section is devoted to specific curricular questions like whether the state should make citizenship education compulsory or should allow religion in schools.
Brighouse’s central premise is that the primary reason to educate is to provide students with the tools they need to flourish. In order to flourish, one needs to be (relatively) autonomous in ability to think and decide one’s courses of action. Thus, a primary goal of schooling should be to equip students with the skills and knowledge they will need to be autonomous, including exposure to ways of life different than their own. Brighouse uses this idea to justify state intervention in compelling parents not to send children to overly sectarian schools. We owe it to future adults to give them those skills that will allow them to be autonomous, and allowing them to be educated in insular schools, where only one way of life is talked about, threatens that future autonomy.
I have to pause on this point because while I can see its merit, I can also see that it ignores the already-existing autonomy of parents to educate their children (whom they are legally responsible for) the way they choose. Brighouse’s suggestion that we disallow parents to send children to insular schools (in the name of future autonomy) can only be done by violating the already-existing autonomy of parents. It also sees the state’s vision for children as more important than parents’ vision. I think the issue is simply more nuanced than Brighouse’s argument suggests.
Brighouse is also very vocal in insisting that, while it is legitimate to prepare students to be workers by teaching them labor skills, this should not be the primary motive for education. Further, Brighouse warns against educating kids to fit the economy (“We need more scientists, so let’s have more science classes.”), and would rather teach kids a broad variety of employment skills so that they can be autonomous and choose their own employment path. Historically, policy makers have often let economic demands influence curricular decisions, but as Brighouse rightly points out (a) steering students towards certain careers takes away their autonomy, and (b) we simply cannot know what careers will be in demand or necessary in the future. Thus, it is better to give students a broad exposure to different career paths and teach them skills they can apply to many different careers. (more…)
There are two attitudes one can take when a child is not learning at the level we expect: fatalism and optimism. The fatalistic attitude is that which leads us toward giving up and changing direction; perhaps the child is not learning the material because she is not suited for it. The optimistic attitude is that which leads us towards redoubling our efforts; perhaps she is not learning because we are not teaching it correctly, intensely, or thoroughly.
Both attitudes have positives and negatives. If the child is not learning the material because she really is not capable, fatalism may save time and the potentially bad experience of trying to force the proverbial square peg into the round hole by forcing ill-suited information into an unwilling and unable participant. But fatalism is a bad thing if it means that we give up on a child too soon who could have learned if we had persisted.
Conversely, optimism has its benefits and drawbacks. Optimism, by definition, means persistence out of desire for a good outcome. Optimism leads to good results when it leads us not to give up on a child too soon. Of course, the hoped-for scenario of where the child gets the information by our sheer persistence does not always come to pass, in which case we see the downside of optimism: the risk of forcing students to do more than they may be able to do for the sake of hope for a better result.
The reason I point out these good and bad points is that the dilemma teachers often face ove which attitude to adopt is made (dare I say) impossible by our inability to know the future. Asking a teacher whether a child is capable of learning x or not – asking them to adopt a optimistic or fatalistic attitude – is asking them to know what the child is in fact capable of, which entails knowing the future. This is because knowing what a child’s potential is is premised on the idea of knowing what the child would be able to do if educated in the right way, which entails knowing what can’t be known in advance. The best we can do when contemplating a child’s potential is to give our best educated guess, which often isn’t really that educated at all.
To elaborate further on the difficulty of gaguing a student’s capability, I want to point out how essentially unfalsifiable estimates are. Let’s suppose that we believe that Johny is capable of learning Algebra and despite our efforts, he does not show evidence of learning it. Well, we can explain this in two ways: we can suggest that maybe Johny is not equipped to learn algebra, or that we have simply not done everything necessary to teach it to him. (more…)
To know about the philosophy of education today is to know about John Dewey, Edward Thorndike, William Kirkpatrick and progressive education. One of the most unfortunate byproducts of this singular focus is that many of the works critical of progressive education – and there have been many – have since been unjustly forgotten. It is quite standard to see a philosophy/theory of education course read the educational works of John Dewey (as well they should). Unfortunately, reading lists don’t tend to give voice to some of the criticisms (old or new) of progressive education that Dewey represents.
One such remarkable book that has unjustly gone overlooked is Isaac Leon Kandel’s Cult of Uncertainty. Like so many other books critical of progressive education, this book is currently out of print, but can fortunately be seen and downloaded for free from googlebooks. In Cult of Uncertainty, historian of education Kandel criticizes what he saw as the excesses of progressive education – its flexibility and laxity with curriculum, overemphasis on maintaining children’s interest over teaching intellectual essentials, and conflation of authority with authoritarianism.
By contrast, Kandel’s view of education is somewhat reminiscent of Edmund Burke’s conservatism . Rather than the emphasis on each generation and individual creating and discovering their own knowledge, schools’ first goal should be to impart to students the essential knowledge that past generations have created and discovered. (more…)
Today, a colleague of mine gave a very interesting presentation on , Nel Noddings, an education theorist who pioneered the idea of “caring theory.” The article my colleague spoke about, authored by Noddings, is entitled “A Morally Defensible Mission for Schools in the 21st Century (1995, Phi Delta Kappan v. 76, 465-368). This brief article outlines Noddings vision that too much focus on academics has left our students uncared for and outlining a vision of the future where schools’ primary focus is on nurturing students moral and emotional lives.
There is much to agree with in Noddings articles and much to disagree with. To start with my agreements with Noddings, she and I share a deep belief that one-size-fits-all curricula and schools have more costs than benefits. In their quests to cater to the greatest number, they end up catering to no one in particular.
In trying to teach everyone what we once taught only a few, we have wound up teaching everyone inadequately. Further, we have not bothered to ask whether the traditional education so highly treasured was ever the best education for anyone.
Noddings points out, very controversially, that “The vast majority of adults do not use algebra in their work, and forcing all students to study it is a simplistic response to the real issues of equity and mathematical literacy.” As a former schoolteacher, I believe that I and my colleagues did damage to many students who may have been ill-served by taking Algebra II and Chemistry in a quest to keep them on the college track. It has been my experience that standardized curricula is the moral equivalent of trying to make everyone to fit into the proverbial “round hold” regardless of their shape. In other words, we mold students to fit the curricula rather than the other way around.
But Noddings alternative vision to the standardized curriculum is one I cannot share. (more…)
In education, there is much talk about the value of the caring teacher. In particular, theorist Nel Noddings has been quite influential with her vision of the pedagogic importance of “authentic caring” (in contrast to “aesthetic caring”). Taking a cue from Dewey, and more directly, “humanistic” psychologist Carl Rogers, Noddings suggested that in “authentic caring,” teachers would embrace students as individuals in a nurturing, mutually respectful, and…well…caring relationship. In contrast, the teacher that only practices “aesthetic caring,” cares primarily about students performance on academic tasks and, according to Noddings, risks not appreciating students as individuals replete with contexts, desires, and lives that need to be individually nurtured.
I doubt that many could deny the power of a caring teacher and do not suspect that many teachers do not strive to see their students as individuals. But one of the major flaws I see with Noddings view of authentic teaching (besides the fact that for many teachers, seeing all students as individuals to be individually nurtured is impossible on numerical grounds alone) is that too much focus on “authentic caring” negates another important aspect of a teacher’s role: adversarialism. In other words, nurturing students and authentically caring about them may be good to a point, but another key role of teaching – a somewhat antithetical role – is the adversarialism between teacher and student.
Adversarialism – seems like a dirty and nasty word, yes? When we think of adversaries, we think of enemies. It is only the most sadistic of teachers who wants to be enemies with their students. But the word “adversarial” (“adverse” being its root) simply means “to be at odds with.” To say that a teacher and student are adversaries is not to say they are enemies, but simply to say that there will be times where the two have different goals. (Enemies are always adversaries, but adversaries need not be enemies.) Sometimes, the student does not want to learn x, but the teacher’s job demands that she push the student to do so. The student does not always want to take home homework (seldom does, in all likelihood) but the teacher knows that supplemental practice will be good for the student. When student and teacher have conflicting goals, they are adversaries. (more…)