Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The wisdom of a liberal arts education ....

Regarding a liberal arts education - here is a sobering look at trends from Business Insider.  I have taken the liberty of pasting the whole article below, because every word is golden.  However, if you only read the following words, you will get the gist and I hope be inspired to read it all.

A 2010 study from Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa found that students majoring in liberal arts fields see " significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills over time than students in other fields of study." 
De-emphasizing, de-funding, and  demonizing the humanities means that students don't get trained well in the things that are the hardest to teach once at a job: thinking and writing clearly. 

My p.s.  -  With the US government exercising unprecedented control over the lives of its citizens, it is more important than ever before that we know how to think and express ourselves clearly.  Otherwise, we have nothing more than a global society of sheep.

The article:

The decades-long war against English and the other humanities has succeeded in many ways, which has had some unintended and very negative effects, according to a new report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Parents don't read to their children as much, K-12 humanities teachers are not as well-trained as STEM ones, federal funding for international education is down 41% over four years, and many college students graduate without being able to write clearly.
Although humanities degrees are not in total freefall, the bigger problem centers on the  decline in pre-college humanities education and in the liberal arts curriculum in college.
Humanities get a tiny fraction of the federal funding that STEM programs do. Many schools, public ones in particular, are already under huge financial pressure, so they're going to focus more of their energies on the things that they can get others to pay for:
Federal funding by academic discipline
That means fewer offerings, less faculty, and a decline in the sort of introductory and mandatory classes that used to be standard in college. 
The result is not only relatively fewer humanities majors but also a generation of students who get out of school and don't know how to write well or express themselves clearly. 
 The New York Times' Verlyn Klinkenborg, who has spent time teaching writing to both undergrads and graduate students at places like Harvard, Yale, Pomona, Sarah Lawrence, and Columbia'sGraduate School of Journalism, reports that kids are shockingly ill-prepared:
Each semester I hope, and fear, that I will have nothing to teach my students because they already know how to write. And each semester I discover, again, that they don’t.
They can assemble strings of jargon and generate clots of ventriloquistic syntax. They can meta-metastasize any thematic or ideological notion they happen upon. And they get good grades for doing just that. But as for writing clearly, simply, with attention and openness to their own thoughts and emotions and the world around them — no.
Those are undergraduate and even graduate students at some of the top colleges and universities in the country who have chosen to focus on writing to a certain extent. Things are presumably even worse elsewhere.
A 2010 study from Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa found that students majoring in liberal artsfields see " significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills over time than students in other fields of study." 
De-emphasizing, de-funding, and  demonizing the humanities means that students don't get trained well in the things that are the hardest to teach once at a job: thinking and writing clearly. 
CEOs, including Jeff Bezos , Logitech's Bracken Darrell , Aetna's Mark Bertolini , and legendary Intel co-founder Andy Grove emphasize how essential clear writing and the liberal arts are. STEM alone isn't enough. Even Federal Reserve chair Ben Bernanke recently gave English majors a shout-out.    
The point is that good writing isn't just a "utilitarian skill" as Klinkenborg  puts it but something that takes a great deal of practice, thought, and engagement with history and what other people have written.
Let's hope that argument keeps the field alive.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

My letter to the editor on "Why American Education Fails"

The recent issue of Foreign Affairs magazine  (Volume 92 Number 3 , May/June 2013) carries an article titled, Why American Education Fails and how lessons from abroad could improve it by Jal MehtaI was irresistibly drawn to this for reasons that should be obvious, if you regularly visit this blog.

Here is my letter to the editor of Foreign Affairs, which I am sure will never make it into a printed version.

Dear Foreign Affairs,

I love your magazine and turn to it eagerly for the world of ideas and for the intelligent, nuanced discourse found there.

I read Jal Mehta’s article on the epic fail of American public education with great interest.  I thought that Professor Mehta identified many of the problems accurately.  But I found it disturbing that in 4,000 words (yes, I counted them) the word parent was not used once.  Not.  Once.  How does anyone pontificate on education AND fail to mention parents?  Have we severed the American child from a parent-based world so thoroughly that parents are not even worthy of a casual reference in connection with the value of a kid’s education?  Big omission.

On the plus side - I loved the criticism of No Child Left Behind.  Billions down the drain AND American kids fell further behind.  A smart business person would fire every barbarian whose fingerprints could be found on that vile legislation.  I am still waiting for some kind of repercussions ….or maybe a refund on my tax increase?

I do think that more could have been said about the inevitable deja-vu that Common Core Standards Initiative represents.  Ten years from now and billions of dollars later, the governments will have MORE control, the CCSI will be an epic fail, taxes will go up, and America will slip behind far enough that it will no longer be taken seriously on the global education stage. 

Professor Mehta compares America to Finland, Canada, Japan, Singapore and South Korea.  Of course, we pale in comparison to these nations.  Most American kids would be hard pressed to find these nations on a map, much less out-read, out-math, out-science or outsmart them in any way shape or form.  BUT, these nations all have the manageability that homogeneity delivers.  All the kids are very similar – ethnically and socioeconomically similar.  These nations simply do not have the same burdens that American schools have.  Also, I think it is intellectually misleading to suggest that America emulate homogenous nations with a strong welfare state, especially when America’s insolvency is already a pox on its people.  And what about the fact that the NEA , the largest, most powerful union in the country,  has a creepy, anti-freedom agenda, and consistently acts out of self-interest and against the beleaguered population of students and parents it should be helping.  Why isn’t this in the first paragraph?

The article skips from one illusion to another because like so many in academia, this author does not once contemplate a redo on the FAMILY level.  It seems that all answers to the education problems that plague us must come from the Wizard of Oz in DC.   Why is the squalid state of American politics being relied upon for anything at all ?

Finally, how can any well-educated researcher in this field make this statement WITHOUT suggesting that the US Department of Education take a hike?  “Not only does the field (US education) lack knowledge; it lacks the resources and infrastructure needed to produce it.”   What the heck are we paying for? 

To his credit, Professor Mehta does allude to schools and teachers turning to commercial and nonprofit institutions for help.  But, seriously, here he is swatting at a lion seal with a handkerchief.  He would get much more attention and support if he just stated the obvious, just spoke the plain truth.  The Department of Education has utterly failed.  It should stop robbing US children of an education, admit that it is nothing more than a costly train wreck, stop taxing the life out of American families, and hand education over to private industry.  Then American families would be free to find a true education. Believe me we would then begin to find our greatness once more.  We would become the self-sufficient innovators of yesteryear.

Know this  -  The problems in public education in America are Big Government, One Size Fits All, Big Taxes, Big Union.  So, axiomatically, the solutions cannot be Bigger Government, Bigger Taxes, Bigger Union.   Professor Mehta is right in that we need a redo.  American public education has spoiled.  But, we simply cannot put the sour milk in a bigger, more expensive fridge and hope that tomorrow it is going to smell better.