What are People for?
Wendell Berry has a collection of essays entitled What Are People for? And the answer to that question would make any hidden anthropology explicit. In all the talk of school reform (whatever that means, we aren't likely to see that happen any time soon because it opens up a can of worms that we are culturally unable to address without perplexity and perhaps are not able to address without violence.
It's not that modern society doesn't have any answer to the question, but it has a grab-bag of discrete and at times contradictory answers. It remains unanswered in theory but present in practice (for even the most banal of tasks must be done with some sense of their meaning or purpose -- even schooling!).
A Tale of Two Approaches
I. John Dewey is famous for being a progressive educator, and this is an approach wonderfully satirized in To Kill a Mockingbird:
“Don’t worry, Scout,” Jem comforted me. “Our teacher says Miss Caroline’s introducing a new way of teaching. She learned about it in college. It’ll be in all the grades soon. You don’t have to learn much out of books that way—it’s like if you wanta learn about cows, you go milk one, see?”
“Yeah Jem, but I don’t wanta study cows, I-”
“Sure you do. You hafta know about cows, they’re a big part of life in Maycomb County.”
I contented myself with asking Jem if he’d lost his mind.
“I’m just trying to tell you the new way they’re teachin‘ the first grade, stubborn. It’s the Dewey Decimal System.”
Having never questioned Jem’s pronouncements, I saw no reason to begin now. The Dewey Decimal System consisted, in part, of Miss Caroline waving cards at us on which were printed “the,” “cat,” “rat,” “man,” and “you.” No comment seemed to be expected of us, and the class received these impressionistic revelations in silence.Dewey's experiential ideal is fine in theory but given the exigencies of real students, real classrooms and real limits, the "Miss Carolines" of the world often content themselves but not their students with card waving of one sort or another.
That was not Dewey's intent, to be sure, but it matters not whether the theory is grand but simply if it can be applied to good effect. Dewey's theories have not panned-out.
II. Jimmy Conant. At a practical level, James B. Conant (above) has undoubtedly had a greater organizational affect on education than John Dewey. Conant is perhaps best known for leading the charge for the kind of high school we take for granted today: the comprehensive high school. Reviewing Conant's The American High School Today one contemporary commentator noted the following items of interest:
James B. Conant states as his top priority the elimination fo the small high school, thus joining the legion of modern educators who have fought stoutly for consolidation.
The Report assumes , without questioning that proliferation of many subjects is better than concentration upon fewer, that four of something is necessarily better than two or three, that twenty or more courses during the high school years are better than sixteen, that a seven or eight period day is better than one with a block of time for a core...
The report repeatedly deals with the shadow, not the substance, of the curriculum. ... Almost completely neglected is the crux of the curriculum problem: what goes on within the courses.At that last sentence one might heave a sigh of relief: Oh, but we have content standards now - problem solved!. However, the dirty little secret (which Common Core will change not much at all either way) is that standards are merely one link in the chain of communicating content. Whether the weakest link is the teacher, the student or the textbook is perhaps a fruitless argument for another day.
Yet even if content standards did miraculously appear each and every course, the core problem would remain: after four years of high school, how will the average graduate answer the question, What are people for? The approved pedagogical gods at the State level don't bother asking the question so we can only get at their answer(s) by indirection. I'll try to get there by way of Mortimer Adler, so a few words about him first.
III. Mortimer Adler. If Dewey was concerned with educating for citizenship and "real life," Mortimer Adler's concern was more ambitious but more achievable: give everyone the best possible education. With his emphasis on Big Ideas, Great Ideas, and Great Books, the rotten tomato labelled "elitist" was oft lobbed in his direction. His pithy reply was, "If everyone get this kind of education, it's no longer elitist, is it?" or words to that effect. Adler often credited and quoted Robert Hutchins: The best education for the best is the best education for all.
If I were to put the question What are people for? to Mortimer Adler, what do I suppose his response might be? I suspect he would reply to be educated. Were I to press him and I'm sure he would humor me, he might very well reply: To be educated means to have an education in the humanities. As I wrote in 1983: "Humanities, as general learning, must include all the subject matters, not just some" (quoted in "Reconstituting the Schools").
All the Subject Matters?
I. An Outline of Knowledge. In A Guidebook to Learning Adler summarizes what he takes to be an outline of knowledge:
- Matter and Energy
- Life on Earth
- Human Life
- Human Society
- History of Mankind
- The Branches of Knowledge
- History and Humanities
II. California Content Standards. When this is compared to current California K-12 content standards, we get a very different picture of essential knowledge. Here's a summary of California standards:
English Language Development
Career Technical Education (consisting of 15 areas, ranging from Agriculture to Transportation)
School Library Standards (how to research and gather information)
Visual and Performing Arts
This excerpt from T.S. Eliot's "Choruses from 'The Rock'" gets at the heart of the matter:
The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to God.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
Both Adler's outline and California's standards propose categories of knowledge. There is a wide swath of common ground, but what is missing or superfluous in the California standards according to Adler?
Adler would surely exclude from the category of general learning everything in Career and Technical Education. Missing from the California standards are the following: Religion, Logic and Philosophy.
One can argue for the omission of Religion on all sorts of grounds but the omission cannot be attributed to recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions. The following is a portion of a statement found on the ACLU's website:
Teaching About Religion
5. Students may be taught about religion, but public schools may not teach religion. As the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly said, "[i]t might well be said that one's education is not complete without a study of comparative religion, or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization." It would be difficult to teach art, music, literature and most social studies without considering religious influences.
The history of religion, comparative religion, the Bible (or other scripture)-as-literature (either as a separate course or within some other existing course), are all permissible public school subjects. It is both permissible and desirable to teach objectively about the role of religion in the history of the United States and other countries. One can teach that the Pilgrims came to this country with a particular religious vision, that Catholics and others have been subject to persecution or that many of those participating in the abolitionist, women's suffrage and civil rights movements had religious motivations.Constitutionally permissible but nearly unheard of. Yes, one may find the occasional Bible as Literature or World Religions course but more likely religion is alluded to in a hit or miss fashion in a literature class here or a history course there.
Logic and Philosophy? Much the same.
So, what are people for
according to our public schools?
|Wanda the Welder|