Saturday, July 16, 2011
Discere Gratiā Discendī
I realize there has been quite another lapse in blog entries, partly because I got a new job that has been keeping me quite busy, partly because I had to get moved into my new place, and partly, if not mostly, because of pure sloth. Anyways, I'm going to try to remedy the situation by blogging more often. And by that I mean committing to posting at least one blog entry a week.
Now that housekeeping matters have been taken care of I want to briefly discuss public education reform, a matter of which I've always been particularly passionate about. But it had been a while since I had actually thought about the variegated and controversial issues surrounding public education until I recently had a chance to watch David Guggenheim's documentary entitled Waiting for "Superman". It's a searing and disheartening look at the state of public education in the United States and the many factors that continually stymy attempts at genuine reform of the system such as the inequity that exists in terms of access to good schools, the near impossibility of firing bad teachers because of a well entrenched tenure system, staunch opposition from teacher's unions, the lack of uniformity in regulations across state and county lines, and more. In addition to explicating these roadblocks to PE reform the documentary also attempts to elucidate some potential solutions to the problem such as arguing for the creation of more charter schools. (Note that it is on the subject of charter schools where the documentary is least persuasive because it appears to have exaggerated some of its statistics concerning comparisons of rates of success with other schools. See this article for more.)
While I agreed with much the documentary had to say about PE I was disappointed that it didn't address the more fundamental, philosophical problems that have become systemic in our education system. What I'm thinking of particularly here is the failure to inculcate within our children at a young age the desire to learn for learning's sake, i.e., to think of acquiring knowledge as an end in itself instead of as a means towards an altogether different end. I propose that if we could at least modestly achieve such there would be better disciplined, better performing children in schools.
The problem though is that our society has always valued pragmatism over idealism, utility over abstraction (much of which is due to our philosophical inheritance but just as much to our history of characteristic rugged individualism). This bias then permeated our public education system with the reforms of the pragmatist philosopher and psychologist John Dewey during the early 20th century. Those of you who have studied or gotten your degree in the Humanities encounter this bias of utility all the time: "Oh, you're getting your degree in English. Well, what can you do with that?" We instinctively regard doctors, lawyers, scientists, and others with higher esteem than other professions because their contributions to society are more readily apparent. Now don't misunderstand I'm not trying to disparage this well ensconced American tradition but in my opinion it's precisely this exaggerated emphasis on the value of function that I think prevents us from seeing the value that can come from loving knowledge for knowledge's sake.
Again, I strongly believe that if you can instill within a child at a young age the desire to learn as an end in itself and more importantly, to love knowledge, then I think you can create a much larger group of children who are going to perform admirably both in school and society. Of course, I realize that without the reforms mentioned in the above documentary this proposal would not on its own fix the many problems in our public education system. Nevertheless, I think addressing the underlying philosophical problems is a must and this is something that the documentary fails to do.
So how do you plant the desire to learn for learning's sake within children at a young age? I admit that I'm less certain as to specifics here. But for my part I didn't start appreciating learning as an end in itself until I enrolled in an introductory philosophy course in my first year of college and I can certainly say that I was a better student all around afterwards for it. Now I'm not suggesting that we start having kindergartners read Descartes Discourse on Method in the original Latin and then submit their proposed solutions to the mind/body problem but I do think there may be a way one can present certain ideas within philosophy in a comprehensible way to young kids.
Another idea may be to resurrect the classical learning tradition where kids get a good dose of Latin, Greek, Ancient History and Literature, Logic, and others in addition to the more "practical" forms of learning such as math and science. There are some private schools that have begun to adopt this method but those have a strong Christian element which is obviously not something I'm advocating for public schools. Again, these are just some random ideas of mine that may or may not have any merit.
Regardless, it is clear that our public education system is in severe disrepair and, not withstanding its flaws, Guggenheim's documentary does well in presenting this unfortunate fact to the public. Do watch.