Education Woes

Henry  Edmondson
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Posted: Nov 01, 2006 1:21 PM
Education Woes

I passed through Greenville. S.C. the other day, en route back to my home town of Augusta, Ga. after a day of car shopping for my son in college. Stopping at a local restaurant, I picked up the current edition of the Greenville News. Since I have an interest in education reform, a guest editorial caught my eye and I saved it. It is written by a University of South Carolina Dean of Education — a teacher of the teachers of the teachers.

Although this was several weeks ago, I am brought back to his article because of a report released recently describing the poor state of teacher education in the U.S. The report, issued by the non-partisan "Education Schools Project," alleges that most education schools are engaged in a "pursuit of irrelevance," with curricula in disarray and faculty disconnected from classrooms and colleagues.

According to the report, the vast majority of the nation's teachers are being prepared in programs that have low admission and graduation standards and cling to an outdated vision of teacher education, according to "Educating School Teachers," the report released Sept. 18.

So what does this have to do with the Education Dean’s guest editorial?

The dean was reporting back from a recent trip to China. His essay took the opportunity to do a bit of comparison and contrast between the U.S. system of education and the educational practices of that giant Asian nation of 1.3 billion citizens.

What is most revealing is both what he does list as the strengths of the U.S system and also what he does not list as our strengths.

Ironically, in his enumeration of our strengths, I’m afraid he reveals much of what is wrong with American education, at least as it is promoted by the “educational establishment” in this country: colleges of education, state and federal bureaucracies of education, and education interest groups.

The dean underscored “the positives that have defined how we educate our children, like creativity, innovative thought and critical thinking.” A little later he argued that the Chinese could learn a lot from us about incorporating such things as problem-based learning, creativity, critical thinking and theory-to-practice into an education system.”

He highlights “critical thinking” but he doesn’t define what he means—and when it comes to the current fad of “critical thinking,” the devil is in the definition. Does he mean that “critical thinking” is persuasive and reasonable thought, informed by an understanding of the religion, history and government of other cultures, and structured through the skills learned from grammar, rhetoric and informal logic? That’s what “critical thinking” once meant.

Or by critical thinking does he mean that students should learn proper “attitudes” that render them unable to make meaningful distinctions between, for example, “good” ideas and “bad” ideas; or, “good” behavior and “bad” behavior? Does he mean that they learn that “patriotism” is childish so that they acquire a preference not for their nation but for the “global community”? And does he mean students who think “critically” become cynical of religious belief?

The most telling buzz word the author uses, though, is “creativity” and by using it he reveals his philosophical heritage, namely the educational philosophy of John Dewey.

Dewey is the air that the faculty and students at colleges of education breathe, whether they know it or not. Dewey was all about “creativity” (as well as “critical thinking”). In Dewey’s candid moments, however, he admitted, like the German philosopher Nietzsche, that creators must be destroyers. In Dewey’s case, he was quite eager to destroy anything that smacked of traditional religion or a traditional canon of learning.

Dewey’s critical thinking--which is the antecedent of most critical thinking programs today--means that students must “think for themselves” unrestrained by the quaint notions once imposed upon them by their parents and Sunday school teachers. Dewey called his critical thinking “intelligence” but it had little to do with the tools that are really needed for tough thinking. It had, as is the case today, everything to do with political correct attitudes.

As bad as all that sounds, it is most telling to note what was not cited in the Dean’s guest editorial as the strengths of our schools.

There was no mention made of a canon of literature that runs from elementary school through high school graduation including, e.g., the best that American, European and African authors have to offer. There was no bragging about the systematic and lively study of American history, Greek and Roman civilization, European history—not to mention Ancient History or the history of Asia.

There was nothing said about the serious study of at least one foreign language so that students might actually be able to converse in Spanish, French, Italian—or Chinese.

There was vague mention of “problem solving,” but nothing specific was said about no-nonsense instruction in Algebra, Geometry, Trigonometry, Calculus, Biology, Chemistry or Physics. These subjects are nowhere to be found in the editorial. And there was certainly no mention of American students out-scoring their Chinese counterparts in science and math—since they don’t. Not even close.

Teachers are the real heroes and heroines of education. But for decades now, they’ve been fighting their own bureaucracies and colleges of education. It’s not clear who will win the war. Meanwhile the collateral damage as too American students graduate with degrees in Mediocrity.