Partners in Education? (UPDATED)

I just returned home from a panel discussion of the seemingly ubiquitous lament over "crisis of the humanities" (and university education in general) that has been the subject of much attention among beleaguered academics this fall. It has been the topic of a few editorials in the New York Times, including one this week by Stanley Fish (his third), as well as some thoughts I offered recently on this blog prompted by a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Eduction. In most of these offerings, the question seems pretty clear: In a society that is becoming increasingly corporatized such that it only incentivizes instrumentalized forms of knowledge production aimed at generating "real world" profit in a reliable and quantifiable way, how is the production of knowledge as an end-in-itself to be justified? Most of the answers seemeitherto refuse the need to justify the humanities and simply bemoan the slow decline of late capitalism into empty hedonistic consumption, or attempt to offer some vague plea for the study of the humanities as preserving the essence of what it is to be human, while perhaps naming a few broad "material" benefits of the enterprise (e.g. ethical formation leading to decreased consumption, greater multicultural sensitivity, ecological awareness, global cooperation (or successful competitiveness), historical understanding, rigorous critical thinking, etc.).All of these answers were on offer tonight, but there seems to be one blind spot in all of these discussions. The state of university education in the American context is rarely directly linked to the other "crisis" of eduction in the United States: public schools. In the Nov 11 issue of the New York Review of Books, Diane Ravitch had a sobering review of the recent, popular, and propagandistic documentary, Waiting for "Superman," by An Inconvenient Truth director, Davis Guggenheim. The film follows the academic fate of five children as they wait to see if they will literally win the lottery and gain admission to a charter school, thus having been saved from the hell-on-earth that is public education and placed on the path to certain success. Along the way the film substantiates this claim by making the argument that the public school system has failed through the inefficient use of resources and the laziness of teachers, who are encouraged in their complacency by the protection of unions. Thus, the argument goes, education should be turned over to that bastion of rational efficiency, ingenuity, and judicious oversight: the private sector.

Leaving aside the fact that most charter schools receive public funds, the recent failures of private sector self-legislation in the economic sphere, and the cruel irrationality of granting educational opportunity via lottery (a point Gail Collins recently underscored), Ravitch goes after the facts offered in the movie. First, charter schools do not perform better on average than public schools, with only 1 in 5 scoring higher on national tests. Second, they are not cheaper than public schools, spending almost three-times as much money per student (the $300,000-400,000 salaries of some charter school administrators might contribute to this). Third, even once a student wins the lottery, charter schools have been known to "'counsel out' or expel" poorly performing students before state testing day, thus making it even harder to prove their pedagogical effectiveness. Fourth, charter schools are often started and administered by individuals with little or no actual classroom teaching experience. This all leaves today's charter schools far from fulfilling their original mission, which was to educate disadvantaged or disabled students who could not be served in the traditional public school system.That said, it is, of course, true that public education needs to be reformed, and Ravitch does not contest this. It's just that market mechanisms are not going to make it happen. First, we need a national curriculum that thinks of education as being more about what you put into than what you get out of students. Second, we need a highly trained teaching force to continually design and implement this curriculum. Ravitch points out that both of these factors go into making some of the best educational systems in the world. She writes:

Guggenheim ignored other clues that might have gotten in the way of a good story. While blasting the teachers unions, he points to Finland as a nation whose educational system the US should emulate, not bothering to explain that it has a completely unionized teaching force. His documentary showers praise on testing and accountability, yet he does not acknowledge that Finland seldom tests its students. Any Finnish educator will say that Finland improved its public education system not by privatizing its schools or constantly testing its students, but by investing in the preparation, support, and retention of excellent teachers. It achieved its present eminence not by systematically firing 510 percent of its teachers, but by patiently building for the future. Finland has a national curriculum, which is not restricted to the basic skills of reading and math, but includes the arts, sciences, history, foreign languages, and other subjects that are essential to a good, rounded education. Finland also strengthened its social welfare programs for children and families. Guggenheim simply ignores the realities of the Finnish system.

This brings me back to the university. Now, it seems plausible that the curriculum that is held up as the paradigm for producing a well-educated person in the public discourse surrounding academe will influence the curriculum that is valued at the university level. Hence, if people spend the first 12 years of their education being told that practically-oriented math and science skill acquisition is the only thing worth studying and that all the rest is only good insofar as it keeps one from being an illiterate jerk, then it is not surprising that students and parents will turn to the university for more of the same, using Shakespeare to merely kill time while waiting to gain admission into medical school. If universities care about preserving the humanities (and other non-(obviously)-instrumental research programs), then they are going to have to take an interest in the debate about the reform of public education.This interest needs to take two forms: 1) Universities are going to have to care once again about forming bright and highly motivated primary and secondary school teachers, and they are going to have to promote the teaching profession as a prestigious and worthy career goal. Right now, it seems that education is seen as a back-up plan for gifted students. It's something you do if you don't get a great job offer, get into professional or graduate school, or if you don't know what you want to do. Then, if you do end up teaching, it's certainly not held in esteem as a life-long career. You probably want to go into administration or cycle out of the system to eventually go to graduate school or professional school. Universities need to hold up primary and secondary public school teaching as a rigorous and essential profession. 2) Some universities have already begun offering district-specific financial aid to encourage a "college-going mentality" among public school students, but universities also need to partner with local public school districts and teachers' unions to encourage curriculum reform and provide resources for the continued education of the work force, both to keep subject matter knowledge as well as training in the best pedagogical practices up-to-date.The greatest barrier to this kind of collaboration between universities and the public school system is the mutual distrust that there seems to be between primary and secondary educators and university professors. I hate to say it, but it often seems like the latter tend to think that the former are failed versions of themselves (i.e. less motivated, less intelligent, and less interesting). This is to say that they see public school teachers the same way society unfortunately sees them - as part of the problem. Yet, the irony is that the public reputation of professors seems to pace that of teachers in general. Similarly, primary and secondary educators see university professors as socially awkward elitists who think that everybody is a failed version of themselves. But, again, such anti-intellectual stereotypes cut both ways, and the elitist college professor becomes just another caricatured iteration of what most people probably thought of their 10th grade English teacher. Thus, if we are going to solve either crisis, university and public school educators need to stop sawing off the branch on which they are sitting, whether it be the system that is preparing their future students or the system for which those students are being prepared, and realize that we are all in this together.UPDATE: The NYTimes this morning has a "Room for Debate" column on the new chancellor of New York City public schools, who has no experience in education. It asks: "Is it necessary to have any education background to run a school district? Or have business executives and other outsiders who have led public school systems shown that these departments are like other big institutions and not dependent on specific knowledge or experience?" It seems strange to think that there is any institution that does not require specific knowledge or experience to lead. Would someone without any knowledge or experience in computers be hired to run Microsoft? It seems paradoxical that we complain about poor teachers and yet fail to recognize the education field as requiring any specific background experience or knowledge of its own.

Eric Bugyis teaches Religious Studies at the University of Washington Tacoma.

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