Public life happens in cycles. In history class I swing my arm like a pendulum to explain how Harding followed Wilson, and Hoover gave way to FDR. Thanks to our constitutional system, we’ve spent most of our political and economic life in the middle ground between the extremes.
Unfortunately, education’s pendulum doesn’t follow a moderate arc. We don’t have a middle ground. We pride ourselves on extremism. And we rarely learn from our mistakes.
It took us 30 years to acknowledge that the “student-centered,” content-light undisciplined “open classrooms” born in the 1970s, and endorsed largely by liberals, had left us educationally bankrupt. It then took less than a decade for equally ardent conservatives to so obsessively smother schools in unreliable testing that the pendulum, having quit their extreme, now careens zealously back toward the other.
There’s nothing new about trumpeting the 21st century. After “A Nation at Risk” demonstrated that the 1970s had left schools adrift on a “rising tide of mediocrity,” reformers rewrapped their bad ideas in the approaching millennium. When another decade of academic decline only confirmed how wrong they’d been, they bided their time while No Child Left Behind ran its ill-charted course. Now they’re back, riding the winds of change. Sadly, neither their bankrupt proposals nor their flawed education philosophy have changed.
Many states are once more on the verge of following their false lead. Last time we called it “education restructuring.” This time it’s the “transformation of education.” According to transformers, schools are doggedly employing the traditional model of the past instead of preparing students for success in college, careers, and citizenship in the 21st century. We’re still “teaching and learning one way, while society demands a different type of preparation” from the educational structure developed over a century ago.
If I were arguing that students needed to master the quill, I would be preparing writers for the wrong century. In the same way, if the requirements for success in college, on the job, and as a citizen had radically changed, we would need radical alterations in our schools. But despite all the rhetoric, students and citizens still need to read and write, work with mathematics, and master a pertinent body of knowledge. That will remain the task of public education.
It’s reasonable for schools to reflect and adjust to progress. Over the past century, we’ve witnessed another hundred years of political, economic, scientific and societal upheaval and nuance. Typewriters are out. Laptops are in. Every generation sees itself on the cusp of a brave, new world. Mine, being more self-centered than most, is especially prone to that vanity. But neither the human mind nor the human condition has changed.
Reformers call for education that’s relevant to a student’s perceived needs and interests. I first encountered “relevant” in 1968 when my fellow freshmen tried telling our professors what to teach us. Children aren’t the best judges of what they’ll need to know as adults. That’s why “A Nation at Risk” blamed student curricular choice for a resulting smorgasbord of “undemanding and superfluous” courses.
Too much information?
Much of the call for transformation amounts to empty verbiage. Transformers charge that schools haven’t adapted to the “knowledge-based economy.” They contend that students are no longer hampered by an “absence of information, but rather its overabundance.” That’s nonsense. Check the Encyclopedia Britannica. There’s always been too much information. The problem most students face in our “knowledge-based economy” is they don’t know much. That’s the absence of information that’s at the root of our troubles.
Under the new education model, boosters promise that students will be judged not on the number of courses they complete but by what they know and accomplish. Since courses already aren’t supposed to count unless you know and accomplish what you were supposed to learn, this plank represents reformers’ renewed attempt to redefine academic learning.
In keeping with this “fundamental shift in thinking,” education won’t focus on “seat time” in a classroom. Instead, proponents envision getting credit for going to a job in the morning and then attending a few classes in the afternoon. In the name of relevance, a student interested in a medical career, for instance, might get credits for working in a hospital.
In high school I worked part time in a hospital. It happened after school. It wasn’t instead of chemistry, physics, English, calculus and all the other things you need to know if you’re really going to be a doctor. Anyone who suggests that we can better prepare children for the 21st century by letting them spend less time in a classroom needs to spend more time in a classroom.
Students shouldn’t receive credit for “seat time” unless they learn something. But anyone who imagines an education that doesn’t require sitting down, poring over books, wrestling with problems and engaging in discussions with teachers who know more than they do is dealing in a delusion.
And that’s a transformation that’s already failed us once.
Peter Berger teaches English in Weathersfield, Vt. He would be pleased to answer letters addressed to him in care of the editor.