Age of Awareness
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Age of Awareness

How Liberals Ruined Education, (And Why Republicans Can’t Fix It.)

If you happen to be near a high school classroom, take a moment to go inside and ask the kids what they are doing. If things are running as they should be, there will be some variation on the theme of study and learning. Then ask them why they are doing it. The response may be a little less certain, and once past ‘because the teacher says so/it’s on the test’ reply, will most likely involve some variation on ‘work’ and ‘college’. That is the reality, after all. School is for work and college. There is no other answer.

It wasn’t always this way. Some hundred or hundreds of years ago, school had other purposes. Literacy, for example, was not necessary for work, it was necessary for faith. School’s purpose, among other things, was to instill religion. America being a Protestant nation, the reading of the Bible was a fundamental, foundational part of that. This is still true in other parts of the world, especially the Muslim nations, but also in many of the largely Catholic countries of Central and South America. Or take history. In the past, history was taught to instill national values and pride, to establish in the citizenry a foundational patriotism that served all manner of purpose. As with literacy, the study of history was for a long time a matter of values and identity. The Russians still do this, as does China, but not America.

The reasons for moving away from such purposes were sound. Faith is a personal matter, not to mention prejudicially exclusive. Every religion claims a solitary truth, so teaching religion of any kind means settling on a single creed. The fact that America endorsed one specific faith, Christianity, for so long and with such vigor didn’t do much to advance the nation’s secular values and constitutional separation of church and state. You won’t find much religion in a public school these days, which is mostly a good thing. Patriotism is perilously close to Nationalism, and as we know, history-as-patriotism ignores the many faults and flaws of our development and character. Blind patriotism leads to all manner of national misadventure, and perpetuates through ignorance many of our worst crimes against each other, from racism to labor disputes to industrial pollution. Today, most public school American students get a pretty unadulterated story of America’s actions in their History classes, as it should be.

There used to be a Canon — a generally accepted collection of books and writings that one considered foundational to an education. It included The Bible, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Melville, Hawthorne, and a lot of Greeks, but more than anything specific the Canon embraced the idea that shared texts provided a common foundation for ideas and thoughts from which one would draw their character. In this regard, however, as with math and science, education acted as a filter as much as an establisher of knowledge. Intimacy with classic texts grows ever more exclusive the longer one stays in school. When college was the final test of entrance into the elite and limited professional classes of lawyer, doctor, engineer, professor, or business owner, there was (and still is) an intimately shared body of aristocratic lore that separated the noble from the crass. In the final judgement of the new 21st century the purposes of the Canon, as with history and literacy, were found prejudicial, undemocratic, exclusionary, and unacceptably aristocratic.

The problem, probably unrealized by all those well-intentioned liberals fighting the Man and systemic prejudice, myself included, is that there was no tangible replacement. The only thing we have left is ‘job skills’. And, of course, college and career readiness has been embraced with a kind of religious devotion by the system and its administrators. It’s why we have Standards and Standards Based Grading and Understanding by Design and Project Based Learning and a dozen other book titles masquerading as policies.

We have quietly removed the purposes of an education beyond employable skills. Education is about character and morality, but that’s religion, and we can’t teach religion, can’t even really approach it without risk. It’s about civic duty and social pride, but that’s patriotism, and patriotism, apparently, leads to nationalism. We’ve abandoned — through our own liberalism — several of the past’s core functions of an education. It may be that we assumed they weren’t necessary for the function of school, yet here we are.

We abandoned the Canon, which made a kind of sense (it all does at the time) and now have no actual reason to teach any single book to a whole class. Sure, we coach it as a ‘theme’, but that’s a weak banner. It was never exactly satisfying when the entire class had to read the book either, and for certain we lost many on the journey, but back then that was kind of the point. Now it’s just frustrating when the students don’t care.

The thing is, you can’t go back. We can’t go back to the Canon, cannot go back to religion in schools, or national pride. It was always a problem anyway, teaching religion or patriotism, so easy to abuse. If Liberals cut out some of the less tangible purposes from education — the kinds of human-centered ideals and values that we champion — it’s not going to be Conservatives who’ll bring them back. For one, Conservatives don’t go into education. For another, teaching is a fundamentally liberalizing field. Most teachers drink from the well of hope and good intentions, of a faith in the individual and a mistrust of institutions. There’s few teachers left who think of children as poorly behaved adults needing a firm and painful slap, and even fewer classrooms in which it’s meted out in the interests of learning. Not that conservatism is those things entirely, but the liberal here cannot help but recognize how little a conservative mindset belongs in the classroom.

It may well be that nothing is wrong at all, that school really should be entirely dedicated to career and college. Maybe one should go back to that classroom and ask the kids one more time if they agree.

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Bernie Bleske

Bernie Bleske

just another frustrated teacher

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