Culture: September 2003 Archives

Harvard searches for its core

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Harvard is revisiting its core curriculum, an encouraging sign. Through the last hundred years, Harvard has several times drifted away from a common core for its undergraduates, allowing them more freedom to craft their own education through electives. Several times Harvard has pulled back to redefine the basic elements of a Harvard education. The lead paragraph of the Boston Globe story linked above summarizes President Conant's 1940s reform effort: "There were certain things that any Harvard College graduate should know in order to contribute to society."

The Globe story reports on President Larry Summers efforts to address the core curriculum, and the resistance he's getting from some faculty members:

At one point, several professors say, Summers recalled a top Harvard art historian's reaction to his comment that he wished an old class, "Fine Arts 13,'' was still in the course catalogue to provide an introductory survey for students who probably wouldn't study art history again. Summers apparently liked this anecdote so much that he repeated it in his commencement speech last June. "Reacting with a mixture of consternation and hilarity, she wondered how I could possibly expect any self-respecting scholar to propel our students -- like a cannonball -- from 'Caves to Picasso' in one academic year,'' Summers said in the speech. He clearly hadn't cottoned to her view. Summers also told the English professors that the administration has received some letters from graduates asking why they didn't have the chance to take a Great Books-style course covering, say, Homer to Woolf. ...

All opinions are equal among the new curriculum working groups, but clearly Summers's opinions are more equal than others. At commencement, Summers made it clear he expects the review to lead to real reforms with a certain back-to-basics ring to them.

"All students,'' he argued in front of 5,000 graduating seniors, parents, and alumni, should "know how to compose a literate and persuasive essay,'' "know how to interpret a great humanistic text,'' "know how to connect history to the present,'' and "know -- they should genuinely understand at some basic level -- how unraveling the mysteries of the genome is transforming the nature of science.''

The soft oratory skills of many in Generation Y were no less a concern. "It is not clear to me that we do enough to make sure that our students graduate with the ability to speak cogently, to persuade others, and to reason to an important decision with moral and ethical implications,'' said Summers, himself an intimidating master of rhetorical combat who tends to make up his mind by arguing points and counterpoints with those whose intelligence and oratorical skills he respects.

There are indications that Summers wants the core to be about the student acquiring a fundamental body of knowledge, not just about vague notions like "ways of knowing" and "modes of inquiry". In an interview he said, "I do hope achieving knowledge in key areas would be a crucial element in the general education component.'' I will resist uttering a sarcastic "duh!" That idea may be obvious among us layfolk, but in academic circles it's rather controversial. First there's the question of what are the key areas in which an educated person should attain knowledge. Then there's the challenge posed by the deconstructionists to the very possibility of knowledge.

Harvard costs $37,928 per year for tuition, room, board, and fees, not counting travel, books, and other personal expenses. If my kid's going to pahk his cah in Hahvahd Yahd, "achieving knowledge in key areas" better be included in the price.

More from the Underground Grammarian

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There's a wealth of wonderfully curmudgeonly commentary on language, writing, and education here, at a website dedicated to the works and memory of Richard Mitchell, who published the Underground Grammarian newsletter, from which I quoted in the previous entry. All issues of the newsletter are online as are his four books.

If you want to understand the roots of the mess that is public education, this is a good place to start. If you want to read something that will kindle devotion to clarity of thought and expression, drink deeply at this well.

Here are a few selections to make you thirst for more:

From the introduction to Less Than Words Can Say:

Many years earlier I had returned a similar questionnaire, because the man who sent it had promised, in writing, to "analize" my "input." That seemed appropriate, so I put it in. But he didnít do as he had promised, and I had lost all interest in questionnaires....

Words never fail. We hear them, we read them; they enter into the mind and become part of us for as long as we shall live. Who speaks reason to his fellow men bestows it upon them. Who mouths inanity disorders thought for all who listen. There must be some minimum allowable dose of inanity beyond which the mind cannot remain reasonable. Irrationality, like buried chemical waste, sooner or later must seep into all the tissues of thought.

On public education:

American public education is a remarkable enterprise; it succeeds best where it fails. Imagine an industry that consistently fails to do what it sets out to do, a factory where this yearís product is invariably sleazier than last yearís but, nevertheless, better than next yearís. Imagine a corporation whose executives are always spending vast sums of money on studies designed to discover just what it is they are supposed to do and then vaster sums for further studies on just how to do it. Imagine a plant devoted to the manufacture of factory seconds to be sold at a loss. Imagine a producer of vacuum cleaners that rarely work hiring whole platoons of engineers who will, in time, report that it is, in fact, true that the vacuum cleaners rarely work, and who will, for a larger fee, be glad to find out why, if thatís possible. If you discover some such outfit, donít invest in it. Unfortunately, we are all required to invest in public education.

Public education is also an enterprise that regularly blames its clients for its failures. Education cannot, after all, be expected to deal with barbarous and sometimes even homicidal students who hate schools and everything in them, except, perhaps, for smaller kids with loose lunch money. If the students are dull and hostile, we mustnít blame the schools. We must blame the parents for their neglect and their bad examples. If the parents are ignorant and depraved, then we must blame "society." And so forthóbut not too far. Those who lament thus seem not inclined to ask how "society" got to be that way, if it is that way, and whether or not public education may have made it so.

In his second book, The Graves of Academe, Mitchell points us to the origins of modern educratic idiocy -- not the '60s, but 1913, and the "Seven Deadly Principles" of the Commission on the Reorganization of Secondary Education:

In the cause of "democratic" public education, the Gang of Twenty-seven compounded illogic with ignorance by deciding that the education proposed by the Eliot committee was primarily meant as "preparation for the college or university." True, relatively few high school graduates of 1913 went on to college; but even fewer had done so in 1893. Indeed, it was just because so few would go on to more education that the Eliot committee wanted so many to have so much in high school. But the Gang of Twenty-seven decided that since very few students would go on to the mastery of a discipline and the rigorous training of the mind in college, which colleges were still fancied to provide in those days, there was little need to fuss about such things in high school. They had far more interesting things to fuss about in any case, their kinds of things. They enshrined them all, where they abide as holy relics of the cult of educationism to this day, in their final report, issued in 1918 (and printed at government expense, like all the outpourings of educationism ever since) as Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education....

While its concrete proposals for Civics Education are very much like its proposals for all the other educations, Cardinal Principles, in the name of "attitudes and habits important in a democracy," goes an extra step and prescribes what should actually happen in the classroom. It urges "the assignment of projects and problems to groups of pupils for cooperative solution and the socialized recitation whereby the class as a whole develops a sense of collective responsibility. Both of these devices give training in collective thinking." Here we can see the theoretical foundations of the rap session, the encounter group, the values clarification module, and the typical course in education, but also something far worse....

The children who are to generate "cooperative solutions" and "socialized recitations" are to do so without concern for, or even any knowledge of, "constitutional questions and remote governmental functions" like checks and balances. They will do their "collective thinking" unencumbered by "mere information."

It is another of the educationistsí self-serving delusions that if enough of the ignorant pool their resources, knowledge will appear, and that a parliament of fools can deliberate its way to wisdom....

Educational empowerment

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I went to the monthly Tulsa County Republican Men's Club luncheon today. The group's name is a bit of a misnomer, since the crowd is close to half-female and there are regular attendees from other counties. The food is good, the speakers are usually interesting, and it's fun to catch up with the latest political gossip. With term limits going into effect next year, candidates are already lining up for next year's races. At today's lunch I saw Brian Crain, who is running for Senate 39 (incumbent Jerry Smith is term-limited); Pam Peterson, who is running for House 67 (incumbent Hopper Smith is leaving the House this year or next -- he plans to run for Senate 25, but he may be deployed overseas with the 45th Infantry, in which case he'll resign early, and a special election will be held); and Joan Hastings, former County Clerk and State Representative, who may be running for Senate 25 (incumbent Charles Ford is term-limited).

The topic of the day was education and the speakers were Union Schools Superintendent Cathy Burden, State Senator Charles Ford, and State Senator Scott Pruitt. Cathy Burden called for administrative consolidation of our more than 500 school districts and said it was hard to find teachers to meet the needs of that growing district. Sen. Ford gave a brief history of state funding for education, a system that has gone from locally-funded to one that is 75% state-funded, and which creates disincentives for local funding. Sen. Pruitt spoke of giving more control back to local districts, providing state funding and demanding results, but not dictating the methods to achieve results, thus empowering local administrators to make decisions.

Amidst all the talk of empowering administrators and tweaking funding formulae, talk of empowering taxpayers (or, in Educanto, "patrons" ) and parents was conspicuous by its absence, especially conspicuous in a Republican meeting. I got to ask the last question, and so I stood up, and said so.

We need patron empowerment. Our system of electing school boards is designed to discourage accountability to the voters. Board members in large districts like Tulsa serve four year terms, with one or two members elected each February. The filing period is in early December, during the Thanksgiving to Christmas rush; the election is the second Tuesday in February, which in even numbered years is one week after the municipal primary. Because of the staggered terms, there is no way for the electorate to dump the whole bunch at once, no matter how incompetent or unresponsive they are. The terms of office are far too long. Over time, a school board member tends to regard himself or herself as an ambassador representing the school administration to the community, rather than as the representative of taxpayers and parents, holding the administration accountable. An "us vs. them" mentality develops, with "us" being the administration and the board, and "them" being the unruly parents and taxpayers who have unreasonable expectations and are stingy, too.

My remedy is to have every district elect the entire school board every two years, during the normal election cycle. I didn't mention this, but I'd even favor partisan elections -- there are stark differences in educational philosophy and they generally fall along national party lines (something that isn't true with municipal issues). Sen. Ford said that the legislature voted to change the election dates back in the '80s, but the school districts applied pressure to change them back.

We also need parental empowerment, by which I mean genuine school choice -- the opportunity for more parents to choose private education for their children. I favor tuition tax credits and tax credits to donors to scholarship programs as ways to make alternative education affordable for more families without creating an entanglement between private schools and the state. Oklahoma is looking for ways to make itself attractive to energetic entrepreneurs, looking to attract and retain young people. As far as I am aware, no state has a statewide school choice program. Here is an opportunity for us to distinguish Oklahoma, make life better for families with school-aged children, and create a competitive environment that will help all schools improve.

I'm just amazed that none of the Republican legislators brought up the issue of school choice. It makes me worry that even if Republicans take over the legislature, they will content themselves with tinkering with this broken system, and placating the teachers' unions and the administrators' lobby. The point, after all, is not to prop up an existing way of doing things, but to educate children, whether in state-run schools, private schools, or at home.

About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Culture category from September 2003.

Culture: August 2003 is the previous archive.

Culture: November 2003 is the next archive.

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