MWD51 - On an Educated Citizenry
Or why we have to decide what we want if we're ever going to figure out how to get there
Welcome to Midweek Dinner. There’s a whole story behind that name, something about the way Wednesday creeps up on you, and you have to cobble together a meal out of whatever you can scrounge from the fridge. And yes, sometimes there is talk of food in this place. But mostly it’s about what I’ve been reading, in print and online; or what I’ve been thinking, in clarity and confusion; or what I am hoping, in fear and in joy. And you are always invited to join in.
—— The best conversations take place around the dinner table. — —
Some years ago, Alan Jacobs reflected on dictionaries and the making of them, and in the process, I think he identifies that quality which makes the liberal arts such an ideal vehicle for education. Throughout the essay, Jacobs dips into the story and experience of Samuel Johnson’s dictionary, and this closing section is just right.
Perhaps he began his project with hopes of prescribing and regulating the language, but he soon enough learned what he was in for: "words are hourly shifting in their relations, and can no more be ascertained in a dictionary, than a grove, in the agitation of a storm, can be accurately delineated from its picture in the water." It would be wrong to hear this as a lament; Johnson is rather confessing his awe at the ordinary vastness, the day-to-day sublimity, of the hoard of words our ancestors have gathered over the centuries of English. Looking back at his labors, before remembering the losses he incurred during them, he wrote, "I saw that one enquiry only gave occasion to another, that book referred to book, that to search was not always to find, and to find was not always to be informed; and that thus to persue perfection, was, like the first inhabitants of Arcadia, to chace the sun, which, when they had reached the hill where he seemed to rest, was still beheld at the same distance from them."
So much of what we call Higher Education today is an attempt by the Academies to prescribe and regulate. So-called experts set the standards and issue the credentials, turning out supposedly employable Finished Products. Those students who pursue inquiry in fields such as philosophy or English (my own Elysian Fields) or history or most any of the humanities are already opting out of the capitalistic system that says education is a means to a job. They are majoring in the search, climbing hill after hill in search of the sun.
I’m a hiker. Not frequently, but when I do get out on a trail, I can feel my body and my spirit settling in to their most right rhythms. Though I’ve stood on the edge of some remarkable overlooks, those pinnacle moments are never the point. They are an added point of beauty or perspective or even just rest, but they aren’t why I want to be on the trail. The search isn’t a means to an end. The sun isn’t why we climb. The climb is the thing.
And that’s what I’m always hunting for in education, at every level, but especially at the highest levels, which should feel much more optional than they do today. Education, in its platonic ideal, is not a means to a particular end. It is a means to every possible end. Asking 6th graders to declare majors, expecting 18 year olds to define a future they cannot even imagine and to match a course of study to some well-regulated march to a career, even the existence of a college admissions process that winnows and narrows and scrapes at children until they see themselves as a product in a market economy — these expectations are simply, harmfully wrong. That is a strong statement, a blunt one, and one I will stand by.
(At least for today).
For years, I’ve been whinging on about a significant restructuring of secondary education, a policy shift I would also couple with a lowered voting age. I would remove “college prep” from the conversation entirely. I would build entire systems around the educational philosophy I cut my teeth on as well as the one I have adopted and adapted over my years of teaching and as a parent. The whole idea of homework and testing and grades and achievement would change. Grade levels? Gone. Standardized learning? Eliminated. Textbooks? Revolutionized. Play? Elevated. Rest? Prioritized.
I could go on and on. This is likely why I am not invited to dinner parties.
You may be wondering: Why, if this essay is supposedly about higher education, are we talking about what you would change in the first 15 or so years of a child’s learning? Because our current system is built with college and career as the only goal. One of the most common methods of course or curriculum design is outcomes-based planning, which requires educators to start with the end in mind. What do you want your students to do, think, experience in the course? What skills do you want them to be proficient in by the time they complete your course? What habits of mind do you want to reinforce or develop in this course? Once you’ve identified those elements, you can then build the course (or unit or curriculum), making sure each thing you include in the course is aimed at those goals.
Where the education industry and I part ways in this theory is that they believe those goals must be demonstrable, measurable, and assessable, usually by a standardized test. You must designate an endpoint, as though at the end of Sophomore English you can point to the parts of your being that are “finished.” All of which is balderdash. For that reason, when I have been allowed to design my own course outcomes and objectives, they’ve been these gauzy and amorphous but critically important things. Once when I was teaching 10th graders, one of my objectives was that students would progress in their ability to know themselves as a reader. I built assignments and structures in our classroom that pointed to that goal, and yes, even the final exam had open-ended questions on it that asked students to reflect on their process.
Once you’re designing this way, everything gets called into question. Is it more important that students “read” a particular text (The Great Gatsby or Hamlet or To Kill a Mockingbird or Pride and Prejudice), or are you aiming at something broader, more intangible, but more likely to feed them now and in the future? If it is important that they read a text, why assign it as homework, circumstances that almost guarantee a large portion of your students will NOT read it? If thinking deeply about an issue is the goal, why create multiple-choice quizzes? Everything. Gets. Called. Into. Question.
So, back to colleges. If one day they all just simply disappeared, how would that change how we design our school systems? What would we hope for in their place?
That’s what I’ve been on about all these weeks and months. Is this what any of us would have hoped for? When I imagine a different education system, (recognizing that there are broader cultural issues in place that schools alone cannot address) I think of young people finishing high school equipped to keep thinking and learning, apprenticing themselves in work they are curious about, learning how to do things by doing them. I think of a system that values those folks who are gifted with their eyes and their hands, both as artists and as builders or repair specialists or stylists or installers. I think of HVAC technicians who know what they like to read and make reading what they like part of their everyday life. I think of farmers or cabinetmakers or beekeepers or dancers who take classes on things that interest them, when it works with their lives, continually enriching themselves and their community through what they learn. All of these daydreams already exist. They just aren’t the standard. What if they were the standard?
So if these are the outcomes we’re planning towards, higher education has to change, maybe even collapse. And here are a few indications we might be on our way:
Inside Higher Ed on 2021 admissions trends.
The Washington Post on schools waiving SATs or “test blind” colleges.
“Can Higher Ed Save Itself?” from the Chronicle of Higher Education, which points its finger directly at me with this truth nugget:
Less than half of borrowers who started college in 1995-1996 had paid off their balance within 20 years of their first semester.
Besides the fact that I disagree with almost everything this author does in the piece, it provides some interesting balance to the discussion. And it’s important because this response (also from the Chronicle) at least raises the right questions, even if I think his answers fall short.
I think that’s going to be the end of my education ranting, at least for a bit. Especially because we have to face so many other challenges, and we can’t make progress on any front until we accept the facts: Maybe America is Just Racist.
The Department of Unexpected Joy
These two responses to that meme that’s been happening:
The Department of Shameless Self-Promotion
There’s nothing. Because I am apparently languishing. Or something else that means I cannot write. Oh well.
The Department of Classified Information1
Seriously, don’t ask. Only my sister has the clearance for this kind of thing.