Thursday, September 23, 2010

The business of America

[From Chris, originally posted at ABlogAboutSchool]

Martha Nussbaum:

Eager for economic growth, our nation, like many others, has begun to think of education in narrowly instrumental terms, as a set of useful skills that can generate short-term profit for industry. What is getting lost in the competitive flurry is the future of democracy.

As Socrates knew long ago, any democracy is a “noble but sluggish horse.” It needs lively watchful thought to keep it awake. This means that citizens need to cultivate the skill for which Socrates lost his life: the ability to criticize tradition and authority, to keep examining self and other, to accept no speech or proposal until one has tested it with one’s very own reasoning. By now psychological research confirms Socrates’ diagnosis: people have an alarming capacity to defer to authority and to peer pressure. Democracy can’t survive if we don’t limit these baneful tendencies, cultivating habits of inquisitive and critical thought. . . .

And yet, all over the world, the humanities, the arts, and even history are being cut away to make room for profit-making skills.

The White House last week:

Today, President Obama announced the launch of Change the Equation, a CEO-led effort to dramatically improve education in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), as part of his “Educate to Innovate” campaign. . . . In his remarks to day, the President emphasized the importance of providing American students with a solid foundation in these subjects in order to compete in the global economy:

“As I discussed this morning with my Export Council, our prosperity in a 21st century global marketplace depends on our ability to compete with nations around the world.”

News reports also noted:

The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology also released recommendations Thursday: Over the next decade the federal government should help recruit and train 100,000 STEM teachers, support the creation of 1,000 new STEM-focused schools, and reward the top 5 percent of STEM teachers.

I think the survival of democratic values in our country is more important, not to mention more genuinely at risk, than our competitive advantage in the global marketplace. Why is there no blue-ribbon panel trying to ensure that our schools serve that goal? On the other hand, I shudder to imagine the top-down “pro-democracy” curriculum -- with its own standardized tests, no doubt -- that such a panel would probably propose. (On that, more here.)


  1. Thanks, Chris! I'll have a comment when I've had a chance to think about this.

  2. Hmm ... so many issues here ... where to begin?

    One problem is cultural. I've lived my life in the academic world, where people are admired for their brains, and I remember a time when people were admired for achievements in the arts. But this has all changed. We've reached a point where we admire people for being CEOs.

    How do people become CEOs? They need to be ambitious, focused to the point of tunnel vision, and excellent at playing the game as written. They need to be well-connected and look the part, which is why the ranks of CEOs are filled overwhelmingly with tall white men.

    Why do we expect a CEO to have anything useful to say about K-12 education?