Monday, May 03, 2004

Counter-Reforming Education

I have never been a big fan of the President's educational policies for several reasons. The first is that I see no reason why the President, or any other officer of the Federal government, has any business even having an educational policy. If government is going to be involved in education, it should be at the lowest level of government possible which currently means state, county or local government. Early in his first year, Mr. Bush failed to stay the course on his early promises to incorporate even a minimal amount of "choice" into his educational policy, dropping the semi-voucher approach from his first major bill.

But beyond this (admittedly controversial) issue, the actual details of the policy have some serious problems. The emphasis on standardized national tests, the focus on school performance vs. student preparedness, and the all-too-predictable solution of throwing more money at the problem, whether to hire more teachers, reduce class sizes or extend the reach of Big Ed into the pre-school years through funding of "Head Start" and similar programs, all tend to promote the false analysis that education is a product and content does not matter.

One of the few features that the Bush policy got right was its support for academic standards as opposed to vocational skills. Given the above criticism, it seems that this minor success was a largely accidental result of reaction against the leftist agenda rather than a principled position. Certainly little attempt was made to articulate the philosophical grounding for such a preference. But sometimes it is enough to see that the other position is wrong, even if you don't fully understand why you position is right. An empirical approach to problem solving has been a hallmark of conservative thought from at least the time of Burke, and it has saved us from many of the disastrous ideas foisted on the world by the more rationalistic left. One of the problems with such an approach, however, is that it leaves us vulnerable to being blind-sided by attacks that we have not anticipated because we do not understand their source.

A case in point is this article from CNN. The author doesn't get to the point until the third paragraph:

    One of the richest scholarships in North America for high school students isn't for physics or calculus, but for starting a dead sedan.

    The National Automotive Technology Competition sponsored by auto makers and tool companies earlier this month offered $3 million in prizes. It's one of the ways industries encourage vocational education at a time when states and the nation are emphasizing math, languages and sciences.

    As academic standards rise, some fear a decline in the vocational education that for decades has produced the nation's entry-level craftsmen.

The dichotomy between academic standards and vocational education is a very dangerous one. On the surface it merely appeals to the American preference for the practical over the theoretical. But historically this appeal, when applied to education, has had devastating effects.

The problem is an improper definition of education. The roots of the word come from Latin "to lead out", i.e. to bring the student from a state of bondage to ignorance out to the full freedom of human life. This is where the term "liberal education" comes from: the education that makes a man truly free. It was originally restricted to the ruling classes, to equip the young ruler with the tools for making wise decisions and for leading a good life. In a democratic republic, where every man is king, this ideal of liberty has been extended to all citizens in intention if not always in reality.

But vocational education reverses this principle. Instead of making a man fit to rule, it makes him only fit to perform a particular job; in a word, to be a slave, however highly paid. To be sure there is room within a liberal education for teaching skills that are valuable in the market place, but such skills should not be taught at the expense of the liberal arts. That this is in fact the proposal at hand is evidenced in the following paragraphs:
    Preliminary studies suggest fewer students are majoring in vocational education as states and the federal No Child Left Behind Act demand better performance in core academic subjects, said James Stone III, director of the National Research Center for Career and Technical Education at the University of Minnesota.

    "What I worry about is how we are turning a lot of kids off," Stone said. "The impact is if you tell a principal or a school district or a state, `Your funding is contingent on how many students show up every day and pass a test,' that's what you pay attention to."

    He said the center is studying how to better integrate core lessons in math, science and languages into vocational education. New York, Massachusetts and Michigan are leading such efforts, he said.

    Vocational education students increasingly have to pass college prep math, science and language standardized tests required for all students, plus standardized tests in their vocations.

There are a few red herrings tossed in here, such as the canards about attendance and teaching to the test, but note that the concern is that vocational students are being "turned off". The underlying assumption is that these students are not capable of being taught the more difficult skills that will make them qualified to lead. The alternative, of course, is that they will be given the skills that will make them productive laborers. If we can make them enjoy their subservient lot, so much the better.

    "In a very odd juxtaposition of education policy, we are now requiring an even higher standard for graduation for youngsters who go to a vocational school," said Steven Sanders, chairman of the New York Assembly's Education Committee. "I am told by people in vocational technical schools that it is really discouraging youngsters from attending these schools and in some cases, that means students drop out."

This is more subtle. If it is indeed true that vocational students are being held to higher standards than the college-bound students, that is indeed a problem. But the remedy is to raise the standards for the college-bound students. But I do not believe that this is the case.

Now it is certainly possible to incorporate into a liberal education skills that are useful in the market place. But "studying how to better integrate core lessons in math, science and languages into vocational education" is exactly backward. The purpose of the mathematical, scientific and especially language studies is to train the student to think abstractly and logically. In other words, to think beyond the present circumstances and to address more universal concerns. Even more to the point is the unasked question, how would history or political philosophy be so integrated? And yet these are the very subjects necessary to resist the demagoguery of which this article is such a striking example.

No comments: