Monday, June 28, 2010

Loss of a common standard affects education and the republic

America was founded as a nation of different peoples held together by the idea of Democracy and the primacy of the Common Good.

In an age when Congress itself is paralyzed by partisan interests, let us celebrate the Fourth of July by revisiting the democratic ideals on which the country was founded. And let’s remember that our Founding Fathers believed that the only force that would maintain their intrinsically precarious democracy was education — common knowledge and skills taught in Common Schools.

Toward the beginning of his latest book, “The Making of Americans: Democracy and Our Schools,” E.D. Hirsch Jr. recounts the famous story of Benjamin Franklin leaving the Constitutional Convention of 1787. A woman asked, “Well, Doctor, what have we got?” Franklin replied, “A Republic, Madam, if you can keep it.”

Even in the 18th century, immigrants poured into our then-new nation, so the Founders’ challenge was to design and teach a practical, community-first faith that could encompass all of what Hirsch calls the “tribes,” separated by religion, language, cultural habits or nations of origin. Tribes are naturally self-interested. So to prevent any one set of partisan interests from becoming powerful enough to dictate to others, democracy needed, says Hirsch, “a special new brand of citizens who, unlike the citizens of Rome and other failed republics, would subordinate their local interests to the common good.”

The Founders were not concerned that students become technically proficient or job-ready. Common knowledge and skills would include spelling, reading, writing, arithmetic and American history — knowledge and skills that would fit them for their public life as a future citizen.

A half-century later, in a speech titled “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions,” Abraham Lincoln expressed the idea this way:

“Let reverence for the laws, be breathed by every American mother, to the lisping babe, that prattles on her lap; let it be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges; let it be written in Primers, spelling books and in Almanacs; let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice. And, in short, let it become the political religion of the nation; and let the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the grave and the gay, of all sexes and tongues, and colors and conditions, sacrifice unceasingly upon its altars.”

Democracy’s common laws were to be a secular religion, able to hold together the disparate religions, among other human differences.

In the 1880s, the newly composed Pledge of Allegiance to the flag replaced chapel as the morning ritual in public schools.

Hirsch, also the author of the bestseller “Cultural Literacy,” notes that at the beginning of the 20th century, American education began to lose its way. A needless, destructive split separated the common curriculum from a “child-centered” education that nourished a love of learning. These are not mutually exclusive at all. Modern technology and techniques can make any learning exciting, including the history and skills our forefathers hoped would teach children an allegiance to their larger community. But over the 20th century, specific content slipped slowly from the curriculum, leaving little common knowledge.

Back in the 1950s, baby boomers (like me) learned the happy story of the Thanksgiving feast shared by the Pilgrims and the Indians. Good teachers beefed up the lesson with interesting details, timelines and pictures to guide us to the historical period, the religious reasons the Pilgrims made the dangerous journey, and the place on the map where they landed (far away from my hometown). The story only became nuanced later in our schooling.

Hirsch observes that in the 1980s, people began to draw away from our commonality and into constituencies — gender, race, religious and national origins. While culturally important, Hirsch calls the era of ROOTS the “neo-tribalism,” that eventually grew into the shrill partisanship now dominating modern public discourse. Cynicism grew like mold around the pie-in-the-sky ideal of the common good.

Ideologues became offended by the Thanksgiving story, because it omitted the admittedly serious downside to the Native Americans of the coming of the white man. Educators became fearful of offending any group. But no parent wanted their small child subjected to an Indian-oppression story at holiday time. So Thanksgiving morphed into a generic food event with no historical content at all.

The simple Thanksgiving story isn’t a lie; it just isn’t the whole story, as we know history unfolded. But it is a foundational myth, as Hirsch says, “to achieve commonality of language and knowledge and a shared loyalty to the public good.”

By scrubbing the curriculum of anything that does not meet political correctness, we fail to teach our children about the democratic faith. And by doing so, we invite them to take our freedom and heritage for granted. American children need to understand that cultivating the common good allows each of us to thrive as a unique, even eccentric individual.

Hirsch says, “Students need to leave school with a good understanding of the civic principles under which the United States operates and with an emotional commitment to making this political experiment continue to work.”

By all means, help the students become job-ready. But let it be secondary. Schools and public officials, like labor and management, would do well to model and teach the mutual benefits of holding the entire community’s common welfare as the primary value.

It’s the American way, or should be.


History and geography 'diminishing' in British schools, says head

Subjects such as English, history and geography are being marginalised as schools ditch academic rigour in favour of “accessibility”, according to a leading headmistress. Key swathes of the traditional curriculum are being lost in state schools to make lessons more appealing to bored pupils, it is claimed.

Bernice McCabe, head of fee-paying North London Collegiate School, says subject content has been stripped from history classes and geography has been transformed into a “vehicle” for pursuing a political agenda, increasingly focusing on issues such as citizenship, sustainability and climate change.

The comments will be made in a speech today to the Prince’s Teaching Institute, a charity established by the Prince of Wales to help teachers rediscover their passion for subjects.

Mrs McCabe, the charity’s director, has been critical of reforms to the education system in recent years, claiming that schools have been forced to focus on social issues such as obesity, drug abuse, teenage pregnancy and bullying at the expense of proper subject teaching.

Addressing teachers at the charity’s summer school in Cambridge, she will say that the trend has led to a decline in the number of children studying vital subjects as schools struggle to "reconcile academic rigour with accessibility".

“English literature, history and geography are of fundamental importance and should be at the centre of every child’s educational experience, as the means whereby they acquire a fuller understanding of themselves and of their place in the world,” she says.

“My greatest worry, which I am sure many of you share, is that a diminishing number of children in our schools are now getting the benefit of studying them in any depth.”

She says that more than a quarter of teenagers now fail to study English literature at GCSE “and the number is rising”. Compulsory history and geography syllabuses are often “compressed” into the first two years of secondary school, she says, and “no more than a third of the cohort carry on with either subject to GCSE”.

The charity’s summer school – an annual conference promoting high standards of secondary teaching – will focus on the three subject areas this year.

Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, is due to address the event on Tuesday. The Coalition has already pledged to review the National Curriculum to set out the subject content children will be expected to master at each key stage of education.

Speaking earlier this year, Mr Gove said that most parents supported a “traditional education” in which children learned the “kings and queens of England, the great works of literature, proper mental arithmetic, algebra by the age of 11 [and] modern foreign languages”.

Mrs McCabe will use her speech today to say that history “has suffered more than most from attempts to make it more relevant and less boring”.

She adds: “Geography has no difficulty in establishing its credentials of relevance to the modern world and its challenges, since that is its field. “The educational problem is that it has been increasingly treated just as a vehicle for pursuing different agenda – citizenship, sustainability, and climate change for instance – rather than as an academic discipline in its own right.”


British Education standards are a 'disgrace', claims BT boss

A BT boss has condemned education standards as a 'disgrace' after receiving thousands of applications from 'illiterate' school-leavers. Sir Michael Rake, chairman of the telecoms giant, said the firm had received 26,000 applications for 170 places on its apprenticeship scheme starting this autumn.

But 6,000 - nearly a quarter - were not even worthy of consideration. 'They were unable to complete the form because they could not spell, put it together or read properly - completely illiterate,' said Sir Michael. 'It's a disgrace. The politicians have a huge amount to answer for over the past 50 to 60 years.'

Sir Michael, who is also chairman of easyJet, was speaking ahead of a 'festival of education' being staged at Wellington College next weekend. He was educated there and is on the public school's board of governors. 'We have some of the best schools in the world and some of the worst,' he said. 'Those basic skills are still a massive problem.'

He is the latest in a string of industry bosses to lament British education in recent months. Sir Terry Leahy, Tesco's chief executive, said standards were 'still woefully low in to many schools' and that companies were 'often left to pick up the pieces'.

Lucy Neville-Rolfe, Tesco's director of corporate and legal affairs and one of the most powerful women in British business, condemned a lack of discipline at school as she complained that growing numbers of British school-leavers have 'attitude problems' and believe the world 'owes them a living'.

Meanwhile Sir Stuart Rose, the Marks and Spencer boss, said too many school-leavers 'cannot to reading..cannot do arithmetic ..cannot do writing'.

In the latest intervention, Sir Michael, in an interview with the Sunday Times, attacked an 'obsession' with pushing more school-leavers to university. 'If you look at Scotland, it has the highest graduation rate [in the UK], but lower productivity than northeast England,' he said.

'There is a very interesting question about whether university degrees turn into productivity. 'Too many people are going into the wrong courses....many universities are just desperate to fill places and get their grants.'

Sir Mike said school-leavers were increasingly choosing apprenticeships over university. 'A lot of their friends are finding themselves coming out of university or college with a degree that may not be very useful from a practical point of view, with a big debt and no job,' he said. 'The realisation that an apprenticeship could be a better option than university for many people reminded us starkly of this huge literacy problem. 'We have people who want them but don't have the basic skills to do them. It's really disturbing.'


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