Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Why Are The Humanities Disappearing?

I often find myself in the odd position of addressing the question "why are the humanities disappearing?" In most instances my interrogators assume I will say something about the desire for vocational training in an environment where jobs are scarce. Clearly that is an answer, but a partial and unreflective response.

Based on my experience in the Academy over 35 years, I have noticed an evolutionary condition far more significant and far more malignant than the rise of vocational education.

For most of my academic life I resided in a place called Western Civilization. My leaders in this congenial home were Aristotle, Plato, Dante, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Machiavelli, Mozart, Rembrandt to name a few. My life, my views, were cultivated by these people and their work was imbibed as if mother's milk. They weren't always tranquil; in fact, on many occasions they were disquieting, but they were my "whole." They told me who I am, what I believe and what questions about life I should ask. They were the guides in a complex, often dark world.

What happened to my ideational home? It was cast down a slide into fragmentation. There are scholars who will know about one or maybe two of these guides, but they no longer live in Western Civilization.

The common core is no longer common. The foundation of this home was a belief in the best that has been thought and written. Conditions that divide us such as class, gender, race were subordinated to a common humanity, the glue that keeps a civilization intact.

Now the civilization is split at the seams, disappearing before our eyes as a weight falling into the sea. There isn't a there, there. It is a civilization suffering from homelessness. What remains of the humanities are fragments, puzzle parts that don't connect. How can a student possibly appreciate the civilization in which he resides when he sees only fragments, division and needless specialization?

Each year that passes, newly minted PhD's enter the ranks of the professoriate with new, arcane specialties, e.g. Did Hamlet suffer form an Oedipus complex? Were Know Nothing adherents paranoid?

These questions in themselves are reasonable, but they overlook the sweep and depth of human experience. Those who graduate into the Academy arrive never having lived in Western Civilization. The air they breathe is clear, but it doesn't have the dusty reminiscence of the past, with its glories and failures, romances and betrayals, majesty and tyranny. They lack guides and perspective. Is it any wonder their students do not see value in the humanities?

Lying in wait is a time when business students will dominate the Academy completely. The model will be bureaucracy. Rules will be legion, but enlightenment foreign. Inspiration will be a concept long forgotten, as will the humanities themselves.

Although college students yearn for meaning, the drum beat of fragmentation continues apace. Narrow and narrower are the assignment of readings. Much of what is assigned has been pre-digested, i.e. Read what Professor Jones wrote about Plato. Hence Plato doesn't have to be read. Here is yet another manifestation of fragmentation. The whole is there, just largely ignored.

So when the question arises of why the humanities are disappearing from the curriculum, it should be noted that if we have lost a home in Western Civilization, the humanities cannot be taught effectively or understood by students. The catalogue that refers to the humanities is mechanistic. There is a belief these courses may be necessary, but few can describe why this is the case. The defense rests.

Western Civilization is in retreat and the standards we once knew evaporate like soap bubbles. Fragmentation is all that is left and frankly that isn't much to build a university on.


Rowdy pupils drag Britain's schools down: Ofsted chief's warning as he says 700,000 children are suffering because teachers do not crack down on 'horseplay'

Rowdy behaviour in class and a contempt for learning are dragging English pupils behind their peers in Asian countries, the chief inspector of schools will warn today.

The education of 700,000 children – one in ten overall – is suffering because teachers are failing to crack down on ‘horseplay’, Sir Michael Wilshaw will say.

In a speech to mark the launch of Ofsted’s annual report, he plans to describe how schools are plagued by a ‘casual acceptance of low-level disruption and poor attitudes to learning’ that is ‘a million miles away from the sort of cultures we see in some of the high-performing Asian countries’.

The comments come a week after the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development revealed that 15-year-old Asian children are easily outperforming other students from around the world.

British pupils came outside the top 20 in maths, science and reading for the first time – and are now lagging an average of around three years behind their counterparts in the Far East.

The results painted a troubling picture of the UK’s ability to compete with countries where teachers are revered and iron-willed pupils study for 12 hours or more every day.

Ofsted plans to focus on behaviour during the coming year, and headteachers will be expected to take back control of classrooms, Sir Michael will announce.

Only by creating ‘the calm and respectful culture essential for learning’ can classes avoid being hijacked by ‘background chatter, inattention and horseplay’.

He will go on to say: ‘Unless this changes, teachers will struggle to create an environment in which all children learn well.’

The former headteacher criticised teachers last month for failing to show pupils that adults are in charge.

He said there was ‘nothing wrong’ with telling children: ‘Do as I ask because I am the adult.’

He also attacked a generation of headteachers who are too weak-willed to lead by example, explaining: ‘Children cannot thrive in a chaotic school where there is little authority.’

School staff were handed new powers in 2011 to tackle disruptive pupils. Teachers were given more leeway to use force, the right to search children for items such as mobile phones – and financial penalties were increased for parents who allow their children to truant.

Other powers teachers have been given include issuing no-notice detentions. And a school’s decision to exclude a pupil can no longer be reversed by an appeals panel.

Education Secretary Michael Gove said the measures would give disruptive pupils an ‘unambiguous lesson in who’s boss’.

But Sir Michael’s speech will suggest that he believes teachers still lack the confidence to exert their authority after years of seeing their powers eroded.

He will also insist today that  poverty is no longer an excuse for academic failure, and will describe the nation’s ‘education lottery’ which sees the country divided into ‘lucky and unlucky children’.

He believes that some of the ‘unluckiest children’ are those  living in relatively affluent areas in the Home Counties, which are let down by coasting schools.

The annual report is expected to outline a blueprint for a ‘national service’ of top teachers and headteachers who are ready to be deployed to failing areas to help turn them around.

The East of England and the North East in particular will be  criticised. But Sir Michael will claim the ‘battle against mediocrity’ in English education is being won, with eight out of ten schools now judged good or outstanding – the highest proportion in Ofsted’s 21-year history.

A Department for Education spokesman said: ‘Sir Michael is right – bad classroom behaviour is hugely disruptive to children’s  education. It means teachers can’t teach and pupils can’t learn.

‘That is why a key part of our reforms is restoring discipline in schools and why we have strengthened teachers’ powers to put them back in charge.’


Tory backlash after Ofsted chief sneers at grammars: MPs challenge claim that selective schools are too middle class

They would be less middle class if there were more of them.  As it is, they are very few  -- JR

The Chief Inspector of Schools faced a barrage of criticism from Conservative MPs last night after he said grammar schools are ‘stuffed full of middle-class kids’.

Sir Michael Wilshaw said the dominance of affluent children meant selective state schools had almost no role in improving the education of the poor. ‘A tiny percentage are on free school meals – three per cent. That is a nonsense,’ he said.

‘Anyone who thinks grammar schools are going to increase social mobility needs to look at those figures. I don’t think they work.’

His comments angered Tory MPs who believe expanding the grammar system could help reverse the decline in social mobility. Graham Brady, chairman of the powerful 1922 Committee of backbench Tory MPs, described Sir Michael’s intervention as ‘unwise’.

The former education spokesman, whose Altrincham and Sale constituency is a bastion of the grammar school system, said: ‘We have some very bad schools in this country and I think the chief inspector would be better advised to focus his attention on improving those, not criticising some of the good ones.’

Mr Brady said grammar schools sometimes ended up selecting fewer children from poor homes because they had been failed by the state primary system.

He said he was ‘angry’ that Ofsted chief inspector Sir Michael appeared to have ignored evidence that high schools that operate alongside grammars in areas such as Trafford in Greater Manchester show ‘incredibly good performance’.

Statistics show areas with selective state schools dominated GCSE and A-level results last year.

Reading came top, with 45.9 per cent of pupils gaining grades AAB or equivalent in 2012, followed by Trafford with 34.5 per cent. The state sector average is 16.8 per cent.

High-performing local education authorities (LEA) with selective schools also included Southend-on-Sea in Essex and Torbay in Devon, which have some of the worst areas of deprivation in the UK. Seven of the top ten best performing LEAs at GCSE also offered grammar school places.

Tory grandee David Davis, who also went to grammar school, said the system should be ‘maintained at all costs’ because it remained ‘the way working-class children get their chance in life, on an equal footing to children who can go to the private sector’.

He admitted that poorer youngsters had been ‘elbowed out by ambitious middle class parents’ in some areas.  But he said the decline of grammars had left Britain ‘more dominated than it ought to be by the products of private schools’. He suggested this could be reversed if the grammar school system was allowed to expand.

However, in an interview with the Observer, Sir Michael suggested grammar schools only helped an elite 10 per cent of pupils – often with pushy parents.

It is the second blow in a week for the grammar system, following a decision by Education Secretary Michael Gove on Friday to block an application to create a new ‘supergrammar’ in Sevenoaks, Kent.

The scheme was the first test of new rules that allow grammars to expand on satellite sites. But education sources said the bid was ‘botched’ and would have effectively created a new selective school, which is banned under existing law.

Yesterday the Department for Education refused to be drawn on the comments by Sir Michael, who also claimed in a wide-ranging interview that summer holidays were too long and admitted that when he used the cane during his time as a teacher in the 1970s it had ‘never worked’.

But he highlighted the role that ‘pushy parents’ could play in driving up standards. ‘Pushy parents have usually got kids in schools where, because they are pushing hard, standards rise,’ he said.


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