I’m very excited to see Pogreba and Neiffer try to expand the discussion about education. I thought I’d put my two cents in: What sort of education do we need? The Ancient Greeks believed that in a Democracy like theirs, language skills were the key to getting ahead in life. The Romans believed that being able to discuss history, society, and language were the skills needed by a free man, hence they are called the “Liberal” arts.
The collapse of the USSR has made the world more Democratic in two ways. First, a plethora of new Democracies have sprung up, meaning that to work with other nations we must engage in discourse with millions-strong electorates, not a few hundred of party leaders. Moreover, however, the spread of powerful, simply weaponry throughout the world, a legacy of the cold war, has meant that more and more developing nations (we’ve seen it most powerfully in Somalia and Iraq) cannot be pushed around by destroying their military power, because the average person must still be convinced to not shoot at American troops. Both these are strong arguments for teaching students the ability to make a strong, thoughtful argument. Surviving in such a world means ramping up our cultural skills – we need to learn more languages, we need to understand the workings of society, we need to learn to discuss ideas and interact with cultures. There are already rumblings that our children would be better served by learning more math and science and less of the ‘soft sciences’ or, more subtly, a push to keep ‘ideas’ out of classrooms in favor of ‘objective knowledge.’ If our students now are going to steer our country in a reasonable direction in the future, they are going to have to learn to deal with subjectivity sooner rather than later. I’m all for universal, objective morality, but unless students can see the subjectivity of what they learn (and they will never see that if teachers are constantly being clamped down on for not sticking to the book, or if they are taught that ‘correctness’ is a matter of A, B, or C) they will find themselves no better equipped to deal with the world of international politics than today’s leaders.
Having taken the No Child Left Behind Tests, I can tell you they will not help students develop this skill set. The tests not only do not test many of the skills we’ll be needing in the future, but the very idea of them smacks of object displacement and presents knowledge as something calculable and static. There are static elements of knowledge which must be mastered, but not to the detriment of the dynamic skills our students will need in the future.