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Reflections: Criticism of Schools, Cultural Relativism, the Arts

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Writing in the Harvard Educational Review, David K. Cohen, a professor of education and social policy at Michigan State University, describes the improvement in American education this century as "quite amazing." Increased criticism of schools, however, has accompanied this improvement, he observes in the May 1987 article, "Schooling More and Liking It Less: Puzzles of Educational Improvement."

One reason, Mr. Cohen says, is that "criticism is often a consequence and sign of improvement." He then explores several other factors contributing to the critical outlook:

A second answer is that one improvement sometimes is accompanied by an unrelated development that brings new problems. Science and mathematics teaching is a nice example. ... There have been so many scientific revolutions that it is difficult even for scientists to keep track of them. ... [I]f science has brought mind-boggling changes in the way we think about the world, it is no less mind-boggling to figure out how to get teachers and children to grasp them. ...

A third explanation for the continued conjunction of criticism and improvement is that the spread of education has increased our motives and capacity for criticism of education. For example, beginning in the 1950's the spread of higher education greatly increased the visibility of public-school teaching by confronting the professoriate with new masses of high-school teachers' products. Instead of seeing one in 10 of these products, profes6sors were seeing one in four. ...

Finally, Americans are more educated. This has helped to create a ready audience for criticism, and to arm citizens for their own critical work. In addition, increased levels of education mean that teachers are less the special local figures that they used to be. Even when they were much less educated than today, they were well educated in relation to the general population. ...

In a recent speech in Los Angeles, Lyman P. Van Slyke, a professor of history and specialist in East Asian studies at Stanford University, criticized ideas expressed by Allan Bloom in his book The Closing of the American Mind and offered an alternative view of the study of Western culture.

Disagreeing with Mr. Bloom's contention that the study of non-Western cultures has contributed to a dangerous relativism in American education, Mr. Van Slyke advocated a "relativistic" study of history. In the following excerpt from his speech, he compares this kind of historical study to the experience of seeing a play and concludes that the understanding of different points of view is essential to the proper grasp of one's own:


Currently there is great debate on how we should structure the Western culture tracks. Do we focus on the negatives as well as the soaring moments of civilization? ...

The capacity to step outside our ownculture enhances our own, helps us understand ourselves better. ...

When we see a play, we suspend certain beliefs for the time being. We pretend that what's on stage is real. Then when we leave the theater, we return to what's normal. ... But we've been enriched during that suspension of belief. When we study China, relativism is important to understand what they're getting at. We have to take a broader, more expansive view of the world. ...

In the study of history, relativism is all. But history is not all. We study history with an open mind. Then we come back to our own values.

If we are absolutists, we lose the capacity to understand, to empathize. Total relativism, however, leaves you no perspective from which to examine. You have to have your own values. ...

"[I]f we do not educate our children in the symbol system called the arts," says Ernest L. Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, "we will lose not only our culture and civility, but our humanity as well." In an essay presented at the Getty Center for Education in the Arts and reprinted in the Summer 1987 issue of Basic Education: Issues, Answers & Facts, Mr. Boyer suggests three reasons for teaching the arts in schools:

The arts "help children express feelings and ideas words cannot convey."

The symbolic language of the arts can help "integrate" study of different academic disciplines.

The language of the arts is "universal."

In the following passage Mr. Boyer discusses the power of the arts and the universality of their symbolism:

For the most intimate, most profoundly moving universal experiences we needed a more subtle, more sensitive set of symbols than the written and the spoken word. And this richer language we call the arts. ... [M]en and women have used music, dance, and the visual arts to transmit most effectively the heritage of people and to express most profoundly their deepest human joys and sorrows--and intuitions, too. ...

We live in a dangerous, interdependent world, and today's students need to hear not just the language of politics and propaganda; they also need to learn languages that transcend the intellectual and ideological barriers that distrust truth and suffocate the human spirit. ...

We are systematically training pedants who have lost a powerful view of themselves as creators, who themselves can be significant makers of meaning, and who can be personal interpreters of experience.

We can teach our children about the history of art and the rules of a perspective--and we should. But how do we stimulate children to respond to the primal messages that seem unmediated by our culture? ...

Now more than ever, our children need to see clearly, hear acutely, and feel sensitively through the exquisite language of the arts.

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