Education Opinion

More on passionate learning

By Deborah Meier — June 25, 2007 3 min read
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Dear Diane,

Re your list of the “musts” (math, literacy, history, the sciences, arts and phys ed). It seems easy until one notices what’s been left out. (Not to mention whose history, which sciences, what math and so on. ) My friend Ted Sizer argued that since choices had to be made he’d drop phys ed and foreign languages. He got into a lot of trouble for saying it out loud. You left foreign languages out too—on purpose?

Of course, life is long, so what we stuff into the years from 5-18 is just a sampling of what we might deem important. Yet despite the fact that a substantial portion of what we were taught, and even what we learned (not necessarily the same thing) is soon forgotten, it’s interesting how passionate we can become on the subject of these requirements.

I spent a summer at the University of Colorado once because a physicist I admired was conducting a course on modern physics for teachers. He spent six weeks helping us understand the concept of “center of gravity.” I thought I “got it” by the end and drove away from the University in a glow. Alas, I didn’t even get out of the state before that conceptual “aha” had drifted away. I don’t regret the intensive six weeks, and I believe that in some way it was a critical experience. But I’m not sure how I could prove it to anyone else’s satisfaction.

So—maybe we do and maybe we don’t agree on your list. What I’m sure of is that we can’t get it “into the heads” of the young because we mandate it—no matter how well-intentioned. And in pretending to do so we miss the opportunity to use schools to do the one thing they can do best: allow young people to keep company with a bunch of adults who are willing to tackle some intellectually worthwhile topics with them.

I’d rather the kids spent four years focused on just biology if there were no adults around who had a deep interest (or expertise) in physics and chemistry. I’d be comfortable with a science teacher who knew enough to help almost any 5-18-year-old explore some fundamentally interesting natural phenomenon no matter which of the science fields it fell under. I’d even rather—and now we’re surely going to disagree, Diane—have Teacher X help kids (rigorously) take apart cars—if he and they were truly fascinated by them—then obediently take apart Shakespeare.

What we agree about is that the purpose of all this schooling, which occupies the central waking hours of our youth for so many years (not to mention the money spent on it), is debatable. As long as we rest the need for 13 plus years of schooling on the need for a diploma whose value rests on the claim that it will add x dollars to one’s lifetime earnings we’re in trouble. The related equation, more schooling=stronger economy, is also too much like alchemy to me. If the owners of General Motors (et al) had gone to “better” schools would Detroit now be thriving…or was it the line workers who failed
us? Or…

While the slogan that what is good for General Motors is good for the U.S.A. never appealed to me, the reverse that what is good for the U.S.A. is (or “would have been”) good for General Motors is worth a deeper look. Those open-minded, skeptical and empathetic habits of mind were part of John Dewey’s lexicon because they were critical to democracy—but they may have been part of the practical inventiveness that also served our economy well. But they were never at the core of schooling and more tests and more required courses won’t put them there.

Your piece on the Huntington blog about Bloomberg’s proposal to pay kids for their test scores is great, Diane. In my youth we argued playfully about whether we’d prefer fame or fortune. We’ve done a lot to settle this for future generations by ensuring that since everything has a price tag, fame and fortune are now inseparable.

Poor Einstein died before he discovered that he could sell his name for a brand of sneakers.


p.s. Did you read the piece in Ed Week (June 20, p 14-15) on migrants in China relying on private schools? Amazing. Maybe Bloomberg will take a page from China and start charging tuition to “the better schools” as a way to motivate the poor. The kids can save up the pennies earned at the testing game to help them move to better schools. The undeserving poor may choose sneakers over schooling.

But that’s their tough choice.

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