It seems odd to accuse the schools of anti-intellectualism when they are engaged in a relentless drive for higher test scores, and students are required to take more difficult academic courses. Passing rates on some state and local tests show small increases, but there has been little if any improvement on well-established national tests. The small gains we’ve seen may be the result of concentrated instruction on narrowly defined objectives. But we are not promoting intellectual habits of mind. Indeed, we may be reducing intellectual life to mental labor. What are the signs that this is happening?
First, there is a proliferation of fake academic courses. These courses are instigated by the demand that almost all children now take academic courses such as algebra and geometry. The decision for this requirement has not been supported by strong, well-informed debate. Is it true, for example, that all students need more mathematics today than people did in previous generations? If the answer is yes (but there are powerful arguments in favor of a negative reply), then it is reasonable to ask, What sort of mathematics? Must it be traditional algebra and geometry? Why?
Instead of debating these questions, policymakers have mandated—in the name of equality—that all children, regardless of their talents and interests, should have the “opportunity” once reserved for relatively few. Hardworking teachers then must try to get unwilling, unprepared students through material they have no interest in learning. Many youngsters have alternative, genuine talents, but these are disregarded. To give such students a chance to pass the required courses, teachers concentrate on a few discrete skills that can be gained through a steady routine of drill.
Providing a complete structure of what is to be learned and a detailed list of outcomes expected of all students facilitates quick, shallow learning and swift forgetting.
I’ve observed such classes. In some, no word problems or applications are even attempted. In a bow to analytic geometry, the distance formula is memorized, but with no mention of the Pythagorean theorem. In many geometry classes, no proofs at all are done. (Reducing the emphasis on proof is justified, but eliminating it entirely casts doubt on whether the course should be called geometry.) The end result is that many students have “algebra” and “geometry” on their transcripts, but they can’t pass state tests in math, and they need remedial courses in college. They have had pseudo-algebra and pseudo-geometry. This is pedagogical fraud, and such students are doubly cheated. They do poorly in the required courses, and they are deprived of courses in which they might have done well.
I am not arguing that the traditional academic courses are properly “intellectual” and other courses are not. On the contrary, I believe that intellectually exciting topics and challenging problems can and should arise in all well-taught classes—in cooking, chemistry, photography, mechanics, and everything else the schools offer. My objection is to the virtual elimination of intellectual content in many of today’s academic courses.
A second signal is that the overuse of specific learning objectives in all subjects works against the development of intellectual habits of mind. Superficially, it seems fair to tell students exactly what they must learn and be able to do as a result of instruction. This is instructionally sound when we are teaching a narrowly defined skill, but it is a poor way to encourage problem-solving, critical thinking, and the habits of mind that support further, deeper learning. Too often the result of such instruction is students who can add when told to add, or solve quadratic equations when told to “solve the following quadratic equations,” but cannot decide when to use these techniques in solving problems. In the interest of intellectual habits of mind, students must be asked to identify for themselves the important points in every unit of study, construct their own summaries, attempt problems that have no obvious solution, engage in interpretation, and evaluate conflicting explanations and points of view.
Providing a complete structure of what is to be learned and a detailed list of outcomes expected of all students facilitates quick, shallow learning and swift forgetting. The little actually remembered is very like a collection of meaningless bits for Trivial Pursuit. Students come to expect that they should have answers at their fingertips instead of developing an attitude of inquiry—one of willingness to figure things out.
The insistence on precisely stated learning objectives, moreover, also drastically reduces the number of classroom sessions designed to expose students to new, interesting ideas that may or may not result in specific learning. It is right to pay continuous, careful attention to whether students are learning certain specific material. But there should also be sessions devoted to intellectual “inputs”—topics teachers choose to present or offer—leaving open what students might do as a result.
To support intellectual life and the joy of learning, we should expand the possibilities, not narrow them.
Many intellectually exciting and socially significant lessons conducted by creative teachers are designed to induce awareness, not specific learning. It is a shame to sacrifice such sessions in our zeal to achieve a pre-specified learning objective for every lesson, every day. In addition to asking the question, Has Johnny learned X? we should also ask, What has Johnny learned? In a class of 25 students, we might get 25 different answers to this—some disheartening (from which we should learn), and some quite thrilling.
To support intellectual life and the joy of learning, we should expand the possibilities, not narrow them. Part of our job as educators is to offer opportunities, to open the door to a world of intellectual possibilities. Another part is to encourage our students to think and to take responsibility for their own expanded learning. It is important, therefore, to consider intellectual inputs as well as pre-specified student outcomes.
Students do not come to us as standard raw material, and we should not expect to produce standard academic products. Intellectual life is challenging, enormously diverse, and rewarding. It requires initiative and independent thinking, not the tedious following of orders. It should not be reduced to mental drudgery.
A version of this article appeared in the March 21, 2007 edition of Education Week as The New Anti-Intellectualism in America