Sunday, October 19, 2008

"More Focus on Compliance": An Addendum to My Last Post

While I was writing the last post, it occurred to me that the emphasis on "compliance" within classrooms that Stephen Camarata noted in that AP article might be a resurgence of the educational philosophy of the Cold-War 1950s. When I talk with my mom about education, she always tells me that her classwork was mostly rote learning --- she learned French by memorizing dialogues, she memorized and recited speeches and poems --- while my siblings and I have tended to get a lot more creative or analytical assignments.

A few factors stick out to me as possible reasons the pendulum might be swinging back: first, we're in the middle of a huge panic over a perceived loss of American "competitiveness," economically and militarily. We're losing a lot of good-paying, high-skilled jobs overseas, and every year our students seem to fall further behind the rest of the world on science and math tests.

I wonder if this kind of cultural climate of fear of losing status in the international community might be one reason for periodic vogues of "back-to-basics" educational philosophies. After all, in the Cold War Americans worried mightily about what would happen if Russia's engineers and scientists got ahead of ours in the Space Race. Now, we might not be as worried about military threats (all the wars we're involved in, after all, are hugely asymmetrical in terms of firepower), but we see ourselves as extremely vulnerable economically. Globalization means that companies will probably choose to base most of their production in other countries, where labor is cheaper and fewer regulations are in place, while more and more countries are turning out bright, well-educated young workers from their colleges and universities. The West in general, and America in particular, no longer holds a monopoly on highly-skilled labor, and the model of pure, untrammeled capitalism America espouses (as opposed to Europe's more tempered, safer version) will admit of no incentive but profits, which leaves no room for policies geared toward growing a local economy.

Of course, the need corporations have for highly technically skilled grunt workers is only part of the equation describing educational policy in America. Much of the standardization of education can also be blamed on No Child Left Behind, which makes standardized testing just about an annual event, and distorts curricula accordingly. Finally, a related factor that surely contributes to it is the chronic lack of funding and staff that make it down to the classroom level. If a teacher is already taxed to the extent of his or her abilities just by the sheer number of students and volume of material, they're going to place a high value on sitting down, shutting up and letting them get on with it.

Back to the theme of the changing global economy, and its ramifications for education, I've wondered for quite some time why it is that when people see that their institutions are leaving them behind, the idea that comes first into their heads is, not to abandon or reform the institution, but to change themselves to keep up with it?


thinkingdifference said...

if you think about it, educating a child is about teaching him to comply. teaching him that there are rules and that she has to obey them (or reject them, but the understanding of social rules is central). there's a reason for this - we call it socialization. what are your thoughts on this?

Lindsay said...

Hi, TD! Good to see you commenting here again.

With respect to what you say about education, I think that's true up to a point. I think the critical role of education is not so much teaching a child to obey social rules, but to give that child the capacity to evaluate social rules critically and decide whether or not to obey them. I worry that in a more structured, standardized mode of education (like the one that predominated during the Cold War, and like I'm afraid we're going back to with No Child Left Behind), these higher reasoning skills are not being taught.

Also, your use of the term "socialization" brings up another thing: to my mind, much of socialization has already occurred by the time the child enters school. School isn't the primary agent of socialization, it's a supplement to it, meant to level the uneven playing field created by the different environments in which children are socialized.

In summary: Yes, you're right. Part of education (a very, very early part) is about teaching the children to follow directions, pay attention, sit still and be quiet. But if that's all you're educating them to do, you've done them more harm than good.

thinkingdifference said...

sorry i was quite absent - RL struggles. but i do read you blog with a lot of interest - and i was particularly interested in your comment about how you see a field of grass (the same as NT people see a crowd of people). never thought of this! yes, i think with socialization/ learning rules i was talking more about very early years (0-3 yrs). you're right about critical skills. yet, i've also wondered if one can truly develop critical skills in the absence of memorizing and internalizing the content (sorry if it's not clear, i'm in a rush here...). an example: i have a BA in journalism, which was aimed at developing critical skills. but without a true knowledge of say political history, or economy, all i could do at the time was to criticize without truly understanding... my bad!