More Common Sense
Let’s leave the question of educational testing aside, and instead talk about education. What should every student learn, first in primary and high schools, and then at colleges and universities? What is the minimum that one should learn in order to be a contributing member of society?
First, every student should learn how to read, write and speak the English language. Instruction should take place every year, and it should be rigorous. Age appropriate English and American literature must be included, both to show examples of how the language has and is been used, but also how literature has reflected the lives and culture of Americans. By the time a young person has graduated from high school, he or she should have read at least some of the classics written in English by writers of both sexes and all races that have contributed to the diverse culture of the United States. This means Shakespeare and Dickens, Twain and Hemingway, Emily Dickenson and T.S. Elliot, but also Richard Wright, James Baldwin and Sandra Cisneros. It also means the theatre and, yes, the movies.
Related to this is the ability to write clear English prose. Not English prose as the student wishes it to be, but as it actually is. Over the course of my working life, I reviewed literally hundreds of resumes from people who wished to be hired for writing jobs, but couldn’t in fact write grammatical English. How could this be, I wondered? How had they managed to graduate from respected universities without mastering this basic skill? I could only conclude that none of their teachers had either bothered or cared. Permitting a student to be “creative” should only come after demonstrated competence.
Much more emphasis needs to be placed on history and civics. No child should graduate from high school without passing a test on the Federal and state constitutions. And not only on the documents themselves; specific examples must be given to demonstrate how the various articles and amendments actually affect their lives.
History should not be taught until a child can reasonably be expected to understand concepts and connections, perhaps as late as the fifth grade. Then it should be taught in increasing levels of sophistication until a high school graduate should know the history of his country, with both its triumphs and tragedies. And no university graduate should enter the real world with a view of history and politics tainted by the ideology of professors who are more advocates than scholars. Not exposing students to all sides of an issue is a betrayal of the very idea of the university. And that means that the study of history must be a requirement for graduation, not merely an elective.
Literature is only one of the arts. At a minimum, a high school graduate should be exposed to the major composers of the past as a way of giving context to what is currently popular. The history of music in all its periods and styles is far too complex for most high school students, but exposure to the main strains is not. That means both Bach and Ellington. It means raising questions like: what influence did African rhythms have on the development of Jazz? In what ways did the blues influence rock? Just what is the great American Songbook?
Most high schools will have opportunities for musical performance – band, orchestra, chorus, etc. But even students who don’t have the talent or inclination for performance should be exposed to their musical heritage. And it’s important that such courses not be tested in the usual way. It should be enough to occasionally ask the student to write down what they think about a particular piece of music. No grades. If you show up and listen, you pass. The arts should be treated as enrichment, not burden.
I’m a great believer in the power of exposure. For example, my love for classical music began quite by accident. My first real job was setting pins at an Elks Club bowling alley. One of my extra tasks was to clean and buff the alleys on Saturday morning. After doing so one day, I was leaving the club when I heard music coming from a sitting room that contained the club’s television set. I stopped in the doorway, and what I heard and saw was Arturo Toscanini conducting Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. While a similar experience might have happened later in life, I can say with certainty that that experience changed my life.
Although perhaps much more complicated, an introduction to the visual arts is also important at every level. While one could reasonably argue that actual courses in the history of art should best be left to the university level, works of art could well be used to illuminate other subjects, history and geography for example. Visual artists have and continue to respond to the events around them, particularly those that affect society most, like war and injustice. Instead of simply using their images as passive illustrations, why not discuss the artist and his or her reasons for creating the work in question.
Math and Science
Not every child will have an aptitude and passion for mathematics and the sciences, but just like the arts, every child should be exposed to them. The study of the various branches of mathematics teaches a child that there is indeed an actual answer to a specific problem. One and one will always equal two, not only when we want it to. There is also a scientific method, and every child should be taught how it works and what it means. I cannot stress this point too much in an era when the internet continuously exposes one to all manner of bogus scientific nonsense.
Alas, there are many private schools that permit parents to insulate their children from reality. Religious schools should, of course, be able to teach religion, but not as a substitute for accepted scientific fact. When I was in Catholic schools from 1944 to 1952, I was taught that God created the heavens and earth in seven days. Imagine my surprise when I later learned that the solar system was billions of years old. Religious schools must not be able to get away with this kind of stuff, but be required as a matter of state interest to have the same basic scientific curriculum as public schools.
While there may be some limited justification for home schooling, most parents do so through a fear that their children will be tainted by exposure to the school environment – fully 90 percent of those surveyed gave this reason. 75 percent said they home schooled their children so they could provide moral instruction, with 65 percent specifying religion as the primary reason. And while most states require these children to take the usual standardized tests to prove competency, they cannot test what else their parents teach them. I would suggest that home schooling be permitted only in cases of extreme physical or mental disability. Religion (or some quasi religious or mystical mumbo jumbo) can be taught at other times, but at least children will know that there is a fact-based world as well.
Despite the best efforts of the courts to put a stop to it, we even have some public school districts who believe that religion has a place in their curricula. Aside from the Pledge of Allegiance (the addition to which of the phrase “under God” was to me a great mistake), Gods or religion have no place in public education, nor does the teaching of anti-scientific courses in so-called “creation science.” Let the preachers spew this nonsense from their pulpits all they want, but students must be made to face the reality of natural selection and the geologic record.
Of course, religion and its texts do have a place in the study of history and literature. How could they not, considering the effect – for both good and ill – that they have had, and continue to have, on the human experience?
Copyright 2015, Patrick F. Cannon, all rights reserved.
(Patrick F. Cannon is the author of five books on architecture. He also has an opinion on just about everything, hence this blog.)