Choice is Good, Except When it Isn’t
By Patrick F. Cannon
As a good American, I’m a great believer in freedom of choice, but not in education. Let me clarify. I do think parents should have the power to send their children to the best possible school, if choice is even possible in their community. I do not believe, however, that children – or even their parents – should dictate what they can and cannot learn.
Americans are, for example, shockingly ignorant of their own history and institutions. Survey after survey has shown that only a small percentage of your fellow citizens can answer even the simplest of questions. One example should suffice: in a survey of students of the top 55 colleges and universities (yes, including Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, Chicago, etc), it was found that only 23 percent knew that James Madison was the principal author of the Constitution, while 99 percent were fully knowledgeable about Beavis and Butthead and their many cultural contributions.
How can this have happened? The answers can of course be complicated, but let me suggest that too much choice is basic to understanding the problem (not that everyone would even agree it’s a problem). Universities now seem to feel that their incoming freshman have had all the history they can stomach. Instead of the classic survey course in American History, which was usual when I went to college, they can pick and choose any of a number of “history” courses designed by faculty to fit their particular research interests (Sexual Politics in the Reagan Era, Marxism if We Gave it Just One More Chance, Why Vermont Matters).
I’ve picked on History, but the reluctance to look to the past extends to other fields as well. Take literature. Why should any American be forced to read Hawthorne, Melville, Twain or even Hemingway for that matter? Weren’t they just the typical white males, with all the horrors that that implies? Why should students’ tender sensitivities be challenged by dead men when the living Bob Dylan just won the Nobel Prize for Literature (broadly defined, as so much is these days).
One of my pet peeves is the conviction among many of the young that music – and almost everything worthwhile in the arts — began the day they were born. Never mind that America has a rich history in popular music. How many of them know who Stephen Foster was, much less Irving Berlin? And that the influence of Jazz and the Blues is pervasive around the world?
And it’s fruitless to even mention Classical music, the audience for which continues to decline in real terms. I suspect that the young people who do listen to and play serious music come from families that grew up in much the same atmosphere. Not to know and understand the differences between Mozart and the Smashing Pumpkins probably doesn’t matter to someone who has never even heard of Mozart (and maybe barely recalls the Pumpkins).
Nobody can or should be forced to like something, but not to even be aware of alternatives is one of the great failures of the current educational system. The emphasis on science technology, engineering and math (STEM), at the expense of the liberal arts, may seem sensible in a world obsessed with instant computation and communication, but who’s going to be left to write the poetry and run the country? Will ignorance of history continue to lead to the White House?
Copyright 2019, Patrick F. Cannon