Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Who Is Education For?


You need at this time especially to know that you are fit for something better than slavery and cannon fodder. You need to know that you were not created to work and produce and impoverish yourself to enrich an idle exploiter. You need to know that you have a mind to improve, a soul to develop, and a manhood to sustain.

Eugene Victor Debs. Canton, Ohio. 1918. He was arrested for making the speech in which he said that.

A couple of weeks ago, I was up in Albuquerque for a conference of arts educators. Among the topics we dealt with was, essentially, our defense of the arts: what we teach and how to talk about its value.

What is that value? What are they good for?

It seemed that every point worth discussion was a discussion of how the arts make one "competitive" in the capitalist economy. We exercised familiar rhetoric about how corporations want creative thinkers and highly literate people for their purposes. Jobs. All about jobs. Sadly, we did not even discuss prospects of professional employment, self-employment, or even employment in arts-related industries. No, the discussion centered on making the case that the arts make people good employees.

According to Stanley Fish, writing for the New York Times on Monday, "nobody really buys that argument, not even the university administrators who make it."

Are we even less convinced by the idea that the liberal arts help us to appreciate this passing life? That there are dimensions to life other than economic fitness?

Are we afraid to speak, as Paolo Freire did, of educating young people so they can become the protagonists of their own lives, examine their society and change it?

Fish:

The only thing that might fly — and I’m hardly optimistic — is politics, by which I mean the political efforts of senior academic administrators to explain and defend the core enterprise to those constituencies — legislatures, boards of trustees, alumni, parents and others — that have either let bad educational things happen or have actively connived in them.
And when I say “explain,” I should add aggressively explain — taking the bull by the horns, rejecting the demand (always a loser) to economically justify the liberal arts, refusing to allow myths (about lazy, pampered faculty who work two hours a week and undermine religion and the American way) to go unchallenged, and if necessary flagging the pretensions and hypocrisy of men and women who want to exercise control over higher education in the absence of any real knowledge of the matters on which they so confidently pronounce.

How many of us fear too much for our own jobs to make this case? Because these myths are present at the elementary school level as well, and that's where the foundation of liberal arts had best be built.
You need at this time especially to know that you are fit for something better than slavery and cannon fodder. You need to know that you were not created to work and produce and impoverish yourself to enrich an idle exploiter. You need to know that you have a mind to improve, a soul to develop, and a manhood to sustain.


[Photo: Fountain outside La Fonda del Bosque, wherein we contemplated how to convince the businessmen that liberal arts have value.]

1 comment:

Kelly said...

I'll admit I'm a bit out of touch with elementary education beyond that which my third grade granddaughter shares with me. However, it's my opinion that one of the problems with higher education is that everything has become so "specialized". In the larger universities kids often have to declare their intentions early on then are put on a track towards that goal. One of my kids went to a smaller, well-respected liberal arts college where she got a good, solid, well-rounded education. As a result she writes well, has a broad range of knowledge, and utilizes critical thinking skills. She's currently pursuing an MA at a larger university, so it remains to be seen how she fares in the "real" world.