Wednesday, January 26, 2011

An open letter to the President regarding education

Thank you, Mr. President, for some of what you said about education last night.

But only for some of it.

Let me start, Mr. President, by telling you that I am a PhD Candidate in Rhetoric and Composition. That means I teach college students to write and I study the use of words and language (and visuals and other symbol systems) in the creation of arguments--and speeches. And your State of the Union Address, as you know quite well, is one of the more symbolic forms of rhetoric in which our country engages.

But as a university teacher, let me also tell you why I wanted to thank you for only some of what you said last night.

First, I must agree with you that education begins at home. I believe, as you seem to, that education in the home is a matter both of what parents value and model, and of discipline. Yes, the TV has to be off and the homework done, but there is more, sir. There is also the active education parents provide for their children when they turn the TV on and watch the news together and discuss what it means. Here, students can learn about history, current events, and most importantly, critical thinking.

Mr. President, I believe you modeled one of my most dearly held positions on education in the home when you discussed the discipline of education: that parents are to be leaders, not friends. Teachers must be leaders, not friends. Peers and others will be friends for our children (and the best parents make sure even those are appropriate), but parents must be role models. They must provide structure and discipline and model values. Parents have stopped, it seems, using the word "no" with their children. Some teachers have stopped being leaders as well.

But, Mr. President, our educational system not only lacks good teachers and money and classroom innovation. Our educational system lacks ethos. Children learn not to value the struggle that true learning must entail. They come to believe that effort must be rewarded with success, even though oftentimes it is failure that comes of great effort--and is most instructive. They come to see grades as the outcome of their "education," and fail to see education as the outcome of their investment.

Also, and here I'll admit to bias, Mr. President, it is not only Maths and Sciences that are causing us to lose ground in the global marketplace. It is also languages, arts (of every stripe), philosophy, history, social sciences and English. Children who study music outperform those who don't in every area of academia, including maths. Children who study foreign languages have an advantage when facing the global marketplace.  Children who are taught history and social science have a greater ability to think critically about the world around them. And English is being studied everywhere around the globe, yet American native speakers of English have a harder time with standard written English than most non-native speakers.

It's no longer enough to cry out "maths and sciences." That cry passed in the '80s. I watched other presidents bemoan our lags in those fields. Because of those cries, universities around the country over-fund their maths and sciences programs and treat the humanities as a secondary concern. If you want people to choose teaching as an occupation of the future, it must become a lucrative and glorified field (like basketball). If you want maths and sciences scores to rise, you must raise the value of all education. And if you want to raise a generation able not only to understand maths and sciences but to think critically about the ethics of the discoveries and technologies that arise from those fields, as well as how they can serve humankind, you must make humanities a priority.

We began losing the technology wars when we began dropping music from our curricula. We began losing the global marketplace wars when we prioritized a college degree over an education (and the two are by no  means equivalent).

Please, Mr.President, please understand that your positing of education at the fore of your plan for our union makes sense only when all of education (and education over grades) is the goal in mind.

Please also understand that this is not the greatest nation on earth. It is ours, and we love our country. But there are other ways to live, and some are just as good. American exceptionalism, with which you ended your speech, is not helpful to the goal of education. American students must stop thinking of themselves in terms of exceptionalism and begin thinking of themselves in terms of their potential to rise to exceptional heights; the difference is one of work ethic rather than one of entitlement.