Archive for February 16th, 2007

During the last century, as school enrollment grew and education in the United States developed into a universal birthright, the character of schooling changed. At the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, schools were places in which students acquired classical knowledge without regard for usefulness or application. Knowing was privileged over doing. As the 20th century marched through time, as immigrant populations were being absorbed into the American mainstream, schools were transformed into places where professionals and quasi-professionals were to be trained to become contributing members of society. Spurred on by a nearly religious reliance on scientific progress, the mantra of public education, whether progressive or not, was to produce contributing citizens for the American Republic. Schools began to privilege doing over knowing.

Today, as we are barely into the 21st century, schools and schooling has turned full circle and, at least in political circles (and some professional education circles as well), school is now understood almost entirely in terms of technical expectations. The problem is, however, that this reliance on technical practice is not producing better students. Linda Darling-Hammond reported that in states with aggressive high-stakes testing programs students performed more poorly than in states that had non-aggressive or non-existing high-stakes assessments.

The fundamental tension is one between knowing and being able to do. I want to argue that knowing, being armed with knowledge of both classical antiquity and focused content is a path to being able to do. By learning to think clearly, to articulate, to write, to be able to make appropriate inferences and so on leads directly to an ability to perform at high levels in any task, professionally oriented or otherwise. I want to further argue that training in a professional or quasi-professional setting does not guarantee the ability to think clearly, the ability to make correct decisions.

The American obsession with testing and performance is counter-productive. Not only will children fail in the end so the nation will not be able to sustain a productive workforce, but the loss of intellectual capital in the process may be irrecoverable in either the short or long term.

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