Wednesday, February 8, 2012

 “What this country needs is a good five-cent cigar.”

There is a straight line from Herbert Spencer’s essay (1860), “What Knowledge Is of Most Worth?” to Larry Summers’ recent article in the New York Times entitled “What You (Really) Need to Know.”  (January 20, 2012). This straight line provides the dominant narrative in US education, one that argues that “objective” and “scientific” management of education can determine precisely what it is that students need to learn. Along with “objective” assessment tools and efficient management, so the argument goes, we will cut out the waste and make this a prosperous society. Charles Dickens ridiculed this Victorian approach of the Industrial Age in “Hard Times.” His character Thomas Gradgrind insists on “facts, facts, facts” when asking what a horse is. A boy named Bitzer gives him those facts (quadruped, forty teeth, etc.) and is praised. Sissy Jupe, a circus girl who loves horses and is around them every day of her life, is reprimanded for her lively explanation. “Now,” says Gradgrind to her after hearing Bitzer’s definition, “Now you know what a horse is.”

In 1860, Spencer tried to set up a clear taxonomy of curricular needs. He argued that all that mattered was science, because science alone puts humans in the position of controlling and mastering life in order to guarantee survival.  Literature and foreign languages, on the other hand, were purely ornamental and could therefore be neglected.

In 2012, Mr. Summers argues that a substantial investment in learning “a foreign tongue” is not “universally worthwhile.” Since English has emerged as a global language, he continues, “it [mastering a foreign language] will over time become less essential in doing business in Asia, treating patients in Africa or helping resolve conflicts in the Middle East.”

Mr. Summers’ line of argument undoubtedly resonates with many Americans. And again, it reflects the dominant narrative in K-12 education that wants us to believe that we can really objectively control input and output and that clear controls on the output (objective assessments) lead to an efficient and successful education system.

The contrasting narrative is best articulated by John Dewey, but also by Boyd Bode, Professor at the Department of Principles of Education at Ohio State University. In his article “Why Educational Objectives?[1] (1924) he takes exception to Mr. Bobbit’s activity analyses to determine a school curriculum. He questions the validity of the emerging scientific method of curriculum making (not in the sciences) and sheds interesting light on the word “need”: “No scientific analysis known to man can determine the desirability or the need of anything. Statistical investigation, for example, may show that a certain number of burglaries occur annually in a given community, but it does not show whether the community needs a larger police force or more burglars.” Fair enough! In other words, decisions about the value of the humanities as opposed to the sciences are exactly what the word suggests: value judgments. Mr. Summers and Mr. Spencer appear to agree that learning a foreign language is not worth very much. Today’s business leaders appear to disagree, when they tell us that their employees need language skills and global knowledge. They know that their economic success depends to a large extent on their ability to interact in global markets. They know that success depends on their ability to communicate in languages other than English.

Why, to this day, do we still struggle with a rationale for including global education and learning other languages in the core of the curriculum? Why are we still fighting the fight of  the Industrial Age and Victorian fascination with social efficiency and scientific curriculum making? Some of the answers can be found in The Good Society, a book authored by Robert Bellah et al. in 1991. “Among educated and ever more secularized Americans,” they write, “the social sciences reinforced the language of utilitarian individualism, and its assumption that social problems are primarily technical rather than moral and political.” (p. 163)

Decisions about education, decisions about what to include and what to exclude in the curriculum, are inherently moral and political. Those moral and political choices are all too often based on long standing cultural traditions and ways of knowing and arguing. Decisions about the place of world language learning are made in a cultural context. The cultural context is different in this country than in most other countries. And decisions about the curriculum in countries that we want to compete with around the world include the teaching and learning of world languages in the core of their curriculum.

We may want to begin the process of change in education in this country by strengthening Dewey’s and Boyd’s narrative and by moving away from social efficiency models and the illusion of scientific curriculum making.

Howard Gardner writes in his preface to “Educating for Global Competence” that “what is needed more than ever is a laser-like focus on the kinds of human beings that we are raising and the kinds of societies … that we are fashioning.” That view of education requires moral and political decisions. It requires an open debate of how Americans see themselves as part of the family of nations. The views implied in Larry Summers’ statements are, for my part, not very appealing. They also have no future.

Boyd Bode, in his discussion of Bobbitt’s activity analysis, comments that even Bobbitt “does not rely upon scientific analysis, but upon the “common judgment of thoughtful men and women” for the determination of desirable abilities as educational objectives.” He then comments on apparent disagreement in different parts of the country. In fact, he says that “in the halls of Congress, there is certainly no similar agreement as to the needs of the community. In fact, as far as I can recall, the only suggestion emanating from that quarter that ever carried with it anything like unanimous approval was the sentiment that “What this country needs is a good five-cent cigar.”

Need I say more?

[1] Journal of Educational Resarch, Volume X, Number 3;  College Teacher of Education. October 1924.