09 June 2010


PAST. Stanley Fish has written a compelling article on the need for a return in public schools to a classical education -- one which engages students in the study of math, science, language, history, economics, literature and the arts. In recent decades US schools have become more and more focused on test-based schooling, with the unintended result that schools have lowered their standards for passing (and seemingly their standards for excellence) in order to pass standardized tests and shuffle their students along to the next educational level, lacking in the skills and knowledge they were to have acquired in the first place. The upshot -- US students consistently place well behind students from other developed nations in their understanding of every one of those classical components.

I attended a small rural high school which, for its size (350 students at the time) offered a quality curriculum, and I ate it up -- biology, chemistry, physics, US and world history, English literature, Latin, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, music, drama, speech, government. Being a small school, we had no classes in debate or calculus, philosophy or astronomy. What we did have was a group of dedicated teachers who encouraged and challenged us to learn, and who instilled an expectation of excellence.

Small wonder that our students were high achievers out of proportion to our school's size. To this day I retain so much of what I learned that I cringe when I witness what high school students are learning (or failing to learn) today. The world's knowledge doubles every 5-10 years, so what's available is rich and varied. Yet I can outperform most high school graduates in any field, and I'm hardly a candidate for Mensa. I can do math in my head faster than kids can do with calculators. I can challenge a student to randomly choose a word from the dictionary, and chances are I'll know what it means (thanks to Latin and my love of reading). History? The sciences? Literature? Forget about it.

This isn't the students' fault. Our system has failed them. I support the idea of a return to a classical education, updated as research and technology reveal new truths and new possibilities, and incorporating what we know about the psychology of diverse learning styles. We must raise the bar again, setting students' goals high and providing them with the tools and encouragement to reach those goals. We must also throw away the notion of tenured faculty. Teachers should be retained based on knowledge and performance, not on longevity on the job.

FUTURE. You would think that we would have learned a few hard lessons from the practice of outsourcing by now. Taking advantage of cheap foreign labor not only takes away quality control, it also creates horrendous and sometimes deadly working conditions, all for the sake of more corporate profit. Now President Obama proposes to sidestep our country's traditional reliance on NASA, and turn space exploration over to private enterprise. As the space shuttle program winds down to a halt later this year, already private rockets are being tested. One company, Bigalowe Aerospace, is already developing alternative space station components (see image above). So why is this troubling? For starters, the company's founder, Robert T. Bigalowe, isn't a scientist. He's not only a bottom-line venture capitalist, his science credentials include a belief in UFOs, a belief in the power of prayer, and a lack of belief in the Big Bang theory. I don't know about you, but if I were perched in a transport capsule atop a rocket, about to be launched to enter a space habitat constructed by the lowest bidder, I'd want to know that something more astrophysically substantial than prayer and little green men was guaranteeing my safety. Bigalowe's corporate philosophy is summed up as "keep your work and the work of your co-workers very private from people outside the company." Quality control? Accountability? Experts in their fields of science planning for every contingency? Naw. After all, what's the worst that could happen? Can you spell "Gulf oil disaster in space"?

I hope I'm proven wrong in my skepticism, I truly do. But I'm not holding my breath.

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