Thursday, April 24, 2008

Anything but the schools

We Americans readily hold schools responsible things that are largely beyond their control: children's emotional and moral development; their sexual behavior; the achievement disparities between those from educationally nurturing vs. educationally impoverished home environments.

When it comes to factors schools can control, on the other hand, we readily blame everything else. Consider the most recent books lamenting the spotty civic knowledge, and abysmal math and science skills, of Generation Y.

For William Damon, author of The Path to Purpose: Helping Our Children Find Their Calling in Life, the culprit is existential aimlessness: as Charles McGrath puts it in his review in last Sunday's NY Times Education Life, "most students are drifting aimlessly, with no clue as to what they want to do or become in the future."

For Mark Bauerlein, author of The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future, it's the digital revolution, which, in McGrath's words, "has eroded attention spans and analytical abilities."

For Susan Jacoby, author of The Age of American Unreason, it's not just the digital age, but the rise of religious fundamentalism, the triumph of the self-esteem and self-help movements over the earlier self-education movements, and inadequate education funding.

And for David Anderegg, author of Nerds: Who They Are and Why We Need Them, it's anti-nerd stereotypes: the growing antipathy that Americans in particular direct at so-called nerds or geeks, one of the few remaining groups which it’s still socially acceptable to mock.

Existential aimlessness; the digital revolution; religious fundamentalism; self-esteem; education spending; prejudice against nerds. Haven't we covered it all?

But what about Reform Math, Reform Science, and influential education experts like Deanna Kuhn, who shrug off knowledge and above-basic skills, asserting that the main concepts today's students need are inquiry and "argumentation" (which, if Kuhn is preaching what she practices, means argumentation by assertion, not by logical analysis of empirical data).

When it comes to that for which schools are most obviously responsible, why are so many of us--not just those with vested interests--so ready to point fingers everywhere else?  

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