Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Essentials

The art of reading as of learning is this:
to retain the essential, to forget the non-essential.
—Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, p. 14

Few people today would willingly agree with Hitler about anything. But when it comes to educational priorities, what should be taught and what should be cut, many people unwittingly share Hitler’s opinions about essentials and non-essentials.

The film October Sky (1999) portrayed the childhood of Homer Hickam, who grew up to become a scientist for NASA. Based on Hickam’s memoir, it relates his growing fascination with rocketry following the launch of Sputnik. His interest in outer space conflicted with the ideas of many of his educators. Living in a West Virginia town dominated by coal mining, few of his teachers wanted to encourage his “hobby.” The town’s chief industry was the coalmine, he was the son of a miner, and everyone in his position ended up working in the mine. Why should they teach him something he’ll never use? As educators, they only needed to instruct him in the essentials, namely those subjects that would make him a successful miner.

Before Brown v. The Topeka Board of Education the argument for segregation was based in part on similar reasoning. Since people thought African-Americans were congenitally predisposed for manual labor, they reasoned that they be taught in a different manner from Whites. Their education should consist solely of the essentials—practical information necessary for careers as laborers. For millennia, men used the same line of reasoning to give girls substandard educations or to deny them education entirely. Women were nothing more than baby-makers, so knowledge of reading and writing were inessential for them.

Sadly, the predominant educational philosophy in the United States still consists of variants on this argument: education is essentially about the skills necessary for an adult life, in particular job preparation. That’s it. Nothing else. Few people would admit to holding such a belief, but the next time there’s a budget crisis, see what gets cut as inessential. The budget priorities reflect the ideology that education consists primarily of job preparation. Nowadays education is no longer about creating new miners or manual laborers; but creating the next generation of mid-level managers is no less inhumane. It reduces people to their mere stations in life. Education in the United States is rarely about nourishing the individual.

There is an alternative to the reductive view of education. To express it, I want to refer to a biblical passage. The unnamed prostitute who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and dried them with her hair is traditionally identified as Mary Magdalene. Prostitution was an abject situation, which brought with it a great deal of social disdain—she was just a whore! But Jesus brought her into his inner circle and after the resurrection he appeared first before her. This is a powerful statement. Jesus was saying, in effect, what you do—or did—does not define you. No human being is just something… just a prostitute… just a woman… just a miner… just an African-American… or just an employee. By treating Mary Magdalene as valuable, Jesus acknowledged that all human beings transcend their stations in life. There is an inner essence to people that cannot be constrained to one single socially determined circumstance. Whatever their status, they possess dignity, they have a story, and they hold a perspective that warrants consideration.

This is where the humanities re-enter the discussion. No one would argue against teaching the basics. But they are considered basics for a reason. Education is about developing the whole person, not simply her or his eventual job title. To do so, it must pose deep questions. It needs to reveal the great ideas of world culture, and transmit the joys of the aesthetic experiences of art and music. It also must challenge comfortable assumptions of life and the world, and thus demonstrate to the students that there are other possibilities to the social order and predominant teachings around them. Education should treat its students as individuals, and give flight to their souls.

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