Alfie Kohn and Real Education Reform

What Does it Mean to Be Well Educated? - Alfie KohnUnlike most people, I believe in a kind of neo-classicism in education. I think that a liberal education is what binds us together. Increasingly, of course, it is what tears us apart. In particular, the current form of radical conservatism is based almost entirely on a large section of the country placing one piece of ancient literature above all others and have decided that far from being literature, it is The Truth™. And if it were, that would work. We could all know our Bibles inside, outside, and backwards and it would provide us with social cohesion. But it would be a shriveled shell of a culture.

But a truly liberal set of cultural touchstones are important to binding us together: Homer, Virgil, Dante, Rabelais, Cervantes, Shakespeare, and so on. I would include the books of the great religions too, although there is already a great deal of Christian thought just in that list. I think it is important that I get a reference that you make of these people who have been so important in shaping our culture. Of course I’m not set on these people (except Homer and Cervantes). I’m well aware of the lack of diversity. We can argue (no doubt violently) about what should be our cultural touchstones. But there shouldn’t be a question that we need them.

Now conservative education reformers would say, “Exactly!” And they would put together lists of the hundred “great books” that every high school student must read. And they would design tests with questions like, “What is the name of the character who manipulates Othello into murdering his wife?” This is madness! When I talk about “arguing,” I’m not talking about doing it at teaching conferences and in Congress. The culture creates its own touchstones organically.

I’ve been reading a couple of books by Alfie Kohn, the great progressive education reform advocate and thinker. Right now, I’m reading What Does it Mean to Be Well Educated? And More Essays on Standards, Grading, and Other Follies. At the end of the title essay, he mentions the great John Dewey with regards to what I would think we should all agree is what education is ultimately about, “Dewey reminded us that the goal of education is more education. To be well educated, then, is to have the desire as well as the means to make sure that learning never ends.”

This dovetails nicely into what I think is the biggest problem with education today. Few ever get to the point of wanting to read Homer because they are too busy trying to make ends meet. Now liberals and conservatives alike proudly announce that the purpose of education should be to make getting a good job easier—which just so happens to provide the business community with cheap, government trained, workers. Kohn starts his second essay, “Turning Learning into a Business,” with a quote from educational thinker Jonathan Kozol:

The best reason to give a child a good school… is so that child will have a happy childhood, and not so that it will help IBM in competing with Sony… There is something ethically embarrassing about resting a national agenda on the basis of sheer greed.

But make no mistake: most people in the education “reform” movement are not embarrassed by this. In fact, this idea that the best thing you can do for a child is give him a good education that will provide him with a good job goes along with another conservative canard: the idea that income inequality is all about education. It isn’t all about education. And education reform should not be about trying to fix the much bigger problem of income inequality. And anyway: one reason our educational system is so screwed up is income inequality. In general, rich kids get great (And liberal!) educations. Poor kids get multiplication tables grounded into their brains.

I’m sure I’ll have more to say on this topic soon. As it is I find it deeply disturbing.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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