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Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Education will solve all our social problems

I'm planning to teach a seminar on education next year, divided into two parts: the first on ideas about education through the Enlightenment (Plato, Aristotle, Renaissance humanism, Locke, Rousseau), and the second on the philosophy of education in America (Franklin, Rush, Mann, Dewey, Arendt, Freire, the debate in political theory over the Mozert case and the goals of civic education). And then a few concluding sessions on contemporary policy arguments over funding, size, choice, etc. (Incidentally, do you have some other ideas for readings I should assign in this class? I am probably interested in them.)

I've been thinking about this course and the overarching questions that might animate it for several years, but over the past year, I've been repeatedly struck by a view - an article of faith, really - that my students insist on: whenever we discuss any American social phenomenon that could be understood as a problem, like inequality, poverty, technocracy, political participation, media bias, and so on, the solution they propose to it is always more education. More education for the poor, more civic education, more education in discerning fact from fiction, more education in good nutrition and lifestyle choices, just more education, for everyone in every way. Their faith in education's power to fix things is seemingly unbounded. I suspect that this faith is in part due to how much education has done for them personally; they're mostly academic high-achievers. But a substantial part of it is just faith, totally groundless and utopian.

So in addition to the themes I previously wanted to structure this class around, like the tension between equality and excellence in democratic educational philosophy, I now think I need to address this faith in education as universal panacea. But how? I especially want to find a way to show that our great faith in education's omni-transformative power is actually undermining education's effectiveness at every level. How might this argument be made through readings? And how might it be made without disparaging the real (but limited) power of education?

Monday, April 24, 2017

What's good on the internet

- The students of the University of Utopia only really care about "finance, football, and fraternities." And other considerations on the history of general education.

- Aristotle's advice column:
The function of an animal is to serve the needs of human beings. This is both natural and expedient. Your son’s point, that animals which are beautiful should not be eaten, is a valid one, as beautiful animals fulfill our desire for beauty. However, the statement that cows are beautiful is false. No animal that is very small or very large can be beautiful.
- Epistolary romances are a lot more exciting when you're at war and one of the parties is working on the Manhattan Project.

- Indian spelling bee fanatics: Truly a wonderful article. This exchange perfectly captures both the stupid reductionism of democratic educational thinking and its democratic correctives:
“I can give you a different perspective on spelling bees. But these guys won’t like it,” he said. His name was Kalyan Mysore, and he was there with his son, who was participating in the vocabulary bee but had stopped spelling. “You expend effort in this, you won’t get anything out of it beyond doing well in the spelling bee. Because these days, we have word processors, spell-check. So I decided to keep him away from spelling bees.”

The spelling dads nodded in a we-hear-you-but sort of way. “We used to feel that,” Satish said. “The difference is, my daughter is really good at it.” [...]
I mentioned my encounter with Kalyan Mysore, the spelling skeptic. “I call that ignorant,” he said. I suggested that the argument seemed like a decent one: What, after all, is the point of this? Mirle turned to me with derision. “Tell me, what does Usain Bolt use the hundred-meter dash for?” I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to answer. “Nothing,” he said...
Later, Mirle told another spelling dad what I’d relayed to him about the question of purpose. “No, no, no,” the man said. He turned to me with an apothegm at the ready. “As Mahatma Gandhi said, ‘Everything you do is insignificant, but you have to do it.’ ”