The United States is NOT going to compete with the rest of the world in terms of cheap labor or cheap raw materials. If we are going to compete productively with the rest of the world, it's going to be in terms of creativity and innovation. America has always had a capacity for hard work and stamina, but those qualities of creativity and ingenuity are not being nurtured and fostered by our current educational system. Dana Gioia, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts
In the era of No Child Left Behind, liberal learning is on the defensive. Federal law mandates academic gains only in reading and math, and its sanctions and interventions are triggered only by failure to make gains in those two areas. States, school districts and individual educators have understandably responded by ramping up the time spent teaching those two sets of core skills and prepping students to take tests in them, to the detriment of a "broad", "liberal" and "arts" education. As a result, the K-12 school system as a whole is failing today's students.
The public K-12 school system must provide every young American with an education that allows them to become fully functioning and contributing member of society. On this front we are not doing so well.
Whether as voters, advocates, or candidates, for a democracy to function well its citizens must be actively engaged in the decisions that affect their lives and those of their children. Yet too few Americans are so engaged. Consider so simple a gauge as voter turn-out for presidential elections, which declined steadily, from 1960 (63 percent of the voting population) to 2000 (51 percent,rising back to 55 percent in 2004). In off-year congressional elections, the figures are lower: 47 percent turnout in 1962, 37 percent in 2002. Such paltry rates of participation do not bode well for our democracy. (Fordham Foundation 2007). Is it any wonder that a society reared on multiple choice exams finds it difficult to decide on the candidate best suited to lead the city, state or nation?
What's needed today is more not less.
Years ago, most U.S. schools sought a balanced education for their students. In addition to the three R’s, along with generous exposure to history, math, science, literature, music, and art, young people also received training in debate, in values and character, and in speech. One could fairly say they were being groomed for leadership or at least for responsible citizenship. Today students sit in classrooms for extended periods of time (often without recess or physical education) and drill in the areas of reading and mathematics. Rote learning is not synonymous with deep thinking.
The world is a different place now.
Twenty years ago the average person spent their entire lifetime in the same job working for the same employer. Today the twenty-somethings call them "lifers". My daughter, (a twenty-something) and a college graduate has worked for 3 employers in three years. A movie studio, a fashion designer and now me -a playground designer. Granted not all college graduates land such unique positions or move so frequently. However their positions are unique. Some graduates I know are inventing video games, designing web pages, and writing for public relations firms. I trust, you agree that while reading and mathematics are necessary foundational skills for these positions, film production courses, technology courses, art and design courses best match the skills set needed for the previously described graduates.
Neighborhoods are more fluid, too. People move in and out with greater regularity. And today’s neighborhoods are more diverse in myriad ways. To compete successfully in a world where we will surely come in contact with many people whose primary language is not English, do business with a printer of Middle Eastern descent or painter of Hispanic descent, then negotiate with an importer from the Far East, it’s just not enough to know a lot about a narrow field. It’s important to be well versed in a broad array of technologies, cultural histories, and languages.
History offers many explanations for why people should acquire a broad, liberal-arts education. Prominent thinkers and leaders over the centuries have expounded on the virtues of such learning. Aristotle said liberal education is necessary if one is to act "nobly." Franklin said it was needed to cultivate "the best capacities" in humans. And Einstein found in liberal learning the locus for imagination.
The challenge we all face is not can Jane and Johnny Read.
But how WELL have we prepared Juan and Jolanta to create the latest gadget, lead an innovation team in creating the latest and greatest version of software, or design the yet unrealized innovation that will change the way we presently do something someone has yet to invent.
This blog represents reflections from Dr. Melinda Bossenmeyer on material from "Beyond the Basics: Achieving a Liberal Education for All Children. Fordham Foundation 2007.
Dr. Bossenmeyer is a retired public school principal and administrator from California State University San Marcos.