Tuesday, February 19, 2013

You Don't Need No Stinkin' Education

On December 24th I wrote about tea party policies on education in Texas and how concerned many conservatives are about teaching kids to think critically. I wish I could say that was just an aberration, a temporary victim of the current partisan climate. Unfortunately,  it reveals a fundamental conservative willingness to educate but not empower. Such, of course, is not education but vocational training.  

Sara Robinson captures the contradiction embedded in the wholly false belief that conservatives and progressives alike support education because it is non-partisan:
The education of our children is a core cultural and political choice that reflects the deepest differences between liberals and conservatives.

The Conservative War On Education continues apace, with charters blooming everywhere, high-stakes testing cementing its grip on classrooms, and legislators and pundits wondering what we need those stupid liberal arts colleges for anyway. (Isn't college about job prep? Who needs to know anything about art history, anthropology or ancient Greek?)
Amid the din, there's a worrisome trend: liberals keep affirming right-wing talking points, usually without realizing that they're even right wing. Or saying things like, "The education of our children is a non-partisan issue that should exist outside of any ideological debate."
The hell it is. People who say stuff like this have no idea what they're talking about. The education of our children is a core cultural and political choice that reflects the deepest differences between liberals and conservatives -- because every educational conversation must start with the fundamental philosophical question: What is an education for?
Our answers to that question could not be more diametrically opposed.
Robinson proceeds to explain that difference: conservatives, especially the more authoritarian variety, have been pushing education, from grade school through college, as a training ground where one can acquire skill sets corporations want and are willing to pay for. This might seem reasonable to some; after all, why study in a field that offers poor employment prospects? However, it is a market-oriented interpretation that says the value of a college degree depends on the salary it commands. As such, your value to a corporation should be your prime educational motivation. Don't waste your time on anything that doesn't impress a potential employer.

It should be obvious, though apparently it isn't, that education-as-vocational-training is deeply contrary to one of the proudest achievements of the Western intellectual tradition; an authentic education that empowers individuals to think critically, evaluate complex issues, and to appreciate learning and scholarship not only because it gives meaning to the lives of individuals but because it is what makes us a civilization and not just employees.

Recently North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory, you can guess his party affiliation, publicly denounced certain educational choices students are making at state universities. It was as if he was reading from the "The Authoritarian's Guide to Education."
In a national radio interview Tuesday with Bill Bennett , U.S. Education Secretary during the Reagan administration, McCrory said there's a major disconnect between what skills are taught at the state's public universities and what businesses want out of college graduates.
“So I’m going to adjust my education curriculum to what business and commerce needs to get our kids jobs as opposed to moving back in with their parents after they graduate with debt," McCrory said, adding, "What are we teaching these courses for if they're not going to help get a job?"
McCrory said he doesn't believe state tax dollars should be used to help students at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill study for a bachelor's degree in gender studies or to take classes on the Swahili language.
“If you want to take gender studies that's fine. Go to a private school, and take it," McCrory said. "But I don't want to subsidize that if that's not going to get someone a job."
Where to begin? McCrory seems to think that broadening one's mind and learning real-life skills are mutually exclusive. For most students, they merely take a course or two; they don't major in subjects he disdains. It's called exploring new fields, expanding your mind, A.K.A an education. His argument, increasing voiced by conservatives, is that middle-class students--primarily those who attend state universities--should abandon scholarship as academic pretenses and just make themselves attractive to employers. He is telling the middle class to get a certification, not a diploma.

McCrory suggests that anyone wishing to study more academic subjects--he facetiously suggests Swahili, should attend a private college. Apparently only the wealthy should dabble in rarefied subjects; public schools are for training one to be a useful cog in the corporate wheel.

Swahili? Governor, your racism is showing. How many people at North Carolina public universities, which includes the excellent UNC-Chapel Hill, does he think actually study Swahili? Or gender studies, where he shows his sexism. And given the relatively poor showing of Americans with foreign languages and world affairs, you would think public officials would want to encourage our students to learn more about the outside world. 

He also reveals a distrust in the market mechanisms Republicans so often adore. Cannot students decide which courses are of value? Are not they best suited to decide what's best for themselves? The market will speak without meddling politicians interfering with individual choice. Isn't that the sermon conservatives preach?

Governor McCrory may want us to think he is just being practical, but he is promoting a social hierarchy that Southern whites have always favored, what I have called Dixification. If you really want to study for the personal enrichment, he says, do so at a private college, and have lots of money. Public colleges apparently should be relegated to vocational training. He has such a restrictive interpretation of what education is and what it should do that he thinks that offering serious academic choices to middle-class students is elitism.

He has it backwards.

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