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Educational Coordinates

Let’s continue to establish the necessary contexts for thinking about education. When we’re trying to figure what kind of education our society needs, we need to ask, first, whether we’re talking about some base level of education that we think everyone should have, or specialized forms of education that some people surely need to have, but not all.

Related to that, we need to ask what age group we’re talking about: preschool and elementary, middle school, high school, or college (and even post-collegiate).

And then we also need to pursue the most neglected question of all: Who’s asking? There are several parties concerned with education, and they don’t all have the same values, commitments, and interests. What parents want from their children’s schooling will often be in some tension with how governments will envision the education of citizens. In many parts of the world religious organizations have created educational systems, whose priorities will often be different from those of parents and governments alike. And what about the students themselves? What do they want, and to what extent should their desires be considered?

These are the first coordinates we need to keep in mind before we start talking about education.

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15 Comments To "Educational Coordinates"

#1 Comment By john personna On October 14, 2012 @ 1:19 pm

I would presume, as someone without formal training in child development, that there is a consensus on which skills should be encouraged (Asian Mom: “Work harder!”) at each grade level. I’d guess the question “does everyone need algebra?” is wrong, and “is algebra good for the brain?” is better. (“Do your homework!”)

#2 Comment By Lulu On October 14, 2012 @ 1:34 pm

There is a the-State-knows-better-than-the-parent ethos in education that I find a bit scary, especially in what is considered appropriate reading material. “The Lovely Bones,” a novel that deals with a fourteen-year-old girl’s rape, murder, and dismemberment, was “recommended reading” for a twelve-year-old friend. When her father took the book away and sent a note to the teacher explaining why, he was treated as if he was locking his daughter up in a dungeon.

This is nothing new, I guess, but it’s unnerving nonetheless.

#3 Comment By Lulu On October 14, 2012 @ 1:39 pm

Is my example an illustration of your “Who’s asking?” coordinate? Or am I just babbling?

Still–“The Lovely Bones” for a twelve-year-old girl? I was traumatized by “The Red Pony” at that age!

#4 Comment By Alan Jacobs On October 14, 2012 @ 2:38 pm

Seems like a good example to me!

#5 Comment By Aaron in Israel On October 14, 2012 @ 3:13 pm

“Who’s asking?” is a great question, maybe the most important – along with its follow-up, “Who decides?”

One extreme view is that that’s the only serious question. In other words, “Decide who decides, and then let them decide.” After that, all the rest is just kibbitzing. Libertarians would presumably endorse this view. So would Bolsheviks.

I don’t endorse that view, though. All those entities that are asking – the parents, the state, the religious community, maybe even the students if they’re old enough – all of them legitimately have some say in the decision. That means looking at it from each of those viewpoints, as Mr. Jacobs reminds us.

#6 Comment By Alan Jacobs On October 14, 2012 @ 3:23 pm

That’s exactly right, Aaron. In some countries it doesn’t matter who’s asking because the government decides, period. American culture, for better or worse, involves more decision-makers.

#7 Comment By Aaron in Israel On October 14, 2012 @ 3:27 pm

This isn’t the only blog talking about education at the moment. [1] from the Hannah Arendt Center blog. It touches on the question raised above, “Who’s asking?”. As the post says, Arendt believed, very controversially, that education is rightly part of the private sphere, not the social or political sphere.

I’d highly recommend her excellent essays “Reflections on Little Rock” (a short article available on the Internet) and “The Crisis in Education” for anyone interested in her controversial views on education. Her “Little Rock” essay especially argues that education should be private, not social or political. People are still discussing these essays half a century after they were written.

#8 Comment By Aaron in Israel On October 14, 2012 @ 3:33 pm

P.S. Re my above comment, while “Reflections on Little Rock” is available on the Internet, I don’t think her replies to her critics of that article are also available online. They’re printed along with the original article in Responsibility and Judgment. Well worth reading, for anyone who likes the original article.

#9 Comment By Franklin Evans On October 14, 2012 @ 4:21 pm

Hoping that my clarification on the other thread is sufficient — and taking any blame for it falling short — your questions here are exactly what it needed, both in the asking and answering.

It wasn’t that long ago — my own K-12 years from 1961 to 1974 — that the answers seemed simple. People could make a choice of nearer-term entrance into a job market of practical skills such as mechanics or craft, or decide to commit to another four (or more) years of academic advancement. For us, they were called “vo-tech” and “college prep”. SAT scores were something we tried to maximize as part of our college application process, not to bolster the reputation of our high school.

The standard for both “tracks” was competency — at the very least — in literacy and analysis; or reading and comprehending, and logic and calculation. We had a broader and more accurate view of “reading, writing and ‘rithmetic” in my opinion. We were measured against a competency standard and not against how well our fellow students were doing. Some of us knew we could get A’s if we worked hard enough, others were proud to get C’s in some subjects. It was an individual metric, not a goad of pride or shame.

#10 Comment By john personna On October 14, 2012 @ 4:28 pm

Perhaps my trust in experts comes from the fact that I was raised by a dad with a Masters in Child Development. People used to ask me if I was a rebel as a kid, I’d say I had no chance, I was raised by professionals.

That’s what makes me defer on the whole thing. I can’t imagine what was up with “The Lovely Bones” but I expect it was non-standard.

(My dad was a pro without hobby-horses which is important.)

#11 Comment By PDGM On October 14, 2012 @ 9:26 pm

All ideas about education, at whatever level, if they’re at all thought through are premised upon some sense of what a human being is, and how humans are related to the world around them, or the worlds around them for those whose beliefs extend beyond the empirical, i.e. those who are not simply materialists.

In other words, all educational systems are educations into a culture, a belief system, and either a metaphysical view of the world, or else a view of the world that holds metaphysics asks meaningless questions, or questions only answerable in the private realm.

The USA, which has a non-aggressively secular (in comparison with France) enlightenment form of government, has one set of values with which it tries to shape students; this set of values has shifted significantly towards the secular over the past forty or so years. Various Christian creeds have different, somewhat overlapping beliefs: Catholics and more conservative Lutherans and Greek or Russian Orthodox, for example, will overlap more than Catholics and Baptists. But all of these have ideas that state schools do not share: ideas about the telos and origin of human life, and of the human relationship to the rest of creation. Likewise Muslims, Jews, and any other religious group: once they reach sufficient numbers, private education becomes a possibility or probability, depending upon the sense of comfort or discomfort with the surrounding general culture’s beliefs and values.

The more conservative the religious denomination is (or even where within the denomination a specific family is–Conservative Catholics are quite different from, say, the Kennedy clan), the more likely there is a significant divergence between what the state deems desirable in education, and what the religious beliefs of specific families entail.

Once these diverge enough, students will either be in religious schools, or will be home schooled. Some of the most obvious examples of this are Orthodox Jews, with the traditional Orthodox being almost wholly separatist in education, while Modern Orthodox are somewhat separate but more willing to engage modernity–their sons (and even in some cases perhaps daughters) will become doctors and scientists, while the sons of the Hasidic Jews will become yeshiva buchers; not sure what happens to post puberty daughters for Hasidim.

In the case of Orthodox Jews, you can see the engagement or disengagement from modernity in the divide between Modern Orthodox and Hasidim. Modern Orthodox consider learning about post-enlightenment science a positive thing; Hasidim, generally, do not. To move further leftward, Reform and Conservative Jews may not have any problem at all with public high schools and public universities and with the subjects taught as essential there. They have accepted the divide between public and private spheres; and I can’t help but wonder whether this also affects their plummeting numbers; the more liberal the form of Judaism is, the less likely that the religion will make it into following generations.

It seems to me that, in early education, people, almost regardless of background, will agree by and large: you want your 5, 6, 7 year old to learn how to read, and how to do basic math. (Though again, separatist believers–Hasidic Jews, Old Order Amish– might want certain languages to be more basic to their young children than English. But as you move up, the possibility of disagreement goes up; and with the possibility of disagreement, the likelihood of pulling out your children and educating them separately, away from the demands and –from your point of view–the distortions of a purely secular education.

#12 Comment By Geoff LaForte On October 14, 2012 @ 9:27 pm

One thing nobody has yet mentioned is the relationship of education to culture. Probably almost everybody regularly reading this website has an interest in preserving what we can loosely refer to as “Western Civilization”. It is a bit hard to see how one can really be a conservative in this culture without that. But how is this going to happen without some sort of explicit state support for studying history, literature, philosophy, and the fine arts? Even though none of that leads to skills that are of much use in the job market (unless one is planning on being something statistically insignificant like a history professor).

ON a separate question, Do others have the same feeling I do that lack of exposure to enough information via watering everything down to the lowest common denominator is a much bigger problem in general than (hopefully isolated) incidents of age-inappropriate assignments like 12-year-olds reading “The Lovely Bones”?

#13 Comment By cka2nd On October 15, 2012 @ 10:58 am

I was in a 2-year accelarated program in Junior High School in the 70’s and had the same English teacher in 7th and 9th grade (8th being skipped). In 7th grade, we read Antigone, Beowulf and Macbeth (my brother, in a standard class, was assigned Gone With the Wind). In 9th, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Samuel Beckett’s Endgame. In other words, lots of blood, gore and murder, not to mention the aftermath of nuclear war. I cherish those two years – even with their weeks of diagraming sentences – and the memory of the late Mr. Morris, and am proud as hell of the texts we studied.

Lulu, is it possible that your friend’s father would have accepted the rape, death and dismemberment of a 14-year old if they were included in an acknowledged classic rather than a contemporary novel like The Lovely Bones? You know, just like Gene Roddenberry “snuck” 20th Century issues into Star Trek.

Folks here often complain of the sanitizing of fairy tales, myths and the lives of the saints for children today on the one hand, and the crudity of much of popular culture on the other. Your friend’s father may have taken the right course of action with his daughter, but I wouldn’t be too quick to rule contemporary fiction dealing with difficult and/or shocking subjects out for all, or even most, 12-year olds.

#14 Comment By Franklin Evans On October 15, 2012 @ 11:39 am

The main character is an orphan, whose parents were violently murdered in his presence. He is raised by relatives who hate him (or at least what he represents) and subject him to non-stop bullying, and his education is one dangerous, potentially fatal mishap after another. He meets people who love him, only to see them murdered or forcibly distanced from him to protect them.

That’s your brief and very inadequate description of the pre-eminent young adult fiction of the last 15 years, the adventures of Harry Potter, published by that pre-eminent publisher of all genres of literature for children and young adults, Scholastic.

The thematic elements are not what need to be “vetted”. It’s how they are presented, whether they speak to an age group as peers or condescendingly. Rowling knows her craft, as did [do] L’Engle, Seuss, C.S. Lewis, Le Guin, Heinlein and a host of others. They may not have set out to write specifically for an age group, or they may have had an age group firmly in mind, but their work speaks to all ages, and that is my standard for what I pushed my children to read.

#15 Comment By Naturalmom On October 15, 2012 @ 11:29 pm

I get the point of cka2nd and Franklin Evans about how content is presented, rather than content itself. I agree to a large extent. However, in Lulu’s defense, I think a modern treatment of the rape of a young girl is quantitatively different than “conventional” blood and gore. I can’t articulate why exactly, but as a former young girl, violent rape scenes in books were *highly* disturbing in a way that murder scenes were not. (They still are, in fact!) The first one I ever read was when I was about 14. I did not know that it contained a violent rape scene or I would not have picked up the book. I was pretty traumatized — it’s still a difficult memory — and didn’t finish reading even the chapter, let alone the book. However, I remained an avid murder mystery fan, and I can handle general gore, though not graphic descriptions of torture. To this day, I avoid books with graphic depictions of torture, including rape, which I consider a form of torture. There’s something psychological going on that makes a difference.

I introduced my book-buff 12 year old daughter to Tony Hillerman this year, starting with “Dance Hall of the Dead” in which a teenage boy is nearly beheaded by his murderer. Why don’t I fear this will disturb her? I don’t know, maybe because he doesn’t get too graphic. In any case, I didn’t fear that, and it did not seem disturb her greatly. But I would never give her a book with a graphic rape scene in it and would be *highly* upset if one were assigned to her in school. I have not read The Lovely Bones, so I don’t know how graphic it is. If it’s treated with innuendo and suggestion that might go over a naive young person’s head, then I would still be unhappy, but perhaps not livid.