As a long-time English professor who has spent a good deal of energy trying to teach college students to write better, of course I am pleased to see The Atlantic take up the noble cause of making high-schoolers better writers. As a lover of poetry I get almost giddy when the same magazine promotes the teaching of poetry:

Supporting poetry in our schools is essential because it engages students’ thinking and it keeps language alive. Over the past 14 years, I have worked as a teacher in a variety of educational settings. I have found that all students can write. And one of the surest ways to awaken their love for language is poetry.

Yes! Amen!

But the cynic in me replies, Well, yes, you would think that, wouldn’t you? We’re all advocates for the essential character of our own disciplines, our own delights. And when others step in with their own advocacies?

“Well, writing is certainly important, but so many of our children just don’t know how to read.” Oh yes, that’s absolutely right, no, we wouldn’t want to focus on writing to the exclusion of reading. Indeed the two should be taught together, they can be mutually reinforcing.

“That’s all well and good, but have you looked at how badly American children do in science and math in comparison to other developed nations? We cannot possibly be economically competitive unless we make major improvements in our science and math education.” I couldn’t agree more, that is just essential, we can’t neglect mathematics and the sciences.

“I think you are all overlooking the biggest problem of all: our students’ ignorance of American history and their own nation’s political structures. How many of them can name the branches of government, or understand the system of checks and balances?” Absolutely! An excellent point. How can they participate meaningfully and thoughtfully in public life without knowing these things? Yes, those should certainly be top priority.

And the beat goes on. (What about the arts? what about music? What about other cultures? what about computer programming?) All the disciplines, all the arts, all the sciences are top priority, and top priority for everyone. So all of our students are, from an early age, exposed to just a little bit of everything, which means that they learn nothing thoroughly. And this superficiality derives necessarily from a generally admirable trait of the American character, the deep reluctance to formally close any doors to anyone. We like to keep all our options open, and still more do we determine to keep them open for our children. Only for the very obviously and extremely gifted do we make special provision, as in, for instance, the Illinois Math and Science Academy or LaGuardia Arts — and in these rare cases strong parental direction is typically the prime mover.

I would further argue that this desire to keep all doors open for all young people is the chief underlying cause of the diminishment of vocational or trade education, with consequences admirably outlined by Matthew Crawford.

The question is whether this a-little-of-everything-for-everyone model is serving us well. I think that if it ever did it has long since ceased to, and we need to ask harder questions about education that we are, as a society, temperamentally inclined to ask. We need to fortify ourselves for the asking of these questions by remembering that school is not the only venue for learning. These are issues I will pursue in future posts — not in a consistent or predictable way, mind you, but over a period of time. I welcome your thoughts!