Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Obama on Education

Cross-posted at Rob Hardy for School Board

Yesterday, Democratic Presidential candidate Barack Obama gave a speech on education in Dayton, Ohio. Dayton and Canton have seen both candidates often during this campaign; the two cities in Ohio are among the nation's fastest declining cities, as the economy stagnates and industrial jobs are shipped overseas. The candidates go to Dayton and Canton to talk about the economy, and although Obama's speech was billed as an education speech, it was really about the economy. Here's a sample of the speech:

But it’s not just that a world-class education is essential for workers to compete and win, it’s that an educated workforce is essential for America to compete and win. Without a workforce trained in math, science, and technology and the other skills of the 21st century, our companies will innovate less, our economy will grow less, and our nation will be less competitive. If we want to outcompete the world tomorrow, we must out-educate the world today.

The focus of the speech is on educating students to compete in a global economy. It's about educating for technological innovation and economic growth. It's about training a workforce.

I read through the speech, keeping track of how many times Obama uses certain key words, and came up with these interesting, but unsurprising results: he uses the word economy 9 times; compete 8 times; math 8 times; science 7 times; technology 5 times; skills 5 times; and engineering 2 times.

What is missing here? He mentions English only once, and his only reference to language is when he says that students must be "fluent in the digital language of the 21st century economy." No mention of foreign languages, or literature, or music, or art. He speaks three times about innovation, but never about creativity. Compete eight times, but never cooperate.

I agree wholeheartedly with Sen. Obama that American students should excel in math and science, but to be complete and well-rounded human beings, students should also be enthusiastic readers, they should have an appreciation of art and music and history, and their creativity should be nurtured. In a global community, Americans should make the effort, as students do in most other countries, to become fluent in a second language. Yes, our students should be prepared to enter (to use my high school guidance counselor's favorite phrase) "the world of work," but education should also nurture the human spirit. Students should be prepared to appreciate and to discern, as well as to earn.

On the subject of standardized testing, Obama said:

[D]on’t tell us that the only way to teach a child is to spend most of the year preparing him to fill in a few bubbles on a standardized test. Let’s finally help our teachers and principals develop a curriculum and assessments that teach our kids to become more than just good test-takers. We need assessments that can improve achievement by including the kinds of research, scientific investigation, and problem-solving that our children will need to compete in a 21st century knowledge economy.

I appreciate his acknowledgment that there is more to education than successful test-taking, but again, I'm bothered by what's left out. Literature, art, music, history, foreign languages, physical education—none of these are included in the economic equation.

There's a principle in education sometimes called WYTIWYG: "what you test is what you get." When I was teaching Latin in a middle school in the 'burbs, I occasionally gave my students a few minutes at the end of class to get started on their Latin homework. I circulated through the classroom to give individual help to the students who needed it. I often found that students, when I wasn't looking, took out their math homework and started working on it.

"Why is it more important to use the time to work on math homework?" I asked.

"Because we're tested on it," one of my bright students said.

What you test is what you get.

This term I'm teaching Greek tragedy at Carleton. We're reading (in ancient Greek) Sophocles' Antigone. Ancient Greek has negligible economic value, but reading the Antigone has made me reflect on deep and enduring human problems, has focused and disciplined my mind, and has exposed me to a culture—that of fifth century Athens—illuminatingly different from my own. It has also made me reflect on the power and beauty of human language and the magnificent depth and breadth of human creativity.

Of all the marvels on earth, says Sophocles, there is nothing as marvelous as humanity.

Another playwright, Eugene Ionesco, said: "If one does not understand the usefulness of the useless and the uselessness of the useful, one cannot understand art. And a country where art is not understood is a country of slaves and robots.”

I can understand why Obama emphasized the economic utility of education in a speech delivered in struggling Dayton. We need useful skills in order to feed our families. But we also need the "useless" arts in order to feed our souls. And to keep ourselves from becoming slaves and robots.

Link: The prepared text of Obama's speech.

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