Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Very Purpose of School

Writing may be even worse than reading.  It takes very little time to notice and buy (or check out) a book that looks interesting, but it takes hours to read it.  It takes even longer to write a book or a blog post than it takes to read it.  I've got twenty-seven posts in my drafts folder now, and it would be longer if I hadn't simply deleted some of them as lost causes.  (I'm also carrying around some ideas in my head that haven't gotten as far as the drafts folder, but I still intend to write about them.)  If I finish this one today, there will be only twenty-six.   I'm making progress.

A couple of interesting articles went up at the Atlantic last week -- well, two weeks ago now -- and while I doubt the writers had consulted each other, their subject matter overlapped in a significant way.  I meant to write about this right away, and then my Right Wing Acquaintance Number One linked to one of the articles on Facebook, but then I was getting ready to go out of town for the weekend, so once again I'm behind.

The first article I read was Amanda Ripley's "The Case Against High-School Sports."  The lede reads, "The United States routinely spends more tax dollars per high-school athlete than per high-school math student—unlike most countries worldwide. And we wonder why we lag in international education rankings?"  The trouble is, the US doesn't really "lag in international education rankings."  We aren't Number One, which is of course vitally important to many people, but we do quite well given our general lack of interest in matters intellectual, and the hostility to public education among our political elites.

Ripley begins by telling us about a fifteen-year-old Korean girl whose family moved to the US two years ago.  She's bemused by the prominence of sports, especially extramural sports, in her new high school.  A great deal of "education" money is spent on sports, facilities for sports, and support for teams that compete with the teams of other schools.
By contrast, in South Korea, whose 15-year-olds rank fourth in the world (behind Shanghai, Singapore, and Hong Kong) on a test of critical thinking in math, Jenny’s classmates played pickup soccer on a dirt field at lunchtime. They brought badminton rackets from home and pretended there was a net. If they made it into the newspaper, it was usually for their academic accomplishments.

Sports are embedded in American schools in a way they are not almost anywhere else. Yet this difference hardly ever comes up in domestic debates about America’s international mediocrity in education. (The U.S. ranks 31st on the same international math test.) The challenges we do talk about are real ones, from undertrained teachers to entrenched poverty. But what to make of this other glaring reality, and the signal it sends to children, parents, and teachers about the very purpose of school?
These are good questions, but the way Ripley frames the issue makes me suspicious.  She doesn't name the "test on critical thinking on math" which ranks South Korea fourth, and the US thirty-first.  But those rankings shouldn't be taken at face value.  It sounds like Ripley might have been referring to the tests the late Gerald Bracey dissected here, particularly the Programme for International Student Assessment or PISA.  (I also found this commentary, which rebuts Bracey with an anecdote and a rhetorical question.)  There's too much information in that article for me to quote it, so I'll just urge interested readers to click through and read it.  If you find it useful, try this one as well, and then this one.  But the gist is that international comparisons based on average scores on standardized tests aren't worth very much, except as grist for alarmist attacks on public education.  But that's okay, we must maintain our international competitiveness: without world-class alarmist attacks on public education, America will forfeit its right to be a world leader.

This doesn't mean, of course, that I favor the current emphasis on sports, in schools at any level or in American society generally.  This is where I agreed with RWA1, who denounced the mandatory pep sessions in his high school: I also tried to get out of attending them and when that failed, refused to participate.  I've never gone to an IU football or basketball game, not on principle but because I just don't give a damn; indeed, I would prefer that IU lose all its games, and wish there were some way that its competitors could lose all of theirs.  (Just today, I read an interesting bit in Lawrence W. Levine's The Opening of the American Mind [Beacon Press, 1996]: the literature professor Lionel Trilling "surmised that the problem of diminishing social homogeneity and unity was behind Columbia's restoration of football in 1915, in 'an effort to create the sense of collegiate solidarity among the students" [59].)   I also remember seeing a rash of student op-eds in the IU newspaper some years ago, which declared that extramural sports were important, because "students need something to cheer for," which doesn't make much sense but fits with Trilling's speculation.

Then there's this report of a California high school that "awesomely crown[ed a] trans girl Homecoming Queen."  I'm sorry, but I just cannot get very excited about this historic breakthrough: not because I don't sympathize with trans girls, but because Homecoming Queen competitions are another aspect of American school life that needs to be abolished.  Becoming the first trans Homecoming Queen, as a life goal, is like becoming the first trans Heather -- though that milestone has probably already been passed too: no achievement to be proud of.  (This article appeared on a pop-feminist site that ordinarily would be sharply critical of beauty pageants; why did they change their tune when a trans girl wins one?)  But I digress.

Ripley's article was probably written as a companion to an article in the print version of the magazine, Hilary Levey Friedman's "When Did Competitive Sport Take Over American Childhood?"  That's a good question, but Friedman doesn't really answer it.  Less obviously related, until I read it, was a post by James Fallows: "What the CEO of Facebook Has in Common with a Michigan School Administrator."  It was built around the eponymous gentlemen's agreement on the matter of immigration reform.  Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress that he came to support immigration reform not because of "the usual (and correct) tech-world argument that U.S. companies do better, and so does the U.S. as a whole, if America continues to attract and welcome an outsized share of the world's talent."  Rather, his Road-to-Damascus moment came
after he began doing volunteer-teacher work in a local public school. He found that one of his best students wasn't interested in going to college, not for any academic reasons but because of a legal barrier. The student's parents had made their way to the U.S. illegally when he was little. He grew up here and sounded and looked like other American students. But because of his undocumented/illegal status, he would not be eligible for admission to most colleges or for financial aid if he did get in. As Zuckerberg learned, this limbo affects a lot of students who are already in America, whose only legal transgression was to have been brought here when little, but whose gray-zone status keeps them from taking a major step toward future employability.
Funny thing here, though: although Zuckerberg protested, perhaps too much, that he didn't want immigration laws to be changed so as to get more international talent on his payroll, his argument seems to have circled back to just that point.  And there are problems with that.  Not because it isn't heartbreaking that young people who grew up in the US are being excluded not only from higher education but from many other important aspects of American life; of course it is. It's because it isn't just about their "employability."

After all, it's likely that as US citizens, these kids will be unattractive to many American employers anyway, because they'll cost too much.  One reason why American businessmen are calling for "immigration reform" is so that they can import highly-qualified college graduates, who were probably trained at the expense of the governments and therefore of the taxpayers in their home countries, on special visas for lower pay.  Guest workers, despite their legal immigration status, are still highly vulnerable to exploitation and mistreatment by their employers.  All this reinforces my sense that competition and the "competitiveness" that our wise leaders love to stress is harmful, not only to this country but to others.  It siphons from other countries the trained people they need to make better lives for the people who remain at home, after their governments have paid for their education, either at home or in the US and Europe.

But the specter of "employability" also raises questions that have always been contentious in discussions about education.  What is the purpose of a college education?  Is it to make its graduates "employable" in giant corporations like Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon, the financial sector, and so on?  It's a pious commonplace that education is not supposed to prepare students for employment, but to make them better, wiser, more rounded, citizens.  This kind of education isn't practical in the sense that would interest a captain of industry, but it's certainly practical in terms of dealing with business and with government, to ask not simply how to do things but why we do them, and then how to do something else if that seems desirable.

Just about everybody pays lip service to this ideal, but much of the discussion of higher education today focuses -- sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly -- on whether there's any point in going to college if it won't land you a better job when you graduate. And I fully agree that it's important to be able to support yourself when you reach adulthood.  But should schools and universities serve primarily as vocational schools for future employees at the public expense?  Why shouldn't big corporations train their own workers, at their own expense?

There's a lot of discussion and handwringing over skyrocketing student debt (desirable from the employers' point of view, so that employees will be afraid to lose their jobs for fear they won't be able to keep up their loan payments), and the more visible problem of unpaid internships (also desirable from the employers' viewpoint, all that yummy free labor -- contrary to the principles of free-market economics, most employers have never been able to see why workers shouldn't donate their services gratis rather than demanding to be paid for their time), and rightly so, but it misses the point.  Why should (merely potential) employees be paying to get the training that might get them a job?  If education were merely supposed to pasture and improve students' minds, they wouldn't be racking up debt in such amounts to get it; I imagine that there would be a good deal less demand for higher education in that case, but at least there'd be less confusion as to why students were seeking it.  And those who weren't interested in it should be trained in explicitly vocational programs, after they are hired.  (Some years ago a spectacularly foul person complained online that American schools are worthless, because a cashier at the drug store didn't recognize a newly-minted US coin.  But how could any school teach its students to recognize money that didn't exist yet?  The schools hadn't failed -- it was the management of the drug store.)

So I don't think I believe Mark Zuckerberg's professed reasons for his interest in immigration reform.  But just as good education doesn't mean supplying American business with job-ready workers, immigration reform isn't primarily (or at all?) about the future employability of young immigrants.  Well-educated, thoughtful graduates might be less interested in joining a corporate "family," after all.  Amanda Ripley's article is built on the same confusion about the purpose of education, expressed in confusion about the impact of school-based athletics on education.  (I think corporations -- which are often sponsors of sport at all levels -- would see sport's solidarity-building as a good thing.)  And come on, James Fallows: why should other countries care if "U.S. companies do better, and so does the U.S. as a whole, if America continues to attract and welcome an outsized share of the world's talent" -- especially at their expense?

Let me go back for a moment to the rhetorical question with which one writer rebutted (but didn't refute) Gerald Bracey's critique of international comparison testing.  After repeating an anecdote about a Chinese classroom in which a foreign visitor was dazzled by 40 students who explained "how to demonstrate two lines are parallel without using a proportional segment”, the writer asked: "Ask yourself two questions: Wouldn’t you want American kids to know geometry that well? Wouldn’t you want them disciplined and paying attention in class?"  My answer would be more questions:  Why would I want American kids to know geometry that well?  What else would they be learning in school besides geometry?  Could the author of this article explain that theorem?  Since I presume he couldn't, does he feel that he's uneducated, and can't get through life successfully as a result?  And does he think that "discipline" is the essence of education?  That article embodies a lot of what is wrong with the debate on schooling in America.