Saturday, January 30, 2016

Is This Where It All Leads?


Rick Salutin asks an interesting question in today's Toronto Star: Is the rise of Donald Trump connected to the decline of public education in the United States? Salutin has Trump's number:

I’m not saying Trump is stupid nor is everything he expresses; his blasts against trade deals that undermine U.S. jobs are on point. Rather, it’s the willingness to unconditionally embrace someone so boorish, bullying, lacking self-awareness, childishly vain and demagogic — who says repeatedly: Don’t bother thinking, I’ll do it for you. (And “You’ll love it.”) In their dreams his Canadian analogues — Stephen Harper, Jason Kenney, Mike Harris — never came close.

He wonders if the fact that so many Americans don't see Trump for who he is has anything to do with their inability to think:

A chunk of the answer lies in the state of public education in the U.S. and its obsession with testable, measurable skills in reading, writing and math. But isn’t that what schools there were always about — the 3Rs? No, actually. The U.S. founding fathers were offspring of the Enlightenment. They believed public schools should allow everyone, regardless of station, to learn to think well, in order to act wisely as citizens and voters. That was their aim and main “test.”

An 1830 state report said poor kids needed more than “simple acquaintance with words and ciphers” — i.e., literacy and numeracy; above all they needed what we’d today call a “citizenship agenda.” A century later educational philosopher John Dewey said it was important not just to be able to read but to distinguish between “the demagogue and the statesman.” Sounds vaguely useful in 2016. When did all that citizenship/thinking go out of vogue?

Advocates for education -- particularly on the Right -- have become obsessed with standardized testing. But passing a standardized test measures how well you can follow instructions -- not how well you can think. And, they insist, the best way to teach kids how to pass standardized tests is in charter schools. The Bush and Obama years have been:

the age of expanding inequality and the rise of the billionaires. They — with Bill Gates in the lead — promoted “disruption” of public schools and their replacement by publicly funded, basically private, charter schools. Netflix founder Reed Hastings is now pouring money in. He laments that California is only at 8 per cent of kids in charters while New Orleans, where he was CEO, is at 90 per cent. Meanwhile, all the evidence says the huge stress on testing failed; even Obama acknowledges it. His education secretary, Arne Duncan, recently resigned and returned to Chicago.

The men who wrote the American constitution knew that democracy could not survive without a public education system. Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virgina in 1819. Next door, the University of North Carolina opened its doors in 1789. Both institutions were devoted to the principle that informed, critical thinkers would be able to identify a demagogue when they saw one.

In Ontario, we have also gone through the mania of standardized tests. They were introduced by Mike Harris' government under the supervision of a Minister of Education who dropped out of school after grade 11.

Salutin rightly asks, "Is this where it all leads?"


Lorne said...

One of the things I have long lamented in Ontario, Owen, is the fact that history is not mandatory throughout the four years leading to a diploma. Without a foundation for analysis, people can be easily manipulated by the demagogues amongst us.

Owen Gray said...

I taught in Quebec and Ontario, Lorne. In Quebec, students were required to take history in Grade 10. But they didn't have to pass it to get a high school diploma. We keep making the same mistakes because we don't know history.

Toby said...

Some of the best instruction I had was elementary logic, including logical fallacies. Although that was 50 years ago I can usually tell when I am being conned.

Owen Gray said...

We used to teach logical fallacies in grade 13 English, Toby. Unfortunately, the Harris government got rid of grade 13 and -- to my knowledge -- logical fallacies are no longer part of the curriculum.

Steve said...

Ted Cruz the most dangerous logical fallacy on the planet, next to Faux news

Owen Gray said...

Possessing a law degree from Harvard doesn't necessarily make one wise, Steve.