Confessions of an Edu-Traitor
I am an Edu-Traitor. I am a college professor. What I am about to say may well be perceived as supporting attitudes thought to be against the interests and well-being of college professors. Here goes: I do not think going to university should be the be-all and end-all of K-12 education. The importance of going to college should be intrinsically the rationale by which we justify public support of higher education. Higher education is incredibly valuable, even precious, for many. But it is bad for individuals and society to be retrofitting learning all the way back to preschool, as if the only skills valuable, vital, necessary in the world are the ones that earn you a B.S., BA, or a graduate and professional degree.
Do I think it is criminal that we are de-funding higher education now? Yes. Do I think it is appalling to think we are charging larger and larger tuitions at state institutions (and private ones, but that is a different issue)? Of course. Is it shocking that such a rich country is not supporting free education? Absolutely. Do I believe there are benefits that accrue from a highly educated workforce, with an appreciation of an array of subjects (liberal arts to computer science) that are not strictly pre-professional training? Definitely. But here’s the Edu-Traitor part: Do I believe we need to justify the investment in higher education in terms of it being a necessity for the 21st century for everyone? Absolutely not.
We justify higher ed so often because many of the careers of the 21st century need (reformed, definitely it needs to be reformed) higher ed. But many occupations do not. That is not my main concern, however. I argue that, right now, we are deforming the entire enterprise of education, from preschool onward, by insisting it be measured implicitly by the standard of, "Will this help you get into college?" The result is the devaluation of myriad important ways of learning that are not, strictly speaking, "college material."
The world of work -- the world we live in -- is so much more complex than the quite narrow scope of learning measured and tested by college entrance exams and in college courses. There are so many viable and important and skilled professions that cannot be outsourced to either an exploitative Third World sweatshop or a computer, that require face-to-face presence, and a bucketload of skills – but that do not require a college education: the full range of IT workers, web designers, body workers (such as deep tissue massage), yoga and Pilates instructors, fitness educators, hairdressers, retail workers, food industry professionals, entertainers and entertainment industry professionals, construction workers, dancers, artists, musicians, entrepreneurs, landscapers, nanny’s, elder-care professionals, nurse's aids, dog trainers, cosmetologists, athletes, sales people, fashion designers, novelists, poets, furniture makers, auto mechanics, and on and on.
All those jobs require specialized knowledge and intelligence, but most people who end up in those jobs have had to fight for the special form their intelligence takes because, throughout their lives, they have seen never seen their particular ability and skill set represented as a discipline, rewarded with grades, put into a textbook, or tested on an end-of-grade exam. They have had to fight for their identity and dignity, their self-worth and the importance of their particular genius in the world, against a highly structured system that makes knowledge into a hierarchy with creativity, imagination, and the array of so-called "manual skills" not just at the bottom but absent.
Everyone benefits from more education. No one benefits from an educational system that defines learning so narrowly that whole swaths of human intelligence, skill, talent, creativity, imagination, and accomplishment do not count.
I have been teaching in higher ed since I was 25. I am a passionate and dedicated college teacher, a researcher, and I’ve been privileged to teach at many kinds and types of institutions. And I think we have education all wrong. Since the end of the 19th century, with the birth of the modern research university and the beginning of professional schools of education and graduate schools for training teachers, the grail of all education, from preschool to the present, is implicitly higher education. All of the multiple ways that we learn in the world, all the multiple forms of knowing we require in order to succeed in a life of work, is boiled down to an essential hierarchical subject matter tested in a way to get one past the entrance requirements and into a college. Actually, I agree with Ken Robinson that, if we are going to be really candid, we have to admit that it’s actually more narrow even than that: we’re really, implicitly training students to be college professors. That is our tacit criterion for "brilliance." For, once you obtain the grail of admission to higher ed, you are then disciplined (put into majors and minors) and graded as if the only end of your college work were to go on to graduate school where the end is to prepare you for a profession, with university teaching of the field at the pinnacle of that profession.
The abolishing of art, music, physical education, and shop from schools means that the requirement for excellence has shrunk more and more right at the time when creativity, imagination, dexterity, adaptability to change, and all the rest require more, not less, diversity. The shrinking of "what counts" would be counterproductive and dehumanizing in any era, but in this world of constant, global change it is simply destructive. (For an excellent and inspiring and witty discussion of this topic, I highly recommend Ken Robinson’s TED talk.)
By funneling all the different ways we learn the world into a very few subjects that count and are tested – what I’ll call "pre-professorial training" – we make education hell for so many kids, we undermine their skills and their knowledge, we underscore their resentment, we emphasize class division and hierarchy, and we shortchange their future and ours, underestimating talents that should be nourished and thereby forcing them to fight for themselves against odds, giving them obstacles to their own integrity and self-worth and value to fight when we should be giving them inspiration to flourish.
I’m appalled that we judge learning in such narrow collegiate terms as that which is taught in college and "gets you into" college. Decoupling the goal of "going to college" from the goal of “learning” is not actually detrimental to the importance of higher ed for society; it’s not even detrimental to college professors, those putatively in a position to be most privileged by the current system. The opposite is the case. For now, many kids who have the means are going to college because they are supposed to. That’s not good for anyone. Conversely, many brilliant kids who passionately want to go to college cannot afford to. Another travesty. And, finally, many brilliant, talented young people are dropping out of high school because they see high school as implicitly “college prep” and they cannot imagine anything more dreary than spending four more years bored in a classroom when they could be out actually experiencing and perfecting their skills in the trades, the skills, and the careers that inspire them.
Right now, they feel like failures. They are not. They are only "failures" if judged by the narrow hierarchy of values by which we currently construct educational success. As an educator, I want to change that hierarchy of values in order to support a more abundant form of education that honors the full range of intellectual possibility and potential for everyone, regardless of whether they are college material or not.
Cathy Davidson is Ruth F. DeVarney Professor of English and John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Duke University. Her most recent book is Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work and Learn (Viking Press). This essay is adapted from a post she wrote on her blog at the Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Advanced Collaboratory.
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