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Saturday, January 31, 2009

Classical Liberal Education and Economic Meltdown

On January 30, 2009, Bill Moyers summarized the financial state of education in America:

BILL MOYERS: All across the country it's the same. State governments are staring down the barrel at $300 billion worth of deficits for the next two years. Twenty-six states already have either cut their budgets for higher education, raised tuition fees, or done both. When it comes to college affordability, this report from The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education gives a failing grade of "F" to 49 of the 50 states. Tuition at public four-year colleges is up an average of more than $6,500, at two-year schools, almost $2,500. Yet even with the increases, THE CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION reports that many college buildings are outdated, inefficient, even crumbling. So what's to be done? Some took hope when President Obama spoke up for higher education in his inaugural address.

But his guest, Vartan Gregorian, president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, a philanthropic foundation for education and citizenship, believes the problems go much deeper than money.

BILL MOYERS: And your thesis is the pipeline of education from pre-K right on up through graduate school is broken?
VARTAN GREGORIAN: Absolutely. The point I'm saying, that America should not take anything for granted anymore. We cannot afford any more mistakes. We cannot afford duplication. We have to bring collaboration and twenty-year vision, twenty-year plan, how to bring higher education of United States, both public and private, to help re-engineer, re-ignite, and keep the momentum of the United States and its progress by educating its workforce, by educating its leadership.

America has lost sight of the ball. It did not happen overnight, but gradually education as preparation for life gave way to education as job training.
VARTAN GREGORIAN: we see education as an expenditure rather than as investment. And let me just give you a couple of reasons why. My fundamental problem has been with public institutions that somehow they have come to accept the fact that democracy and excellence, public sector and excellence are not mutually compatible, that public excellence belongs to the private domain.

And what has been the result?
BILL MOYERS: You convened in August these leaders of higher education. And they came to the conclusion that, quote, "We've fallen from first place among nations to tenth in the percentage of our population with degrees in higher education." What does that mean practically?
VARTAN GREGORIAN: Practically it means research universities in other countries are catching up. We're not falling behind as much as others are catching up, whether it's Singapore, whether it's China, whether it's India. And second thing is many of our students, thanks to Pell Grants and others who go to university do not finish, because of either ill preparedness or lack of resources for them. We're not talking about just educate. We're talking about how to build next generation of our youth to be able to compete globally and to re-engineer our nation's reemergence in the next phase of the global competition.
We need all the infrastructure. We need all the engineers, all the doctors, all the computer specialists, all kinds of work. So we can no longer allow 50 percent of our students not to graduate from high school or 30, 40 percent drop out from our universities, especially minorities and others. Because in the past 19th century we have industrial backbone that you could send all of this to manufacturing. We don't have it. So result, it's gone.
BILL MOYERS: Shipped abroad.
VARTAN GREGORIAN: It's a knowledge society now in which you need all the talent that you can.

How did we get into such a fix?
VARTAN GREGORIAN: Well, for several reasons. I guess, first, lack of knowledge about rest of the world. Another one, media that was asleep when all kinds of decisions were made. Along with independent judiciary, executive, we need also independent media...

How about the Internet as a source of independent media? First, many internet journalists are not independent. Many openly have an agenda, which to their credit, they make abundantly clear to readers. But there is another problem.
BILL MOYERS: Well, some people would say they're on the internet, that the internet has become the great conversation of democracy.
VARTAN GREGORIAN: Well, let's hope so. Let's hope so. But internet has to provide common vocabulary. I don't want to be picking a piece here, a piece there, and so forth, construct my own hut. I want to have a national significance.
BILL MOYERS: You want an editor?
VARTAN GREGORIAN: Editor, national editor
BILL MOYERS: I'd like to be your editor.
BILL MOYERS: You're saying you want a professional class of disinterested people who help you assemble how the world looks like every day?
VARTAN GREGORIAN: Well, the synthesis you mentioned is missing. What I want is the institution of journalism, institution of news, institution of education, institutional values, the ones that promote to be a durable, predictable tying tradition, past, present, and the future...

One approach would be to reject the current market philosophy of education and return to the discipleship philosophy. Maybe America needs to decide just exactly what it is we want from our education system.

VARTAN GREGORIAN: I want us to accept, consciously, things, not to be manipulated in acceptance. I still believe in intelligence, in knowledge, independence, should not be just reserved or elite but for the public, too. We should educate the public what's in the public interests. They may like it or not. They may accept it or not. But my conscience I want to be clear that I did my duty as an educator while you did your duty as a journalist to educate the public. That's our obligation.


BILL MOYERS: There is an argument today that colleges and universities should continue to turn out generally educated, liberally educated, critical thinkers. But that we should take the people who want to be mechanics and electricians and plumbers and let them go to vocational school and not pretend to want to study "Beowulf" or "Macbeth."
VARTAN GREGORIAN: I think you'll have two sets of problems. You'll have a well-educated private university, some select, and they're the cultured ones. And the others are specialists who can only do. And that will be terrible in my opinion because even the plumbers should know about American history. Not "Beowulf" necessarily. They should know about Constitution. They should know about American history. They should know about Civil War. They should know about Depression.
I mean, we live in a country we cannot just say we're citizens but we don't know anything about our country. Yet we're the greatest country in the world. Well, on what basis? Just economy does not make that right. We need also values. We need also to participate as citizens in the fate and future of our country. So we cannot have a democracy without its foundation being knowledge, in order to provide progress. And knowledge does not mean only technical knowledge. But also you need to have knowledge of our society, knowledge of the world. If we're a superpower, world's greatest power, we should know about the rest of the world.

The stakes are high.

VARTAN GREGORIAN:Education is different because you're investing human resources that are necessary to change a society, a system. Even retraining some of these people who are let go, is through education. Education is very central to our democracy. You can neglect it, you can get it on the cheap, and you get what you pay for. And if you think education is costly, try ignorance, because that will be far more costly.

But the economic meltdown and the war on terror and all that is an national emergency. Education will just have to wait its turn, right?
VARTAN GREGORIAN:Since President Obama is fond of Abraham Lincoln, so I'll start with Abraham Lincoln. In the middle of the Civil War, worst tragedy that happened to America, Abraham Lincoln signed Morrill Act, established land grant universities. Imagine now any president doing that in the middle of all the calamities we have, Afghanistan, Iraq, economy, and Iran and the Middle East, somebody spending that much effort on - because he wanted to see the future of America.
In the middle of Civil War, Lincoln established a National Academy of Sciences, 1863, because he wanted to see the future of America. In the middle of Civil War he established a commission to study the merits of metric system for America. Because he wanted to see not one year, one to four year; he wanted to see 20, 30, 40 years...

Education and economy are Siamese twins joined at the heart. Severing them kills both.

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