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Saturday, February 21, 2015


The new abolitionists

by Tom Sullivan

Jefferson may never have said an educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people, but the idea strikes a chord. The urban legend lives on because the idea speaks to American aspirations that predate the signing of the Constitution. Among some of our American cohort, especially among our right-wing, would-be keepers of the flame, that aspiration is dying.

The movement on the right to abolish public education – that all-American institution – has been growing for some time. Ron Paul wants public schools abolished. So does Rick Santorum. So do T-party types from coast to coast. And, of course, Texas.

Now that fringe, fundamentally un-American idea is being mainlined into public via Fox News. "There really shouldn't be public schools, should there?" said "Outnumbered" host Lisa "Kennedy" Montgomery during a discussion of the Oklahoma state legislature's proposal to ban Advanced Placement U.S. History in high schoo for not promoting American exceptionalism. Talking Points Memo notes that this movement is spreading:

Efforts by conservative school board members in Colorado to make the Advanced Placement U.S. History course “more patriotic,” prompted a walk-out by students. Under the changes proposed in Colorado “students would only be taught lessons depicting American heritage in a positive light, and effectively ban any material that could lead to dissent.” In South Carolina conservatives asked the College Board to exclude any material with an “ideological bias,” including evolution. Similar efforts are underway in Georgia and North Carolina.

Amanda Marcotte looked at this and other ways "Republicans are purposefully trying to make Americans more ignorant." I've looked at the ideological basis for eliminating from the university classroom any ideas that cut across the conservative grain.

What the new abolitionists want, it seems, is either a Disneyfied version of America (without "Small World," of course); a pre-American one before universal, public education was a hallmark of the American experiment; or one that serves narrow interests of business interests in producing serviceable workers who will do but not think. Any of those options presents a pretty bleak vision of America's future.

Last fall U.S. News examined the tension between broad learning and and education focused on technical skills:

The prevailing wisdom and research indicate a growing emphasis on and necessity for career-ready degrees such as computer science, engineering and finance – often included as part of STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

At the same time, employers readily identify the creative, communicative and problem-solving acumen traditionally associated with liberal arts majors as the most valuable attributes of new hires.

With a sluggish job market and companies still reluctant to reinvest in their workforces, the job prospects for all college grads have actually never been clearer: College graduates with career-ready degrees are best positioned to get hired and earn the quickest return on their educational investment.

But that's a pretty threadbare method for evaluating an education's worth, and one the Founders would not have recognized. While studying advanced dynamics, I received a flyer from my old college announcing its 150th anniversary celebration with lectures on medieval arts and sciences interspersed with recorder quartets. Where I was working on my engineering degree, I saw little love of learning for its own sake. Students raised their hands and asked, "Do we need to know this for the test?" The contrast was laughable.