What Do Mastodons Have To Do With Education?

To instruct and teach the young has been a part of the human social contract since long before our ancestors swung down from their trees on the African savanna. And isn’t it just amazing that we are, in 2011, arguing about what education is and how best to go about it?

Survival was the initial motive, and the necessary skills having to do with food gathering, defense, procreation and so forth had to be passed on. While killing mastodons isn’t in the current curriculum, teaching children to survive remains critical. The requisite skills early on were obvious, the process and the necessity clear and certainly not contentious as such matters have now become.

Today’s necessities seem not to be so plainly indicated and are open to contention and to competing views. What isn’t? What skills and knowledge will  children starting school today need when they complete their public education? What exactly will they need to know to be successful, fully-functioning adults?

In April 1983, the report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education stated the following:

“Our Nation is at risk. We report to the American people that while we can take justifiable pride in what our schools and colleges have historically accomplished and contributed to the United States and the well-being of its people, the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.”

The June 2011 issue of Atlantic magazine reported on the tenure and experiences of Joel Klein as chancellor of the New York City Schools, who is lamenting exactly the same issues today. In fact he even went so far as to cite the above report. I think it fair to ask: What’s been going on in these past 28 years?

Our schools, schooling, and, consequently, our graduates are deficient. Here in New Mexico, according to an April 6th, 2011 article in the Santa Fe Reporter, 91 percent of local high school graduates entering Santa Fe Community College were determined to have “weak academic skills” and were assigned to remedial classes.

What gives? Do we, as a society, really care about education? Do we see any value in it other than keeping kids occupied from kindergarten through 12th grade? Is it the case that this is because we are no longer a cohesive society with a community of interests?

My educational beliefs

Obviously, the unanswerable question is, what will the world be when today’s children graduate? There remain, indisputably, certain basic skills that will always be useful, if not required. And here I wish to be clear that I am speaking about skills and proficiency in mathematics and computation, and reading and language, as opposed to factual knowledge.

However, children are not standardized, assembly-line putt-putts to which schooling attaches skills as though they were headlamps, bumpers, motors and so forth until the completed products, monitored by the quality control department, are ready to roll out onto the streets of adulthood.

At the top of my list of essential skills are critical thinking, along with the ability to reason and the ability to learn, all of which will carry children into any possible future.

My educational beliefs are not prescriptive and not about methods and techniques. They are about attitudes and values:

* Being educated is not a terminal condition.

* Human beings have an innate desire to learn.

* Critical thinking is the most subversive of all skills.

* Education is the fundamental method of social progress. (John Dewey)

* To prepare (children) for the future life means to give (them) command of (themselves) … that (they) will have full use of all of (their) capacities. (John Dewey)

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