Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Rejection of Arts, Literature, and History in the Race to the Top

Professor Stanley Fish, writing in the NYT, points to several critiques put forward recently of the Bush/Obama education revolution, called respectively 'No Child Left Behind' and 'Race to the Top':
Quite another account of what is wrong is offered in a new book by sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa. The book’s title is “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses,” and its thesis is that what is limited — in short supply — is learning that is academic rather than consumerist or market-driven. After two years of college, they report, students are “just slightly more proficient in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing than when they entered.”

The authors give several explanations for this unhappy result. First, a majority of students surveyed said “that they had not taken a single course . . . that required more than twenty pages of writing, and one third had not taken one that required even forty pages of reading per week.” Moreover, “only 42 percent had experienced both a reading and writing requirement of this character during the prior semester.” The conclusion? “If students are not being asked . . . to read and write on a regular basis . . . it is hard to imagine how they will improve their capacity to master performance tasks.”

Nor will they be encouraged to if they are caught up in the “deepening of consumerist orientations within higher education.” This is a second explanation of the weakening of academic (read liberal arts) learning; for, Arum and Roksa observe, there are “many reasons to expect students as consumers to focus on receiving services that will allow them, as effortlessly and comfortably as possible, to attain valuable educational credentials that can be exchanged for later labor success.” United States college students seem to have internalized (before its appearance) the spirit of England’s Browne Report on higher education, which explicitly equates the value of a course with the future earnings potential value of the students who take it. This is why the report recommends that grants be given to students rather than to universities; since students are in it for the money, the choice of where to invest should be theirs. (After all, they’re in a race to the top.)

Arum and Roksa note the same shift in funding practices in this country, where both the states and the federal government have transferred “support from institutions to individuals,” who thereby gain the power of choice in the educational marketplace. The two sociologists concede that the privatization of higher education financing (through loans and other devices) has resulted in increased access and diversity; but “what conservative policy makers have missed,” they add, is that “market-based educational reforms that elevate the role of students as ‘consumers’ do not necessarily yield improved outcomes in terms of student learning.” (There’s an understatement.)

If this is true of higher education, it is equally true of education at the K-12 level. In their recent books, Diane Ravitch and Martha Nussbaum make arguments that are confirmed by Arum’s and Roksa’s statistics. Once a supporter of President Bush’s No Child Left Behind (the principles of which survive in Race to the Top, but with more federal money), Ravitch now sees its emphasis on testing and consumer choice as educationally disastrous. “I concluded,” she says, “that curriculum and instruction were far more important than choice and accountability.” And she rejects the rush to privatization and the popular mantra that schools should be run like businesses: “I realized that incentives and sanctions may be right for business . . . where the bottom line — profit — is the highest priority, but they are not right for schools” (“The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education,” 2010).

Nussbaum seconds this sentiment (and anticipates Arum and Roksa) when she complains that “the humanistic aspects of science and social science — the imaginative creative aspect of rigorous critical thought — are . . . losing ground as nations prefer to pursue short-term profit by the cultivation of . . . applied skills suited to profit-making” (“Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities,” 2010). In the brave new world of accountability, the arts and literature will be kicked to the curb “because they don’t look like they lead to personal or national economic achievement.” Indeed, “the ability to think and argue . . . looks to many people like something dispensable if what we want are marketable outputs of a quantifiable nature” (precisely what the Browne Report says we ought to want if we are to attain technological superiority).

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