A Liberal Arts Education Begins in Kindergarten

 If you support progressive values politically, economically and socially in our culture, now consider how you define your values for education. You’ve probably noticed how the word liberal has been successfully neutered within our civics discourse: yesterday’s liberals have been bullied into calling themselves progressives today. As the right wing has been demonizing liberal as a political position over the past decade, the educational right wing has been eliminating liberal arts and sciences from the curriculum.
There is increasing talk among our pundits about the diminished role of the Liberal Arts at our universities. Let’s connect the dots between how we are educating our college kids and what we have taught them in kindergarten.

 From Humanistic Ideals to Skills Based Learning

Within his new book, In Defense of a Liberal Education (W.W. Norton & Co.), Fareed Zakaria argues that education in the liberal arts is coming under attack in our culture and at our universities. The CNN host and best selling author upholds the broad-minded, humanistic syllabus that he says is traditional to American higher education.

However, on February 3, 2013, the host interviewed Bill Gates about public school innovation. At the time, Mr. Zakaria was not endorsing a liberal arts curriculum— at least not insofar as American public school children were concerned. On the contrary, the journalist and the businessman were far more passionate about measuring teacher performance. “It does sound like, because of these new technologies, we may be at an inflection point in education,” Zakaria enthused to his guest, “where you’re just going to see a massive uptick in productivity.”

They were discussing innovation in education, but nothing to do with, say, promoting creativity in the classroom, or exercising the multiple intelligences of third graders. Instead, the educational advances that had elated the men were new and efficient digital platforms for collecting and sharing files.

Zakaria and Gates were holding their conversation in the mother tongue of educationist reform— the language of numbers and data. Only with continuous testing, they assert, can the system generate the necessary numbers and data to drive efficient, ongoing instruction. (This explains why the educationist apple cart is getting so utterly upset  as large numbers of parents commit civil disobedience against the data collecting machine by opting their kids out of the tests.)

The attack on the liberal arts that presently alarms Mr. Zakaria and so many of our other intellectuals, has been going on relentlessly in the public schools for the past quarter century. The educationist reform movement, financed largely by Mr. Gates, has redesigned instructional practice away from the humanistic model that is praised by Zakaria, and towards the same kind of thing he finds so ill-advised at colleges— namely, “skills-based learning. The author never mentions that, throughout the past two decades, public schools have been cutting back on the liberal arts, sciences and physical education in order to beef up student preparation for the high stakes tests— straining and squeezing the whole of human intelligence into just two slots of the brain—the one for reading and the one for math.

A whole generation of college students has by now gone through public schools and graduated from high schools under the influence of the educationist reform agenda, which began in earnest in the late 1980’s. Why is it surprising to Mr. Zakaria, and to the other social analysts, that public school graduates are now expressing the same disdain towards the liberal arts that they acquired from their public school educations? Why shouldn’t college students be fearful about finding jobs, when their fears have been fanned all through the grades by their teachers, within a system that prides itself in making the teachers, themselves, fearful for their own jobs?

As Zakaria points out, growing trends show that technical skills— like the left-brained thinking necessary for reading and math tests— will not be enough to employ a new generation of American kids in the global marketplace. He cites Bruce Nussbaum as his source, an expert on innovation who claims that our “knowledge economy” is being replaced by a “creativity economy.” Daniel Pink also reports, “What’s important now are the characteristics of the brain’s right hemisphere: artistry, empathy, inventiveness, big-picture thinking. These skills have become first among equals in a whole range of business fields.” (A Whole New Mind)

Their point: how can we possibly develop the young talent and entrepreneurs who will design the innovations of the future, if we keep teaching American children more and more about less and less?

The traditional precepts of a humanistic education included a devotion to freedom, a respect for individuality, faith in democracy, a desire for self-knowledge, and a preference for science and reason over dogma and superstition. Those values have inspired teaching and learning in western civilization, going all the way back to Socrates— not only at the university level, as Mr. Zakaria documents, but throughout much of the American school system. Our elementary and secondary public schools once stood for ennobling ideals.

In 2001, public school teaching sustained a seismic wallop to that historic and humanistic center of gravity.

No Child Left Behind asserted a radically new intellectual authority for the whole of instructional practice— the Business Model. A moneymaking paradigm now came to stand at the core of American public education. The ideals of independent thinking and self-fulfillment were supplanted by practices better suited to the mindset of business— faith in numbers and data, a partiality towards linear-sequential reasoning, a partiality towards “informational text” over poetry, an enthrallment with monetizing and privatizing the delivery of educational products and services, and an over-fixation on the importance of technology in learning.

Didn’t Fareed Zakaria realize that as an immediate consequence of the new testing demands for No Child Left Behind in 2001, 44 percent of American school districts would cut science, social studies, art, physical education, lunch, or recess? (Source: Center on Education Policy)

Copy the ideas and ideals about college that Mr. Zakaria is promoting in his new book, and paste them onto the national discussion about teaching and learning, grades pre K- 12. Only when you move the defense of a liberal arts education down into the kindergarten classroom, does In Defense of a Liberal Education become, potentially, a game changer.






One Response to “A Liberal Arts Education Begins in Kindergarten”

  1. Frank Calderale says:

    Brother Howard another fine synopsis of the conundrum facing our schools today.
    Thanks for the perspective. Looking forward to reading much more and getting back into the loop.