Monday, March 16, 2009

Liberal Education, Corrupted

Dr. Florian Hild:

Does our century not need women as eloquent as Emily Dickinson and Jane Austen, men as resourceful and civic-minded as Aeneas and Benjamin Franklin, creative forces like Beethoven and Da Vinci, men and women with the wisdom of a Jesus or Socrates? … Would we reject a young person applying for a job or college today if he had the political acumen of James Madison, the integrity of Abraham Lincoln, the passion and commitment of Jane Goodall?

Hm… so… “eloqence,” “resourceful,” “civic-minded,” “creative,” “wise,” “political acumen,” “integrity,” “passion,” “commitment.” About half of those are variations on the “21st Century Skills” as officially defined. The rest address “skills” that are traditionally seen as the goals of education for citizenship in a democracy, and the values of a moral education.

Instead of making this a bipolar struggle between “skills” and “content,” P21 could be framed as an updated, but somewhat corrupted, sub-set of the traditional goals of a liberal education, goals that are, I gather, shared by Core Knowledge, et al.


Anonymous said...

excellent point. I wish I'd said that.

Robert Pondiscio said...

No argument from me. But why the need to dress it up in digital robes and make it an economic imperative? Perhaps we don't think people are smart enough to see the thing for what it is?

Tom Hoffman said...

I understand why businesses like this agenda. And then there are various layers of educational politics flowing over, around and through it. I actually think the business folks were hoping to frame it in a way to avoid the language and battles of past curriculum wars. That's a vain hope.

But what we've also seen how completely mis-framing the argument, e.g., "21st Century Skills" that aren't particularly unique to the 21st Century, just leads the whole discussion marching in a stupid direction, e.g., people acting like it is impossible to teach anything except content.

Tom Hoffman said...

So... I would just say that when there's a panel where the P21 guy says "we just set the goals, we don't really care about the implementation," the Core Knowledge folks could just say "so, we think most of these goals are consistent with a traditional liberal arts education, so is it ok if we just do that?" And then go from there.

Robert Pondiscio said...

That's fine, as far as it goes. But there are two problems: First, there's the actual plans put forth by P21 and others where the academic content is an afterthought, raw material for the skills and technology (to say nothing of the prodigious amount of time some of these things waste). Second, there's the message that gets sent to teachers, which is tantamount to "skills first." There's no good idea in education that doesn't turn into a bad idea once it's misinterpreted or reduced to a bumper sticker at the school level. For example, in my elementary school, we fell briefly in love with Grant Wiggins-style essential questions one year. I was sent to a PD on teaching social studies called "No More Trivial Pursuit" wherein the instructor earnestly told us it's not important for children to know about the War of 1812 (like we ever even mentioned it in our classes). Rather children should grapple with Big Ideas like "Is war ever justified?" Reflect, write, do art projects, etc. on these Big Ideas. This is the academic equivalent of junk food. Zero caloric content.

I use this example merely to demonstrate how the most subtle, nuanced and thoughtful ideas become something much less in actual practice. Thus, while I agree with your comment, Tom, I worry that without a vigorous defining of terms, we invite dumbing-down in which no one wins.

Of course these skills are at the heart of a traditional liberal arts education. That's why it's important to resist eroding it.