Wednesday, May 09, 2007

The death of liberal education in the U.S.?

From "Exporting Idiocracy":

Several comments come to mind. First, Meijie better hurry and get the job done before U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings achieves her goal of dismantling American-style liberal education in America. Spellings is in the midst of decertifying the primary liberal arts accrediting body in the United States, the American Academy of Liberal Education. She is also ramrodding through a federal system of No-Child-Left-Behind-style testing requirements for higher education.
I didn't know about this. If this sort of thinking becomes solidified at the Department of Education, it would destroy any chance of a separate accreditation body for Catholic colleges truly devoted to promoting liberal education of being founded and surviving. The standards that really need to be clarified and enforced are at the secondary level, not at the college and university level.

U.S. Secretary of Education
College Accreditation in the United States
American Academy of Liberal Education
Peter Wood, Prove You’re Not Stupid: Secretary Spellings’s dubious reform dooms a voice of reason. (originally at NRO)
Jeff Martineau, Department of Education misguided in withdrawing recognition of AALE
Peter Berkowitz, Liberal Education, Then and Now

Mr. Wood also discusses the influence of Howard Gardner on Chinese educators:
Our master plan for dumbing-down Chinese education, however, is not just about atmospherics or theatrics. Let’s not forget: this is American educationism. And that means theory. Hulbert eventually gets to this: “If there is an American figure to whom Chinese proponents of more active, multidimensional, student-centered learning have listened especially attentively over the past half-decade, it is Howard Gardner of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.” Gardner is, of course, the originator of “Multiple Intelligences” theory, or M.I., the charming idea that intelligence isn’t a single capacity but many separate capacities. Gardner’s theory has instant democratic appeal since it implies that no one is truly dumb. We are all just different. I may have trouble with calculus, but I’m really good at skipping stones. I have stone-skipping intelligence. So there.

Gardner’s arguments are occasionally more sophisticated than this but not by much. M.I. theory has pretty direct links to the contemporary classroom. If it is true, we shouldn’t try to teach the same stuff to everybody in the same way. Gardner originally distinguished seven kinds of intelligence: linguistic, logical-mathematical, musical, kinesthetic, spatial, interpersonal, and intrapersonal—and later added an eighth, “naturalist” intelligence, which is attentiveness to the environment. Gardner believes all eight kinds of intelligence need to be cultivated, so an M.I. approach to education would necessarily be broad. Moreover, this kaleidoscopic view of intelligence emphasizes discovery over didactic approaches.

Is Gardner’s theory consonant with what we know about the mind from more rigorous forms of inquiry? Or is he misusing the word “intelligence” to speak of talents? Is my stone-skipping excellence really best conceived as exemplary of my “kinesthetic intelligence”? Or do I just have good hand-eye co-ordination?

I don’t have to answer this to be delighted that China began a national project in 2002, “Using M.I. Theory to Guide Discovery of Students’ Potential.” Hulbert quotes a Chinese high-school principal who sees a link between Gardner’s theory and the traditional Confucian emphasis on the need for teachers to understand the character of their students. Hulbert’s article prompted me to look a little further, and she is right. Gardner is catching fire in China. He has attracted graduate students to his program at Harvard; he went to China on a speaking tour in May 2004; and his book, Multiple Intelligences, was published in Chinese in 1999. In a conference paper last year, “How MI Theory fits into Traditional and Modern China,” Jie-Qi Chen also points out that a 2001 directive issued by the central government ruled that Chinese education had to focus on “developmental characteristics of children … individual differences [and] active learning.” Gardner wasn’t mentioned by name, but according to Jie-Qi Chen, “it was quickly perceived” that M.I. would be “one of the main theoretical frameworks for China’s curricular reform.”

Let us be patient. It took nearly a century for the “reforms” of Dewey’s progressivism to make American schools into places that cultivate self-assurance over knowledge, co-operation over achievement, blandness over distinction, and dullness over everything. Gardner is widely recognized as one of Dewey’s most important heirs, and we need to give his ideas some time to turn China into a nation of self-satisfied ignoramuses.
Education that starts and ends in rote memorization is by no means complete or fully humanistic, but it is better than neglecting the memory altogether, which happens frequently in American schools today. Students need to memorize materal in order to pass their exams, sure, but they are not asked to memorize the classics of literature, especially poetry, nor the basic definitions that are needed for reasoning (especially in the sciences and in philosophy). Short-term memory is emphasized and rewarded; long-term memory is not.

Long before Gardner came onto the scene, people recognized that not all strengths were those of the theoretical intellect or merely served the intellect; but if liberal education is aimed at building up the intellectual virtues, and not the arts or other virtues, then Gardner's analysis is irrelevant. However, once the goal of education has been forgotten (truth, especially the highest truths), his work can easily be made the foundation of the latest fashion in "educational reform," especially if education is seen as a tool of building up self-esteem in any way possible.

I posted some links to Gardner and other related resources here.

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