The Philosophical Problem of Common Core or, Why All Modern Education Fails


IMG_1066Apple has done the world a great disservice by dubbing a great speech from Dead Poet’s Society in order to sell an iPad. The speech is as follows:

We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, “O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?” Answer. That you are here – that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?

Now, I’m not exactly sure what any of that has to do with Apple products (my verse will be an overpriced machine?), but the speech itself is the cry of anyone who has sat through a humanities degree. Such people tend to realize that there is a life beyond what one can earn in terms of income. I happen to be one of those people with a humanities degree and like so many other people with one I’m consistently bombarded with the question, “Well what can you do with that though?” Well, I could ask why you want fries with that, or I could just become incredibly successful since that tends to be what people with humanities degrees do, mostly because they can read and write unlike their peers. The whole point being, everyone looks at an education as a vehicle and rightfully so, where we go wrong is in viewing education as a vehicle to a nice job.

Our quest for pragmatic education has its current culmination in a Common Core curriculum, an incredibly controversial program that doesn’t seem to have much to offer. From a scientist stating that its mathematical solutions are difficult to follow to Indiana officially removing Common Core from the classroom, Common Core is in desperate need of a PR firm. More than likely this program will eventually collapse and another program will take its place, yet our educational ratings will continue to decline and our students will still continue to lose the wisdom of previous generations.

The core problem in Common Core and in all modern education elements is that it attempts a “one-size-fits-all” education pattern, or to put it one way, Common Core is “…designed to ensure that students graduating from high school are prepared to take credit bearing introductory courses in two- or four-year college programs or enter the workforce.” Via interpretation, the message is, “We’re preparing your kids for a job or to go to college prepared to get a job.” Every student from Maine to California will study under a uniformed method, expected to produce the same answers. Common Core will make the teacher nothing more than a factory worker, imputing data into tiny little machines and expecting them to produce the same product; and if the factory worker fails then the government just takes over the school completely (a la Bush’s still intact “No Child Left Behind” policies). Just as every iPad is the same after coming off the factory floor, so too should every child’t education be the same after coming off the factory floor of US public education. The Orwellian term employed throughout the website is “equality,” but expecting the same results from the same method is not equality, it’s uniformity.

Of course, everyone wants to remove Common Core, but this is a return to the status quo, a status quo in which American students are failing. Even college students are considerably worse off than they were ten years ago, especially in job prospects. Getting a vague business degree with a minor in management might seem like a sure-fire way to get a job until you realize that everyone else has that same degree. Or even getting a degree in the medical field or some other “hot field” right now doesn’t mean those positions will be open 4-6 years from now. I had many friends who did biology majors and have advanced degrees in pharmaceuticals because at the time they began working on those degrees, that field needed jobs. Once they graduated, however, the jobs were already filled. Same thing with those who received law degrees in the early 2000s, to the point now that unless your law degree comes from an elite university, you’re going to struggle to find a good that will even come close to paying off your school debt. Yes, we can remove Common Core, but it doesn’t come close to touching on our educational crisis, our problem, which is philosophical in nature.

The problem isn’t necessarily Common Core, the problem is we think education is meant to get us a job. When we approach education with the attitude, “This is meant to help get a better job,” then education is no longer about learning what is necessary for life, but instead what is necessary for a living. Education becomes a pragmatic pursuit that teaches the student nothing about the world and only about what is necessary to survive in the world. To some, this might sound logical, but put it in an analogy: It’s like taking a paratrooper in WWII, teaching them how to fire a weapon, how to jump out of a plane, how to survive once they land, and how to read a map, but then never telling them where they’re dropping, who the enemy is, or why they’re fighting. They’ll have all the technological knowledge in the world to make a good soldier, but they’ll still be ineffective because they’ll know nothing of the world around them. Our current educational system teaches our students how to get along in the world, but then tells them nothing about the world, meaning the students ultimately learn little.

A better approach is to realize that the goal of an education is not to develop a worker, but instead to develop a human. While many might agree, they ignore the ramifications of such a statement, the biggest one being is if we truly adopt this as our approach to education then there is no way to quantifiably measure learning. If we are in the business of developing humans and humans are diverse, it means that the outcomes in education will equally be diverse. Yet, we should allow such diversity to occur because diversity is the beauty of life, it is essential to a free society. Uniformity punishes anyone who steps out of life while diversity celebrates the lack of a line (within reason of course). The problem with Common Core isn’t just in its implementation or curriculum, it’s in the philosophy that works behind it that snuffs out diversity in learning. A better way to learn is to allow the natural creativity inherent within all humans to bubble to the surface and for the teacher to help the student hone and perfect that creativity.

Teachers ought not be viewed as factory workers putting cogs into machines and expecting the same results; rather, teachers ought to be viewed as midwives, bringing unique individuals into the world, guiding the process, but not forcing the process. Education ought to teach students about the world and how to be good humans within this wide, adventurous, and mysterious world. This approach is especially true at younger ages; an eight-year-old shouldn’t worry about a career path, nor should we prepare her for a career path. Let her first learn how to be a human before she learns how to be a worker. Do we really expect an eighteen-year-old to know what he wants to do in life? Or even a twenty-one year old? Why are we preparing them for careers before they even know who they are? Let them discover this world and who they are within the world, let them develop who they are within the world, and I assure you the career will come on its own. After all, that’s how it worked for thousands of years and the human race progressed quite nicely.

Though we’ve put a higher emphasis on the hard sciences, students are losing more interest in those hard sciences (unless we show how learning them will make them money). Our experts are at a loss, but it’s not that difficult to know why students aren’t interested; it’s because we’re giving them tools to understand the world without actually helping them to understand the world. At three and four years old, these kids unceasingly ask “why” when they encounter every new things, yet within two years they’re put in an institution with the capacity to answer these whys, but the students stop asking questions and instead become bored. Pragmatic education, educating students for jobs rather than life, doesn’t like or allow for a lot of “whys,” and instead just wants to feed the curriculum to the student. An education geared for life, however, teaches the student not only how to keep asking why, but how to search out the answer. An education for life takes the inquisitive taste for adventure of the four-year-old and helps that taste mature and develop into the actualization of that adventure later in life, of always asking questions and seeking answers.

Now don’t ask me for which system we need in order to accomplish this. While I’m heavily in favor of the classics, I also realize that how the classics are administered is going to vary from culture to culture, from state to state, town to town, and teacher to teacher. There is no single uniformed approach to learning how to live life; while a classical education is proven to be the best approach, that approach is quite ambiguous. All I know is that whatever educational system is developed at a local level, it must have one goal and one goal alone: Teach children how to be humans in this world. Don’t prepare them for the career path or for college, prepare them for life, which is so much more than what you do for a living or where you go to school. We prepare our students for a living when we ought to prepare them how to live.

We can continue on with Common Core or programs like Common Core. We can try our best to improve our education, but as time goes on we’ll notice that the job market becomes harder and harder despite all our innovative methods. We’ll find that we have students who understand certain aspects of jobs, but cannot think outside of the box or muster up enough creativity to find a new answer to an old problem. We need to educate our kids for life, not for jobs. Jobs will come and go, but life will always be around. If we train our kids for jobs and that job market fails, then they have no other recourse for income. If we train our kids for life, however, and their job fails, they will always have a calling, a mission, a goal, and the creativity to find some other way to make it in this world. Real success isn’t measured in tests, it’s measured in the lives our students end up living. By that measure, I’d say we’re failing.

 

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The Triumph of Philosophy or, Why Lawrence Krauss is Just Wrong


 

In the above video, Lawrence Krauss speaks about the importance of students learning science and the greater importance of teachers feeling comfortable with what they are teaching. Certainly, Krauss is correct that our students are undereducated in American schools (overall, the United States is ranked 13th in the world in education, though that number is skewed by our appreciation for the liberal arts). Our teachers, likewise, are severely underpaid compared to their private sector counterparts. Why is it an engineer at a car company makes more money than the person who trained the engineer?

Moving away from where Krauss is right, let’s focus on the two points where he is just completely wrong.

1) Science is not the motivator behind the big questions of existence – those questions have been asked, and answers have been sought, long before the scientific method found its way into the world. In fact, the scientific method itself was born from the womb of epistemology. In asking “how can we know the physical world,” the scientific method came about. Thus, science is a child to philosophy, it is a tool of philosophy; the tool can never overcome the user.

Now, Krauss has a history of making philosophical statements and claiming they are scientific statements. In fact, when it comes to philosophy, Krauss is simply ignorant. For instance, he argues the following;

Philosophy used to be a field that had content, but then “natural philosophy” became physics, and physics has only continued to make inroads. Every time there’s a leap in physics, it encroaches on these areas that philosophers have carefully sequestered away to themselves, and so then you have this natural resentment on the part of philosophers.

Now, no philosopher would ever discount scientific discoveries, we would only claim that science is a tool of philosophy to test claims about the physical universe. Even some of Aristotle’s (and later philosophers) most erroneous claims about our world – such as the earth being the center of the universe – came from observations, not theoretical conjuring. That the ancients lacked the technology needed to gain a better understanding of the universe is quite irrelevant; the fact that they still based their ideas off observations shows the first use of science, albeit in a primitive manner, as a tool of philosophy.

Philosophy, not science, asks the big questions, mostly because science in its proper definition is incapable of asking questions. Asking “how does this work” is inherently a philosophical question. The scientific method cannot cause you to ask a question, it can only supply an answer to a question. While more questions will undoubtedly arise in the search for this one answer, each one is based on the curiosity of humans, which is by nature philosophical.

The problem with what Krauss is promoting is that it leads to scientism, or the idea that science counts as the basis of all knowledge. It also betrays an absolute ignorance of the importance of philosophy not only within scientific research, but as the controller of scientific research. Sure, it’s easy to discount philosophy when one is pursuing physics and see no consequences (at least no immediate consequences), but what about biology, specifically human biology? The study of human biology without the guide of ethics and philosophy (namely a basis in metaphysics) can and has led to eugenics. Even in this day there are numerous scientists who promote the abortion and even infanticide of “less than desirable” humans (of course, such an idea is promoted under the guise of compassion).

The point being that scientific advancement needs philosophy, just as a child needs a parent. In both situations, there is a need of a moral voice. Science cannot tell us why it is wrong to kill someone because of his or her deformities. Science cannot produce a value statement on life. Science cannot even tell us why survival is something we ought to strive after, and therein lies the problem with science: in terms of ethics, science can never supply us with an ought, but without an ought there can be no science. That is, if philosophy did not take its primary place in the ancient, medieval, and renaissance world, science would have never been born.

Thus, while science is important, it does not ask the big questions, nor can it answer the big questions. It can provide us tidbits of information and be used as a tool in searching out the answers, but it is not the end-all of knowledge and is eternally subservient to philosophy. One can use a hammer to build a house or to bash in the skull of an opponent, both of which hold scientific equations. Only philosophy can tell you why one is better than the other.

2) Krauss then argues that science and math teachers should be paid more than their humanities counterparts, mostly because of the field of competition out there. Yet, this ignores the fact that humanities degrees actually end up making just as much, if not more, than their hard science counterparts.

A person with a degree in the humanities, specifically philosophy, can turn around and get a job in human resources (which typically comes with a six figure average), marketing, speech writer, communications manager, content manager, legal analyst, and the list really does go on. Thus, if we base our teacher’s pay scales simply on monetary worth in the private sector, there is little to no difference between what a scientist is worth and what an English major is worth. If anything, those with degrees in the humanities have tended to show themselves more versatile in the jobs they can accomplish, which is why they tend to see more success outside the university.

If we want better qualified people teaching, then we need to increase the salary for everyone across the board. Of course, where the school is located will determine what field is more competitive. For instance, a computer engineer will face a more competitive field in Silicon Valley than in Fargo, ND. The school in Fargo would have to pay far less for the teacher than the school in California. Yet, the same remains true for the humanities. While I agree we need to pay our teachers more, the logic of paying a science teacher more because he could make more by not being a teacher is just absurd; every qualified teacher could make more by not being a teacher, regardless of one’s choice in degrees.

Many teachers in the soft sciences, in fact, face a far more competitive field than scientific research. Companies will shell out quite a bit of money right now for people who have a background in ethics. Due to the increase of the internet over the past two decades, content managers and proof-readers are needed now more than ever for websites. That sociology teacher or english teacher could make far more money in the private sector, even more than her scientific counterpart.

In the end, Krauss betrays his bias, that he thinks science to be the only thing we really need in this world. He gives lip service to English teachers, saying, “Well, at least they teach us how to write and communication is important,” but he views science as the queen of all learning. Yet, one can easily prove that science is not the queen of the sciences, nor is it even primary. It is a tool, one that we must learn and use, but never forget that it is nothing more than a tool to be used by the philosopher.

What if we required philosophy?


School of Athens

The Boston Review has a great article up about Brazil’s new policy to require high school students to learn philosophy. From my experience, some people would look at this and think, “What a waste of time.” It wasn’t even that long ago that Stephen Hawking ignorantly stated that “philosophy is dead” (apparently unaware that such a statement is a philosophical statement…perhaps it would be better to say that Stephen Hawking is holding the memorial service for Philosophy and having her preach at the memorial).

Of course, having philosophy drilled into the minds of young people is always a good thing. After all, it used to be (prior to the 19th century) that people received liberal arts degrees not for a vocation, but to become better people. After gaining their degrees they would either take up a trade (and then apply their knowledge as they saw fit) or pursue an advanced degree where then they specified their vocational training. The liberal arts (which included philosophy, or reasoning) was always meant to round out an individual, to teach him how to think and not what to think. We have certainly lost that; one of the most common questions brought before anyone getting a degree in philosophy is, “But what are you going to do with that?” It never dawns on people that focusing four years of your life on nothing but thinking actually prepares you better for the world than getting a vague degree in business or management or even pre-law.

Studying philosophy opens people up to a world of ideas. It forces people to be open-minded because they must constantly be subject to changing their minds. They must evaluate everything they see and think through all possible solutions for problems they encounter. We can look to some of our political problems and see that good ole’ American pragmatism has ended up an abysmal failure. Thus, we must go back to our roots (our nation was founded by men trained in the classical arts) or accept the fact that our government will not last.

With that said, in some hypothetical world where I was allowed to develop a four year program for students in high school focused on philosophy, that they were required to take, I would make it look something like this, using the following books (as a side note, this list will also be helpful to anyone who wants to get into philosophy on his or her own):

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9 Myths About Teachers and Teaching


I should state upfront that I am not a teacher, nor do I plan on becoming a teacher for any non-collegiate schools. I have, however, worked in two different public schools as an assistant for a competitive academic activity, so I’ve worked in close proximity to teachers. While I certainly haven’t had to endure what teachers endure, I’ve been closer than the average person and so I feel I can shed some light on the issue.

Recently, especially with the debates in Wisconsin over collective bargaining, I’ve heard some disturbing myths about teachers or the profession of teaching. Though my experience is limited, I do think I can offer some helpful insights into the profession of teaching by exploring some of these myths: Continue reading

The Need for Classical Education


I remember when I was in high school having to take a test that evaluated what type of job I would be best suited for. Little did I know that by taking the test, I would be encouraged to pursue such a career, even if such a career isn’t what I wanted. Thankfully, I wasn’t forced to pursue any of the career options.

In reflecting on those past experiences, I have noticed how more and more high schools and colleges are becoming more technical, that is, we’re experts on specific subjects and are fed information like computers, but we miss out on the bigger picture. That is because we have a pragmatic educational system rather than a classical educational system. Under such a pragmatic system, certain subjects simply don’t matter because they aren’t “practical.”

My reason for writing this entry was inspired by a New York Times Op-Ed piece by NY Times editor David Brooks. Brooks brings up the point that humanities are dying, but I would argue that the humanities are dying for reasons other than job security.

1) The humanities aren’t practical – in high school students are pushed to get a degree that creates jobs. My degree is in Philosophy, one of the most abstract degrees a person can get. The question I get asked all the time is, “How can you get a job with your degree?” The question I often fire back is, “How can you think without my degree?” Similar to what Brooks pointed out in his opinion piece, by studying philosophy (or English, or History, or another of the humanities), you begin to understand human nature more, which makes you a better thinker (which, in turn, actually does have practical ramifications at work).

2) The humanities have destroyed themselves – for years professors in the humanities have contradicted the purpose of their subjects. English teachers began to buy into deconstruction, taking away the form and structure of the English language, leaving little point to studying the English language. If no one can really understand each other, then why learn how to communicate? Philosophy, which is the love of wisdom (and wisdom is the discovery and application of truth), was betrayed by so-called philosophers, saying that there was no truth. They sang that the end of philosophy was near and it was so. History teachers taught that history was made by the victors and that history was tainted. History had to be deconstructed and applied to modern understandings, thus negating any reason to look at history through the eyes of those who lived it.

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