Thursday, January 15, 2015

Where American Public Schools Have Struggled

Where American Public Schools Have Struggled: American public schools today seem concerned about almost everything except education itself. From Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) to 504 plans to English-language learners (ELLs), how are teachers expected to educate "all" children to high standards? And how did it get to be this way? To answer this question, one ought to examine the emergence of Progressive education in the early 1900s, when the very definition of "school" was entirely up-for-grabs. According to education historian Diane Ravitch, when the American high school curriculum started to become standardized in the 1890s (in preparation for college admissions), it opened the door for a series of "experts" to assess how knowledge transferred from teacher to student. These "experts" largely possessed backgrounds in child psychology, and included people like G. Stanley Hall, Henry Goddard, and Edward Thorndike. For Ravitch, these "experts" represented a kind of "anti-intellectualism," which diverted attention away from the process of teaching a traditional curriculum and toward the process of satisfying student needs. Unfortunately, American educators simply forgot how to say "no," as every conceivable student need started to seep into the once revered curriculum.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

On the End of History

On the End of History: Ideologically speaking, the end of history is not the same thing as the end of time. Whereas the end of time has a kind of religious connotation to it, the end of history is merely philosophical. With that being said, there have been a variety of philosophical viewpoints put forth on this topic from thinkers like Kant, Hegel, and even Nietzsche. Yet the two philosophers who have probably made the biggest impact on "end-of-history" thinking are Karl Marx and Francis Fukuyama. For Marx, the end of history would arrive once communism had replaced capitalism as the sole socioeconomic ideology in the world. This meant, in effect, that social classes would cease to exist, that private property would be abolished, and that the state would become the primary source of socioeconomic engineering (jobs, education, healthcare, etc.). But Marx could/did not foresee the rise of labor unions, which often served to mitigate/reconcile tensions between capital and labor (bourgeoisie and proletariat). For Fukuyama, who's writing roughly 150 years after Marx, the end of history would coincide with the end of the Cold War. In a sense, the absence of a Soviet superpower threat meant there was no longer any major ideological obstacles for Western-style liberal democracy to overcome. However, in the time since Fukuyama first published his thesis (1989), the globe has seen a significant rise in Islamic fundamentalism that frequently seeks to destroy the Western world.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

On Hard Rock and the Military

On Hard Rock and the Military: There's something quite fitting (and somewhat natural) about mixing hard rock music with military operations. I mean, when you're engaging in war's infamous game of "kill or be killed," there's a certain aggressiveness that needs to infiltrate one's mind in order to function. In the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, for example, U.S. forces, particularly mechanized divisions of tanks and humvees were very fond of blasting hard rock songs such as Metallica's "Enter Sandman" over loud speakers as they moved across the Arabian Desert. I cannot even begin to imagine what the local Bedouin tribal peoples must have thought when swarms of American military machines whizzed by their desert huts. But other than perhaps major stimulants like crystal methamphetamine, which many German soldiers and sailors were known to use in World War II, hard rock music is a tremendous motivator in warlike environments. In short, it's hard rock's frequent combination of distorted guitars, double-bass drums, and raspy lyrics that makes the genre a "natural" soundtrack for the military.

Monday, December 15, 2014

On Thornton Wilder's "The Skin of Our Teeth"

On Thornton Wilder's "The Skin of Our Teeth": First performed in New Haven, Connecticut, in October 1942, The Skin of Our Teeth quickly moved to Broadway within a month. The play, which focused on the Antrobus Family from "Excelsior," New Jersey, eventually won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1943. As for the play's author, Wilder possessed a brilliant, yet eccentric, literary mind. Born in the Midwest, he was the product of two Ivy League schools (Yale and Princeton), and briefly served in the U.S. military during both World Wars. Being in the military gave him the unique experience of constantly facing the prospect of non-existence. And it was this kind of "existential-extinctive" feeling/theme that recurs throughout The Skin of Our Teeth. Biblical allegories and references aside, (especially to Sodom and Gomorrah), the play places the reader in a fictional twentieth-century Jersey Shore town, which is on the verge of entering another Ice Age. Ironically enough, a devastating war catalyzed the town's ultimate demise. But at the play's end, it becomes abundantly clear that despite the pernicious capacity of mankind to destroy, it's our collective will to rebuild which always triumphs.

Monday, December 1, 2014

On the Origins of Progressive Education

On the Origins of Progressive Education: Perhaps one statement, above all, captures American Progressive education in a nutshell: "If we teach today's students as we taught yesterday's, we rob them of tomorrow." That statement came from pragmatist philosopher John Dewey (pictured above) in 1916. He was a staunch advocate of separating "education" from "schooling," by claiming that education is the process of living and schooling is the process of learning how to make a living. Decades prior, in the 1880s, similar sentiments had been expressed by American sociologist Lester Frank Ward. Ever the egalitarian, he asserted that one of the biggest sources of injustice in society "was the unequal distribution of knowledge." Traditional education, as Ward saw it, had become nothing more than a tool for the upper classes to reinforce social norms (the status quo). He also believed that traditional education's aristocratic roots persisted in a pre-modern form of tracking, which often groomed students for particular careers based on heritage instead of merit. In effect, Ward proposed that all students should have the opportunity to accumulate knowledge for knowledge's sake (and in any subjects they choose).