State of the Union, State of Education

Even as I am sitting now in the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport awaiting my flight to San Francisco to attend the Association of American Colleges and University’s (AACU) annual conference to be recognized as a “future leader” in teaching and academia, I cannot help but think about President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address last night.  A goodly portion of the President’s speech was dedicated to the running themes of competativeness, innovation, nation-building, and the metaphors of “winning the future.”  The speech hearkens back twice to the middle of last century in the US, which some would paint as halcyon years, referencing Kennedy’s “Camelot” and the Space Race.  All of this is good rhetoric, good nationalism, good business.  But I worry over what continues to be the “right” path to this “future” and what will be sacrificed along the way.

Of course, I am thinking about my own history, my own position as a future professor, my own politics around what it means to be a good scholar, a good student, a good citizen.  I commend President Obama’s rhetorical commitment to education, but I question the limited scope and lack of critical insight in which that commitment to education gets framed and proposed:

Think about it. Over the next ten years, nearly half of all new jobs will require education that goes beyond a high school degree. And yet, as many as a quarter of our students aren’t even finishing high school. The quality of our math and science education lags behind many other nations.  America has fallen to 9th in the proportion of young people with a college degree. And so the question is whether all of us
– as citizens, and as parents – are willing to do what’s necessary to give every child a chance to succeed.

That responsibility begins not in our classrooms, but in our homes and communities. It’s family that first instills the love of learning in a child. Only parents can make sure the TV is turned off and homework
gets done.  We need to teach our kids that it’s not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair; that success is not a function of fame or PR, but of hard work and discipline…

Let’s also remember that after parents, the biggest impact on a child’s success comes from the man or woman at the front of the classroom. In South Korea, teachers are known as “nation builders.”  Here in America, it’s time we treated the people who educate our children with the same level of respect. We want to reward good teachers and stop making excuses for bad ones.  And over the next ten years, with so many Baby Boomers retiring from our classrooms, we want to prepare 100,000 new teachers in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math.

In fact, to every young person listening tonight who’s contemplating their career choice: If you want to make a difference in the life of our nation; if you want to make a difference in the life of a child –
become a teacher. Your country needs you.

Once again, there is the call for education at all levels, for “good” teachers, for “good” schools, for innovation in pedagogy, curricula, and administration.  But there is a myopia in the vision above that overdetermines math, science, and technology.  The best students, the best teachers, the best scholars, the best doctors, the best scientists, the best engineers, and the best innovators all recognize that knowledge, experience, experimentation, and discovery is necessarily interdependent, interconnected, and interdisciplinary.  As Albert Einstein once famously said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.  For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”  In other words, of course it is important to know facts, formulas, dates, and methods, but these are hollow and flat without curiosity, exploration, context, and critical understanding.  We espouse a desire for critical thinking, for problem solving, for creative solutions, and for the leaps and bounds that produced the penicillins, the lightbulbs, the airplanes, the Sputniks, the Googles of the past.  But we forget that those things came to be alongside, perhaps even in direct connection to the Sistine Chapels, the Mozarts, the Great Gatsbys, the Citizen Kanes, the Coco Chanels, and the MLKs of the world.  I know no engineer who does not need to know how to communicate their ideas, especially in writing.  I know no doctor who does not recognize the art of the human body.  I know no computer programmer who does not see the value of playing games.

I understand the President’s call for math, science, and technology.  I understand these are the things that ostensibly can be measured, can be instrumentalized, and most importantly, monetized and capitalized.  But is that all there is to the world, to our experiences?  Is that all we should be proud of in our country?  Is that the very limit, the scarce territory we will explore, claim, and expand?  This trifecta should be reminiscent of an earlier educational triple play: reading, writing, and arithmetic.  It was argued that if we only had these basics down, if we only understood these three things, then greatness would follow.  Alas, again, there was little attention or understanding to how these things intertwined (or even interrupted one another).  Education is not a sorting bin, a pulldown menu, an easy checklist.  If the President (and the country) is serious about getting down to business, of putting in the work and effort, then “real” education, robust education is hard.  It should be hard.  It is only worth it if it is hard, right?  Isn’t that what the American Dream (so oft invoked these days) espouses?

Let us not turn our back on whole fields of possibility, whole domains of potential, and whole histories of inquiry and imagination for the few shiny promises of a quick fix, a quick buck.  Art, writing, history, music, literature, politics, performance, design, and even popular culture must be kept, made important (as important) as math, science, and technology.  Again, it’s hard but it’s worth it.  That’s the promise that we must make for ourselves and others.  Therefore, I end with and echo the AACU’s definition of a liberal education:

Liberal Education is an approach to learning that empowers individuals and prepares them to deal with complexity, diversity, and change. It provides students with broad knowledge of the wider world (e.g. science, culture, and society) as well as in-depth study in a specific area of interest. A liberal education helps students develop a sense of social responsibility, as well as strong and transferable intellectual and practical skills such as communication, analytical and problem-solving skills, and a demonstrated ability to apply knowledge and skills in real-world settings.

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