Beyond the basics

In Fordham’s Beyond the Basics, contributors look at how to provide a liberal education for students.

In the era of No Child Left Behind, however, liberal learning is on the defensive. Federal law mandates academic gains only in reading and math, and its sanctions and interventions are triggered only by failure to make gains in those two areas. States, school districts and individual educators have understandably responded by ramping up the time spent teaching those two sets of core skills and prepping students to take tests in them, to the detriment of “broad” and “liberal” and “arts.”

Business leaders and policy makers are pushing “STEM” (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) training to keep the U.S. competitive in a global economy.

Yet America’s true competitive edge over the long haul is not its technical prowess but its creativity, its imagination, its inventiveness. And those attributes are best inculcated not by skill-drill but through liberal arts and sciences, liberally defined.

The book is online in pdf form.

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  1. Sigivald says:

    One wonders if such critics bother to remember that kids that can’t read aren’t going to be able to be very creative with the written word – not to mention being handicapped in all their activities.

    Liberal learning is not opposed to reading and mathematics, but builds on them, especially the former.

    (The liberal arts, of course, include the natural sciences and mathematics, but these days people seem to limit it to language skills and fine art.)

    All the creativity in the world isn’t so useful in competition or general life, if you can’t master the written word and at least basic mathematics.

    (I would dearly love to see it explained, why it’s evidently impossible, according to this theory, for a school to manage to teach kids to read and do arithmetic without removing everything else from the curriculum. It was absolutely possible as recently as a few decades ago, most places. It’s still possible in many to this day.

    Yet the very idea is presented as beyond the capability of a school system as if it’s the most obvious and natural thing in the world…)

  2. It doesn’t do much good to teach latin and poetry to teenagers who read on the 5th grade level.

    It seems like the authors confuse primary education reform efforts with secondary school reform.

  3. “Yet America’s true competitive edge over the long haul is not its technical prowess but its creativity, its imagination, its inventiveness.”

    I can just imagine the creators of Yahoo, Google, Microsoft, and Sun Systems spending their youth learning latin, studying poetry, and reading endless novels. I am can’t imagine why they would of studied science and math… subjects which are sure to kill creativity.

  4. A good liberal education always starts with the trivium, right? Aren’t grammar, logic and rhetoric assumed before one moves on to the rest of a liberal education?

    If it takes all of your time to reinforce the basics so you can satisfy the meager requirements of NCLB, then you’re just admitting that you can’t really teach beyond the basics.

    Now, the reason you can’t may have to do with the kids, the parents, society at large or the school system itself, but that doesn’t matter. If you can’t teach the basics, moving on is just wasting time.

  5. Hear hear!

  6. wahoofive says:

    All this is assuming that all students are identical. In fact, schools constantly have to choose between (a) providing the most challenging education for the best students and (b) helping the slower students to catch up. In a perfect, rainbow pony world, we could do both, but in the real world, it’s always the choice. Neither choice is wrong, but both have consequences. For better or worse, NCLB voted decisively in favor of (b).

    Look, the people who created Yahoo and Google were the smart kids in school. The vast majority of students aren’t going to be founding their own companies or creating new inventions; they’re going to be dishwashers or data entry clerks or car mechanics or house painters or policemen.

    In choosing to focus on basic literacy and numeracy, we’re trying to increase future economic productivity and reduce crime and poverty. It may not work, but it’s not going to kill our creativity as a society, which for the most part isn’t learned in school.

  7. wahoofive says:

    Oh, and by the way, I’m a classical musician. I’d love for kids to be exposed to more music, art, and poetry. Please advocate for more of that. But don’t do it for the wrong reasons (e.g. that it will lead to more Thomas Edisons).

  8. This kind of slam against NCLB reminds me of a guy so eager to get the upper floors of a building completed that he resents the construction foreman who reminds him that the foundations must be dug first.

    You can’t build and furnish the penthouse suite–no matter how much you want to–until you have steel girders to hold it up, and a foundation to carry the loads of the girders.

    Regarding creativity, Stravinsky had some relevant thoughts.

  9. Hunter McDaniel says:

    Sorry wahoofive, I don’t buy the notion that schools are torn between (a) and (b), They have been blowing off the (b)’s for decades while using the (a)’s as unpaid teachers aides.

    The conflict comes only because of modern schools’ self-imposed imperative against any form of “tracking”. Add in the romantic belief that all children are “the same” and that a “good” teacher can bridge any gap.

  10. wahoofive says:

    Thank you for responding, Hunter. My observation, however, is that tracking is a move in favor of option (a). In a mixed class, the slow kids get extra help and the class moves at a moderate pace, frustrating for the smart kids. In a tracked class, one class is full of smart kids and races ahead while another class is all slow kids and moves at a snail’s pace, because there’s no way the teacher can give every kid the extra attention they need, and they all need different kinds of help, especially if the “special ed” kids are mixed in.

    I’m not saying either (a) or (b) is better, but tracking is just another example of the same choice.

  11. Tom West says:

    I have to agree with wahoofive. The split of interest is not so much along students within a school, but between schools in a board and boards within a state.

    The simple fact is that limited resources have to go somewhere, and regardless of whether you think schools are efficient or not, decision makers now have a considerable push to satisfy (b) over (a). Traditionally those pushing for (a) have had more clout, coming from more affluent neighborhoods.

  12. Well the most valuable skills I learned at university is the problem solving in the first year engineering courses. The problems required reasonable reading skills along with the ability to apply math principles. The skills learned became valuable in a applying diverse ideas from various disciplines to solve problems. Of course nothing would have been possible without reading a math skills. This also produces creativity if you escape dogma.

    A true liberal arts education is of value but a secondary education is about providing the skills for a student’s future. Without reading, writing and math skills, they face the world with reduced prospects, whole areas of pursuit denied them by the education inflicted upon them. As we progress in this world, it is imperative to develop capabilities to meet the challenges that beset us. If the fundamentals are lacking, all the exposure to “liberal arts” becomes indoctrination since the skills for the student to explore the concepts on their own are missing.

  13. Walter E. Wallis says:

    Of course they can always rent “Shakespear in Love” and hire an Asian to do their math.

  14. Wahoofive: “In choosing to focus on basic literacy and numeracy, we’re trying to increase future economic productivity and reduce crime and poverty.” It’s true that you’ve got to teach that before the kids can learn anything else, but if that’s all the schools teach, they’re aiming at about the lowest tenth – the kids with a future as maids and gardeners, at best. If you want to raise anyone out of poverty, you’ve got to teach them far more than the 10-percentile kids are capable of learning.

  15. Andy Freeman says:

    > It’s true that you’ve got to teach that before the kids can learn anything else, but if that’s all the schools teach

    they’ll be doing better than they are today.