Teaching with Contemporary Art

What Makes Us Human

Photocollage by Quentin McCaffrey

Photocollage by Quentin McCaffrey

I’m addicted to Harper’s Magazine. I started reading it in 1985 as a freshman in college and have somehow managed, through multiple moves and roommates, to keep every single issue since then. This drives my wife crazy, even though they’re tucked away in the basement. I’m not really sure what I’m eventually going to do with all of them, but it’s a symbolic lifeline to news, essays and unique perspectives that fed me growing up and, quite frankly, helped me to grow up.

This month’s issue features an essay by one of Harper’s contributing editors, Mark Slouka, and it literally made my head snap back. The essay, titled Dehumanized: When math and science rule the school, is must-reading for anyone interested in the constant debate about how the humanities have practically been forced to justify their place in education and “fit in” behind (not next to) all of the quantifying, calculating and computations that take place in school. It’s the kind of essay that’s perfect for the start of a new school year because it’s biting and doesn’t knuckle under to all of the standardized nonsense that passes for “concern” or “improvement” or, I hate to say it, “rigor” in education.

Slouka makes a remarkable case for “teach(ing) people, not tasks; to participate in the complex and infinitely worthwhile labor of forming citizens, men and women capable of furthering what’s best about us and forestalling what’s worst.” It isn’t easy. In Slouka’s “State of the Union” he describes our “horizontal world of information” that’s easily converted into product, and that the “verticality of wisdom has no place”. Basically, education has been force-fed capitalism to the point that it has no choice but to accept its criteria for “success”!

Along with undressing Thomas Friedman for blatantly sucking up to Bill Gates (a beautiful section of the essay, indeed), Slouka poses many questions that need to be asked more often, and perhaps loudly:

  • What do we teach, and why?
  • Is the “job” of education to help students “get ahead”?
  • Do our students really need to take more and more math and science, get higher SAT scores, and gain acceptance into better colleges in order to “compete” with other students (and prospective workers!) around the world?
  • Do schools have a critical role that they ignore in order to devote so much time and energy into “competing” in a global economy?

Slouka discusses, at length, the disequilibrium that exists. This is a Crisis in American Education that has little to do with the economy and everything to do with the kinds of citizens we are teaching and shaping (not “producing”). “Mathandscience”, he suggests, has become the “all-purpose shorthand for intelligence”.

Slouka ends the piece with a wonderful story about an English teacher named Marcus Eure, who doesn’t spend all of his time preparing kids for tests. Instead, his students are immersed in questions, for example,  that tackle what it means to be correct, to lie, and to be desensitized by what we see on tv and in movie theaters.

Is there hope? Yes! Read the essay. Share it with others. And have a good start to the school year.