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Misunderstanding education issues

The “Editorial” page of the June 18 issue of the Press-Republican contains a statement entitled “How American K-12 education has become a cultural contradiction,” authored by George Will. It features limited insight into how this contradiction occurred, but he makes clear his conclusion about what it is about. “Pupils who are assumed to be unfolding flowers of spontaneous individuality are nevertheless treated as empty vessels into which government approved political doctrines should be poured.” In this, his anti-government biases take control of his logic, expressed with limited insight into current predicaments in the conduct of public education in this century.

It is true, learners are considered in subject-centered doctrines to be empty vessels into which selective bits and pieces of information are to be poured. There are many who advocate for this position, offering a common core of conclusions, not unrelated to political doctrines. In opposition, there are many child-centered advocates who assume meaning is constructed from the learner’s experiences, consistent with developmental readiness.

The rift between those who maintain a fixed set of conclusions that represent the content to be taught to students, and the needs that individual learners have in making sense of their worlds, has been unresolved for years. It is commonly known as content vs. child centered education.

Over the last century and into this one, this rift has occurred in pendulum swings back and forth from child-centered activities to subject-centered instruction. We have been immersed in content-centered instruction for the past 21 years, with its common core and standardized testing. We now may be nearing a pendulum swing back toward child-centered education.

As long as there is limited understanding about what constitutes learning, an insightful resolution will remain elusive. Especially troublesome is the thought put forth that “For most of human history, in most places, parents and the community collaborate in turning initially uncivilized children into capable citizens of societies that have rules and expectations.”

George Will has no business entering the dialogue on the problems of education without a great deal more background than he displayed in this article. But he is not alone. There is almost a total lack of understanding about connections between the current illogical behavior of a major portion of our society and what is or is not happening in our public schools. After 12 to 14 years of formal instruction, social unrest and hostile relationships among members of our society is an outcome. Schooling must have had a relationship to this behavior. Let’s find out what that relationship entails and do something about it.

Let me make a suggestion. Every part of this universe is being studied by individuals who call themselves historians, geographers, physicists, astronomers, geologists, linguists, anthropologists, mathematicians, artists, theologians, etc. They are engaged in learning, operating within processes that have produced insights that have been recorded in the annals of our society.

These people actively engage their inquiry abiding by the rules that govern their discipline. They produce the knowledge we all can use in understanding “life in all its manifestations” (Whitehead) — ours and that of others.

These disciplines have been examined by Philip Phenix and organized into six categories or realms of meaning based on the processes used for creating and communicating meaning, namely, empirics, symbolics, aesthetics, ethics, synnoetics and synoptics.

The empirics category contains all the sciences, including social sciences; the symbolics category contains all languages, including mathematics; aesthetics contain all the arts and architectural design; the ethics category contains issues of morality, about what is right or wrong; the synnoetics category deals with self-knowledge and self-understanding; and the synoptics category contains history, geography and cultural anthropology, providing an overview of life at specific times and locations. These collectively represent the contents of general education.

If learners were to engage these processes in ways appropriate to their developmental capabilities, consistent with modern learning and systems theories, the rift could be resolved between the subject matter advocates for improved learning outcomes and learner-centered requirements that meet individual learning needs. Learners could learn how to learn in ways consistent with their individual developmental capabilities. Maybe the current crises will warrant consideration of this suggestion. If not, what will it require?

Perhaps George Will could acquire flexibility in the application of his values and lead his readers in exploring in depth the 21st-century ills of public education and what might be done to address them.

Robert L. Arnold lives in Willsboro and is a professor emeritus of education at SUNY Plattsburgh.

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