The best education for the best is the best education for all

We Don’t Need No Education” by Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan University, in yesterday’s New York Times is a succinct, and mostly compelling, argument for giving all our children a solid liberal arts education beyond high school.

Shouldn’t every American citizen have a right to the best education we can deliver?

Though I’m not sure that taking out after the “instrumentalist rhetoric” of recent reports like that of the Council on Foreign Relations (U.S. Education Reform and National Security) is appropriate, Roth is right to question those who wonder “why people destined for low-paying jobs should bother to pursue their education beyond high school, much less study philosophy, literature and history.” I have written about the subject before (here, here, and here) because, as Roth argues, it’s important. It’s an education policy issue that, played out in the trenches, is very much a social justice issue, if not a moral one—and, I would argue, very much a national security issue. This was the point of my post on Earl Shorris’s Roberto Clemente program for the poor; that the poor deserve a good education too. As Shorris wrote:

If the multigenerational poor are to make the leap out of poverty, it will require a new kind of thinking—reflection…. And that is a beginning. [The study of the humanities is] in itself a redistribution of wealth.

Shorris quotes the great University of Chicago president Robert Maynard Hutchins: “The best education for the best is the best education for us all.”

Of course, there are arguments about what a “best” education is, but for too many of our urban kids who can barely read and write those are arguments at the fringe. The thin ice here, and this is what Roth is getting at, is that by determining that some kids are only cut out for the manual trades, we are denying them access to that “best” education and—this is the national security problem—thus denying the nation of a wealth of potential rocket scientists and CEOs.

Some of this is a variation on the voc-ed debate—see Checker and my dueling essays last winter, “Liberal Arts vs. Technical Training”—and Roth offers decent reasons for rejecting the “dual-track” system that sends some kids toward plumbing (or computer programming?) and others toward Hegel and Dickens. It is not a new debate: John Dewey argued, as Roth points out, that a dual-track system would, in Roth’s words, “reinforce the inequalities of his time.” (These are the same “structured inequities” that Tony Bryck said were part of what made public schools inferior to Catholic schools.)

Roth says that our current “instrumentalist perspective” is a bad thing for many of the same reasons:

Who wants to attend school to be “human capital”? Who aspires for their children to become economic or military resources?

In my “College for All! Please!” post last year I cited a piece by David Leonhardt, also in the Times, which I called a “masterful KO of the silly notion that we shouldn't encourage kids to go to college.” Leonhardt’s Even for Cashiers, College Pays Off “should take your breath away,” I wrote:

  • A dishwasher with a college degree earns 83 percent more than a dishwasher with no college;
  • A cashier with a college degree, 56 percent more;
  • A plumber, 39 percent.

Leonhardt quotes David Autor, an M.I.T. economist, saying rather bluntly, “Sending more young Americans to college is not a panacea. Not sending them to college would be a disaster.” There are, of course, many hidden assumptions in this “college for all” debate, the first of which is whether you mean that all kids should go to college or all kids should be able to go to college. I personally would be pleased if all kids were capable of going to college, where college is defined as something more than remedial education.

Thus, we have to broaden the standards movement to include K-20. There are many community college horror stories, but I do think we could, if we tried, agree on some basic standards for college readiness. (Kindergarten “readiness” is another question, one that should send our elementary school policymakers back to the drawing board; a topic for another day.)

I personally don’t care if a kid decides not to go to college. I would, however, demand that every high school graduate at least be capable of reading (and understanding) David Leonhardt’s story—i.e., your options are probably pretty constrained if you don’t go to college—and that every district superintendent be judged by the number of his or her truly college-ready graduates. If a student decides not to go to college, fine. But at least he or she would have, I would hope, the option of going if he or she wanted to—which is better, I would assume, than not having that option after twelve years of schooling.

The question here is the Hutchins question: Shouldn’t every American citizen have a right to the best education we can deliver? And this is what Michael Roth is getting at; that the liberal arts are, in fact, part of that best education. He quotes Dewey:

The world in which most of us live is a world in which everyone has a calling and occupation, something to do…. Some are managers and others are subordinates. But the great thing for one as for the other is that each shall have had the education which enables him to see within his daily work all there is in it of large and human significance.

Every student deserves that education.

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