Please, no more national math and science initiatives…

A couple of the Democratic candidates, when pressed about education reform during last night’s debate, issued the stock call for new math and science initiatives.

I issue my stock call of hooey.

Naturally we need math and science education. However, what is far more desperately needed is leadership that recognizes the importance of humanities education. You may feel lucky, but I don’t really want future nurses who think plagiarism is OK writing on my chart, nor do I want inarticulate future bankers messing with the annual reports and quarterly filings of my stock.

Where, I ask, are the calls for a new national humanities initiative? Where is the national push for developing critical thinking skills? The closest we usually come are facile history initiatives that frequently morph into unthinking “patriotism” indoctrination and conveniently ignore the more complex issues surrounding U.S. history.

I am pedagogically unfashionable. I believe that students think and write better when they develop a stronger understanding of grammar, spelling and word origins, and basic linguistic issues (e.g., orality and literacy, codeswitching, descriptive vs. prescriptive grammar, and the wisdom to know which to use when). I am of the both-and school: I believe that grammar can be observed and described, and that all educated people will be best equipped for life in the real world if they recognize and value not only the version of English they use, but also gain some fluency in other versions of English. Whether the student’s “new”English is AAVE, SWE, “Spanglish,” “Engrish,” or whatever dialect, the more a writer knows, the richer and more powerful his or her own idiolect (and writing) will become. No one is ever too smart to learn more about language.

Our distinguishing feature as humans is language. A student may read a sentence in a book or speak one fresh from his or her own mind. If that student cannot parse the sentence, no matter how smart or articulate that student is, he or she is at a disadvantage when trying to develop the idea further–especially in writing. This isn’t a slam against the smart but semi-literate and/or inarticulate (on some days, I also fit these categories). It’s an observation of what was a dangerous trend and is now a fait accompli.

We live in a society run by powerful interests who do indeed have a solid command of the English language.–and who are happy to do your thinking for you. Advertisers, press secretaries, spokesfolk of all stripes, politicians, and petty bureaucrats make their money (and take ours) because they know exactly how to use language. Too often, they manipulate it cynically: using the passive voice to evade responsibility for actions; substituting a synonym for a more-precise, less-palatable word to varnish the truth; filling the airwaves with fallacies during heated public debate.

Many young adults (thankfully, not all) genuinely believe that Wikipedia holds all the answers they need and that the university is merely a vo-tech holding pen.

These young people have been well-trained by various petty bureaucrats not to think, not to question, not to go the extra research mile.

This mindset is inimical to everything within a writer’s soul.

It’s time for a national non-standardized-test-driven writing initiative, unhampered by arbitrary benchmarks. Give me a room and a year and I’ll give you a hell of a lot of good writers. As writing starts with reading, we’ll be reading and discussing all kinds of texts, but not many textbooks. (Okay, maybe Vitto.) However, we’ll also be turning to poetry, to fiction, and to drama to exercise our critical thinking skills. Moreover, we will become more humane in the process–something an externally-motivated automaton can never learn by being taught to the test and brainwashed into consumeristic, me-centered anti-intellectualism.

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