Monday, May 30, 2011

A Nation of Employees, not Citizens

Counting (M.A. Reilly, 2010)

I find the constant referencing of studies that attempt to show how the arts & the humanities increase students' mathematics and science achievement fairly obscene.  It's as if the full measure of each was limited to what they might do to 'improve' students' achievement in the 'really important' subjects.  In this post-Sputnik world, do poets, painters, photographers, cartoonists, historians, dancers, musicians, singers, actors, sculptors, dramatists, performance artists, film makers, writers, and mixed media artists--to name but a few-- still have no value apart from boosting math & science scores? 

Against the consistent manic attention to mathandscience (they are singular, not plural), we also add the buzz that the US economy (a stand in for securing wealth) will require the participation of "creative" people to "win the race".  Such thinking has led to the retooling of public education shifting attention and funding from preparing learners to be active citizens in participatory democracy to building engineers, doctors, and scientists--as if these professions were the full sum of the people. 

Mark Slouka (Harper's, 09/2009) explained the shift in what is being valued as education when he wrote:
"By downsizing what is most dangerous (and most essential) about our education, namely the deep civic function of the arts and the humanities, we’re well on the way to producing a nation of employees, not citizens. Thus is the world made safe for commerce, but not safe."
A nation of employees, not citizens. Studying the arts and the humanities require thinkers to not be confined to espousing only government or corporate-sanctioned ideologies. One never quite knows the twists and turns the human mind might take while reading literary works or participating in other aesthetic experiences, including those that might also be considered mathematical or scientific in nature. I am reminded here of the recent push to devalue literature study in schools, replacing The Iliad  or The Bluest Eye with the ubiquitous, non fiction text which seems to be understood as being non-literary--informational.  In "How To Make American Teens Smarter," Dana Goldstein writes:
...children should read newspapers and magazines, texts about nature and technology, and biographies—genres that increase real-world knowledge. This is especially important for poor children, who may not be exposed to as much "background" information at home: the random vocabulary, facts, and associations that make it easier to do well on tests like the NAEP and SAT, and to succeed in the workplace.
This is wrong for so many reasons, not the least is the unfortunate implication that being poor means your knowledge is not important. Goldstein let's us know what the end game is for education: succeeding in the workplace. Success in the workplace has replaced pursuing life, liberty, and happiness.  Or consider ASCD writer, Grant Wiggins, who in an earlier ASCD post this year (now removed from the site) said we should ban fiction from classrooms (I wrote more about this here). Who needs literature? Well it seems our President agrees. Proposed federal education funding this year for reading, writing and the arts is $0.  It is enough to make one ask, Why study literature? Why participate in the arts? Is the study of history even relevant? It makes one wonder if mathandscience is democratically neutral--indifferent and is not valued in part, because of this indifference. Slouka writes:
I see no contradiction between my respect for science and my humanist’s discomfort with its ever-greater role in American culture, its ever-burgeoning coffers, its often dramatically anti-democratic ways, its symbiotic relationship with government, with industry, with our increasingly corporate institutions of higher learning. Triply protected from criticism by the firewall of their jargon (which immediately excludes the non-specialist and assures a jury of motivated and sympathetic peers), their economic efficacy, and the immunity conferred by conveniently associated terms like “progress” and “advancement,” the sciences march, largely untouched, under the banner of the inherently good. And this troubles me. It troubles me because there are many things “math and science” do well, and some they don’t. And one of the things they don’t do well is democracy. They have no aptitude for it, no connection to it, really.


A Room of One's Own (M.A. Reilly, 2008)
I think we tend to think of our democracy as a stable thing we have inherited from the "founding fathers" that has been rendered ready-made and requires little of us now. A quick look at US voting records suggests a similar sense of reality. Slightly more than half of us vote during a presidential election and slightly more than a third in off years.  Slouka states that an arts and humanities education is about life. He writes:
"...every aspect of life—every marriage, every job, every parent-teacher meeting—hinges in some way on the ability to understand and empathize with others, to challenge one’s beliefs, to strive for reason and clarity."
Arts and humanities education allows us to live more fully, more aware of how our past informs our present and why such knowledge, even when it is most painful, is critical to understand.  Less we think our democratic rights are stable, consider your right to marry whomever you love. One would think that the freedom to marry would be an example of an inalienable human right to 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.' Not so.

In 1883 in Pace v. Alabama, the US Supreme Court upheld Alabama's right to make interracial marriage a felony.  Nearly 100 years later, in Loving v. Virginia (1967), the US Supreme Court ruled that state laws prohibiting interracial marriage were unconstitutional. At that time 16 states had such laws. However it was not until the end of the century that all states changed their constitutions. In 1998, South Carolina and in 2000, Alabama amended their states' constitutions prohibiting miscegenation.  More recently in 2011, I read a poll that indicated 46% of Republican lawmakers in Mississippi supported banning interracial marriage. Now consider where we are in securing such rights if we replace interracial marriage with same gender marriage. Democracies require that its citizens be able to participate. Public schools need to value citizenship as evidenced by funding.

Dewey (1916) understood the aims of education in ways our current representatives seemed to not grasp. We must understand that for a democracy to continue, the aims of education are not to make better workers, but rather better citizens. The route to such ends will not be found by over privileging mathandscience. Dewey understood that aesthetic experiences were an important and necessary method for learning deeply--a requisite to developing thinkers, not merely followers.  He explained:
"Tangible scenes of life are made more intelligible in esthetic experience: not, however as reflection and science render things more intelligible by reduction to conceptual form but by presenting their meanings as the matter of clarified, coherent, and intensified or 'impassioned experience" (1934, p. 290).
Similarly, Maxine Greene (1995) argued that through aesthetic engagements that invoke imagination learners are positioned to become "otherwise"-- that is to become wise about those who we are not.  Empathy, clarity, reason, living with ambiguity, and being wise about other: Are these not perhaps, the most important dispositions we might hope to teach and learn in this increasingly more global world?

What Felled You is Important (M.A. Reilly, 2010)


  1. We did not receive a DEMOCRACY from our founding fathers.Our country's founders gave us a REPUBLIC, but a Republic by definition depends upon educated, interested,and empowered
    Look up the words they are identical except that 99% must agree to any change in law affecting the citizenry in a REPUBLIC.

    We are a nation of employees as we currently stand today. People need to wake up and fight to re-create the REPUBLIC. We have given up too much of our power to the "democratic government" which is imperialist in it's nature.

  2. Thanks for the clarification. I did not know the difference. We are far from a Republic given the definition you cite. I am hopeful more and more people are "waking up" and acknowledging that their rights are dangerously limited. Appreciate your comments.