Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Problem With Education


photo credit: foundphotosl
In order to graduate from high school in Utah, a student must have 24 credits, 18 of which are "core" class requirements.  The course requirements are as follows:  4.0 credits of Language Arts, 3.0 credits of Math, 3.0 credits of science, 2.5 credits of Social Studies, 2.0 credits in Physical Education, and 3.5 credits in Directed Coursework (which includes 1.5 credits in the Arts).  The additional six credits are "electives."  

Utah gubernatorial candidate, Peter Corroon, would like to change that.  He has proposed adding another year of math and reducing electives.  Students would be required to have 22 credits in "core" subjects.  He suggests that his plan will make graduates more employable.  And I have to admit, he may be right . . . if you're looking to hire a mathematician.  Unfortunately, Corroon fails to realize that what education needs today is greater diversity, not a one-size-fits-all solution.  

I do agree with Corroon that there's room for improvement in our math and science programs.  If you study the greatest periods of human advancement (i.e. Ancient Egypt, Classic Greece, Renaissance Italy, The Age of Enlightment, etc.) you'll see that math and science were highly valued by the cultures of the time.  But you'll notice something else . . . art was also of great and perhaps equal value.  If we take a lesson from history, we'll see it's important to diversify education. 

Let's consider, for a moment, Renaissance Italy of the 1400s.  Here we find an explosion of growth and creativity in the arts and sciences, as well as many other disciplines.  There are many possible reasons for this, but one primary cause was the philosophy of Humanism, or the belief that humans have limitless potential for advancement.  This idea sparked a thirst for learning and creativity in all areas of knowledge.  As Leon Battista Alberti (1404 - 1472) put it, "a man can do all things if he will."  The Renaissance became a time of polymaths, or people who were experts in many skill areas.  The most famous polymath is Leonardo da Vinci.  He exemplifies what I consider a "well-educated" person with a broad repertoire of profound skills.  Truly, the Renaissance was a testament of the potential of humans to learn and advance. 

Today, you could argue that things are different, that in our "tech-driven" society workers need to be more specialized and there's no need for polymaths.  And there's some truth to that . . . on an individual basis.  Statistics do show that the more education you have, the more specialized you become, and the more likely you are to be employed.  However, from a sociological perspective, I believe it's dangerous to funnel all of our students into mathematics and science.  I believe the idea of the polymath--ideal yet unrealistic for all individuals--is absolutely applicable and necessary for all societies and civilizations.  It's akin to the theory of evolution, which suggests that the more diverse the gene pool, the more likely a species will adapt and survive.  In a similar fashion, the more diverse the talent pool, the more likely we will see the development of meaningful ideas and products, and the more likely our economy will grow and our societies advance.

It seems to me that the best solution for fixing education is not to force students to take more math and science, but to provide greater opportunities for specialization in a wider range of areas while still in high school.  We need to help our youth discover their talents sooner and to develop them to the fullest.  They say it takes a good 10 years to master a talent.  Let's give our youth a head start.

2 comments:

Jaleta Clegg said...

One size fits all has never worked for education. Each child is different and learns different. Our current system is tailored to a specific type of learner. Those who struggle with the lecturer/pupil model tend to drop out or fail.

We need change in education, but lets put the money and the control in the hands of local principals and teachers, not some state or national board.

(I majored in education, is it showing?)

Julie Wright said...

this is a brilliant and thought provoking post. If I'd had to do more math as a youth, I likely would have dropped out of school. I couldn't do it. My brain doesn't work on those levels. But art gave me something I still have today--even though I'm not an artist. It gave me perspective. And isn't that a gift all students need in life?