Andrew Hacker and Algebra
The distinctive idea behind all of education is that self-reflection and objectivity in analyzing things are praiseworthy forms of mental activity. Going farther, the distinctive idea of American education is that these praiseworthy forms of mental activity are for everyone and so are ways to equalize everyone. How is it, then, that American education can be characterized as so anti-intellectual, anti-standards, anti-merit? Is it that these ideals are only actualized in the Blue states, while the rest of the country is caught up in the goal of making students conventional people who simply repeat religiously based slogans about abstinence or creationism?
One explanation for anti-intellectualism is that there is indeed a difference in values in the nation or the ethnic group or the social class that is being educated in one school or set of schools rather than another. And that is the explanation usually offered. Pat Moynihan was only being slightly facetious when he said that education (and many other things) would improve if all of the state capitals in the United States were moved to within a hundred miles of the Canadian border. The South is anti-intellectual as are poverty neighborhoods in the North and the United States is anti-intellectual as a whole when it is compared to other industrialized nations. But that is to blame one more time the students for the failings of the system. They are the ones who donít do well on the tests, no matter how hard teachers try to teach tem test taking skills.
Another way to look at it is that schools are not able to address the goals of education because they are preoccupied with doing other things. They are not pursing other values but other activities. Their organization fills up their day with goals that have little to do with education and so little of the day is spent on education and that little is spent on the appearance of education, which is all you can offer when the time budget is so constrained. You can cut music and you can cut social studies to give more time to test preparation. But you canít cut sports in high schools. And we call that education. That kind of education cannot be improved into being true education. All that can be done is to dispense with it or at least siphon off all the dross so that what is left is what can correctly be called education. That explanation is organizational rather than cultural.
There is a third explanation which is neither organizational nor cultural. It is that education is something that only a small number of people can savor and that the rest of the population puts up with even though they will need little but basic literacy and arithmetic to get on with their lives because there is some cachet in considering yourself to be educated. There are many people out there who are very proud of the little education they got without considering the fact that in fact they got very little education. Sure, a year or so of college can supply you with the skills learned in Psych 101 or Soc 101 to trot out the reasons other people are prejudiced or to say ďThere, thereĒ when someone seems troubled, but most of what one knows about how to manage every day life, not to speak of work life, is learned in on the job training once one has mastered the more basic skills. You donít pick up just values at the kitchen table. You learn what it takes to be a fireman or a social worker or a second grade teacher. Being an IT person requires more training than that, but not much education, in that training means specific mastery of skills, while education has to do with an overall perspective on what is going on whether at work or in leisure or in the world. And churches can do the work of reminding people to be nice to one another or thoughtful or even to consider the big picture and not just day to day slights or triumphs.
Andrew Hacker, in his recent Op Ed piece in the New York Times, has raised a lot of hackles, at least on the Internet, because when his position is pressed, it appears that he is in tune with this third approach. Hacker tries to cut through the blather that insists everybody be educated in school, while that same blather does not face up to the fact that there are a great many successful people who were never able to master what even educators consider the ever dumbed down curriculum of the schools. Hacker says that the mastery of algebra should not be made a requirement for graduating high school. He says that there are many people who do not have the kink in their mind that allows them to do so. They can do perfectly well in life with only what used to be called business math: arithmetic and a bit of book keeping so that you can balance a checkbook.
Sub-par students used to be assigned to business math, and so doing away with algebra seems just another example of dumbing down the curriculum. One might ask, in frustration, what else can you get rid of? Foreign languages are too hard and there are a lot of students who canít make sense of history either because they canít imagine that all those facts tell wonderful stories or because they just canít learn or are resistant to learning sufficient facts out of which to construct a story, much less allow for interpretations that tell different stories about the origins of the American Civil War or the United States Constitution. So why bother educating people at all? How much pandering will schools do to keep students in school long enough so that you can award them some semblance of a diploma, which is all that much of the ďreduce the dropout rateĒ blather is about. Give every infant a GED along with their birth certificate and leave it at that.
Hacker, however, is after something different. It is not that education is too easy but that it is administered from on high as a set of requirements to be met. That qualifies you as having a certain level of education. It is all in the certification that you have met the requirements. To Hacker, the problem is not that Americans are anti-intellectual, but that few of them need to be so intellectual as to measure up to the now one hundred year old Carnegie standards which said that all high school students need a certain number of years of English and history and foreign languages and, Hackerís particular point, the mastery of algebra. That made sense when only a small percentage of the nationís population completed high school. It makes less sense when everyone who doesnít get through high school is stigmatized. Jobs are hard to come by and young people feel like failures. No wonder you want to find a way to create a life path to success for people who just donít have the calm or the patience or the abstracting capability to master the quadratic equation, but are nonetheless eloquent and have heads crammed with sports statistics and song lyrics.
Hacker brings to mind what Lawrence Cremin said many years ago: much of what constitutes education does not happen in school nor even at the kitchen table. It happened at Chautauqua meetings and other public lectures and in libraries and at the YWCA. I would argue it also happened during election campaigns, hard as that is to believe, because long speeches were very entertaining when there was no television and vaudeville troopers came to town only once in a while.
What underlies Hackerís proposal is a return to a truly free enterprise model for education. Forget about vouchers and charters and otherwise funding schools so that they can compete with one another to better meet elite set standards. Let students purchase or get for free whatever it is they want to learn. If they want to learn air conditioning repair, that should be available without American history; if they want to learn pet care so that they can become veterinary assistants, that does not have to be accompanied by Spanish. If they want to learn American history, that doesnít have to be accompanied by science, and visa versa. Indeed, there are very able students today who cram on calculus when they are supposed to be paying attention to a history lesson. Sure, you can set Carnegie requirements for college and most students who need or want to be in college will easily enough pick them up, but many wonít, and even many of them can still go to college if there is some flexibility in admissions and in the curriculum about what is required to graduate.
The alternative is to force students to sit through what they donít want to learn and which most of them will not learn even if they are finally able to squeeze out a passing grade because of diligence. Schools may instill character by insisting that students go through the drudgery of learning what they donít want to learn, but that is not education even if some principals, especially in red states, think that all of school is just drudgery and it is a sign of character that you get through it between trips to the sports fields. I would suggest students are better than that. Those who can learn will want to learn about as many different things as they are capable of learning about and if algebra is a particular stumbling block, why deprive them of what they find it easy to learn, and if they find nothing easy to learn, that student is in trouble without that fact being turned into an indictment of the educational system.