The latest Texas Textbook Controversy has had me thinking a lot about education. I say the “latest,” because there’s always a Texas Textbook Controversy. Texas, being the largest buyer of school textbooks, has the largest voice in what goes into the books, and how it’s presented. Call it right, call it wrong, it happens, and the side opposed to the changes always starts calling doomsday.
Toward the end of the above-cited article, someone opposed to the changes leveled the criticism that education will be “dumbed down,” as children will have to memorize large lists of names and dates, rather than think critically about subject matter. The truth is, that the most extensive “dumbing down” of American education came in the 1970s, through different attempts to liberalize education. It’s been argued that this dumbing down was a widespread conspiracy, but I’ve taught in public schools, and, quite frankly, the “American Education System” is neither organized nor monolithic enough to support any sort of conspiracy, conservative or liberal. There is no national education system, although there should be. Rather, public education is centralized only at the state level, and most decisions transpire at the district and school level. And, like any bureaucracy, the cogs and gears turn not at the whim of some cadre of puppet-masters, but as a result of the sometimes competing, sometimes complementary interests of the individuals who make it up.
The last Great Dumbing Down wasn’t a conspiracy to make Americans intellectually weaker, though that’s what happened. In an attempt to make education more interesting and engaging to students (an admirable goal), memorization, critical thinking, and core skills (“the three r’s”) were de-emphasized, and entertainment value became a factor. Along with these changes, the societal changes of a rejection of authority (not always a bad thing, but not always a good thing), and the rise of TV contributed to the idea that teachers need to be entertainers, and schools “fun” more than anything else. Add experimental movements like “new math” and “inventive spelling,” and it’s not hard to see why American education is in the state it’s in.
There has been an attempt to bring critical thinking into the curriculum, and I applaud this. However, critical thinking is difficult to pull off if students have not memorized the basics. One can’t run before one has crawled. One cannot (or perhaps should not) write an essay in favor of or against U.S. participation in the United Nations, if one does not know when, how, and why the U.N. was formed. And one doesn’t divine these facts by relying on “intuition” or “feelings.” It’s great to know that multiplication is commutative, but if you can’t balance your checkbook, figure out what 30% off of a discounted item would be, or figure out which box of cereal is best value for money, what’s the fucking point? Memorization is not evil. Memorization is one of the pillars of intellectual rigor.
This is not to say that memorization is the only thing students should be doing. But to decry curriculum change based on the idea that it will require memorization from children being brought up in a culture of forgetfulness and gnat-like attention spans is silly at best. If anything, we need more memorization and a return to the basics, so that the higher goals of liberalization can be achieved.
(to be continued)