Tuesday, July 28, 2009

What does Education Have to Offer: Should Foreign Languages Be Offered at Public Schools

This morning I saw two bits of news on education that initiated this rant. First I saw a report on television news about a physical fitness assessment of nursery school aged children in Japan, which showed that some children in urban areas  and then read that Illinois is gutting its foreign language education curriculum. That started me thinking about what the purpose of public education is anyway. What is its purpose? What does it really deliver, and what parts of it are essential and what are not?

If Illinois is having to think that hard about whether to keep its foreign language curriculum, then maybe it isn't that important to begin with. There will be all of the usual arguments, that if students don't get another language they won't be competitive, that foreign languages help us process information differently and better, that Americans are not multilingual enough. Those are all fine arguments, but what does that have to do with what public schools should offer and what they shouldn't? Fundamentally public schools should teach children the bare minimum, reading, writing, and 'rithmatic, and the rest is expendable. In fact, that is all they are capable of doing anyway, capable in terms of finances and pedagogical ability.  I want my children to be in class learning how to read and write in the language on offer, how to crunch some numbers, and that is it. I want them the heck out of there. I will take care of the rest. I will chose how much of anything else they get. Just keep the state out of my kids' heads.

"Oh, but that isn't fair, " some will say. "What about the kids who can't afford more than what public education has to offer." It isn't fair now. Kids in poorer areas get less than kids in richer areas. The only way that is going to get better is if more people get interested in helping all children in their communities to thrive. It isn't fair in Japan either, even in this country where homogeneous is the order of the day. Kids who go to cram schools don't study at school, because school doesn't offer the quality or quantity that cram schools do. The kids who don't go to cram schools or can't afford them don't get the same advantages. That means that the hours and hours of sitting in classes, being evaluated by teachers on everything from their ability to solve simple math to their willingness to obey without question is part of a pedagogical agenda that has little to do with the state's ostensible concerns about equality. Just keep the state out of my kid's heads.

My son is taking an "Ethics" class now at school. If I thought they were trying to teach them ethics, I would yank him out of that school yesterday. I have no confidence that the teachers at the school he is attending have the slightest clue about what Ethics is about. Instead they teach some basic Philosophy, which I do not object to. Even that is unwelcome from the state. I do not want the state deciding with philosophy is appropriate for my children to learn. It doesn't matter what my leanings may be. I may feel that Marx and Bookchin are appropriate for my children. Just keep the state out of my kids' heads.

We also need to face the realities of modern pedagogical agendas. The paradigm of most education now was institutionalized around the beginning of the industrial revolution to create a workforce capable of operating machinery and sitting for long shifts of brain and body numbing work. It was developed to classify and segregate information in minute detail, not to examine the intricate connectedness of all things. Look for example at English education in Japan. This isn't taught to help young people to communicate. It is a tool to segretate and separate students who can by innate talent or through brute force of will commit to memory the minutiae of English grammar as defined by the Japanese state from those who can't or won't. Just keep the state out of my kid's heads.

Then that's fine. If Illinois doesn't have the money to teach foreign languages, or art, or physical education, or political science, then turn the kids out early and quit trying to micromanage their lives. If Japanese kids can't run or throw a ball as well as kids twenty years ago, and that is important to the communities where they live, then the residents should get together and provide safe, clean places for their children to play, not expect the state to do something it isn't able or willing to do now.

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