Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Education Reform-Can we blame the students?

With the protests in Wisconsin still front page news f there has been a great deal of discussion about education reform. I've heard a a lot of discussion about teachers unions and that these organizations make it impossible to fire bad teachers and that this ability to not route out bad teachers and conversely reward good teachers is one of the major reasons our schools are failing our students.

Now I will agree, like any profession, there are ineffectual teachers that are hurting the school system, however in my experience that population is rather small. Most teachers are passionate about their profession and the students they teach. My belief is that the last person to blame for poor test scores in the U.S. are teachers. However there is one group of people who are never mentioned as a problem in our failing education system, and that's the students.

I believe as a society we focus our energy telling our children about the importance of education but we don't try to instill a passion for education. While some students go to school with a genuine passion to learn most treat school like a social event. While it's true that learning how to socialize is an important skill set you develop at school it's not why you go to school.

The lack of passion became clear to me when I started teaching in higher education. This is the first time students are really given free will to go to class, do their homework, and learn. I'm always surprised at the amount of students who choose not to come to class for a myriad of reasons none of which are illness. It shocks me how many students don't turn in their homework because they forgot to do it. Some students (not all) just don't care. It comes through everyday when a kid texts in class, has a side discussion, doesn't come to class, comes late, etc. They have no passion for learning.

So I would say one of the real causes of bad test scores is so many students just don't care about education. It's the students fault.

Now of course that's not entirely true. It really comes down to how our culture values education...which it doesn't. Look at the people we idolize, Paris Hilton and The Kardashians (who are famous for nothing), professional athletes, rock stars, etc. I don't mean to belittle the hard work that these people do (well maybe Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian) but why don't we idolize scientists, teachers, doctors?

We need to have a fundamental shift in our society. We shouldn't stress the importance of education we should help develop a passion for education.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Why the Arts are not Fluffery

As many of you know a few weeks ago the President gave his annual State of the Union Address. In typical fashion conservative pundits made their arguments about why everything he said is wrong. One interview that caught my attention was Greta Van Sustren interviewing Sarah Palin. During the interview she posed a question to Ms. Palin asking how Sarah would reduce the government debt. Her answer? Cut funding for fluffery like the National Endowment of the Arts and Public Broadcasting. This is not a new concept. It started back with the Reagan administration, was taken up by Newt Gingrich, and now a new group of primarily republican senators like Jim Demint are suggesting we do it again.

There is an interesting side note to be mentioned about the government and arts. One complaint often heard is our taxpayer dollars are going to avant garde art. This statement is ironic when you understand that the government used to seek out controversial art to fund during the cold war.  We used to fund avant garde art so we could stick it to the Commies, the natural born enemy of Republicans. You see most communist countries have tight control over their artists and censor them quite regularly. This is as true today as it was back in the 40's. In our effort to show these communist countries how much better a free society is our government sponsored a great deal of avant garde and cutting edge art. We were telling them "there is no censorship in a free society. You can create what you want". Back then "controversial" art was patriotic.

So the question now is why do the arts matter and why should the people continue to fund them? 

Well first off forget the fact that the arts provide 5.7 million jobs in the united states and generates 30 billion dollars in taxes. There are bigger reasons to keep the arts going. 

For me it comes to two important ideals about art that I have. 

The first is the importance of creating new art. If you want to know what a society or culture was like during a certain time look at their art. Architecture, paintings, music and plays all serve as snapshots of culture in time. While it is true a single artist may have a particular bias when you take a sampling of multiple artists you get a real picture of what the world was like at the time.

Secondly I believe that it is important to teach people to be creative or at least appreciate creativity. When people discuss education reform they discuss the need to compete in the areas of math and science. It is emphasized as the most important thing we need to do. However what is lost in this discussion is that math and science are creative. However if we are not encouraging experiences with the arts we will end up breeding a society of people who are able to replicate (formulas, experiments, etc.) but not innovate. If you have never been taught to be creative (and yes I think creativity can be taught in a certain sense) then how will you think outside of the box? Think about those cultures that lead in the sciences they also have some of the best musicians. The point is the countries that excel in math and science also place a high value on the arts.

We need to support the arts by participation and observation in order for us to stay relevant as a country.