On September 8, 2009, President Obama gave a back-to-school speech described by the White House as inspirational and pro-education to elementary, middle, and high school children in the U.S. Even before the speech there were reports of parents who thought this was inappropriate. (President Obama is not the first U.S. president to hold such an address; President George H. W. Bush did so in 1991 and President Ronald Reagan talked politics with students in 1988.)
Some parents worried that the president’s speech would be political, and that it was a way to reach parents through their children. Other parents complained that they were not notified about the event before-hand and asked to give consent via a permission slip as they do with activities such as watching R-rated movies. In response to parental complaints, some school districts allowed parents to opt-out and have their children take part in a different activity while other upset parents kept their children at home.
Some of the furor about President Obama’s speech may have been related to an assignment created by the Education Department to have students write essays to say how they could help the president. When some critics of the president protested that the assignment was too partisan, the lesson plan was revised to ask students to write about how they can achieve their short and long-term goals.
Recently, Former President Carter said “an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man”. (The former president was responding to Rep. Wilson’s outburst during the President’s speech to Congress.) Whether President Carter is correct and whether the president’s race is related to the fears parents expressed about him addressing their children is a debate I’ll leave for another time.
The furor over the President’s address does raise the question of what constitutes information that should be central to our education. What should you be learning? Have you ever thought about who decides what you learn? Clearly your teacher does. But what influences your teacher to make the choices he or she does in selecting class materials?
There are the so-called three Rs: reading, writing, and arithmetic. These are considered the basics, seen as fundamental to other knowledge acquisition. Do you agree that these are fundamental? What about all the other subjects taught in school? I took a music appreciation class as a college freshman. The class was designed to give me an appreciation of classical music. Who decides what classical music is? Turns out that we only studied classical European music (two words that tend to go together—classical and European), but should music from other areas of the world have been included in such a class?
What about in your English literature classes? In my overview American literature course, we read from an anthology that is more than 2500 pages thick. (Yes, I still have the book and just checked!) Given the racial/ethnic make-up of America, should such a course include non-white authors? (About four African Americans are included in the edition we used.) Who makes decisions about what is considered classical literature and decides what books you should read?
A 16 year-old International Baccalaureate (IB) student in Florida objected to passages in the highly regarded book The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, a book on the list of the prestigious IB English class curriculum. The student objects to sexually graphic content in the Haruki Murakmi novel and has been allowed to select an alternate book. Have you or your parents ever objected to any material that you were being taught? On what grounds? How likely do you think it is that you would be able change the information you are responsible for knowing in any of your classes?
While most of us now take education for granted, schooling is a relatively recent phenomenon—its modern form was developed in the early nineteenth century. This change was related to industrialization which created a need for an educated workforce. In the modern era, job opportunities have increased with education; today higher education is associated with increased income and less likelihood of unemployment (see chart in previous post). Is this how what is taught is decided—based on the kinds of information that are likely to keep us employed?
If you think about some of the more recent changes to curricula it seems that what is “worth knowing” changes. For example, after the civil rights movement and student activism, fundamental changes were made that resulted in the inclusion of more information on people of color and the creation of ethnic study departments on several university campuses. As you may recall from an earlier posting, standpoint theory suggests that even what we know depends on our affiliations. And is all knowledge ”equal”? Do you think there is an objective way to decide what knowledge matters?