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Ravitch, Gates & What Education Is, with thread to WS | APSCUF
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[Ed’s note: we’d blog about retrenchment, but as it’s Nov. 30th, the day before one of the deadlines for retrenchment letters to go to faculty as defined by the CBA, we thought we’d wait and see what tomorrow brings…fingers crossed.  Four schools (KU, Mans, ESU & Ship) have open “we may need to retrench” notices to the union, so they are the possibilities for tomorrow.  Let’s hope there are no more letters…]

Ken frequently enough chides me for being uncool — often in reference to my understanding the point of media like this one.  But I think the point of this kind of medium is to pull together random thoughts and put them out there for the audience.

This post will try to pull disparate thoughts together, all on the theme of defining education.

Let’s go in narrative chronology of my life (hey, it’s my blog, don’t I get to do that?) —

Over the break my family watched the movie Iris.  If you are unfamiliar with it (it received multiple Oscar nominations about a decade ago, including a win for Jim Broadbent as Iris’s husband), it tells the story of acclaimed British novelist Iris Murdoch’s life and particularly the final years as she and her husband struggled with her Alzheimer’s.  (Alert: it’s not always uplifting)  Early in the film it shows Murdoch speaking.  Her speech is most profound.  The lines worth remembering go —

Education doesn’t make you happy, and nor does freedom.  We don’t become happy just because we’re free, if we are, or because we’ve been educated, if we have, but because education may be the means by which we realise we are happy. It opens our eyes, our ears…tells us where delights are lurking…convinces us that there is only one freedom of any importance whatsoever… that of the mind…and gives us the assurance, the confidence, to walk the path our mind…our educated mind… offers.

Making this argument to the public and the people who run our universities is a constant part of our job at APSCUF.  What we do at a four-year institution isn’t prepare people for a job (notice the number of the article “a” or the lack of plural in “job”), but prepare their minds for both jobs (with an -s) and life.  Happiness. Fulfillment.  Being better people (to paraphrase another recent profundity).

Into this fray comes two readings from today — Diane Ravitch v. Bill Gates, and David Mulry in Inside Higher Ed.

Ravitch, if you don’t know (of course you can google her, or wiki her, or whatever), once was one of George W. Bush’s advisers on No Child Left Behind (NCLB).  She’s now gone over to “the other side,” which, in today’s Washington Post is the other side from Bill Gates (http://voices.washingtonpost.com/answer-sheet/diane-ravitch/ravitch-answers-gates.html?wprss=answer-sheet).  Gates has asked her questions about reforming education; she’s got real answers.  Note — she doesn’t think the status quo is good enough, but she doesn’t think it’s solved by testing.  Or narrowing the curriculum.  Or blaming teachers.

Much of what we see in current higher education “reform” (and Gates is a player there, too) is a version of NCLB (I’m hardly the first to make this point).  It’s about counting beans, generating degrees — or, to put it in terminology you’ll all probably recognize — it’s about accreditation, assessment, degree completion and retention.  See the words “education” or “better person” or “development” or “thinking” there anywhere?

Which brings us to “WS” — Mulry’s piece in IHE (http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2010/11/30/mulry).  Mulry, a chair of the English Dept at Schreiner University, tells the story of going to a chairs conference and them figuring out in a workshop setting who to hire given the financial environment we are in.  Three departments had needs, business, graphics design and English — their Shakespearean (“WS”) was retiring but they needed someone to do web design.  In the end, the judicious thing was to hire an English prof who had that skill.

But Mulry points out the unsavoriness of this kind of decision-making.  His department would thus be without a Shakespearean (and, if you don’t imagine this already, Shakespeare study is a discipline of its own with volumes written on his life and works every year), though they’d have saved “the line.”

But is that education?  Will eschewing Shakespeare and having web design (a seemingly employable skill) be best for the students or his discipline?

Mulry thinks not.

Ravitch would agree.

So would Iris Murdoch.

As Ravitch points out, why doesn’t Gates put all this investment in places where it would REALLY make a difference: by changing the environment children live in.  It’s a truism that the more money you have, the more and better education you have and get.

And narrowing the educational options doesn’t necessarily help anyone.  It just reflects the simple-mindedness of those who need numbers to justify decisions and choices about quality.

Or am I talking about retrenchment afterall?

— Steve