Yesterday’s New York Times reported on a study the Center on Education Policy will release tomorrow. The article’s headline says it all: “Schools Cut Back Subjects to Push Reading and Math.”
CEP found that since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, “71 percent of the nation’s 15,000 school districts had reduced the hours of instructional time spent on history, music and other subjects to open up more time for reading and math.” The Times piece is well worth reading, as it documents examples of students whose poor performance on standardized tests has led to long, boring, punitive school days with no classes other than reading, math and gym. This is like the child abuse stories we read, where a kid who doesn’t clean his plate at dinner is presented with the congealing food at breakfast and lunch in the hope he will gobble it down.
This just in: humans do not live by reading and math alone. I would argue that we live (rather than merely exist) by sanctifying the ordinary, lifting it into view against a context far greater than our single lives. For some, this is history, the place of each act in relation to great forces and grand gestures that move whole societies. For some it is spirituality, the numinous energies that imbue the raindrop and ocean alike, striking us with radical amazement at the grandeur of creation and the moral grandeur of which human beings are capable.
For some it is art, the act of drawing attention to what has been obscured by habit and drudgery, opening our eyes to hidden meaning, lifting our gestures out of life’s sludge, awakening us to a larger beauty and possibility.
In contrast, philosopher Ken Wilber has coined a name for the world inhabited by those who are convinced that life consists in nothing more than material existence: Flatland.
Now, school isn’t everything. You can be sure the kids who are subject to this educational thuggery will listen to plenty of music, go to the movies, consume some TV version of history, lie in the dark contemplating the questions that animate philosophical discourse. It’s just that unless they have personal advantages that open the wider world to them, they will do all this without benefit of prior ages’ wisdom, without experiencing what bygone artists and historians and philosophers have had to say about the world that isn’t deemed sexy or current or marketable enough to rise to the surface of today’s commercial cultural industries.
Does it seem as scary to you as it does to me to contemplate a generation trained according to the premise that all that really counts is to know the basics well enough to pass a test? Would you like a generation reared according to this know-nothing philosophy to be making the decisions that shape the world in the time of your old age? Does this cruel and unusual educational punishment sound to you, as it does to me, like a particularly sadistic and short-sighted laboratory experiment, with a generation of children as its victims?
It is for precisely this moment that (without knowing it) I’ve been saving a quotation from Eric Fromm’s 1955 book The Sane Society, sent awhile back by a kind reader:
Man [sic], in order to feel at home in the world, must grasp it not onlywith his head but with all his senses, his eyes, his ears, with all his body. … If man [sic] expresses his grasp of the world by his senses, he creates art and ritual, he creates song, dance, drama, painting, sculpture. Collective art … is an integral part of life. It corresponds to a basic human need, and if this need is not fulfilled, man remains as insecure and anxious as if the need for a meaningful thought picture of the world were unrealized. … No sane society can be built upon the mixture of purely intellectual knowledge and almost complete absence of shared experience.
There may be a little relief for California. I am glad to give credit to Governor Schwarzenegger (on the happy principle that even a broken clock is right twice a day). Click here to read an op-ed piece by two arts advocates praising the governor for including $100 million in the FY 2006-07 budget to augment arts education, a very welcome drop in the bucket. But I’m afraid nothing short of the repeal of No Child Left Behind (and the miraculous infusion of humane values into our federal education policymakers) will provide the youngest generation the opportunity to learn from the lessons of history, except by repeating them.