Saturday, October 10, 2009

The New Quadrivium

Okay, as promised last week, here is a list of the real questions that curious people pose in order to understand the world, and the implications of those questions for a proposed educational curricula:

1) How does this work?

This question deals with the mechanical nuts and bolts of everything from the intricacies of the vast universe to one's own body to what is under the hood of an automobile. Of course, our existing science courses already strive to answer this question. It makes sense that there is such an emphasis placed on biology, physics, and chemistry. I would probably reach back a few centuries and restore astronomy to a place of equal prominence with the other sciences. And I would add an emphasis on technology, or applied science.

And controversially, I would de-emphasize mathematics, at least as its own core subject. To be sure, math and science are interrelated--and therefore it is in the science classes that I would place the study of mathematics. So it would not be a separate discipline, but a servant discipline. Obviously, this may require longer science classes, but that is okay, since we no longer have math classes. (And of course, in higher education, dedicated math classes would still be required for majors and professions that demand it).

2) Why do they think/do that?

We already have a branch of education explicitly called "social studies," though this designation has lost any real signification over the years. Let's restore this discipline to what it really can be--an exploration of how societies function (throughout history and in the present day). We could call the new discipline "Cultural Foundations." Crucial to this is an understanding of ideologies and worldviews. Everyone has a worldview, and ideologies are propagated in every product that a culture produces, but we don't have any formal mechanism to interrogate this. Literature, movies, music, advertisements, and artwork should be examined in classrooms everywhere in order to determine what comments are being made, what messages are being conveyed,and what assumptions are being implicitly passed on. And of course, to really understand all of this, people must first have a basic cultural literacy; they must be aware of the foundations of our communal experience. And finally, an attempt to just understand one's own culture is rather limited, so foreign language requirements would be folded into this course. But again, like in the case of mathematics, foreign language would become a servant discipline.

The hardest part about making this work in a public school (and perhaps the reason it hasn't been attempted below the level of higher education) is that when you start examining ideologies, it is very difficult not to come to favor some over others, and therefore teachers are in a position to move rather seamlessly from educating to indoctrinating. So in what might be the biggest obstacle to my proposal (which is saying something), we would need the cooperation of people across the ideological spectrum to collaborate on the standards for this curriculum.

3) Who should I listen to? And how can I get people to listen to me?

This is where we restore the prominence of rhetoric to education. In the Classical world, rhetoric was crucial to education, whereas today most people can't even give a good working definition of the word (and trust me, I know this from experience). Of course, we do incorporate tenets of the study of rhetoric into writing and speech classes, but we make these disciplines harder for students by not articulating the "big picture"--the idea that there are conscious decisions that we can make in order to better communicate with and persuade others. And naturally the flip side of this is that a focus on rhetoric would also empower students to be better consumers of arguments that others are making. Obviously then, the study of rhetoric also entails an emphasis on how to think critically (and how to think logically).

4) How can I best function in this world?

I am a firm believer in forcing students to inhabit the realm of the theoretical. On the other hand, I think that part of the task of our educational institutions is to prepare students to become functional citizens. That means making them literate in the types of skill sets that the world demands them to have. For example, there should be more of an effort to make students financially literate. I wonder if our economic crisis would have occurred if more people were educated about interest rates and the dangers of adjustable rate mortgages. I don't recall ever learning in school what a 401K is. I don't think students are being taught anything about how to select an insurance policy.

Computer literacy is at least addressed in our schools, but there is no reason that educational institutions shouldn't be taking a lead role in helping young people understand how they can use technology, including social networks, blogs, and new media to better themselves (and avoid harming themselves).

One of my favorite classes in school was phy. ed., but I think that rather than having kids divide into teams to play volleyball or pickle ball for 45 minutes a day, it would be more beneficial to combine health and phy. ed. into a general fitness class, where students learn how to take care of themselves. And it would be only logical to restore driver's education to schools as part of this new core subject area, which could be called "practicum."

So in summary, the new quadrivium would include science, cultural foundations, rhetoric, and practicum. And though it is probably too much to hope that this would come to pass in my lifetime, I maintain that such a course of studies is most in line with the epistemology that autodidacts are already pursuing.


Blogger KD said...

Being a mom with kids in public school I have my issues with what's taught that I think is useless and what's not taught that I believe should be. Your ideas are interesting. I have other issues with public schooling too though; the amount of time spent in the class room and the amount of time with homework in that class that's expected to be done by the next school day, or what I call "stupid" homework, homework that a child could never do by them selves which means the parents are doing it. Wondering if your "new" ideas of education would somehow change those issues. I enjoy reading your blogs.

9:19 AM  

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