Sometimes my topic ideas are not too well thought out. This one came out of several articles I read recently (in the links) that argued we should revive the idea of a shared American cultural literacy. Cultural literacy is the common knowledge necessary for good citizenship and mutual understanding in a society. Promoting it would involve our educational system focusing on teaching young people a certain set of facts and concepts about history and civics/government, art and literature, religion, geography, and so forth. Adoption of the Common Core and other educational standards spurred this renewed debate over the merits of a common cultural literacy, as have rapid shifts in American demographics, the rise of social media, and other factors. I thought it would be a nice break from our polarizing political topics.
It’s not just that the cultural revanchist Donald Trump got elected president by promising to speak for (some) Americans that feel culturally disrespected and to restore a decidedly pale-hued lost national greatness. I had forgotten that the concept of cultural literacy was controversial when it was first introduced in a book by a
British American academic in 1987. Some progressives opposed the idea flat out, arguing that anything that smacked of a state-sanctioned list of approved cultural knowledge would be more oppressive than instructive. Conservatives, already up in arms over the rise of multiculturalism and historical revisionism, pushed back.
We got a taste of how this conflict still rages a few weeks ago when we discussed what U.S. school children should be taught about history. I am sure that any movement to revive cultural literacy in today’s political climate would get sucked right into the culture wars.
Complicating cultural literacy further is the way we share cultural information (and values and resentments) these days via social media. Maybe cultural norms and changes get transmitted faster or more efficiently. Maybe it’s liberating and promote tolerance. Ha, ha. As those of us that have lost Facebook friends over Trump’s election can attest, the Internet also Balkanizes culture (especially resentments).
Given all of these crosscurrents, I’m not sure yet how Civilized Conversation should approach the idea of a 21st century American cultural literacy. Ponder these discussion questions and I will see you on Monday.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- What is “cultural knowledge?” Whose culture / what knowledge? Can cultural values be separated from mere facts?
- What is cultural literacy and why did Hirsh argue its importance? Why the furious opposition and ardent defenders?
- Is there really a big conflict between cultural diversity and common cultural literacy?
- Are the ways we transmit cultural values and knowledge changing nd does it matter?
- What principles do you think should guide search for common cultural info/concepts/values? Who should decide?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- The history of teaching common cultural literacy in American education. Recommended.
- Common Core embodies the idea of cultural literacy – and vindicates its author. Cultural literacy is more important than ever in our diversifying nation. Both recommended.
- Lacking basic common cultural knowledge harms members of disadvantaged groups the most (PDF 6pp).
- But, the internet makes it easy to fake cultural knowledge.
- Civic literacy: Our mtg last year on ignorance as a political problem:
- U.S. civic ignorance is shocking and a big problem. Highly recommended
- Or: It’s kind of a problem.
- But informed voters are easier to deceive voters (recommended) and the Internet has NOT helped.
- A 33-question quiz on civic literacy. Off-topic a bit, but how did you do?
Next Week (Nov 28): How do progressives interpret the Constitution?
I think you will all be amazed at what a fascinating – and controversial – topic the teaching of history in American schools has become.
History curricula have changed a lot since most of us were in school. First, as I will explain in my opening remarks Monday, just based on California’s (900-page!) teaching guidelines, history requirements are more demanding and thorough than what I was taught. I’m not sure kids learn a greater quantity of facts. But, in parallel with other efforts to teach young people critical thinking skills, history and social science these days have a heavy focus on analytical concepts, comparative analysis, and independent thinking.
Second and of much noisier political concern is the assault on, or perhaps the long overdue replacement of, the standard narrative of U.S. history we absorbed. The one that saw U.S. history as a slow but steady triumphant march of democracy and progress that emphasized the actions and POV of the dominant White majority. Over the last 10-20 years, academic historians, political and social activists, school boards, and state legislatures have rewritten large parts of our kids’ history textbooks/instruction to be more inclusive, less triumphant, and more critical (honest?) about our past.
Now, the United States famously has no national educational standards, not even for math and reading much less the more politically-sensitive social sciences. Most states don’t even have state-wide educational standards for history, leaving it all up to individual school districts. There are no Common Core history standards.
But, there are some forces converging us towards common history instruction nationwide. All U.S. students must take an identical standardized history test in grades (I think) 5, 8 and 11, thanks to No Child Left Behind. But, the brand new Every Student Succeeds Act has made how states use those tests voluntary, reversing the intent of NCLB. The College Board, the giant non-profit testing organization, has its own recommended Advanced Placement history standards which many (some?) states/districts use. California is one of 17 states with statewide history requirements and it just did a huge revision of them. Confused on who requires what? Me, too. I’ll sort it out better by Monday, but my point is there is some consensus on what American kids should be taught about history and very specific requirements in our state.
Also, everybody’s a critic of what standards do exist. Conservatives hate CA’s newly-revised, “leftist” history curriculum. Progressives hate the ways the College Board revised AP history in response to conservative complaints. There are Right versus Left textbook wars in many states, especially since 2010 when Texas introduced some um, bold changes to how textbooks cover the Civil War and Segregation.
So, I thought this would be a great topic for us, though I don’t think our entire discussion should be reduced to politics or squeezed into right-versus-left framing. There are a lot of thought-provoking but less partisan social, cultural, and even pedagogical issues we can get into. And there’s world history and the historical part of civics education, too.
I’m especially excited to do this topic now because in September I got the chance to lecture several local (Helix, Mount Carmel) high school social studies and speech classes on various topics. These modern high school students were an impressive lot. A great deal is expected of them academically and they work very hard. Let’s honor them by having a great discussion of this – I told you so – really interesting topic.
Below are some optional readings on what current history educational standards are and why they are controversial. My opening remarks will be limited to trying to summarize what kids are supposed to be taught about U.S. history in California under the just-revised curriculum. Also, we have a new topic list to be handed out, thanks to Linda and Aaron.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- Good overview of recent disputes over how U.S. history is taught. #1 read.
- Not enough time is devoted to teaching history.
- California just updated the history curriculum to be more inclusive and culturally-diverse. Conservatives hate them. Both recommended.
- AP U.S. history controversy:
- Textbook Wars:
Next Week (Oct 10): Will America’s death penalty fade away?
National service is an old idea that’s getting new life, including at some pretty high political levels. Requiring every young American to devote 1-2 years to a job helping their communities and their country was briefly considered after the military draft was ended in 1973. But, the idea never really got much traction, in large part because no one liked that it would be mandatory or could think of that many public service jobs to fill.
National service got new life in the 1990s. A 1994 law proudly signed by President Clinton created AmeriCorps. A small voluntary program, AmeriCorps finances and facilitates 75,000 public service jobs for young Americans. Other federal service programs. Like Teach for America, also were set up. Candidate Barack Obama made expanding national service opportunities a plank in his agenda in 2008. His Serve America Act authorized up to 250,000 jobs in AmeriCorps, but Congress refused to fund it. National service has been just one part of Obama’s ongoing – and little noticed – effort to resurrect the old-fashioned (and once-bipartisan) concept of citizenship. Emphasizing both the individual rights and mutual obligations of being an American is a theme he has returned to again and again throughout his presidency.
Now, Democratic presidential candidates hoping to succeed Obama have upped the ante, embracing expanded national service in one form or another. The most ambitious plan is Martin O’Malley’s, but Hillary Clinton wants to provide debt-free college education in exchange for national service. (Bernie Sanders has not matched these promises, specifically, but he surely favors federal support for full employment and public service jobs.) Just last month (12/15), Congress closed some of the funding gap for AmeriCorps and other national service programs, with some Republican support.
But, of course, most Conservatives HATE the idea of national service, even voluntary service. The GOP-controlled House of Representatives has tried repeatedly to abolish AmeriCorps and zero-out all national service funding. They argue that national service is potentially coercive of young people and that the programs add no value.
So, national service will be a campaign issue in 2016, especially if the GOP refuses to come up with any ideas for lowering college costs. I thought it would be useful for Civilized Conversation to go over the basics of the Dems’ national service proposals and pros and cons of the issue.
Discussion Questions –
- WHAT: What federal national service programs exist now? AmeriCorps, Teach for America, SeniorCorps, etc. What help do they give and for what kinds of jobs?
- HOW USFUL: How do we know whether these programs are worth their cosrs; i.e., that they add value without duplicating what’s already available to young people seeking service jobs?
- PROPOSALS: Who is proposing what kinds of expansions of national service? How would the programs work?
- PROS/CONS: Arguments for and against expanding the programs.
- POLITICS: Do people care enough about this to matter in 2016 election? Will it turn out young voters for the Democrats?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- Facts on AmeriCorps and its cousins and what they accomplish.
- Proposals to expand: By O’Malley. By Hillary Clinton. Recommended.
- Other ideas for national service:
- General Stanley McChrystal’s idea. Recommended.
- Another way it could work.
- More modest: Create govt savings accounts for kids and link access to a commitment to national service.
- Opposed to national service:
Next Week: Is American democracy at risk of unravelling?
The Obama Administration’s higher education policies are among its least well-known. But, they’re a big deal and about to get bigger. Yesterday we learned that Obama will announce in his State of the Union address an ambitious new proposal to expand Americans’ access to community college.
The new program’s goal will be to make going to community college basically tuition-free! In participating states, the feds would pay ¾ of the costs (which average over $3,000 per year) and participating state governments the other ¼. Not only would this be revolutionary, it would seriously affect the fate of for-profit colleges, the subject of our discussion this week. Going to a for-profit college (like Strayer, University of Phoenix, ITT, etc.) is one of the main alternatives to community college, so this proposal is basically an assault on this controversial industry.
Another accidentally well-timed CivCon topic! But really, even without this announcement, for-profit higher education has been a huge issue for a long time. Obama has been trying to reign in abuses in the industry for years, bitterly opposed at all stages by Republican Congress. I’m just finishing up a book that deals with all of these issues, too, so we have a lot to discuss.
The private, for-profit college industry has exploded in size in the last 20 years, and it’s grown much more controversial, too. The number of for-profits has quadrupled since 1993, to over 1,200, and the number of students they enroll has grown by 80-fold, to 13% of all college students. Some of them are gigantic, highly-profitable nationwide, NYSE-listed, companies. They are advertised on TV and radio around the clock.
The controversy involves a for-profit education’s very high cost to students and the government via student loan defaults, and seroious questions about the quality of the education they provide. These schools charge much more than all but the most expensive private but non-profit universities (like Cal-Tech or the Ivies). And, close to 100% of for-profit college students borrow from federal student loan programs to pay their tuition (average $32,000). Yet, they default at much higher rates than other students. This default rate and other evidence suggests that students may not get a high-quality education for all of that money they, and we as taxpayers, fork over. Most studies show graduates of for-profit colleges earn less than other graduates, too, although it’s not a slam dunk that poor instruction is the reason.
I want to do a lot more on Monday, however, than bash for-profit colleges and the (mostly GOP) politicians that defend to the death everything they do. Defenders of the for-profits raise some important points. They say our higher education system does a poor job of educating just the kinds of students they specialize in educating: Non-traditional students, especially those that are low-income; older, with jobs and even kids; and first-in-their-families college students. Strayer and Grand Canyon are just innovators using the private sector to do what our political system won’t do. They enroll students quickly, offer flexible class schedules and more on-line classes, and vocationally-oriented curricula in growing fields like health care and information systems.
I’m dubious this is true on a large scale. Still, my point is that there are many bigger issues here. The discussion questions below list a number of them. I’ll start our meeting as I usually do, by explaining a few basic facts about the for-profit college industry, the reasons it has grown so quickly, and the main controversies surrounding it.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- History as a guide: What is the history of federal government support for going to college or trade school? Were for-profit schools always a problem, and if so, what was done about it that we could learn from today?
- Recently: Why has the for-profit college industry exploded in size in the last 20 years? Was it just marketing hype chasing all of that federal money?
- Prosecution: What are the worst problems/abuses of for-profit colleges?
- Defense: What arguments are used to defend the industry? Does it serve a legitimate market niche, even if poorly? If they serve students poorly and bury them in debt, why do so many students go there?
- Solutions: How has the Obama Administration tried to reign in the industry’s worst abuses? Why has it been so hard to do, and what does that tell us about how and how well our political system functions?
Problems with for-profit colleges –
- ABCs of the problems. More here or here. Recommended.
- They exploit veterans. …and poor kids. Recommended.
- Their executives are lavishly paid.
- Ignorance keeps student flocking to them (maybe).
- Listing a for-profit college on your resume does not help you at all.
The Other Side –
- A ringing defense of for profit colleges.
- A partial defense (Manhattan Institute). Recommended.
- We need for-profits higher education, but as vocational educators, not as large-scale substitutes for state-supported colleges.
- Obama recently issued a new rule to reign in the for-profit college abuses, a fight with Republicans that’s been going on for years. Recommended.
- Note: I will discuss how this issue intersects with broader issues of polarization and plutocracy in American politics.
Next Week: Are we an over-medicated nation?
Dean, our double-Master’s degrees in liberal arts member, asks if education is just about the Benjamins these days. Certainly, the worst recession in living memory has concentrated the minds of young people. Add to that the skyrocketing cost of college and the growing need for technical skills to hold many jobs, and you’ve pretty much turned college (and vocational education) into a bloodless transactional affair for most young people these days.
But, is college as something more – a voyage of self-discovery, a place for creating good citizens, etc. – really dying out? Dean will open our meeting with his brief take on this question, and then we can discuss it. I’m particularly interested in people’s personal stories and experience on this one, a la the first discussion question, below.
Discussion Questions –
- What kind of education did you get? Was it in the liberal arts or in another field that we typically think of as lower-paying? Why did you make this choice? What did you get out of it and what did you give up?
- How many people get a liberal arts education these days compared to the past? What has caused this change?
- Is there really a monetary disadvantage to a liberal arts education? What, if anything, compensates for that?
- What about from a societal perspective? Do we need liberal arts to form good citizens and well-rounded adults? Should our educations system go out of its way to revive liberal arts?
What is the purpose of education?
- Long discussion of education’s basic purposes, embedded in a liberal critique of No Child Left Behind.
- Well, most Americans say education IS mainly about getting a job.
- And, the wage – and happiness – premium of a college degree is higher than ever!
What is a liberal arts education?
- Definition of the liberal arts: “Academic disciplines, such as languages, literature, history, philosophy, mathematics, and science, that provide information of general cultural concern.”
Notice it includes sciences and math. But, most people probably exclude these when they think of the liberal arts, and I think we should, too. This lets us focus on the debate over a softer, generalist education versus a highly technical one that produces immediately marketable skills.
- A list of the many, many fields considered to be within the liberal arts.
Critique and defenses of a liberal arts education –
- A spirited defense of a liberal arts education and what it does for your life – not just your bottom line. Recommended.
- They don’t make less money! Yes, liberal arts grads make less the first few years than grads with other majors, but they catch up over time.
- Old CivCon mtg: Is college still the answer?
- The other side: The liberal arts are in decline, and it’s the schools’ own fault because they have embraced left-wing ideas and curricula, making the degree less and less relevant to real life. Worth debating even if you disagree.
NEXT WEEK: Jim Z. on, The Case For and Against Woodrow Wilson.
I’ve been trying to get us to talk more about education and other topics that don’t quite this group’s demographic profile. I thought this week we would try to come at it from another angle, the angle most people day-to-day care the most about: What should schools be prepping kids for in the new century? What knowledge, skills, and abilities should America’s young people be equipped with to make it in this new world of work that our country is creating, for good or ill?
Originally, Jim had suggested that we try to do a field trip before this meeting to one of the local “high-tech high schools” in the area. Sorry. I forgot to try to set it up. Maybe another time, since they appear to allow campus tours. Instead, I’m linking to several very interesting articles on the alleged “new” skills that, in a networked, collaborative world, will matter more and more in the future.
But – the other direction angle – I thought I’d start with a little intro on what jobs might be available in the next ten years and beyond. The Labor Department and the private sector study this all the time. Then, using the links, I’ll tick off the alleged knowledge, skills. And abilities schools may need to help teach today’s kids to give them a fighting chance in tomorrow’s American job jungle. Then, the usual mass agreement I’m sure.
I love topics and debates that are future-oriented. They stretch us.
Discussion Questions –
- What kinds of jobs are likely to be available in the next 10-20 years for today’s young people?
- What do these predictions tell us about where our economy and society are heading? Is it someplace good for most Americans, or just for the educated elite? Is the answer to this problem really outside of education policy?
à FYI, our Nov. 25 topic is, “are we too pessimistic about our economic future?”
- What KSA (knowledge, skills, abilities) will young people need to get and hold these jobs, and to advance in stable careers that keep them in the middle class?
- How can schools teach/encourage these KSAs? Where else could young people acquire these skills (vocational, on-line, on the job)?
- How do we measure schools’ success or failure at all this? Testing? What else?
- My idea is to have future topics on some of these new education tools, like on-line learning and for-profit colleges.
Where will the jobs be?
- Mainly in 6 sectors: health care, business services, leisure and hospitality, construction, manufacturing, and retail. Ponder how many of these jobs will be low-wage! I recommend.
- Longer study of where the jobs will be, from USN&WR.
What KSA’s will they require?
- Some new ones, it seems. Please read.
How should schools teach these things?
Wait a minute!
- This whole idea is stupid.
NEXT WEEK, featuring a guest speaker! How should the Federal Reserve help the economy?
Public school vouchers are a conservative idea to use taxpayer funds to subsidize students that want to move from one school to another, usually poor students. They are very controversial, and they’re being implemented in a bunch of states. Vouchers may be all about giving parents more choices for their kids’ education, helping trapped students to escape failing schools, and improving public education by spurring more competition between them. Or, maybe vouchers are a trick by conservatives to defund public education, shovel public money to private religious and for-profit schools, undermine teachers’ unions, and reinforce the idea that they care about the well-being of poor minority kids.
At any rate, the voucher movement (see a link below for the history) seemed dead in the water just a few years ago, but now it’s back. President Bush de-emphasized vouchers and focused on high-stakes testing (No Child Left Behind), creating more charter schools, and other reforms. Democrats joined him on some of these. Now, however, vouchers are back with a vengeance, and the education wars may be heating up again. Mitt Romney’s education proposals were quite radical; basically he would have tried to pass a universal school voucher program. At the state level, Tea Party-oriented governments have revived vouchers, and programs are underway or in the approval phase in a dozen states.
I think I’ve got a lot of good links below to get you up to speed on the voucher topic. So, on Monday, I’ll just briefly explain what school vouchers are and where they are being used, and then I will outline the major pros and cons as I understand them. FYI, unknown to many, major education reforms already are being implemented throughout the United States, and some of the things they’re doing sound pretty exciting. The first link provides a good rundown of the three major areas of reform. Reading this would lay a good foundation for any future discussions we have about education.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- What are the main areas of education reform these days? What’s being done and where do liberals and conservatives usually stand on these ideas?
- What are school vouchers? Where did the idea come from How do they work and where have they been implemented?
- What are the arguments for and against vouchers? What ulterior motives might be behind both support for and opposition to vouchers?
- What is the evidence to date that school vouchers work as advertised?
- What do you think of other conservative education reform ideas, such as charter schools, teacher incentive pay and easier hiring and firing, high-stakes testing, local control of standards, etc.? What about liberal education reform ideas, like the common core curriculum?
- Can we all agree on anything?
- The next wave of education reform is happening now. I recommend just for the value of learning about education reform issues.
- The history of school vouchers (and a premature obituary of them) from 2008.
- What are school vouchers and their pros and cons. Or, try this one. These are, surprisingly balanced, since they are from HuffPost and Salon. Either recommended.
- Vouchers are a very promising idea. Recommended, and also read: No, they are not – a direct rebuttal.
- And, they are a sham and a scam, too. (Liberal catnip, but containing more than a wisp of truth, IMO).
- Evidence: No clear academic progress to students in voucher programs. (Note: Conservatives have criticized studies like this one.)
- [UPDATE:] Motives matter because they tell us something about what advocates really want a new policy to achieve. We should not talk about this topic without understanding the ulterior motives of some voucher reformers. One is to direct public money to private religious schools (Warning: This is a pretty blistering diatribe, but still.). Another is to make money in the for-profit education industry. These motives do NOT necessarily make vouchers a bad idea, but it does mean, IMO, we have to be careful in assessing the enthusiasm for them. And, yes, teachers unions, etc., have their ulterior motives for opposing vouchers, too.
Let’s also debrief on the premiere of Bill’s San Diego Debate Club. He did a great job setting it up, but maybe we have ideas for improvement.