(Annenberg Institute for School Reform)

School reform in recent years has taken a decidedly corporate bent. Here Chris Gilbert, who  teaches English at a high school and community college in North Carolina, explains why economically fixated reform is a problem. He has published several articles in the National Council of Teachers of English’s English Journal.

By Chris Gilbert

Each year, my students ask me the same question: “How will I use this in the real world?”

 These students want to know if I, their high-school English teacher, am giving them useful skills. Their inquiry translated: “How will this novel/poem/short story/discussion/essay help me get a job and make money?” This question troubles me, but I don’t blame them for asking it; their concern about the economic applicability of education is legitimate, and they are certainly not alone in assessing education by this measuring stick. Presidential candidates are also interested in the correlation between the classroom and the workplace, and each primarily describes education reform from an economic standpoint: 

 President Obama’s stance, as displayed on The White House’s website, reads, “To prepare Americans for the jobs of the future and help restore middle-class security, we have to out-educate the world and that starts with a strong school system.”

 Mitt Romney’s website reads, “To restore America’s promise, and get Americans working again, we must achieve meaningful reform in our education system.”

Education reform is increasingly described using words such as competition, productivity, economy, etc., and while there is certainly a link between education and financial livelihood, the problem with fixating on this is twofold. First, such myopic reform is unlikely to produce an education system that addresses our economic ills; instead, it is likely to only create an institution that further reinforces consumerism. Americans are inclined to view life through a consumerist lens, and “success” is largely defined by economic achievement and material gain. Education reform that is primarily driven by these symbols of capitalistic success will create a system further promoting their importance.

 Second, if such a narrow focus dominates reform, other educational purposes will be obscured. Education will become chiefly characterized by pedagogy, curriculum, and assessments that create students skilled for work but unskilled for truly living. The distinction between making a living and making a life is significant, as we currently prepare students for one and neglect the other; reform should create a system that does both.  

Philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s “spirit of the humanities” serves as an outline of the non-economic skills that education reform should promote. She describes this as “searching critical thought, daring imagination, [and] empathetic understanding of human experiences of many different kinds.” The first characteristic, “searching critical thought,” can be interpreted as probing critique. Students must learn to cast a critical light upon those cultural institutions and traditions that familiarity has largely concealed; these include the influence of media, the impact of race, gender, and class on identity, social institutions, cultural norms, and other aspects of existence commonly encountered and largely unquestioned. In other words, students must learn how to “make the familiar strange.”

“[D]aring imagination” could refer to the ability to reflect and engage in creative acts that embrace risk despite the possibility of being “wrong”; such a focus, however, would require the removal of high-stakes testing, as these assessments do not encourage or reward intellectual risk taking. Emphasizing imagination, and encouraging students to look inward, is vital in a society increasingly outwardly focused.   

“[E]mpathetic understanding” should be the most significant driver of reform, as it could shift society’s focus from the individual to the collective good. An empathetic curriculum would force students to inhabit the imagined reality of a person of another age, gender, race, social class, or nationality, and such an act could provoke a confrontation with bigotry, challenge inequality, and promote compassion. Instilling an empathetic capacity in students is imperative, as current economic inequality is at an all-time high. Whether we describe others as the 47%, the 99%, or the 1%, our willingness to label reveals a tendency to abstractly categorize and ignore our own interconnectedness. Reform that prioritizes empathy could address this by humanizing the individuals behind the percentages.

Regardless of who is elected, economically fixated reform will likely persist. Romney’s camp has indicated a willingness to return to No Child Left Behind, and President Obama has endorsed the controversial Common Core State Standards. Unfortunately, neither of these reforms is adequate. Theorist Paulo Freire once wrote that education can become “the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.” We must demand an education model that reflects these words.

I anticipate that my students will keep asking how my class is useful, and I will keep challenging them to expand their conception of “usefulness.” I hope that education reform will eventually do the same.