Low Points in Education (redux)

Posted: August 8, 2017 in Culture, Debate, Education, History, Music, Writing
Tags: , , ,

My previous entry on this topic is found here. The quintessential question asked with regard to education (often levied against educators) is “Why can’t Johnnie read?” I believe we now have several answers.

Why Bother With Basics?

A resurrected method of teaching readin’ and writin’ (from the 1930s as it happens) is “freewriting.” The idea is that students who experience writer’s block should dispense with basic elements such as spelling, punctuation, grammar, organization, and style to simply get something on the page, coming back later to revise and correct. I can appreciate the thinking, namely, that students so paralyzed from an inability to produce finished work extemporaneously should focus first on vomiting blasting something onto the page. Whether those who use freewriting actually go back to edit (as I do) is unclear, but it’s not a high hurdle to begin with proper rudiments.

Why Bother Learning Math?

At Michigan State University, the algebra requirement has been dropped from its general education requirements. Considering that algebra is a basic part of most high school curricula, jettisoning algebra from the university core curriculum is astonishing. Again, it’s not a terribly high bar to clear, but for someone granted a degree from an institution of higher learning to fail to do so is remarkable. Though the rationalization offered at the link above is fairly sophisticated, it sounds more like Michigan State is just giving up asking its students to bother learning. The California State University system has adopted a similar approach. Wayne State University also dropped its math requirement and upped the ante by recommending a new diversity requirement (all the buzz with social justice warriors).

Why Bother Learning Music?

The Harvard Crimson reports changes to the music curriculum, lowering required courses for the music concentration from 13 to 10. Notably, most of the quotes in the article are from students relieved to have fewer requirements to satisfy. The sole professor quoted makes a bland, meaningless statement about flexibility. So if you want a Harvard degree with a music concentration, the bar has been lowered. But this isn’t educational limbo, where the difficulty is increased as the bar goes down; it’s a change from higher education to not-so-high-anymore education. Not learning very much about music has never been prohibition to success, BTW. Lots of successful musicians don’t even read music.

Why Bother Learning History?

According to some conservatives, U.S. history curricula, in particular this course offered by The College Board, teach what’s bad about America and undermine American exceptionalism. In 2015, the Oklahoma House Common Education Committee voted 11-4 for emergency House Bill 1380 (authored by Rep. Dan Fisher) “prohibiting the expenditure of funds on the Advanced Placement United States History course.” This naked attempt to sanitize U.S. history and substitute preferred (patriotic) narratives is hardly a new phenomenon in education.


So why can’t Johnnie read, write, know, understand, or think? Simply put, because we’re not bothering to teach him to read, write, know, understand, or think. Johnnie has instead become a consumer of educational services and political football. Has lowering standards ever been a solution to the struggle of getting a worthwhile education? Passing students through just to be rid of them (while collecting tuition) has only produced a mass of miseducated graduates. Similarly, does a certificate, diploma, or granted degree mean anything as a marker of achievement if students can’t be bothered to learn time-honored elements of a core curriculum? The real shocker, of course, is massaging the curriculum itself (U.S. history in this instance) to produce citizens ignorant of their own past and compliant with the jingoism of the present.

  1. Music curriculum: Your piece is on the formal or public education process and trends. But, I wonder what impact the loss of musical competence by the larger population plays in the musical culture? When people grew up making their own music, playing instruments and singing, it must have provided for a richer sense of musical appreciation at all levels of the culture. You have mentioned performing a recital in the past few years. Have you noticed a change over the years, is there a decline in musical literacy by the listener?

    • Brutus says:

      Music is a strange beast. It surrounds us all day, so most people learn the tunes and artists of the day as well as the past 3–4 decades. (Nearly everyone over the age of 20 knows Love Shack by The B-52’s from 1989, nearly 30 years ago.) I suspect that overexposure makes basic musical literacy (knowing the tunes) as common as ever. In the 19th century, people used to know opera arias and choruses. I can’t judge whether today’s population is musically illiterate compared to the past, especially as widespread participation in the act of music-making has eroded (despite karaoke), but as with most of the rest of American culture, I fear we’re winning the race to the bottom.

      As my own music taste and skill developed, I remember tracking through nursery rhymes, church hymns, Christmas songs, camp songs, pop and rock, until finally discovering the incredible richness of classical music and jazz. Completely turned my attention away from all the others. These last two are only niche markets now, mostly recapitulating the monuments of previous centuries. The others have they appeals, too, but their sophistication and beauty pales in comparison. Opinions differ, obviously.

      Criticisms that audiences don’t get what they’re listening to on anything more than a superficial level go back at least 100 years. Maybe it doesn’t matter, though, because it’s the emotion embodied in the music that really matters, and lots of difference musics capture the mood of the day or moment rather well. I find a lot of today’s music simplistic and coarse, but it clearly speaks to a lot of listeners. Are listeners by turn simplistic and coarse and does today’s music reflect that? Opinions differ.

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