John Nichols in the Capital Times seems enamored with State Superintendent of Public Instruction candidate Van Mobley’s sound byte “”Basic Education for the Real Economy.” Me, I’m confused, skeptical and suspicious. Mostly, I think it sounds like an abandonment of public education as a means of expanding equality of opportunity and an embrace of the idea of social and economic stratification via “appropriate education.” In other words, a “basic education” and some vocational skills for the masses, something better for the ruling classes. I will say I am impressed with the sound byte itself — it sounds very good and is open to many interpretations. It appeals to John Nichols and the “reading, riting and rithmatic” crowd. Nice political rhetoric.
Before continuing I want to say two things. First, if you believe like I do in public education as our best tool for moving towards equality, I think Todd Price is the best choice to keep that vision alive. Second, despite what I think is an inexcusable lapse in not further examining Van Mobley and his rhetoric, John Nichols deserves some credit for being one of the few journalists in the state who has given the Superintendent’s race regular coverage.
Next, I think the full statement is in order:
Basic Education for the Real Economy
For the last twenty years we have geared our education system to prepare our children to thrive in the “New Economy.” Guess what? The “New Economy” is collapsing. It was a chimera. It is time to get back to the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic. What do children learn from the internet if all they can do is look at the pictures? As Superintendent I will refocus class time on the basics.
Since Mobley is a historian, I’m going to play historian too. This Struggle for the American Curriculum (click the link for Herb Kliebard’s masterful book by that name) is as old as public education itself. There are lots of versions: Education for Democratic Citizenship vs. Education for a Trained Workforce; Manual Training for all as part of a varied education vs. Industrial Education for some and liberal arts and the classics for others; Booker T. Washington’s Vocational Education vs. WEB DuBois quest for excellence in liberal arts and sciences… One consistent thing has been that calls for “basic education” have rarely been mouthed by those looking for equity and equality. The “back to basics” crowd generally know that the elite have the resources to supplement the “basics” and that by limiting the education of the non-elite, they all but guarantee a recreation of inequality.
Mobley also writes of the failure of the “New Economy” as a reason for his emphasis on the basics. This is a false dichotomy. Our only chices aren’t “the basics” vs. “Education for New Economy.” However, there is some truth here, but only some. The whole “World is Flat,” “Education for the 21st Century,” line of thinking rests on some shakey oversimplifications. As the Center for the Study of Jobs & Education in Wisconsin and United States has ably demonstrated, the “New Economy” jobs have always been few and far between. This doesn’t change the need to work towards the promises of democracy and equality of opportunity and may reinforce the need for our schools to provide full and varied educations in order that people in all occupations may achieve full and varied successes.
Mobley’s statement also made me think of something I was teaching today. The topic was how railroads transformed America in the 19th Century. I always use the computer revolution as a comparison to communicate that railroads touched every aspect of life, from work, to entertainment, to agriculture, to politics…to education. To further this point, I also quoted Henry Adams (from The Education of Henry Adams):
This relatively small part of its task was still so big as to need the energies of a generation, for it required all the new machinery to be created — capital, banks, mines, furnaces, shops, power-houses, technical knowledge, mechanical population, together with a steady remodelling of social and political habits, ideas, and institutions to fit the new scale and suit the new conditions. The generation between 1865 and 1895 was already mortgaged to the railways, and no one knew it better than the generation itself.
Mobley asserts that because the “New Economy” bubble burst, our students need only a “basic” education. Adams reminds us that innovations like railroads and computers, and the commitment societies make when they “mortgage” their futures by embracing them, remake and remodel everything. The depression of 1893 did not mean that America no longer needed a “mechanical population;” the recently burst bubble does not mean that our children will thrive with just the “basics.” Just because only some of today’s students will work at “knowledge based” “New Economy” jobs doesn’t mean that they won’t benefit in myriad ways from a well rounded education that includes knowledge about computers and the world that computers are such a big part of.
I’ll admit that all this is riffing on a very short and not very clear statement by Mobley. Unfortunately, that’s all I have to work with. Even in his WisconsinEye interview and the candidate forum, Mobley did not say much more about this. Slick. Mobley needs to be pressed; consider this the first prod.
Vote for Todd Price, Tuesday February 17, 2009!
Thomas J. Mertz