The Bear in the Woods

I confess that I was a young man when this commercial came out, but it stuck with me and I’m glad to have found it again on YouTube:

I believe that education has a “bear in the woods” that needs to be watched as well.  Our bear has good intentions and (in my opinion) probably has the best interest of the student at heart, but it is a bear, nonetheless.

This bear is the bear of “utilitarianism” or “pragmatism.”  Granted, these two views are not necessarily the same.  However, they are very similar in their views on life and ethics.  At face value, this line of thinking seems reasonable:  Let’s teach students practical, useful information that can be used for later stages in life.  So, we teach our students historical facts and operations/functions that have firm, finite results that are easily explained and obtained.

But then something happened.

In the wake of the deconstructionism of Derrida and Heidegger, we (meaning teachers in this case) have been left with students who have been taught from birth via society, television, etc. that “truth” either does not exist or is so elusive that it cannot be ascertained. So, we began to see a shift in education from teaching practical and useful “facts” to teaching practical and useful “ideas and concepts.”

And THIS opens a Pandora’s Box!

I believe there is value in teaching ideas and concepts.  Students, for example, need to be taught empathy.  They need to be taught behaviors and emotional responses.  Students likewise need to learn to think logically and sequentially.  There is much that a student can learn from deliberately playing a game of Minesweeper or by working through logic puzzles.

The problems that have arisen in education as a result of this shift are two-fold:

  1.  Authority

Who decides what concepts/ideas are worth passing on to the next generation?  In a world of relativism, the values of education vary from building to building, needless to say district to district.  The result of this uneasiness is an appeal to consensus:  What is it that we can agree upon as a collective?  You may already see what I am alluding to here… Common Core Standards.  Certainly there ARE common elements that we want students to learn, regardless of location.  But this becomes a circular problem because we are left once again to ask who should be the arbiter of deciding what is of value for all students?

Thanks be to God for Lutheran schools!  Lutheran schools acknowledge the sovereignty and dominion of God and His Word.  Authority is based upon Scripture and Scripture Alone.  Thus, we DO teach facts.  We also teach ideas and concepts.  But beyond that, we are able to teach those ideas and concepts with the foundation of God’s Word.  We are able to identify those ideas which are healthy and those which are not because we have a standard by which to compare.

The problem that secular education has is that there can be no foundation in a relativistic mindset.  Even worse, though, is the ever-growing trend toward secular humanism.  The humanist foundation is based upon anti-Scriptural ideas that can be traced back to Genesis 3:  Man’s attempt to dethrone God.

2.  A Narrowing of the Mind

The second problem that arises is in how we end up treating education and students in general as a result of focusing on concepts and ideas.  I recently ran across an article which explained why we should try to make our classrooms more like the Google Corporation.

Wait… what?

Do we really want school to look like “Office Space?”  Is our goal to make the education process just like a 9-5 desk job–no matter how cool that job may be?

Man, I sure hope not!

Children are not “little adults” and yet we have subconsciously made that jump.  Somewhere in the world of education, we have allowed people who do not know children to get into positions of power.  Now that they are in those positions, we have allowed them to “corporatize” education.  The results can run the gamut from annoying (such as the “make your classroom more like a business” idea) to absurd.  College and Career Readiness Standards (CCRS) now exist for students down to the 2nd grade.  College and career readiness in 2nd grade!  Let’s slow down a bit, here!

To be fair, the concept is that we want to start at a young age to prepare students to college and the workforce.  But at what cost?  Arts programs are being gutted in many school districts.  Play time–crucial for physical, psycho-social, and motor development–is also being cut in the name of testing.

We are on a dangerous course.  Conceivably, next steps would be to “track” students from PreK or Kindergarten into “academic” or “vocational” paths.  As test scores become more important, it is possible that school districts will attempt to group students based upon ability.

We are inadvertently eliminating the Liberal Arts education as we know it.  The concept behind the Liberal Arts model is that it is important for students to learn a wide variety of information about many subjects. In this model knowledge and understanding are a reward–not merely a tool by which the learner finds his/her vocation within society.

Author Neil Postman recognized this potential problem 30 years ago when he noted that reading was once done for one of three reasons:  (1) entertainment; (2) education; or (3) edification.  He noted that the third reason was already disappearing.

Some may say that the death of the Liberal Arts model is a good thing.  As technology advances, the amount of information on hand makes the depth of knowledge and pseudo-knowledge so great that educators have a difficult time in gauging the depth necessary for students to grasp a concept.  For example, is it more important to know how the Dewey Decimal system works or how to find a resource that explains how the system works?  For many, it is simply more practical and useful for students to focus on subjects which “naturally” appeal to them.  Thus, from a young age, students will learn subjects, skills, and ideas within an echo chamber in which students have directed their education within a certain vocation at the expense of other fields.

Once again, thank God for our Lutheran schools!  Lutheran schools still recognize that man as created in the image of God (though that image is tainted in our sinful world) should learn a variety of challenging subjects, facts, ideas, and skills, to the glory of God our Creator.  Lutheran schools recognize that the boom of technology does not necessarily push us toward a utilitarian or pragmatic “easy road” view of education, but instead provides many opportunities to provide a more-robust Liberal Arts education.

And so there you have it:  There is a bear in the woods.  There is potential danger ahead, but thanks be to God for our Lutheran schools who still remain firmly grounded in He who is greater than this latest bear.

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