Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Toynbee on Education

Polly Toynbee comments on education.
It is not philistine to suggest that most humanities students might have their minds stimulated by a more general curriculum across a range of disciplines, opening wider windows instead of treating them all like trainee academics. As for the value of some research, no politician dare touch that domain. But here's a new research project from Birmingham University: "The cognitive measurement of consumer criteria for manufacturer parameter values in biscuit texture." (It means studying how much people like the crunchiness of biscuits.)
A broad, general humanities curriculum is a good idea. Everyone (including scientists and engineers (like me)) should have a broad understanding of things like probability, economics, politics, history, literary theory, poetry, statistics, languages, literature et al. But isn't that the preserve of what Richard Rorty calls the socialisation stage of education? Pre-university should be all about
socialization - of getting the students to take over the moral and, political common sense of the society as it is. It is obviously not only that, since sympathetic high school teachers often assist curious or troubled students by showing them where to find alternatives to this common sense. But these exceptions cannot be made the rule. For any society has a right to expect that, whatever else happens in the course of adolescence, the schools will inculcate most of what is generally believed.
University should be about individualization -
self-individualization and self-creation of that human being_ through his or her own later revolt against [socialization].
Rorty writes
Suppose we succeed not only in inculcating such a narrative of national hope in most of our students but in setting it in the larger context of a narrative of world history and literature, all this against the background of the world picture offered by the natural scientists. Suppose, that is, that after pouring money into pre-college education, firing the curriculum experts, abolishing the licensing requirements, building brand new, magnificently equipped schools in the inner cities, and instituting Hirsch-like school-leaving examinations, it proves possible to make most American 19-year-olds as culturally literate as Dewey and Hirsch have dreamed they might be. What, in such a utopia, would be the educational function of American colleges? What would policymakers in higher education worry about?

I think all that they would then need to worry about would be finding teachers who were not exclusively concerned with preparing people to be graduate students in their various specialities and then making sure that these teachers get a chance to give whatever courses they feel like giving. They would still need to worry about making sure that higher education was not purely vocational - not simply a matter of fulfilling prerequisites for professional schools or reproducing current disciplinary matrices. They would not, however, have to worry about the integrity of the curriculum or about the challenge of connecting learning - any more than administrators in French and German universities worry about such things. That sort of worry would be left to secondary school administrators. If Hirsch's dreams ever come true, then the colleges will be free to get on with their proper business. That business is to offer a blend of specialized vocational training and provocation to self-creation.
Don't you love that phrase "provocation to self-creation"? On education I think that Rorty is bang on the money (to coin a phrase).

And so back to the Toynbee. The quoted research on biscuits is not new, it got on the website of the Plain English Campaign in 1998. In fact that's the sole google reference for the phrase "cognitive measurement of consumer criteria for manufacturer parameter values in biscuit texture". If you are in the business of making, and marketing, biscuits wouldn't how to make biscuits that people like be important stuff to know?

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