Stories, Learning & Place

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Finding hope in financial ruin
   The future of soulcraft

Since I don’t think the schools we have built are sustainable, I’m always looking for people who are thinking not about reform but about doing something entirely different. I wouldn’t be surprised if, at some point, people find themselves with the opportunity to move in dramatically different directions, whether they choose it or not. It would be a shame if people busily got to work repeating our mistakes.

Jeffrey Polet in “Education as Moral Formation: A Localist Proposal” gives some thought to college education, but some of his thoughts might have salience for high schools as well. He argues that it’s not possible for an educational system not to encourage some view of the moral life, and that therefore some thought should be given to what virtues are intentionally cultivated. “Without encouraging the virtues of honesty, generosity, charity, industry, diligence, docility, and so forth,” he says, “it is hard to see how students would be capable of any intellectual work.”

He summarizes a talk given by Shawn Floyd of Malone University at Notre Dame’s Center for the Study of Ethics and Culture this month:

Floyd’s presentation focused largely on the role of the cardinal virtues (courage, justice, temperance, prudence) in developing exemplary intellectual practices. They are key to the intellectual habits that alone can lead to the awakening of the mind and to a functioning academic community; for only when these virtues are operative can we evaluate each other’s work (justice), or make the right sorts of decisions as to what students should or should not be subjected to (prudence), or learn how to affirm what we believe to be true (courage), and to avoid the temptations that distract us from the tasks at hand (temperance). These are examples of how the cardinal virtues ground all intellectual activity.

He notes that “one of the the things we learn from the Platonic dialogues is that philosophy is always a battle for the souls of the youth of the city.” But this doesn’t lead him to believe there’s much a modern school can do in the way of an intentional project aiming at soulcraft:

There are at least three barriers to such a project: 1) the ideological fracturing of the professorate and the loss of any shared tradition or beliefs; 2) the size and scope of the modern academy; and, 3) the reduction of the academy into the service of the modern state.

Variations of all three problems exist, in perhaps more pernicious forms, at the secondary level. Polet suggests pretty radical changes in the way the academy is organized but without any hope that such changes will be implemented any time soon. Still, there is hope of sorts:

At some point employers and prospective employees both are going to realize that a liberal arts education is not a prerequisite for many of the jobs that are out there. Given the careerist impetus of many of our students, such realization will lead to an immediate decline in enrollment. Coupled with our financial crises and demographic changes and the conclusion suggests itself: there are colleges that will not survive this storm. Once the rot of wealth is stripped away, there could be a renewed call for schools that shape moral character, not ones that ideologically indoctrinate. At that time, such suggestions might seem prescient.

Public schools, of course, are in quite a different position than colleges that must recruit students, at great expense to those students. Government funded and controlled institutions in other countries have managed to reach appalling levels of degradation without them failing, exactly. Failing inexactly is familiar territory, and it could continue in some form even through financial and intellectual ruin.

When I get tired of thinking about such things, I begin to wonder what happens as the proficiency rate required by NCLB gets to 100%, when young people with IQs of 65 have to test proficient at math and reading to prevent a school’s takeover by hordes of state-level bureaucrats, with their “walk through” clickers, their powerpoints, their surveys of disgruntled students, and their standardized templates for change.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 11/21 at 01:54 AM
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