Narrowing Education



By 10/23/2014

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Some people seem determined to narrow education.  I’ve been trying to make the case for a well-rounded, liberal education, but that idea has less support than I realized.  In their effort to maximize math and reading test scores, schools have sometimes narrowed their focus at the expense of the arts and humanities.  I’ve tried to document some of the benefits that students receive from art and theater.

And today Dan Bowen and I tried to defend the role of sports in schools in the New York Times‘ Room for Debate forum on the issue.

One of the main critics of sports in school is Amanda Ripley. reprising an argument she earlier made in The Atlantic and in her book.  In today’s forum she writes:

Here, school is about learning, but it’s also about training to compete in games that the majority of kids will never get paid to play… The problem is the dishonesty. By mixing sports and academics, we tempt kids into believing that it’s O.K. if they don’t like math or writing — that there is another path to glory. Less obvious is that this path ends abruptly, whereupon they get to spend 50 years in an economy that lavishly rewards those with higher-order skills and ruthlessly punishes those without.

Let’s leave aside that her argument ignores the systematic research demonstrating the benefits of sports in schools.  And let’s leave aside the that her book and articles rely on deeply flawed “selection on dependent variable” approaches that try to infer what to do to be successful by looking only at successful places.

I think we can easily see the flaws in her argument if we consider how the same logic she employs can be used to argue against schools having orchestras, theaters, and a host of other activities.  I’ll change just a few words to illustrate how her argument can be used against music instruction in schools.  I’ve bolded the changes so you can see how her argument could be used against any effort in school other than focusing on math and reading instruction:

Here, school is about learning, but it’s also about training to play an instrument that the majority of kids will never get paid to play… The problem is the dishonesty. By mixing music and academics, we tempt kids into believing that it’s O.K. if they don’t like math or writing — that there is another path to glory. Less obvious is that this path ends abruptly, whereupon they get to spend 50 years in an economy that lavishly rewards those with higher-order skills and ruthlessly punishes those without.

Or here is how her argument could be used against having school plays:

Here, school is about learning, but it’s also about training students to act in theater that the majority of kids will never get paid to do… The problem is the dishonesty. By mixing drama and academics, we tempt kids into believing that it’s O.K. if they don’t like math or writing — that there is another path to glory. Less obvious is that this path ends abruptly, whereupon they get to spend 50 years in an economy that lavishly rewards those with higher-order skills and ruthlessly punishes those without.

See how easy this is!  The real problem here is the unwillingness to appreciate the breadth of experiences that should be part of a well-rounded education.  Yes, not every student will benefit from music, theater, or sports.  And very few of them will go on to careers in music, acting, or sports.  School is not entirely about vocational training focused on math and reading skills.  Those of us who support a broad education recognize that all of these activities have important benefits for many students and should be part of schools.  And Ripley, like most supporters of efforts that narrow education, would deny that she fails to support a broad education.  She just wants to get rid of the thing she doesn’t like.  But her logic would get rid of everything other than math and reading instruction.  And that would be a very poor education indeed.

– Jay P. Greene




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