Bard’s reasons for its summer reading program should be mandatory reading for any parent and public school board member. I have often lamented that the goal of the public education system is not clear but rather fractured depending on which ‘stakeholder’ you ask – from politician to business owner to parent – so curriculum and its delivery methods tend to reflect this confused struggle.
What too often happens is that public education manages to achieve the lowest common denominator of the various – sometimes conflictual – intentions of different stakeholders. It is quite refreshing, then, to be reminded occasionally of what education is really all about: learning how to think well so that one may live life well. I have taken a few excerpts from the essay Message to Freshmen over at Minding the Campus that explains why a rigorous summer reading program before entering college helps to get the students’ minds ready to begin exactly this process:
Colleges must counter the experience of conventional high school education in the United States, where learning is little more than a standardized test-driven chore with utilitarian benefits. In college, students should discover that most of the important writings and discoveries they will study were not generated for their benefit, but rather came into being in order to illuminate and improve life. It is precisely the connection between learning and living that justifies the life of the mind and makes study and inquiry a treasured form of human activity and among the most rewarding.
This belief cannot be preached; it can only be experienced. What better mechanism to set this experience in motion than assigning common readings in the summer? Students who encounter vaguely familiar texts like The Metamorphosis or “Natural Selection” will discover on entering college, through the intervention of teaching and the exchange of ideas with peers, that there is so much more to learn than they had expected about texts and subjects with which they believed they were familiar. With this realization, they embark on a journey of discovery that will strengthen their confidence in themselves and the enterprise of serious learning.
Faith in human reason and its inherent link to liberty and justice is an eighteenth-century conviction held by the founders of this republic, who wished its citizens to be capable of distinguishing between fact and fiction, truth and lies. The sooner the connection between education and liberty is strengthened on the level of higher education the better.
Our summer readings point our students to the habits of mind—analysis and argument, inquiry and inference, skepticism and belief—that will enable them to distinguish appearance from reality, sense from nonsense.
And therein lies the key to a successful and meaningful education: a habit of mind that pays dividends throughout life in highly meaningful ways. How we think determines what we think. Education that avoids or fails to address the importance of teaching how to think well is not an education that promotes a habit of mind that offers guidance on how to live well. Yet the two are inextricably entwined. And without that clear and concise habit-of-mind foundation prominently established in all local offerings of public education, then all the job training in the world, all the rote learning and focus on skills and collecting and regurgitating of facts necessary to do well on standardized testing, achieves little more than turning young minds into post-graduate wanderers in the wastelands… minds capable of retaining what to think but at best self-taught on how to think.
I think there is no greater risk to the freedoms and rights of the modern secular state than to have a solid majority of voters trained for years through public education ready, willing, and able to be told what to think… allowing others in positions of influence to define the terms of various issues for consideration without ever having to justify why those terms and not others should define the issues. Voters and tax payers need to know how to ask the right questions and understand why these questions are important enough to be answered if we wish to cut through the glib non-answers and empty rhetoric that defines today’s version of so many successful public office holders. But if voters don’t know how or don’t care to ask the right questions of those to whom they are about to empower with their vote, and instead are so easily swayed to accept what to think by the candidate who presents the simplest message with the best appearance and/or sound bytes, then is it any wonder that appearances and sound bytes don’t get anything done on behalf of all? What action that is done by such office holders is done on behalf of those closest to the seats of power, often by ignoring or thwarting or undermining any laws meant to protect all but inconveniently hinder partisan action.
I see the bulk of network talking heads and journalists not asking the right questions of public figures. I see the influence of media and religious personalities become based on the same kind of adoration offered to rock stars and other cult figures… but to millions addicted to their daily dose of the personality; the focus on political financing for harnessing the power of mass marketing of a crafted message to become the determining factor in election results; and so on. I see marketing reach into the lives of prepubescent children to successfully affect the spending of malleable parents, and I see these and other unjustified beliefs and opinions hold sway over people who simply don’t know how to wield the intellectual tools necessary to distinguish appearance from reality, sense from nonsense.
None of this is a success of a particular economic model or an evolution of political divides; this reality we face on a daily basis is a failure of our education system. It is a failure that all of us pay, and shall continue to compound that payment, as a collective price for this lack of education. And without a proper education on how to think well for all of us public ‘stake-holders’, we cannot have an informed, honest, and legitimate debate about important issues that affect the public, nor have the influence to affect the path chosen to address how to live well in a meaningful and lasting way.