I'm often asked where in the great scheme of things educational I think our current American system of education falls.  On the surface it seems like an easy question that begs a simple "rank" answer.  Think about it awhile, however, and both the question and any answer that might result become complexly rank.  As an academician, I value clearity, completeness and conciseness, in that order, so, I have decided to take on this "simple" question as the topic of today's entry. 

Hold your nose!  My teaching experience across a variety of majors and topic areas has made one one thing abundantly clear:  Education is rapidly doffing its "service" cloak for one of "business."  Not that this is either new or unexpected, after all I practiced medicine while it changed in similar fashion.  And it's not at all inappropriate to expect education to "pay it's own way" in an era of business.  What bothers me is that education is losing is academic purpose, the pursuit of truth, to that of business, the acquisition of money in terms of increasing profit.  Again, don't get me wrong:  there's nothing intrinsically wrong with money or profit.  What's wrong is that in the broad area of education money and profit are rapidly beginning to take precedence over truth.  Without academic truth's Yin, business' Yang quickly spirals out of the sphere of a humanistic endeavor to one of inhuman paper pushing.  Admittedly the paper in this case is negotiable currency, but history tells us that when a process strives for effectiveness and efficiency while leaving behind its reason for being, ethics and truth, the result is a social disaster. 

Hold your breath!  Many students, parents, educators and governmental officials are not unaware of this not-so-subtle change that is going on as I write this.  One manifestation of this process is concern that our American teaching institutions are losing their edge.  Our graduates are losing their competitive edge in the international market place.  American student test scores on local, regional, national and international educational tests do appear to be dropping, or at the least, they aren't keeping pace with much of the rest of the industrialized world. While this phenomenon appears to be broadly true of US students in general, the more fundamental question is whether our increasingly business oriented world is, in fact, testing for the right things.  Should American education, long the "gold standard" for the world, be abandoned because it doesn't seem to be producing individuals who can meet or exceed international business needs, wants, standards and desires?

This whole predicament prompted the US Congress to ask the US National Academy of Sciences to investigate this conundrum.  The result:  How People Learn - Brain, Mind, Experience and School.  This interesting work explores the strengths and shortcomings of American schools and education. More importantly, however, it made a distinction between acquisition of information (the international and largely contemporary American educational standard) verses knowledge (the ability to apply information in differing contexts) and wisdom (knowing when to do so).  The question this work brings up for me is what exactly our the business of education is doing more efficiently and effectively.  Are our students truly deficient in information, or in knowledge and wisdom.  I believe all three.

Now open your eyes and take a deep breath!  First, we probably are deficient in information but more in terms of how much we choose hold in our long and short memory. Increasingly relying on computer memory, what we seem to be acquiring more of these days is how and where to find relevant information.  Do standard tests test this?  I don't know of many, certainly not the ones our business of education have readily available and are easily scored.  And outside of theoretical mathematics, what test do you know of that assesses a student's ability to apply information in different contexts.  Or whether they know when to most appropriately do such.  Not even most course assessments really test if students know where to find relevant information, how to apply it in different contexts and when it's appropriate to do so.  If you know of such test, please reply to this entry! 

Close your eyes, let out your breath slowly and think for a moment how one can know whether information that is increasingly computer-available is true or not.  Think Wikipedia, for instance.  That's where most of my first year college students go to get quick information.  The internet, with it's Web1, 2 and 3 content is slowly becoming the common, universally-accessible library of human information.  So, without a teacher to tell a student what's true or not (do teacher's really know what's true and what isn't), how's a student to know what to do?  The handy answer:  use critical thinking.  But what exactly is critical thinking?  And what about critical listening, speaking, reading and writing?  Is it all about MLA and APA rules?  In fact, it used to be about using reasoning (a structural device) and good logic (actually recognizing and eliminating "bad" logic).  Logic and reasoning.  When's the last time you attended an undergraduage first year course on the single most important issue in modern post-secondary education:  how to do critical listening, speaking, reading, writing and thinking (that's knowledge), and when to to it appropriately (that's wisdom)? 

Now open your eyes and look around you.  What is really important?  A grade, certificate, diploma, money?  Or is it the ability to determine which information is true, how to apply that to new situations in the real world, and when to do it appropriately?  More importantly, how does one assess a student's ability to do just that and when is it most appropriately done (again an issue of knowledge and wisdom).  How would one go about constructing such "tests"?  What would they be like?  Hey, I'm running out of time and space, so this will have to be the subject of my next blog. 

In summary, I think we're asking the wrong question when we try to stack American education up against the rest of the world using "No Child Left Behind" traumatic style of information in-the-brain assessment.  What we need are a whole new set of assessment tools that address what the US National Academy of Sciences has called our great deficiency:  knowledge and wisdom in our graduates.  And these days, I believe we must always be aware of the subtle paradigm shift that is continuing to ripple throughout education - the shift form service and pursuit of truth to profit and the pursuit of money.  Once might still argue that what is most important is effectiveness and efficiency in education, but that, too, is a topic for another blog. 

Best wishes - Daniel S. Janik