Getting creative with education

BY BRYAN KOLK

Published October 26, 2008

Our broken education system directly mirrors the values that we expect from it. For the last century or so the prevailing philosophy has viewed education as a utilitarian path toward vocational ends. In other words, the goal of schooling is to make people good at working — and working in better jobs — thereby supporting the economy and making them happy.

But this is a conservative and misguided view. It is based on the false principle that school subjects will apply directly to later jobs, which ignores the political implications inherent in the government’s involvement in regulating education. This misguided philosophy has fueled legislation like the No Child Left Behind Act that assumes education can be measured by multiple-choice tests. It represents the deeply held belief that all you need to really succeed in the world is more facts in your brain.

Even Barack Obama subscribes to this aging rationale. His position on education is if we increase our support for schools, we can set higher standards and build a better economy. Politically speaking, that is actually a little right of center (making the Republicans’ attempts to paint him as a socialist nothing short of incredible). But that’s where Obama stands, describing educational assessment as an opportunity for economic expansion.

It is an exciting possibility, believing that education could single-handedly save our nation from economic collapse (or worse, a loss of influence in world affairs). But if education is key, it is not through utilitarianism. Business and technology aren’t advanced through assembly line education — they demand creativity and leadership.

The platforms of both parties advocate increased focus on math and scienc, and it is true that we are falling behind most of the developed world in standardized tests in these areas. But an increased focus on math and science will do nothing if we don’t also develop the disciplined imagination necessary to advance in these areas. The development of imagination and personality happens to be the primary goal of that largely ignored runt of the curriculum: the humanities. It is unfortunate that neither of our candidates appear to be aware of this.

Even more frightening is the race for Michigan’s State Board of Education. All four of the major party candidates support the increased cookie-cutter assessment required by NCLB.

The only Board of Education candidate not playing back this mantra is Dwain Reynolds III, a 22 year old from the Socialist/Green party, who also advocates the abolition of all charter programs and tuition for higher education. Good luck, buddy.

But given that we must play with the cards we are dealt, the four major party candidates present tolerable résumés. Both incumbent Democrats John Austin and Kathleen Straus have been leaders during their terms on the board. Several newspapers have even favored Republican Scott Jenkins to Straus, indicating a desire for new blood. Still, I personally am opposed to the excitement with which Jenkins supports NCLB legislation. While new blood would be nice, that new blood isn’t running this year.

Despite the disheartening lineup of current candidates, though, there is still room for hope. However broken and riddled with inequalities our system may be, we, as students at the University, survived it and have been blessed as to be able to educate ourselves. Whatever the individual hardships we experienced over the course of our schooling, we managed to overcome them and now have the opportunity to continue expanding our education. Even in a dysfunctional system, genuine learning still happens.

The goal for the future is to continue fixing the system, to ensure that more and more people have the opportunities that we have. We need a system that encourages the exploration of creativity in combination with intense subject-study.

What we view today as important may not turn out to be so valuable tomorrow, and a philosophy that views education as valuable only for the workplace ignores the value of creativity and the potential futures of ideas. These are the skills that distinguish Americans in the knowledge-based economy — not just the memorization of facts, but also the ability to put them together in new and creative ways. It will take longer than this election cycle, but I have hope that someday soon we will begin to value this in our educational policies. Otherwise, we will be left behind.

Bryan Kolk can be reached at beakerk@umich.edu.