“Only the educated are free.” —Epictetus

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These are tough times in the world of education. It seems hard to believe that just a few short years ago a person with solid teaching credentials could get a job practically anywhere. (Or at least this was true in the part of the country where I live.) How quickly things have changed. With cities and states across the country now facing draconian budget cuts, schools are downsizing, classes are growing larger, and the demands on teachers are increasing exponentially. In spite of this, I still love teaching, although my antagonism toward schools continues to grow. (And no, this is not a contradiction). Part of my frustration is the schizophrenic nature of American education. Historically, we have never truly decided what sort of students we want to produce. Should schools concentrate on teaching people or tasks? Do we want workers or do we want citizens? Can we have both?

Mark Slouka addresses this issue in his article, “Dehumanized: When Math and Science Rule the School” (Harper’s Magazine, September, 2009). In it, he chronicles the process by which American education has been usurped by the worlds of science and commerce (especially commerce which, in our society, ultimately controls the funding of scientific research). He also raises questions about the effect such a narrow academic approach has on people’s ability to act as soulful, discerning human beings who are able to challenge the status quo and move our society toward its more democratic ideals.

Much of Slouka’s article focuses on the American tendency to equate good education with the ability to earn a lucrative income and grow the nation’s ever-expanding GDP. The study of the arts, for example, is seen not as a way to explore the potential of human creativity as much as it is to develop thinkers that industry can use to maintain our country’s dominance in the fields of business and technology. Slouka asks, “Why is every Crisis in American Education cast as an economic threat and never a civic one? In part, because we don’t have a language for it. Our focus is on the usual economic indicators. There are no corresponding ‘civic indicators,’ no generally agreed-upon warning signs of political vulnerability, even though the inability of more than two thirds of our college graduates to read a text and draw rational inferences could be seen as the political equivalent of runaway inflation or soaring unemployment” ( 37).

When economic times get rough, political pundits exert pressure on the educational establishment to narrow its curricular scope to only those standards that are quantifiable. But as Slouka notes, “By downsizing what is most dangerous (and most essential) about our education, namely the deep civic function of the arts and the humanities, we’re well on the way to producing a nation of employees, not citizens. Thus the world is made safe for commerce, but not safe. We’re pounding swords into cogs” (33). For Slouka, the key to maintaining a soundly functioning democracy is to produce well-educated and well-reasoned citizens. A broad education facilitates this, because the “humanities, done right, are the crucible within which our evolving notions of what it means to be fully human are put to the test; they teach us, incrementally, endlessly, not what to do but how to be” (36-7).

As an English teacher, my sensibilities fall on the side of the humanities. (No big surprise there.) While I understand that part of good Language Arts instruction is producing people capable of composing letters and business proposals that make sense to readers, I believe it is also essential that I provide opportunities for my students to expand their thinking outside realms of office cubicles and spreadsheets. After all, if the prevailing economic mission for American schools is to churn out drones, its intellectual imperative is to produce thinking human beings who will challenge the assumptions of the “suits” who occupy the lofty corner offices and dictate the terms of their economic futures. But then again, that’s dangerous thinking—the kind that gets people thrown into prison in societies less tolerant than ours.

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About Scott Shields

Years ago, I left the Midwest for the deserts of Arizona. Since then, I have worked in the grocery business and as a high school English teacher. Literature and writing are my passions, and I try to share my love of the written word with my students each day.


  1. I am with you all the way on this. One of my favorite programs at ASU is the Institute for Humanities Research, and I just saw a great lecture from there talking about understanding the complex problems we face through the humanities. The emotional intelligence developed by studying arts and humanities topics is hard to measure, but vital nonetheless. David Brooks wrote a pretty sweet article about it: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/27/opinion/27brooks.html

  2. Scott Shields says:

    Thanks for the link to the David Brooks article, Nina. As a longtime fan of “The Boss,” I understand exactly where Brooks is coming from. I’ll also have to read up on ASU’s Institute for Humanities Research.