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The Real Crisis in American Education: The Hardest One to Talk About

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You know fall has really arrived when the media says American education is in crisis again. It's an annual ritual.

We've been in this "crisis" for decades now, but the recurring hair pulling over test scores and international rankings masks a deeper problem in American education that is only just beginning to get spoken of in the mainstream media.

This deeper crisis can be seen in the Chicago teachers strike: the city wants to tie teacher performance evaluations to hiring and firing decisions, even though -- as education reform advocates admit when pressed -- we don't actually have a clear way to measure what makes a good or bad teacher. We know what we want ("good teachers") but we have only the vaguest idea how to identify it on a spreadsheet.

This deeper crisis can be seen in Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa's recent book "Academically Adrift," in which they find that significant number of students gain no measurable skills during their four years of college -- and the rest gain only minimal skills.

This deeper crisis can be seen in a recent wail of despair by The Atlantic's senior editor Ta-Nehisi Coates in response to Nail Ferguson's deceptive article about President Obama. Coates pointed out that the emperor has no clothes: people with Ph.D's are just as likely to distort the facts as anyone else:

"When I first started wading my way into the world of ideas, I thought having a big university on your C.V. along a Ph.D held said something about your trustworthiness. I would have seen that Ferguson was a historian at Harvard and thought, "No way he'd fudge facts. He's a Harvard big-shot who publishes in big magazines." I would have been, of course, dead wrong."

This deeper crisis can be seen in a sobering analysis in The New York Times suggesting that despite decades of faith in the power of seminars and reading lists, educational attainment does little to reduce racism in the educated.

"The assumption," Christopher Federico, Howard Lavine, and Christopher Johnston write, "is that less educated whites are especially likely to be motivated by appeals that touch on matters of racial or cultural conflict, as in the race-coded ads about welfare and health care." But in fact "it overlooks recent research by political scientists that suggests that racial and cultural anxieties actually have their greatest political influence on better-educated whites."

Put them all together, along with a dozen more examples, and you'll see that the crisis in American education isn't technical -- how do we teach these students these skills and get these results -- but existential: what do we want "an education" to accomplish in the first place?

The most popular answer, particularly in desperate times, is that we want it to be a gateway to a good job. This is understandable, but even a cursory look at the educational system we have is enough to see that the link between an undergraduate degree and the skills needed in the job market is tenuous at best. Not only do significant numbers of college graduates (as per Arum and Roksa) gain little to nothing of value from their education, but many of the jobs that now "require" a college degree were once jobs that people held, with perfect competence, instead of going to college.

As Megan McArdle notes in a recent Newsweek article suggesting that education is now a bubble economy:

"Sixty percent of those additional students ended up in jobs that have not historically required a degree -- waitress, electrician, secretary, mail carrier. That's one reason the past few decades have witnessed such an explosion in graduate and professional degrees, as kids who previously would have stopped at college look for ways to stand out in the job market. ...Graduates were told that a diploma was all they needed to succeed, but it won't even get them out of the spare bedroom at Mom and Dad's."

If we simply want education to serve as a job placement program, there are cheaper, easier, more effective ways of doing it. That's not all we want, however, and it never has been.

The belief that education should develop critical thinking skills, the ability to learn how to learn, and what Robert Reich has called "symbolic-analytic" skills, is a strong one -- but these skills are, conceptually, divorced from the requirements of any specific job. Teaching someone to learn how to learn is incompatible with teaching them how to perform a specific task. An education that prioritizes critical thinking skills cannot be treated as a job preparatory academy.

The belief that education should prepare one as a citizen for the present and the future has been such a common assumption that we are surprised to learn (as per Federico, Lavine, and Johnston above) that education is not a panacea for racism. But why would a jobs placement program challenge racist assumptions?

The belief that education should create in one a stronger sense of self and character (as per Coates above) is also a common assumption. When we recall the fact that many of the worst white collar criminals of the past hundred years had advanced degrees from prestigious graduate institutions, we blame the institutions, at least in part. For all our cynicism, there is an assumption that ethics and education go hand-in-hand -- again, an approach that is incommensurate with the idea that education should serve as a jobs program.

This is the essence of American education's existential crisis: if we want education to be a jobs program, we have to treat it as one. If we want it to be and do more, we have to stop treating it as just a jobs program.

What do we want education to do? What do we want it to be for?

The humanistic tradition, which Saybrook University champions, has an answer -- but it is one that is not likely to satisfy any of the partisans in the war over education reform.

This tradition, heralded in the 20th century by psychologists like Abraham Maslow and Rollo May, holds that "education" is not an object that can be given to someone like a diploma ("Here, you're educated"), but a process in which the student must be personally engaged. Far from being a cookie cutter, with each educated graduate becoming more alike, an education is a process of individuation -- with each student becoming more unique, and more capable of pursuing their own unique life's calling.

Are we career minded? Absolutely: it is critical, especially in our programs that aim for professional licensure, that a key body of skills and methods be taught. But the essence of the educational experience is that it is a transformative experience: students who have gained the most from their educations are harder to fit into a box.

This will not satisfy those in the education reform movement whose focus is on test scores - which are a way of reducing the humanity of students to a few easily tracked variables. We believe education is an effort to grapple with, and expand, our humanity.

But let's say the reformers get what they want. Even substantial improvement on standardized test scores will not address the existential crisis at the heart of American education. Even if we get test scores to go up, are we any closer to where we want to be? And where is that exactly?

Mark Schulman, PhD, currently serves as president of Saybrook University, a premier graduate institution for humanistic studies in psychology, mind-body medicine, organizational systems, leadership, and human science. He is the former president of Goddard College (Vermont), and president and professor of humanities at Antioch University Southern California, Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. He has published extensively on progressive and emancipatory education, distance learning, technology and culture.