For years, the American education system has been plagued with criticism. In 1983, for instance, a report entitled “A Nation At Risk” from the National Commission on Excellence in Education warned that “the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people. ” (p. 4) Two decades later, America’s public schools have barely made progress in addressing the problems posed by the NCEP report.
This is evidenced by the continued inability of most schools to produce students who are mathematically and linguistically competitive enough for the demands of the American labor market. (Du Pont, 2003) Likewise, the rapid increase in immigrant population has brought the problems of the American educational system to the fore by heightening the impact of the socio-economic divide on individuals’ access to quality education.
In “Lives on the Boundary,” author and educator Mike Rose (2008) describes how the changing landscape of America is pushing the need for reforms in the educational system in order to adapt to the diverse realities of a multi-cultural American background. However, Rose also contends that some proposals being advanced supposedly to democratize education, may actually increase rather than narrow down the gap between the rich and the poor, and further exclude the people who have been historically marginalized both literally and figuratively from the sphere of learning and education.
(as cited in Lunsford and Ruszkiewicz, 2008, p. 99) One finds it difficult to disagree with Rose’ doubts about the ability of the proposal to return to what he calls the canonical tradition in the university and in American education in general, to turn the quality of American education around. Rose shows the problems of the proposal to return to what he calls the canonical tradition of teaching by presenting the realities of three immigrant students and an African-American student, individuals with vastly differing cultural backgrounds from the predominantly white, middle-class America.
In this situation, it is doubtful that canonical teaching would be able to address the increasing need for student learning that is based not only on literacy but also the unique needs of the students for social inclusion and empowerment. Rose argues, for instance, that the obsession among influential educators and policymakers to “define achievement and excellence in terms of the acquisition of a historically validated body of knowledge” (as cited in Lunsford and Ruszkiewicz, 2008, p. 98) tend to push the marginalized more deeply into the margins rather than brings them into the social fabrics of American society.
Indeed, despite the democratic trapping that has been thrown over efforts to establish uniform standards and benchmarks of learning, at the heart of the canonical tradition is the tendency to homogenize student thinking and learning. The superficial commitment to democratizing education is illustrated in the way that America’s education leaders pay lip service to democratic ideals while continuing to deny the rich cultural diversity and the individuality of each student in terms of his or her learning needs.
One of the educators that Rose mentions is Paulo Freire, who acknowledged that real education must be relevant to the lives of the masses if is to have any meaning at all. In this sense, a return to an education that is based on the “Great Books” or “the canons” would be tantamount to regression. Such proposals also inevitably dilute public debate and understanding of the structural flaws of the American education system through its naive and myopic assumption that the failures of American education are caused by a failure in instructional methods alone.
However, scholars have pointed out that the deterioration of the American educational system is pedagogical in nature. Smith, et. al. (2004) contend, for instance, that the decay in American education arises from the “increased influence of corporations” (p. 193) on educational policy. Consequently, the leaders of the American educational system suffer from a simplistic view of education in which it is seen as a nothing more than a means of training the next generation of workers, cogs in the great American industrial empire, in order to sustain America’s supremacy over the world.
The United States’ alarm at the increasing “mediocrity” of American schools was rooted more in its economic concerns as the world’s economic giant rather than concerns for cultivating a better American society based on American values and ideals. Clearly, the continuing failure of the current system of education points only to its inability to provide students with the best learning opportunities; and the best learning opportunities are necessarily the ones in which they feel have connection to their realities, which have relevance in their lives and in their struggles for a sense of identity and belonging.
In this aspect, the very benchmark used to measure student learning in American schools must be questioned and examined based on how these are used to tailor students based on the mold of the ideal worker and punish students who cannot cope with such corporatist educational standards because they learn differently or they have trouble understanding the new culture they are in. Even the word “mediocrity” or the label “inferior” carries with it the bias of class, race, and gender.
Clearly, these labels are usually attached to individuals or groups who are impoverished and who cannot conform to the ideal of white supremacy and strength. Thus, meaningful education must “consider the context in which it occurs,” (Rose, as cited in Lunsford and Ruszkiewicz, 2008, p. 101) More importantly, appreciating the nature of literacy necessitates an understanding of how it can be used as a tool for empowering the marginalized, the uprooted, and the disenfranchised on the basis of social inclusion and identity formation.
In this sense, standardized tests and benchmarks can never really measure what students learn. Instead, educators should create and utilize learning benchmarks that are based on the concrete learning needs and interests of students. Thus, Rose’ discussion of the continuing marginalization of the immigrant and “cultural minorities” in the field of education reflects the social inequities which underlie the problem of American education.
Further, the author’s criticism of the additional threats posed by moves for canonical-oriented reforms shows how the educational problem lies in the general philosophical problem of the meaning and relevance of education for every citizen. In the efforts to institute reforms that would democratize and enhance access to American education, there is nothing more defeating than the assumption that a single American experience exists to which the entire American society can relate to.
Another faulty assumption is that every single American student can be taught to behave and to think based on the ideal male, white, and middle-class American. It is this multi-dimensional nature of America that the leaders of the American educational system have time and again failed to acknowledge. It is this failure by American leaders to come to grips with the diverse nature of American reality that is the real cause of the growing mediocrity in American schools. Works Cited: Du Pont, P. (2003). Two decades of mediocrity. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved July 30, 2008 from http://www.
opinionjournal. com/columnists/pdupont/? id=110003445 National Commission on Excellence in Education (1983). A nation at risk: imperatives for educational reform. Retrieved July 30, 2008 from http://www. ed. gov/pubs/NatAtRisk/risk. html Rose, M. (2008). Lives on the Boundary. In Lunsford, A. and Ruszkiewicz, J. (Eds. ) The presence of others: Voices that call for response, (p. 90-103). New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s. Smith, M. L. , Fey, P. , Miller-Kahn, L. , Heinecke, W. , & P. F. Jarvis (2004). Political Spectacle and the Fate of American Schools. United States: Routledge.