Teaching kids to think as well as earn

Mike Rose, professor at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies.

Cover of 'Why School?: Reclaiming Education for All of Us'


Tess Vigeland: While parents mull over all the new reasons for going deep into debt for college, the Obama administration is setting aside $100 billion for education programs. About $5 billion of that will go to states that improve students' education the most.

How will they figure out which states are the most successful? With tests of course. Testing is at the heart of Mike Rose's book "Why School?" He's a professor at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. He offers a different approach to the way America teaches and learns.

MIKE ROSE: I think that over the last couple of decades, the emphasis in education policy has shifted somewhat. We've moved very much in the direction towards school as the engine for economic mobility for job preparation. And we measure our success in doing that by a system of standardized tests and high accountability. Now, look, the economic motive has always been very important in the United States. And as somebody from a working class background, for whom schooling made a huge difference, I'm all for that. But there's been other motives as well: The Jeffersonian motive of wanting to develop citizens, the motive of intellectual growth.

Vigeland: So your title that asks the very provocative question -- "Why school?" -- you're not questioning school itself, you're questioning school in its current form.

ROSE: Right. In its current emphasis, I guess. What concerns me is, well, the kind of thing we saw with No Child Left Behind and that I fear might be carried over into this administration. And that is this notion that the purpose of school is to prepare young people for a "21st century economy." Again, that's hugely important, I don't want to deny it. But if that becomes what you hear all the time in public policy, we've got research that shows that it compresses the curriculum. You're going to hit math and reading hard, and those are important, but literature, the humanities, arts, science, history, knowing history, that tends to be downplayed.

Vigeland: You know, what about the question, if we don't change the system, what kind of citizens are we raising?

ROSE: The image of the citizen in a democracy that I have, and I think that certainly Jefferson had, are people who are able to use history to make current decisions, people who can solve problems, even when the solution isn't clear. But if you have a curriculum that is narrowed with a kind of test that doesn't tap into all those qualities and doesn't develop them, then the system isn't going to lead to the development of that kind of person. Now here's an irony, Tess, that has struck me. The business community, time after time in position papers and opinion pieces, tells us that it needs people who can make frontline kinds of decisions, who communicate well, who are creative, who think outside the box. And again, if you have a curriculum that doesn't generate and encourage that kind of thinking and learning, then you're not going to produce those kinds of folks.

Vigeland: Mike Rose is the author of a new book called "Why School?" Mike, thanks so much for coming in.

ROSE: My pleasure, Tess.

About the author

Tess Vigeland is the host of Marketplace Money, where she takes a deep dive into why we do what we do with our money.

Cover of 'Why School?: Reclaiming Education for All of Us'

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Hi Emerson, my kids still think of you and what you taught them about the night sky. I think you were a great teacher.

Macro: At this point, the trend seems to be to find the exact balance between quantitative and qualitative goals. How do you objectively measure "the citizen"? Who decides?

Micro: Today was the first day of my seventh year as an California teacher. Our class goal is 80% of our students, at 80% mastery of the standards. But to me, quantitative success means NOTHING . . . if they don't FEEL UTTER DESPAIR when we kill Lennie at the end of Steinbeck's classic.

The liberal arts curriculum and the Jeffersonian ideal only make sense when you start from the assumption that power is derived from the consent of the citizens and the citizens have responsibilities to decide whether to grant or withhold that consent. Since the New Deal, our contry has been operating on the assumption that a small minority are equipped to comprehend important issues; the majority will dissipate their discretionary time on leisure. Until that assumption changes, there is no context in which ideas such as those of Mr. Rose can take root.

I teach college-level English Comp, and am thus exposed to students just entering into "higher" education from high school. I am shocked by the lack of critical thinking skills that these students, and the citizens of our country at large, possess. No one has ever told them that language can be controlled, that one's responses to words are known and discussed among people who, say, write political speeches or make advertisements, that what passes for political debate and discourse are typically poorly crafted, illogical presentations of skewed "facts" designed to sway one's political and economic choices. They are very interested to learn this knowledge, readily seeing the application of this new skill in "real life." This helps them to be better writers, and ultimately better citizens, because it gives them a tool which allows them to think for themselves, rather than being told what to think.

In the early sixties I was a chemistry prof who adopted a laboratory manual for freshmen called Practice in Thinking. Either I failed the task or the students were not up to theirs. Also I achieved a PhD through memorizing, not thinking, which proved to be a big error in teaching as well as business. Are you a thinker? Then suggest a possible path, please.

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