On November 28, at a meeting of Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education, Joel Klein and Condoleeza Rice discussed the report of a task force they chaired and the report they produced for the Council on Foreign Relations.
The central claim of the report was that American public education is so dreadful that it constitutes “a very grave threat to national security.” I thought that the findings and the recommendations of the report were far-fetched and predetermined by the makeup of the task force. I agreed with the panel’s dissenters and reviewed the report here.
I am happy to see that the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers has published a forum
in which a group of scholars respond to the CFR report.
Several authors reacted with derision to the CFR’s warm embrace of the Common Core standards, especially to its recommendation That students need more “informational text” and less “narrative fiction.” The writers saw this as a direct challenge, if not an insult, to the humanities and to the development of creativity, imagination, moral judgment, and critical thinking.
Two of the essays note the similarity between the CFR report and the views of Mr. Gradgrind in Dickens’ “Hard Times.” Mr. Gradgrind memorably said,
“Now what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root everything else out.”
Most of the authors are disturbed by the narrow and cold utilitarianism of the report, the attitude that people are not individuals with their own purposes but “human capital” that must be shaped to serve the needs of industry, the military and global competition.
A sampling of the commentary:
Several of the authors, writes Rosanna Warren of the University of Chicago, share “a sinister political assumption floating in the CFR report but nowhere in it argued or defended, that the United States is from now on to be committed to the enterprise of global domination.” Not only does it implicitly raise questions about what kind of nation we should be but “One of the more repellent features of the CFR report is its persistent referring to human beings–students and teachers–as ‘human capital,’…terminology that may be fine for economic planners or those writing about corporate success, but as an educational vision it is chilling.” The writers of the CFR report, she says, “regard people as units of merely instrumental value in larger systems of corporate production and military defense.
Elizabeth D. Samet, who teaches at the U.S. Military Academy, defends the teaching of fiction. She writes, “Informational texts often invite a reader to answer a series of questions at the end of teach chapter; fiction demands that a reader figure out which questions to ask.” The security of our nation depends, she writes. “on citizens possessed of liberated cultural and political imaginations.”
Rachel Hadas of Rutgers asks, “What is an ‘informational text’—a textbook?…And what does “narrative fiction’ denote?” She finds, “Reflection and self-criticism, or indeed questioning of any sort, are not among the benefits the Report associates with education, or indeed with national security.” Without such questioning, there can be neither imagination nor creativity.
James Miller of the New School finds that the report is “preoccupied with staffing up the military-industrial complex” and thus disregards liberal education as a goal of education. Written in “wooden, barely literate prose,” the report is concerned only with immediate, utilitarian interests. “In the name of bolstering national security, they are offering an intellectual starvation diet for the vast majority of American students.”
Robert Alter, now emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley, says that “the ruthless instrumentalization of the student population they [the CFR task force] envisage is quite likely to alienate young people rather than excite them about learning.” The Report’s neglect of language and literature, he writes, is “not merely dim but scandalous.” It neglects Greek or Latin “because you can’t cut a deal with a multinational in the language of Homer or Virgil. Literature itself is relegated in the Report to a distant and irrelevant memory because it has no utilitarian application.” It is important, of course, to read information text, but too much such text “is an excellent recipe for instilling a hatred of reading.”
David Bromwich of Yale University notes that since 2001, a “panic fear” about national security has grown. He asks, “Who should answer for the decline of American prestige in the world? This pamphlet renders a curious verdict. Not economists, not corporate heads, not generals or presidents or their advisers. No: public school teachers are to blame.” The Report, he writes, “takes the militarization of the motives for education to an unprecedented extreme.” Nowhere does it present “learning and wisdom” as good ends in themselves. He concludes, “…the intellectual bankruptcy of this enterprise suggests a corruption of mind more dangerous to a free society than any combination of military stalemates and diplomatic defeats.”
This short (67-page) pamphlet is a refreshing rejoinder to much of the cant and dogma that are in the air these days. There are several other excellent contributions by other authors, including John C. Briggs, James Engell, Virgil Nemoianu, Lee Oser, Michael B. Prince, Diana Senechal, and Helaine L. Smith. Every one of their short commentaries contain more wisdom than the CFR Report.