Mark Bauerlein has a piece on the Chronicle of Higher Ed’s Brainstorm blog that should give pause to those whose definition of achievement in public education starts and stops with reading and math scores.
Bauerlein spins a fictional tale of a top Emory University law school student interviewing at one of the leading law firms in Atlanta. Over lunch with the senior partners, the conversation turns toward the older gentlemen’s memories of the Cold War. “It’s not a test, and it’s not planned,” Bauerlein notes. ”For them, the Cold War is simply one of those realities that any intelligent person is familiar with and has some opinions about.” But the overachieving young man has nothing to add and is conspicuously out of his depth.
The others have the tact to move on, but they note the deficiency. It doesn’t cost the young man the job, but the senior fellows make a judgment. This guy, they think, is sharp and hard-working, but get out of his training and he doesn’t bring much to the table. The deeper awareness that makes for a sober judgment and wider perspective is missing…This is the professional value of cultural literacy. It counts a lot more in professional spheres than academics and educators realize. The measure is informal, yes, but it makes a difference in how peers and superiors regard you.
Bauerlein’s piece reminded me of a conversation I had with an unusually bright student a few years ago. She blew away every math and reading test she’d ever taken, but her walking around knowledge of even basic history, geography and current events was virtually nonexistent (Granted, she was a 5th grader, but she was under the impression that New Jersey was a country). Discussing the gaps in her education, I told her, “This is not your fault, but it is your problem.” Indeed, this young lady had done absolutely everything asked of her in school. Her lack of breadth was not something she chose, but something we had allowed to happen to her. If the gaps in her knowledge persist into adulthood, I knew, the world would certainly judge her skeptically, even harshly, for precisely the reasons Bauerlein describes–especially as a person of color from the South Bronx.
Crucially, this was a kid with top scores on standardized tests–one of my school’s rare ”double 4s” in both math and reading. By that measure–but only by that measure–a screaming success story of public education. But what the data doesn’t show, and Baurlein’s piece reminds us, is that out in the real world there are very different metrics at work. There’s too often far less to our current definition of success than meets the eye.