Plato for Plumbers—and 6th Graders

by Guest Blogger
May 13th, 2014

Once, when I told a guy on a plane that I taught philosophy at a community college, he responded, “So you teach Plato to plumbers?” Yes, indeed. But I also teach Plato to nurses’ aides, soldiers, ex-cons, preschool music teachers, janitors, Sudanese refugees, prospective wind-turbine technicians, and any number of other students who feel like they need a diploma as an entry ticket to our economic carnival. As a result of my work, I’m in a unique position to reflect on the current discussion about the value of the humanities, one that seems to me to have lost its way….

The problem facing the humanities, in my view, isn’t just about the humanities. It’s about the liberal arts generally, including math, science, and economics. These form half of the so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) subjects, but if the goal of an education is simply economic advancement and technological power, those disciplines, just like the humanities, will be—and to some degree already are—subordinated to future employment and technological progress. Why shouldn’t educational institutions predominately offer classes like Business Calculus and Algebra for Nurses? Why should anyone but hobbyists and the occasional specialist take courses in astronomy, human evolution, or economic history? So, what good, if any, is the study of the liberal arts, particularly subjects like philosophy?  Why, in short, should plumbers study Plato?

My answer is that we should strive to be a society of free people, not simply one of well-compensated managers and employees. Henry David Thoreau is as relevant as ever when he writes, “We seem to have forgotten that the expression ‘a liberal education’ originally meant among the Romans one worthy of free men; while the learning of trades and professions by which to get your livelihood merely, was considered worthy of slaves only.”…

My experience of having taught at relatively elite schools, like Emory University and Oglethorpe University, as well as at schools like Kennesaw State University and Kirkwood Community College, is that there are among future plumbers as many devotees of Plato as among the future wizards of Silicon Valley, and that there are among nurses’ aides and soldiers as many important voices for our democracy as among doctors and business moguls.

Oh good. You’re hooked. Read the rest of this marvelous little article, “Why I Teach Plato to Plumbers,” by Scott Samuelson over at The Atlantic. As you read, remind yourself that at its most basic, Core Knowledge is about Plato for all. To live freely, all students need the broad knowledge that frees the mind to think analytically. Core Knowledge provides a liberal arts education to the P–8 set; just as in higher education, the “goal is liberating a person from ignorance and superstition.”


Plato courtesy of Shutterstock (and Athens).

That may be a lofty goal for the early grades, but much can be accomplished. The Core Knowledge Sequence introduces Plato in second grade. As a note to teachers explains, “The goal of studying selected topics in World History in second grade is to foster curiosity and the beginnings of understanding about the larger world outside the child’s locality, and about varied civilizations and ways of life. This can be done through a variety of means: story, drama, art, music, discussion, and more.” In studying ancient Greece, second graders develop “the beginnings of understanding” about democracy, worshipping gods and goddesses, the Olympics past and present, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle—and more. In short, they develop the beginnings of their own freedom.

By sixth grade, Core Knowledge students have learned a good bit about major civilizations from all over the globe, as well as a great deal of American history. They are ready to build broad and deep knowledge of America’s debt to Athens, and to grasp how rare and precious their freedom is. Whether they become plumbers or business moguls (or both), this knowledge will serve them well. They will never be slaves to their jobs, or others’ beliefs, or the unexamined life. They will be free—as will every teacher who had a hand in their liberation.


David Coleman: “I’m Scared of Rewarding BS”

by Robert Pondiscio
September 21st, 2012

Dana Goldstein’s profile of Common Core State Standards architect David Coleman is up at The Atlantic, and it’s a must-read.   For better or for worse, she writes, his ideas are transforming American education as we know it.  The money quote:  “I’m scared of rewarding bullshit,” Coleman tells Goldstein. “I don’t think it’s costless at all.”

“By bullshit, Coleman means the sort of watered-down curriculum that has become the norm in many American classrooms. For nearly two centuries, the United States resisted the idea, generally accepted abroad, that all students should share a certain body of knowledge and develop a specific set of skills. The ethos of local control is so ingrained in the American school system—and rifts over culture-war land mines such as teaching evolutionary theory are so deep—that even when the country began to slip in international academic rankings, in the 1980s, Congress could not agree on national curriculum standards.”

It’s a very strong piece, full of insights on what makes Coleman tick.  Read Dana’s piece and then head over to Fordham for Checker Finn’s take.  The profile is “mostly on-target,” he writes, but he chastises Goldstein (rightly, I think) for failing to appreciate the distinction between standards and curriculum.

“She implies that David doesn’t see that distinction, either. But he does. And it’s profound. It’s one thing to give Ohio and Oregon a common target to shoot for—if they want to—and a common metric by which to gauge and compare their students’ performance (again, if  they want to). It’s quite another to prescribe—especially from Washington—what Dayton’s Ms. Jones and Portland’s Ms. Smith should teach their fifth-grade classes on October 3. David is pressing for the former, not the latter. Me too.”

Checker’s other criticism – whether or not Rhodes Scholar and classics enthusiast Coleman favors “college for all” concerns me less.  Make no mistake, it’s an important issue and worthy of debate.  But my enthusiasm for Common Core lies not at the end of the K-12 pipeline but at the start.  By championing from the first days of school a curriculum “intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades” — even without specifying that body of knowledge – CCSS is a strikes a hammer blow for an indispensable, content-rich vision of literacy instruction.  Implemented thoughtfully and rigorously, that will get kids out the other end with a lot more opportunities and options that they have at present.

The Coleman profile is part of a terrific package of education pieces at The Atlantic.  While you’re there, don’t miss Peg Tyre’s outstanding piece about a New York City high school that pulled itself out of a steep decline with an aggressive and rigorous writing curriculum. More on that to come.

Deregulating Education

by Robert Pondiscio
December 21st, 2011

“From space travel to health care to clean energy, the federal government has a successful track record of partnering with the private sector,” writes John Bailey at The Atlantic, so why not education?  Bailey, the director of Whiteboard Advisors, points out the most federal agencies “in some way engage the private sector in addressing their priorities.”

“When it comes to education, however, Uncle Sam’s handshake with entrepreneurs clenches into a fist. Instead of involving the private sector, education policymakers have actually created policy and funding barriers that skew support to nonprofits and prevent for-profits from fully participating in programs aimed at improving teaching or learning. These barriers exist at nearly every level of government — local, state, and federal — further isolating education from potential innovations that could help children and discouraging entrepreneurship.”

It’s an interesting argument.  Privatization and profiteering, however, are among the most loaded terms in education debate.  Charter school operators, test-makers and technology companies are routinely charged with prioritizing profits over the best interests of children. Indeed, there is something viscerally distasteful about looking at children and seeing dollar signs, which alone quickly derails conversations and briskly muscles quality arguments to the sidelines.

Perhaps the more interesting frame is one that Bailey doesn’t make.  The question is not whether to introduce the profit motive, but whether to deregulate education.  Unthinkable?  Like education, broadcasting was once considered so vital to the public interest that it was tightly controlled by the government. While Bailey notes a host of industries–from airlines to the Internet–that have benefited from private sector innovation, curiously broadcasting is not one of them.

Until 30 years ago, our radio and TV airwaves were universally viewed as public property; broadcasters had an obligation by law to operate “in the public interest.” If you are over 40, you probably remember a TV and radio landscape, pre-cable, featuring much more local news and public interest programming, especially at odd hours and Sunday mornings.  Rules requiring certain amounts of public affairs content were wiped away under deregulation, along with rules limiting the number of TV and radio stations a company could own. The Fairness Doctrine, which demanded an equitable, fair and balanced presentation of controversial issues was scrapped in 1987.

Things are quite different today.  Clear Channel Communications, the nation’s largest radio broadcaster, owns roughly one in five of all radio stations in America.  That literally could not have happened 30 years ago.  The large thrust of deregulation, for good or for ill, has been to spur enormous growth in the broadcasting industry.  Technological advances–the Internet, satellite broadcasting, cable television–have also boosted the number of options available.  But without a doubt, deregulation has allowed public property to be used to build private fortunes.

Whether we as a nation are better or worse for this is an open question. There are compelling arguments to be made for and against.   Flowering choice has not always led to higher quality, as even a few minutes of prime-time TV viewing will attest. On the other hand, having spent the early years of my career in local radio, I’m hard-pressed to argue that local communities were universally well-served by mom and pop broadcasters.  I can’t pretend not to think we were better served by more local news and public affairs programming.  But having spent years producing that programming, neither can I pretend anyone was listening.

Let me anticipate that the comparison of broadcasting to education will be dismissed as trivial.  I’m not sure I agree.  I could even make a case that our consumption of media in its various forms does as much or more to shape our national character and discourse than the education system, since it takes up far more of our time and at a higher level of engagement over the course of a lifetime.

What if education was essentially deregulated, and its quality was assured not by the Department of Education, but the Federal Trade Commission?  Would KIPP or Achievement First emerge as the Clear Channel of education, becoming the dominant provider?  Someone else?  Those who favor deregulation tend also to favor free markets and local control. Yet deregulation has also brought complaints that local, religious, women, and minority broadcasters have been either marginalized or forced out of business altogether.

Spoken or unspoken, deregulation is already the thrust of many proposed reforms.  At a Manhattan Institute event in New York City last week, a panel discussion of Marcus Winters’ new book, Teachers Matter, broadly agreed that barriers to entering the teaching profession should be eliminated, since there is no correlation between certification and a teacher’s efficacy.  What is that if not an argument for deregulation of the teaching profession, if not education itself?

To be clear, I’m not advocating deregulation. This is purely a thought exercise.  Rick Hess, commenting on Bailey’s piece, wrote that he is “frequently frustrated by our inability to talk sensibly about the role of for-profits in schooling.”  Very well, let’s talk about it.  But let’s not mince words.  What we’re really talking about is not about the role of for-profits in education . Lots of companies, from textbook publishers to computer makers already profit handsomely from education.

What we’re really talking about is deregulating it.

Dandelions and Orchids

by Robert Pondiscio
December 14th, 2009

“Most of us have genes that make us as hardy as dandelions: able to take root and survive almost anywhere.  A few of us, however, are more like the orchid: fragile and fickle, but capable of blooming spectacularly if given greenhouse care.”  – The Science of Success, by David Dobbs in the The Atlantic.

A common school of thought in psychiatry, according to an interesting piece in the current issue of The Atlantic, is a “vulnerability hypothesis” model, which holds that certain genetic variants can increase a person’s susceptibility to depression, anxiety, risk-taking, antisocial behaviors or other problems–if the person carrying the variant suffers some triggering trauma or stress.  A new model, dubbed the “orchid hypothesis” suggests that it’s a mistake to understand these “risk” genes only as liabilities.  The “bad genes” can create dysfunction but under different conditions they could actually also be a good thing, the article suggests.

 It’s actually a completely new way to think about genetics and human behavior. Risk becomes possibility; vulnerability becomes plasticity and responsiveness. It’s one of those simple ideas with big, spreading implications. Gene variants generally considered misfortunes (poor Jim, he got the “bad” gene) can instead now be understood as highly leveraged evolutionary bets, with both high risks and high potential rewards: gambles that help create a diversified-portfolio approach to survival, with selection favoring parents who happen to invest in both dandelions and orchids.

This orchid hypothesis also appears to answer a fundamental evolutionary question that the vulnerability hypothesis cannot. If variants of certain genes only cause trouble, how have they survived natural selection?

Genes so maladaptive should have been selected out. Yet about a quarter of all human beings carry the best-documented gene variant for depression, while more than a fifth carry the variant that Bakermans-Kranenburg studied, which is associated with externalizing, antisocial, and violent behaviors, as well as ADHD, anxiety, and depression. The vulnerability hypothesis can’t account for this. The orchid hypothesis can. 

This is a transformative, even startling view of human frailty and strength, Dobbs notes.  “For more than a decade, proponents of the vulnerability hypothesis have argued that certain gene variants underlie some of humankind’s most grievous problems: despair, alienation, cruelties both petty and epic. The orchid hypothesis accepts that proposition. But it adds, tantalizingly, that these same troublesome genes play a critical role in our species’ astounding success,” he concludes.