The above may be and probably should be some of the most important words you read this year about education, mathematics or otherwise. Written by Sheldon Wolin, emeritus professor of political philosophy at Princeton University, they are part of a brilliant essay on, in part, Alan Bloom's THE CLOSING OF THE AMERICAN MIND, as well as the vehement reaction from various quarters against postmodernism and contemporary university education. Moreover, they show that this reaction is above all else part of the opening salvo of neo-conservative Straussism, or at least aspects of Strauss' work as interpreted by what Wolin refers to as that philosopher's epigones that informed or provided justification for, however doubtful it might be that Leo Strauss himself would have agreed with it, the neoconservative movement that dominated the first George W. Bush administration and shaped much of the second until the ship clearly began to sink in 2006.
The new vision of education is the acquisition of the specific job skills needed in a high-tech society. There are some striking consequences of this definition of education or, rather, the redefinition of it.
One is that the principal purpose of education is no longer conceived primarily in terms of the development of the person. In the past, the person was understood in complex terms of diverse potentialities. The academic subjects to be studied represented not only different methods of understanding but elements of a different sensibility. Becoming a person meant embarking on a quest for the harmonizing of diverse sensibilities.
The rejection of that conception of person can be measured by the disappearance of the older rhetoric about “personal discovery,” “the exploration of diverse possibilities,” or “initiation into a rich cultural heritage.” In its place is an anti-sixties rhetoric which is really an attack on education as the representation of human diversity. Or it is the rhetoric of “core courses” which work to dismiss the very subjects they profess to be defending. The new education is severely functional, proto-professional, and priority-conscious in an economic sense. It is also notable for the conspicuous place given to achieving social discipline through education.
It is as though social planners, both public and private, had suddenly realized that education forms a system in which persons of an impressionable age are “stuff” that can be molded to the desired social form because for several years they are under the supervision of public and private authorities. (Parenthetically, it is in this light that private religious schools have found great favor in the eyes of public and private policy makers: these are perceived as superior means for imposing social discipline, although that discipline is usually described as moral or religious education and as anti-drugs and -sexual permissiveness. Such schools represent the privatization of public virtue.) Third, and closely related, the new conception is tacitly a way of legitimating a policy of social triage. High-tech societies are showing themselves to be economic systems in which a substantial part of the population is superfluous, and so is the skill-potential of perhaps a majority of the working population. Such economies tend to dislocate workers, replace them by automation, or relegate them to inferior, less demanding, and less remunerative types of work. If such a population is not to be a menace, its plight must be perceived as its just desserts, that is, the failure must be theirs, not the system’s. More prisons, not social and educational programs, must be seen as the rational response. The schools should operate, therefore, to sort out people, to impose strict but impersonal standards so that responsibility for one’s fate is clear and unavoidable.
Sheldon S. Wolin: THE PRESENCE OF THE PAST: Essays on the State and the Constitution, “Elitism and the Rage Against Postmodernity” (pp. 60-61)
In reading the quotation from Professor Wolin, I was struck by the eerie similarity between what he describes there and the mind-set of so many anti-reformers in mathematics education that I and many others have struggled against during the past 15 years or more. His essay continues a couple of paragraphs later with this insightful commentary on the Bell Commision's oft-cited A Nation At Risk report:
Although the Bell Report never suggests how it had come about that the nation was at risk, its remedy was remarkable for its pared-down vision of education, its emphasis upon the disciplinary role of schools, and its martial rhetoric. It warned of 'a rising tide of mediocrity' in educational performance, and it likened that prospect to 'an act of war.' It compared current educational practices to 'an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.' While one might dismiss this as mere hype, the uncomfortable fact is that this rhetoric was chosen in order to establish the context in which the problem of education was to be resolved. Military language is inherently uncongenial to thinking about individual growth but not about adapting individuals to organizational functions. Its barracks language of pseudo-democracy is also a way of brushing off problems of minorities and of the poor. Indeed, the coercive language of war, crisis, and mobilization is so antithetical to what education has traditionally symbolized that it should alert us to the radical recontextualization being proposed for education.
One need not be a scholar of the Math Wars to recognize that it is no coincidence that the military language Wolin mentions informs this particular phenomenon. Words like "entrenched," "battle," "fight," "shots fired," and many other martial terms are common to the passionate debates about how to better or "best" teach mathematics to American students. Undeniably, the rhetoric is often inflammatory and combative. But what really resonates here is the mentality Professor Wolin describes, and the philosophy and politics that inform so much of the commentary in the Math Wars, formal and informal. Articles appear almost daily that reflect an enthusiastic embrace or tacit acceptance of the shift in focus from education as something to develop diverse and individual potentialities to one of creating drones for the workforce. And anti-reform pundits and commentators, as well as some journalists who no doubt see themselves as either neutral or even progressive, buy into the notion that "schools should be judged by their contribution to the economic health of society." Of course, this assumption is hardly one Wolin would accept as a sound basis for effective education, and neither would I. But it fits well the mentality that informs the writing of most educational conservatives and, I believe, goes some distance towards accounting for their opposition to many pending or already-implemented changes in math teaching and curricula.