Humanities for Everyone! (Whose Parents Have the Capital)

This is your semi-daily reminder that if you want to see what works best in schools, look at what people arrange for their children when money is no object. Over at his Just Visiting blog, John Warner notes the curious gap between the prep-school education that Bill Gates and his children enjoy (small classes taught by well-paid experts who emphasize serious books and lots of writing) and the kind of education that Bill Gates would like most everyone else’s children to enjoy (corporatized curriculum production, online classes, standardized testing, more standardized testing). Unfortunately, unlike most people with extremely stupid ideas about how teaching human beings actually works, Mr. Gates has many billions of dollars to pour into America’s ongoing effort to dismantle the remnants of its public-education system.

The same holds true at the college level. The Obama girls are not going to Ohio State or NOVA; they will matriculate at Stanford or Amherst or someplace comparable. Thomas Friedman might love MOOCs, but his daughters attended Yale and Williams, respectively.

There is a deep scumminess to how American economic and cultural elites (including many left-leaners like Gates, Obama, and Friedman) expend enormous amounts of capital on maintaining intimate, bucolic academies where the students read Dostoevsky and ponder Hume alongside tenured professors who make a decent salary, then turn around and assure the rest of us that twenty-first-century America has no time for small classes or the humanities, not if we are going to Win the Future, to quote Mr. Obama.

UPDATE: A better title for this post might be “Small Classes for Everyone! (Whose Parents Have the Capital).” As a humanities partisan, my instinct was to emphasize that side of the issue, but you could easily extend this to science and math classes. To reiterate, look at what elites procure for their children from preschool through college: small classes in schools where teachers have the freedom to design challenging, rigorous, creative, reading- and writing-intensive curriculum for their students. It works. Few if any affluent education “reformers” would send their kids to institutions that do otherwise. Reform is only reform if it is committed to small classes for every child.

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4 thoughts on “Humanities for Everyone! (Whose Parents Have the Capital)

  1. Ryan- Always an interesting read.

    Do you think that it’s feasible for everyone to get the education that the kids of elites get? I think about this a lot now basically being in a career where a lot of the folks did not really have a well-rounded academic background. It has served them well career wise to be narrowly focused in this way. For the most part, they haven’t read many of the books I have, and they’ve not written papers on political philosophy or history. This means very little now.

    I have no regrets about majoring in poly sci and taking lots of philosophy and history, but there’s something to be said for a technically-focused education too. I do believe that things like science, math, and programming promote more disciplined thinking as well, and in retrospect I think I probably should have been required to take MORE such courses at W&M.

    • Hi Klaus,
      You’re absolutely right that math and the core sciences and programming (which a lot of “digital humanists” are big on these days) should be prioritized, too. I actually thought about calling this “Liberal Arts for Everyone!” but since that term often gets mis-used as a synonym for the Humanities alone, I figured it would just be confusing. After all, that’s the kind of education we were lucky enough to get.

      And I think W&M (and elite public schools like it) are examples of how this kind of education *can* be done, if states are willing to actually spend on funding their schools. (For example, right now, UCSB gets less than 20% of its funding from the state of California.) Too often these problems get treated like they’re inevitable natural processes, like tectonic plates moving or something, rather than what they are: the result of poor decisions made by our leaders for decades–one of the poorest of which is how we’ve systematically de-funded public education at the college level, and shifted too much of the burden onto student loan borrowers.

      That said, I have nothing against real vocational education either–a system like that works very well in Germany, where people who don’t want to get a university degree or aren’t prepared for university can make a dignified living doing important, complicated work in the trades.

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