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No subject left behind

Darryl Campbell | Sunday, February 24, 2008

Most people reading this, I assume, remember the college admissions process: Trying to write the perfect admissions essay, getting your teacher evaluations, worrying about your score on the PSAT, SAT, ACT, SAT II, AP, IB … basically jumping through one academic hoop after another. This parade of standardized tests and statistics is more or less high school in miniature – an attempt to assess academic performance, which is a euphemism for “learning not to make mistakes.” By the time we start thinking beyond high school, we’ve had it drilled into our heads that the worst thing in the world is to make a mistake. Mistakes have dire consequences in high school: Missed points on tests, bad grades, parent-teacher conferences and, ultimately, not getting into the right college.But there’s something profoundly dissatisfying about trying to boil someone’s intellectual capacity into a meaningful statistic, which is what these multi-hour standardized tests supposedly do. Granted, they show whether or not someone has mastered a basic skill set and on some level the mere fact that someone is taking them is a sign of motivation. But I defy anyone to honestly tell me that after they finished taking the SATs, they felt like the test had been a thorough and adequate assessment of their intellectual capacity.And yet these tests shape the way secondary education takes place. Because they are supposed to be objective, each subject gets boiled down to whatever parts can be assessed quantitatively. It’s not a problem for disciplines like math, chemistry or physics, where half the battle is knowing and applying the right formula, theorem or procedure. Humanities and social sciences, however, aren’t as skills-based or procedural. Knowing the facts is simply a starting point that allows people to take part in the informed debate that is really the heart of any humanities discipline, and can’t really be tested via scantron. But because people have to teach to these tests, and because students’ enduring memory of history or English as a subject comes from how they are assessed, their view of humanities disciplines is distorted. No wonder some people think history is just a chronological assortment of trivia. And you can forget about the arts; self-expression and aesthetics are some of the least objective things imaginable.Funnily enough, the curricula of most secondary schools prioritize math and science first, followed by the humanities and social sciences and the arts last. These subjects get money and classroom time in that order; as a result, history, English and philosophy sometimes get lumped into catch-all “Humanities” classes, and the arts more often than not are demoted to extracurriculars if they even exist in the first place. If someone becomes really passionate about music, English or history, not only do they get a distorted view of how each discipline really works, but they also learn that those subjects are really not considered important, which is why they’re underfunded or missing entirely from their school. These sorts of administrative decisions further reinforce the perception of high school graduates that the only two worthwhile activities are being objective and not making mistakes.Objectivity and correctness aren’t bad, of course, but to make them the whole of the educational experience leaves high school graduates unprepared for the real world, which is not black and white or always rational. There is more than one way to be correct, and not everyone claiming to be objective really is, but without the ability to think critically, we wouldn’t be able to figure out who is and who isn’t. Unfortunately, developing analytical thought and the creative impulse is hard to do and hard to measure, but most of all, it means that people need to be free to approach problems their own way. Even more anathema to the current practice of education, there is no guarantee that everyone will arrive at the same answer. The humanities and social sciences – which are essentially debates about the real world – are the subjects where students learn these skills; they deserve not to be demoted to second place in the educational hierarchy.Pundits, politicians and teachers alike are as worried about the shortcomings of education and a growing sense of anti-intellectualism as ever, but they are trying to solve the deficiencies in teaching creative and analytical thinking by placing their faith in further tests and rubrics. Ironically, they are guilty of the same failure of imagination that they themselves are cultivating, and sacrificing more young minds on the twin altars of objectivity and correctness is not going to change the downward spiral of the American educational system.

Darryl Campbell is a first-year graduate student in history. He can be contacted at [email protected] views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.