Home > Uncategorized > David Brooks Seeks “A Better Culture War” But Still Wants Vocational Ends to Schools

David Brooks Seeks “A Better Culture War” But Still Wants Vocational Ends to Schools

June 7, 2016

David Brooks is back onto his continued lament for civility in our culture, in this case wishing for a “better culture war”. He writes:

We argue about cultural and moral matters in the first place because we care about our characters and the characters of our children. We understand that a free society requires individuals who are capable of handling that freedom — people who can be counted on to play their social roles as caring parents, responsible workers and dependable neighbors.

Further, we know that this sort of character formation can’t be done just individually. It’s carried out in families, schools and communities. It depends on some common assumptions about what’s right and wrong, admired and not admired — a common moral ecosystem.

As a high school disciplinarian for six years, I often believed (or perhaps fantasized) I was creating an island of fairness and justice that would develop character in students— an island that had different rules than the students experienced at home or on the streets. In our school we strove to treat all the children the same, whether they were the children of the mill owner or the unemployed single mom who was on welfare, the children of school board members or parents who never set foot in school at all, whether they were athletes or wall-flowers. As a Superintendent for 29 years I attempted to have that same kind of system in place in all the schools because I believe that the hidden curriculum of how adults that children and children treat each other is as important at the one we developed for academic disciplines. This hidden curriculum— the one that teaches culture and and character— cannot be captured with test results or whether a student gets a high paying job after college. The best measure for the effectiveness of this hidden curriculum is high school completion. If students feel like they are getting a fair shake from the teachers, feel encouraged by teachers and connect with their peers in a positive way, have a sense that they can find their way in the world once they graduate, they will find a way to complete school. David Brooks, however, has a different idea:

“If public life were truly infused with the sense that people have souls, we would educate young people to have vocations and not just careers

Then later in his litany of “should” and “musts” he writes:

We’d also need a new political science. The old one was based on the model that we’re utility-maximizing individuals, seeking power.”

I think Mr. Brooks misses the point: if you base education on the need for “vocations” you are reinforcing the notion that children are “utility maximizing individuals”? And if you look closely at how we measure schooling today you will be hard pressed to find ANYTHING that looks at “cultural and moral matters?”

I contend that our obsession with reducing everything that matters in education to numbers and employability undercuts our ability to “develop character”. If we want schools to develop character we have to encourage them to nurture students. We can’t operate on a “no excuses” model that throws out individuals who are not meeting expectations. We need to listen to the excuses children make and help them realize that making excuses is a sign of weak character and the obstacles they see blocking their achievement can be overcome with our assistance.

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