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Standardized Tests, “Failing Schools” and the Emerging Un-Enlightenment

April 11, 2019

I read “Trump’s Most Worrisome Legacy” by economist Joseph Stiglitz’s in yesterday’s Common Dreams and got the chills he hoped to elicit as a result. The legacy that created a knot in Stiglitz’s (and my) stomach is this: President Donald Trump is not interested in seeking the truth.

One section in Mr. Stiglitz’s essay, an overview of impact of the Scottish Enlightenment, was especially thought provoking:

Adam Smith tried to (explain the basis for America’s wealth) in his classic 1776 book The Wealth of Nations. For centuries, Smith noted, standards of living had been stagnant; then, toward the end of the eighteenth century, incomes start to soar. Why?

Smith himself was a leading light of the great intellectual movement known as the Scottish Enlightenment. The questioning of established authority that followed the earlier Reformation in Europe forced society to ask: How do we know the truth? How can we learn about the world around us? And how can and should we organize our society?

From the search for answers to these questions arose a new epistemology, based on the empiricism and skepticism of science, which came to prevail over the forces of religion, tradition, and superstition.Over time, universities and other research institutions were established to help us judge truth and discover the nature of our world. Much of what we take for granted today – from electricity, transistors, and computers to lasers, modern medicine, and smartphones – is the result of this new disposition, undergirded by basic scientific research (most of it financed by government).

The absence of royal or ecclesiastical authority to dictate how society should be organized to ensure that things worked out well, or as well as they could, meant that society had to figure it out for itself. But devising the institutions that would ensure society’s wellbeing was a more complicated matter than discovering the truths of nature.In general, one couldn’t conduct controlled experiments.

Mr. Stiglitz then describes how our country devised institutions that ensured things would work out as well as they could… and described how Mr. Trump has undermined those same institutions by emphasizing the accumulation of wealth over the search for truth. He writes:

But what concerns me most is Trump’s disruption of the institutions that are necessary for the functioning of society. Trump’s “MAGA” (Make America Great Again) agenda is, of course, not about restoring the moral leadership of the United States. It embodies and celebrates unbridled selfishness and self-absorption. MAGA is about economics.

But I have news for Mr. Stiglitz: MAGA’s embrace of “unbridled selfishness and self-absorption” and roots in “economics” reflects of our culture’s perspective on schooling. The purpose of getting an education in America is not to find the answer to questions like “How do we know the truth? How can we learn about the world around us? And how can and should we organize our society?” The purpose of getting an education in America is about scoring well on standardized tests that value convergent thinking; about promoting oneself over others in order to gain entry into a prestigious college; and, ultimately, about earning a lot of money. These are the values we are inculcating in students and have inculcated in them for at least two decades of test-based “reform” that is the basis for NCLB, RTTT, and now ESSA. And while Mr. Trump’s MAGA movement “celebrates unbridled selfishness and self-absorption” and places the accumulation of wealth on a higher pedestal, I believe the MAGA movement has its roots in the message we’ve given to students for decades that the primary purpose of schooling is to earn a lot of money.

It is revealing that several reports indicate that the tech billionaires do not enroll their children in elite private schools or affluent public schools: they enroll them in Waldorf Schools whose goal is “…to inspire life-long learning in all students and to enable them to fully develop their unique capacities.” Standardized tests are not given in Waldorf Schools… and their “success” is not measured by their enrollment in a prestigious college or their lifelong earnings. They are more interested in the questions posed by Adam Smith: “How do we know the truth? How can we learn about the world around us? And how can and should we organize our society?



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