Saturday, February 28, 2015

Oh Tennessee, My Tennessee! What have we done to the school curriculum?

In The Death and Life of the Great American School System Diane Ravitch wrote, “If we want to improve education, we must first have a vision of what good education is. We should have goals that are worth striving for.”

After teaching as well as being an administrator for 38 years, I have earned the right to comment on the trends in education in our country and especially in my home state. My first concern is the removal of Tennessee local and state history as a course in the P-12 curriculum. Yes, I am aware that it is to be integrated into the American history curriculum; however, this integration will seldom take place in a consistent and coherent process. I am appalled by the lack of knowledge and understanding students have about our local and state history. Dollywood, Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg simply reinforce the stereotypes about the East Tennessee region and students buy into this Southern Appalachian hillbilly stereotype. The current and future generations of students do not know who we are. This is a tragedy. 

Removing geography from the high school curriculum is my second concern. Again, I am aware that geography is to be integrated into the history curriculum. This integration will seldom take place. The result is we don’t know who they are. I have even heard teachers say, “All those MEXICANS should go back the Mexico.” When did you learn that creating stereotypes of those who are different can have very negative consequences? I learned this concept in the second grade. Our diversity has always made us better. I certainly hope the off-spring of the brothers James and John Simpson who fled the poverty and religious strife of Ulster (Northern Ireland) made this a better country in spite of the English power structure along the colonial eastern coast claiming that the Scots-Irish riffraff from Ulster was trashing the colonies. We did trash the White House when Andrew Jackson was elected President!

Emphasizing STEM courses (science, technology, engineering & math) by removing or limiting the access to other subjects, especially the social studies, humanities and the arts, is my third concern. At what point in this new curriculum will we wrestle with the great moral questions of our society? Where will we debate and define “the good” in our nation? Where will we learn compassion for “the other”? By slashing these subjects in the curriculum in favor of technical skills, we may graduate more technocrats but lose our soul as a nation.

In the book When Learned Men Murder, David Patterson reminded us of the meeting in Germany on January 20, 1942, which outlined the Final Solution. “Of the 14 men who sat down to discuss the murder of the Jews, 8 held doctorates from the finest universities in Central Europe. Those universities were as interested in being technologically advanced and politically correct as are our own.” Furthermore, Haim Ginott, who survived the death camps a later became a teacher and child psychologist wrote,

"My eyes saw what no person should witness. Gas chambers built by learned engineers. Children poisoned by educated physicians. Infants killed by trained nurses. Women and babies shot and killed by high school and college graduates. So I’m suspicious of education. My request is: help your students to be human. Your efforts must never produce learned monsters, skilled psychopaths, or educated Eichmanns. Reading, writing, and spelling and history and arithmetic are important only if they serve to make our students human."

Yes, we need to reform the strategies we have historically used in math instruction, and we need more graduates in engineering, math and science. However, we do not need to decapitate the other academic subjects in the curriculum to achieve this goal. We not only need students who are academically strong but who are morally strong. “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts” (Einstein). 

Terry L. Simpson (July 2014)

  • Patterson, D. (1996). When Learned Men Murder. Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation.
  • Ravitch, D. (2010). The Death and Life of the Great American School System. New York: Basic Books. 
  • The Heart of the Matter: The Humanities and Social Sciences for a Vibrant, Competitive and Secure Nation. (2013). Cambridge, Mass: American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

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