Recently, Bill Gates wrote about the “myths” that are confusing the debate over “what the Common Core is, where it came from, and the impact it will have.” There are good arguments on both sides about the process in which the standards were made, how they will impact an already burdensome testing culture, and how the standards will hinder autonomy and creativity for teachers. While I could take aim at his reasoning for calling any of these points “myths,” that is not what I think is the real issue that is “confusing the debate.”
It is within the first two sentences of the article that reveal where Gates fundamentally misses the point of education: “I don’t know many business leaders who are satisfied with America’s schools. In fact, just about every CEO I know is worried that this country simply isn’t producing enough graduates with the skills they need to compete globally.” So business leaders and CEOs consult Mr. Gates about education policy? This frustrating question about the education experts informing Bill Gates reminded me of an article that I have my students read on the first day of my English methods class titled “The Learning Knights of Bell Telephone.”
In 1952, Bell executives started to worry about the education of their managers. One sociologist explained Bell executives’ concerns to a magazine: “A well-trained man knows how to answer questions, they reasoned; an educated man knows what questions are worth asking.” Wanting their junior executives to know what “questions are worth asking,” Bell partnered with the University of Pennsylvania and created the Institute of Humanistic Studies for Executives, which was ultimately a 10 month liberal arts education. During their time in the Institute, the junior executives completed 550 hours of course work, with “more reading…than the average graduate was asked to do in a single time frame.” Along with the wide reading of literature, the Institute required “visits to museums and art galleries, orchestral concerts, day trips meant to foster thoughtful attention to the history and architecture of the city that surrounded the Penn campus, as well as that of New York and Washington.”
Interestingly, at the end of the Institute, the executives completed a questionnaire, and “their answers revealed that they were reading more widely than they had before — if they had read at all — and they were more curious about the world around them.” And even more interesting, the graduates showed discontent with business being their sole purpose in life. One student in the program was quoted as saying that he felt “like a straw floating with the current down the stream,” and added, “The stream was the Bell Telephone Company. I don’t think I will ever be that straw again.”
Leading industrial psychologists at the time praised the Institute, but Bell pulled support shortly after another round of positive results. I guess the “questions worth asking” weren’t the ones that Bell executives wanted from their employees. But more importantly, does Bill Gates think these are the “questions worth asking”?
Last night, I had the honor of hearing Jonathan Zimmerman talk briefly on the topic of education in the US, and he made the point that what’s “lost in the argument” is the fact that the conversation revolves around a “vocational education instead of a classical, or liberal-with-a-lower-case-l education.” Mr. Gates engages America in an argument about vocational education, which really gives a classical education the short shrift. This is where the real confusion is, and a point that is more important than any of his “myths.”
Bill Gates needs to stop arguing for the utilitarian approach to education that his buddies think will help the US compete globally. Getting kids to be “curious about the world around them” will certainly have more of an impact than simply ensuring a set of skills has been acquired. If Mr. Gates wants an education that will give us a competitive edge globally, then we need kids challenging themselves and ideas instead of allowing them to feel like a “straw floating with the current down the stream.”