Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Culture and Education

At the beginning of this month I gave the keynote address at the ATMIM conference at Boston College. ATMIM, the Association of Teachers of Mathematics in Massachusetts, is one of the 50 state professional organizations for math teachers affiliated with NCTM, the National Council for Teachers of Mathematics. Since the conference is for all teachers, K - 12, I wanted to talk about something that would be relevant to everyone and not just those in my field of expertise, elementary education. The theme of the conference was New Methods, New Ideas for a New Year so I chose the topic of exploring how we select and implement new methods and ideas but included the ideas of new dispositions, new points of view and new perspectives all within the context of professional development. I based by address on two influential voices from the past, Matthew Arnold and TS Eliot, the former a really good guy and the latter, well, it took me a long time to find something he said with which I could agree. I use these two wonderful quotations that seem to sum up the educational beliefs of each man;


    " For there is no doubt that in our headlong rush to educate everybody, we are lowering our
       standards, and more and more abandoning the study of those  subjects by which the essentials of
       our culture—of that part of it which is  transmissible by education—are transmitted; destroying
       our ancient edifices to make ready the ground upon which the barbarian nomads of the future
       will encamp in their mechanized caravans". (Notes Toward a Definition of Culture)


     "The whole scope of the essay is to recommend culture as the great help out of our present
       difficulties; culture being a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the
       matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world, and,
       through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and
       habits, which we now follow staunchly but mechanically, vainly imagining that there is a virtue
       in following them staunchly which makes up for the mischief of following them mechanically".
       (Culture and Anarchy - on the list of the 100 most influential books ever written)

Eliot's words are so outrageous but lurking somewhere in there is a grain of truth. For me, this is the idea that we must guard against the "Barbarian nomads encamping in their mechanized caravans". After recent events I might even cast Justin Bieber or the Syrian president Bashar Assad as Barbarian Nomads. But seriously we have to preserve the standards of human culture; honesty, truth, perfection and so on if we are to maintain all the good that we have achieved. 

Arnold's words, however, have an almost magical dynamism about them; the idea that culture is defined as the best that everyone can achieve as individuals while at the same time having a sense of growth and change as the world itself changes. Being the best plumber, the best engineer, the best librarian, the best truck driver or the best teacher one can be. Thinking the best thoughts one can think; now there's something to which we can all aspire.


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