A Sputnik Education : Part 4

by Dick Edelstein

By the time I got to high school, the humanities were seen as a kind of side dish in the educational meal. This was largely due to the exigencies of the space race and an inclination on the part of American society to acquiesce to the suppression of critical thought in the post-war years. The main course from a geopolitical perspective was science and engineering.

Students here in Spain learn philosophy as a subject in secondary school. But, when I was growing up in Seattle, it was not in the curriculum in any guise at all. Probably the school administration felt that the safest thing to do was to leave it out. But my world history teacher in the 11th grade had a different idea. He wanted to give students some awareness of all of the cultural currents that impacted history. His talk on philosophy was so pithy I can still remember it – even though it took only about twenty minutes.

Here it is in essence. Idealism means that chair you are looking at now is just a reflection of an ideal chair that exists somewhere. Realism means that chair is really a chair. Dialectical materialism involves a thesis, antithesis and synthesis and goes something like the following. Thesis – the sky is blue. Antithesis – trees are green.  Synthesis – Red China should join the United Nations.

While dubious in content, this lesson was significant because I managed to remember it all these years. At least the teacher addressed the topic of philosophy in some way.

Another shortcoming of my education that I clearly recall is the lack of practice in composition, not that this bothered me in the least at the time, but it shows what was then considered to be important. What I remember is that in the 9th grade I wrote an essay of less than 500 words and it was successful, so I was pleased and so was my teacher. There was another one, I recall, in the 11th grade. That amounts to a total of just 1000 words of compositional writing during my twelve years of education. This number, of course, does not include the cut and paste jobs we called reports that we did from time to time in the lower grades. These consisted in cogging from encyclopedias a string of facts about countries, such as reporting that copper is one of the chief export products of Peru.

Given the lack of actual writing practice in primary and secondary education, on the surface of it, it seems remarkable that I learned to write at all. In fact, this deeply flawed aspect of my education actually had a better outcome than I might have expected because, at the age of 35, when I first started to write professionally, I was able to just sit down and do it, adding refinements along the way. I started writing in Spanish rather than in my native language and this might have been helpful because I left out the frills and concentrated on getting my message across. Evidently the twelve years of studies during which I practiced skills such as parsing sentences, identifying the topic sentence and recognizing the chief errors of rhetoric had some sort of lasting effect even though I now question whether it should have taken twelve years to learn them and I definitely consider that doing whole-task activities would have been beneficial.

Based on the results, I cannot argue—at least in my own case—that the approach taken during my education was totally wrong-headed or useless. But I believe that students should have had a chance to learn from an early age how gratifying writing can be, how useful it is in practically any field of endeavor, and how it can be in many ways a powerful tool for learning.

The education you get reflects the society you live in. When I think about the young people here in Barcelona, I am all too aware that they are receiving a far different sort of education than what I had, and in general a better one despite that fact that the curriculum has become a political football and basic education laws reflect changes in government.

Nonetheless, the current tendency is to educate the young as a preparation for their eventual participation in society, although precisely what this consists of has differed according to the political party that has been in power when the most recent basic education laws were passed. Currently in vogue are the so-called transverse themes that require some areas of basic understanding of social themes to be reflected in every course, so that awareness of civil rights and the problems of social inclusion and diversity somehow are supposed to make an appearance in every course of study, even in math class, although I admit that I don’t know how they do that.

At least I can say that, unlike the case of my own education, today’s students here in Spain are made aware of the world they live in, the problems that entails, and the issues that they will confront as adults, including themes such as the problems of sexual and racial equality. I believe they will need this since the challenges they will face are enormous.