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Crisis In Education: A Moral Cause

Fr. Stanley S. Harakas

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The annual Educational Forum of the American Foundation of Greek Language and Culture (AFGLC) was held March 2-3 at the University of South Florida (USF) in Tampa, FL. As is the tradition, several USF administrators attended to convey the greetings of the university to the assembled participants, headed by University President Dr. Judy Genshaft.

When it came to the turn of the University Provost Dr. Renu Khator, in addition to the usual greetings, those in attendance were exposed to a 20 minute discourse (without notes) on the crisis of secondary education in the United States today. It was a recitation of an appalling set of statistics about the ever-decreasing levels of accomplishment of high school students in the U.S. Dr. Khator was able to roll off the tip of her tongue a long series of statistics showing decreasing competency in English, mathematics, science, foreign languages, even history and social studies, by American high school students, compared with students in other industrialized countries, as well as in quite a few less economically developed nations.

Even more frightening for the future of America was the lack of awareness regarding this situation: one of the statistics was that about 95 percent of high school teachers were of the opinion that their college-bound graduates were "ready for college," while only 44 percent of freshman college faculty felt that they were really ready and able to do college work. Later, Dr. Khator referred me to a report of a commission appointed by Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings titled "A Test of Leadership: Charting the Future of U.S. Higher Education" as the source of most of her statistics.

The animated discussion that followed at the AFGLC meeting expressed great concern about the future of the country in the light of this state of affairs. Given these statistics, it would seem that primary and secondary education is in crisis. But it seems that it is also a prevalent issue in much of undergraduate education, as well.

Recently, I was asked to make a presentation to an undergraduate college sociology class in a small Tampa Bay area university. I was taken aback by what I could only describe as total apathy on the part of the students. As a former professor, lifelong preacher and frequent lecturer, I can say honestly that I have some confidence that I can engage the interest of an audience. In that classroom I failed miserably. The professor who invited me described his class as made up of "disinterested, unmotivated rich kids," implying that since they "have it made" financially, they have no desire to stretch themselves intellectually and little motivation to achieve academically.

Finally, another slice of evidence indicates that the malaise in education in America has reached some aspects of even the higher levels of college and university life. Time magazine recently reported on the results of an extensive curriculum revision at Harvard College in Cambridge, MA.

As a former dean at Holy Cross School of Theology for more than 10 years and nearly 30 years as a faculty member, I participated in four or five curriculum revision efforts to determine what was essential for our students to really know. To do this is demanding work, taking into consideration desired educational outcomes the academic skills of students, the realities of student motivations and the needs of the constituency which our school serves. So, I know how hard it is to do the work of curriculum revision conscientiously.

Harvard College, however, made some dubious decisions, it would seem. If the constituency of Harvard is the leadership of the American nation, which is beyond doubt, what sense was there in eliminating history as a requirement, not to mention the expectation that a Harvard College graduate should know something about religion, at a time when the world is awash in religiously motivated populations across the globe?

The guiding principle for the curriculum change was training students to achieve practical results, or gaining "applied knowledge" to use the jargon. That already exists in vocational training. But should it be the goa1 of a university? Fortunately, the eight primary subject areas include "Ethical Reasoning," which in the end might be the curriculum's saving grace.

I think this points to the central problem in America's educational crisis - knowledge by itself, whether theoretical or applied, needs guidance and direction so as to provide foundational orientation to the achieving of a life well lived.

The dominant attitudes in both our culture in general and our educational system specifically seems to be an individualistic, sensualist, self-indulgent, emotion-fed approach to life that leaves little inclination for the discipline, goal orientation and postponement of gratification that real education demands. Attitudes such as these contribute to an education that creates informed, well-rounded, prepared, balanced and productively educated members of society.

I've spoken all too frequently with teachers and professors who feel frustrated since so many of their pupils and students approach their class work listlessly,even at the higher levels of college and university life. Time magazine recently reported on the results of an extensive curriculum revision at Harvard College in Cambridge, MA. As a former dean at Holy Cross School of Theology for more than 10 years and nearly 30 years as a faculty member, I participated in four or five curriculum revision efforts to determine what was essential for our students to really know. To do this is demanding work, taking into consideration desired educational outcomes, the academic skills of students, the realities of student motivations and the needs of the constituency which our school serves. So, I know how hard it is to do the work of curriculum revision conscientiously.

One impressive example is the tremendous range of topics junior high and high school students tackled at the 2006 California State Science Fair. There were hundreds of student projects in the following areas: aerodynamics/hydrodynamics, applied mechanics/structures and mechanisms, behavioral sciences, biochemistry/molecular biology, chemistry, earth sciences/planetary sciences/physical environments, electricity and electronics, environmental engineering, environmental science, mammalian biology, materials science, mathematics and software, microbiology, pharmacology/toxicology, physics and astronomy, plant biology and social sciences. Are you impressed? I am, even though I don't have much of an idea about what they are all about. Students are obviously learning and since there are many such science fairs throughout the country, it, is clear that many students are learning a lot.

What is the difference between the crisis in high school educational achievement in general and the superior work of these California students, who represent top level junior and high school students from all over the country?

Some talk about teachers. I disagree. Most teachers are committed and eager instructors. But most teachers are also underpaid and not regarded as highly as they should be. America spends $30, $40, $50 million every weekend on the latest Hollywood production, but is not willing to pay living level salaries to most of the primary and secondary teachers of the children. There is another answer. In my judgment the real reason for our educational crisis .is what we allow our culture to convey to our children a destructive outlook on life. We allow glitz, entertainment, sensuality, ego-centered values, relativism and narcissism to form a dominant view of life that looks only to gratification of the moment.

Do you remember who Time magazine chose as last year's "Person of the Year?" The cover had a flimsy mirror on it showing who it was -- you! When young people's heads are filled with that kind of drivel, why value the discipline of education? Why study? Why try hard and sacrifice to become an educated person? All you need is a computer and a private website to spew undigested nonsense -- at least in the view of Time magazine.

But as the science fairs show, not all young people subscribe to those kinds of non-values. There are hundreds of thousands of families where discipline, standards, commitment to honesty, hard work, the virtues of truth, integrity and efforts to live up to noble human aspirations abound. There are organizations such as the Boy Scouts with nearly a million young men involved last gear, which is self-described as having "three specific objectives, commonly referred to as the Aims of Scouting -, character development, citizenship training and personal fitness.

There are millions of Americans of many different cultural traditions, such as Greek Americans who remember and seek to transmit the classic values of their forebears often referred to as the "cardinal virtues" of wisdom fortitude, temperance and justice, along with the Christian virtues of faith, hope and love. Recently, a relative of mine joined the Army. . His commanding officer in basic training wrote to his mother speaking of "the seven Army values: loyalty, duty, respect; selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage." Such values encourage discipline and should be useful in all educational efforts Then, there is America's religious tradition which, regardless of specific expression, by and large teaches young people that life has meaning -- real meaning and purpose -- holding that as children of God we are responsible to God for how we live our lives, not only for ourselves, but for others as well.

If we are Orthodox Christians, we realize that God has created us in the Divine image and for growing into the Divine likeness. God has given us capacities and potentials of mind, spirit and body that He expects us to cultivate, develop, educate and transform. Its no accident that Psalm lll:l0 declares that reverence for "the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; a good understanding have all those who practice it." What a motivation for serious learning!

These are moral imperatives. Motivated by such a morality, education thrives. Denied it, education withers.

America, the choice is yours.

Fr. Stanley Harakas, a retired Priest of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, taught Orthodox Christian Ethics at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, Massachusetts for 30 years. He has written monthly Guest Editorials in The Hellenic Voice for the past three years.

This article first appeared in The Hellenic Voice. Reprinted with permission of The Hellenic Voice.

Posted: 02-Jun-07



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