Stanley Fish Defends the Liberal Arts for Schoolchildren

It has been a big day for the humanities and liberal at the New York Times (and, I might add, here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home). Earlier today we posted about David Brooks and “The Big Shaggy.” Now it is time to hear from Stanley Fish.

Fish writes about the rigors of his boyhood classical education and then goes on to discuss three books whose authors call us back to humanistic learning. Here is a taste of the article, focusing on the three books Fish reviews.

Fish on Leigh A. Bortins’ The Core: Teaching Your Child the Foundations of Classical Education:

Notably absent from Bortins’ vision of education is any mention of assessment outcomes, testing, job training (one of her sub-chapters is entitled “The Trivium Replaces Careerism”) and the wonders of technology. Her emphasis is solely on content and the means of delivering it. She warns against the narrowing distractions of “industrialization and technologies” and declares that “students would be better educated if they weren’t allowed to use computers . . . until they were proficient readers and writers.”

Fish on Martha Nussbaum’s Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities:

For Nussbaum, human development means the development of the capacity to transcend the local prejudices of one’s immediate (even national) context and become a responsible citizen of the world. Students should be brought “to see themselves as members of a heterogeneous nation . . . and a still more heterogeneous world, and to understand something of this history of the diverse groups that inhabit it.” Developing intelligent world citizenship is an enormous task that can not even begin to be accomplished without the humanities and arts that “cultivate capacities for play and empathy,” encourage thinking that is “flexible, open and creative” and work against the provincialism that too often leads us to see those who are different as demonized others.

Fish on Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education:

Ravitch’s recommendations are simple, commonsensical and entirely consonant with the views of Bortins and Nussbaum. Begin with “a well conceived, coherent, sequential curriculum,” and then “adjust other parts of the education system to support the goals of learning.” This will produce a “foundation of knowledge and skills that grows stronger each year.” Forget about the latest fad and quick-fix, and buckle down to the time-honored, traditional “study and practice of the liberal arts and sciences: history, literature, geography, the sciences, civics, mathematics, the arts and foreign languages.”

In a world of endless testing and No Child Left Behind, I find these kinds of arguments more and more compelling. How about you?

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