Egypt, Tucson, Sputnik moments
In his State of the Union Address, President Obama referred to our “Sputnik moment” and called on Americans to “out-educate” the rest of the world. On the one hand, I have no idea what it means to “out-educate.” Fatter homework packets than those in China? More school days than in Finland? Sadly, the furlough days in California’s public schools to balance the budget make me think we’re not out-educating anyone on that front. Higher math test scores for U.S. students than Singaporean students? I suspect this last possibility gets closer to the truth of “out-educating.”
So while on the one hand, the concept of “out-educating” makes no sense, on the other hand, I can imagine exactly what it means – more math testing, more teaching to the test, more unmotivated students, consequently lower test scores, punishments for teachers and schools, and ultimately more math testing as the cycle continues in a downward spiral. This is all quite different from the curriculum, such as Advanced Placement courses, that grew out of our original Sputnik-prompted school reform. Like the reform efforts of the 1950s and 1960s following the Soviet satellite’s launch, our current efforts, whether designed well or poorly, will no doubt focus on quantitative disciplines.
If this is a Sputnik moment, however, it also strikes me as an “Egypt moment” and a “Tucson moment,” a time when we ignore education for democracy and human rights at our own peril. As important as learning math and biology or any other subject for which there are tests and international comparisons, preparing for democratic life has been a cornerstone of U.S. education. I take heart from the examples of two graduates from the Mills teacher credential program, who have managed to find ways to make sure their students are prepared for life as citizens in this country and the world.
Ines Trinh teaches a fifth grade class in San Lorenzo. In honor of the first Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties in California, she taught her students about the removal and internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and how Korematsu challenged this abuse of civil and human rights. Though unsuccessful at the time, he eventually won exoneration in 1983. Ultimately, the U.S. Government apologized and paid reparations to the internees. Trinh’s lesson provided students with an important history lesson, an understanding of Constitutional rights, and a model of citizenship that emphasizes standing up for justice.
Annie Hatch teaches tenth grade English at Life Academy in Oakland. Her students read Elie Wiesel’s Night, an account of life in the Nazi concentration camps, a book which raises fundamental questions about God, life’s purpose, and the nature of humanity. Having learned that students do their best writing when they are communicating to authentic audiences, Hatch asked her students to write to Wiesel. They made connections between Weisel’s experiences and their own, Weisel’s times and intolerance, xenophobia, and scapegoating today. They asked questions about faith, justice, and home. Hatch sent the letters to the author who replied to the class. In the conclusion to his reply, Weisel told students that what they learn today will guide them in the future. What they learned was to see life as more than a competition based on who “does school” best.
The lessons in Trinh’s and Hatch’s classrooms are not part of “out-educating” any nation in the “Sputnik moment” sense. They are a reminder, though, of one important purpose of our schools. When we educate for citizenship, human rights, and democracy, we do so not in competition, but as model to other nations as well as a reminder to ourselves of the kind of society in which we want to live.