Monday, November 01, 2010

Holistic Education

We have holistic medicine in this country, and there is also a strong need for holistic education, educators who view a student as a human being with many different facets, rather than compartmentalizing.

One of the major reasons the educational system is broken, and underperforming so dramatically, such that the U.S. is now ranked as 17th in educational competency in the world, is that we fragment instruction, and the learning experience, such that students do not see the connection between English grammar and math, history and geography.

This explains why it is not uncommon when an instructor introduces current events, during a class in which students read contemporary essays to facilitate basic writing skills, to have students say "this is not a political science class."

No, clearly it is not a political science class, but to develop critical thinking, and critical reading skills, one has to read articles from many genres including op-eds in the newspaper which may come under the heading "politics," something that may be anathema to students who have been encouraged to compartmentalize.

Or, when teaching a class on sentence fragments, when an instructor puts an equation on the board, it's not unusual to have a student exclaim "math was my worst subject," and when you try to explain to the student that one needs to employ logic in order to write effective arguments, and that logic requires skills not unlike those found in algebra, often one is met with a yawn. What is logic, but math with letters instead of numbers?

It is not the failure of the student to find the attempt to connect the dots among different branches of learning incomprehensible. Instead, it is the fragmentation of the learning experience from grade one, and continued through middle and high school that encourages students to see a separation between concepts that are ultimately linked.

By the time the student reaches university, they're habituated to compartmentalizing. The whole notion of a college "major" encourages them to select which fields they want to discover such that students, like myself, who excelled at writing were enabled to pursue "liberal arts," and effectively dismiss calculus, physics, and science, all subjects in which I did poorly in high school.

So, I ended up graduating with a 4.0 index, Summa Cum Laude, and why? Because I was part of an educational system that rewarded me for sticking to what I was good at, and that essentially rewarded my efforts to effectively compartmentalize, and learn selectively. A writer who doesn't get straight A's in subjects that rely upon good writing skills is not a writer. But, being a thinker and problem solver is essential to perform competently in today's global marketplace.

Frankly, had I been required, as an undergraduate, to at least dabble in physics, or calculus, I might have had a lower grade point average, but I would have had a better education, too.

A student who asks how a New York Times editorial that deals with abolition of the death penalty, or the odds of a Republican landslide in tomorrow's midterm election, is entitled to an answer from their instructor. In the end, it is up to the instructor to show the student how an article about the passing of Ted Sorensen is relevant to a class in basic college writing.

As a stated learning objective in all college classes, one must encourage the ability to think independently, critically, and to articulate from as many perspectives as possible how one arrives at a particular conclusion. This objective applies across the board from English composition to physics to basic math to basic science.

In the end, a student is not broken up into different compartments of language, math, physical education, psychology, biology, and higher order thinking. These are all connected.

Until there is an educational system in this country that requires students to at least venture outside their comfort zone, and take subjects in which they have less than excelled, we will find out position in education in relation to other industrialized nations slipping lower and lower.