How Our Educational Values Reveal Attitudes About Class

Earlier today, I attended a forum on implementing the common core elementary and secondary education standards in the state of Massachusetts. These English language arts and literacy and mathematics standards are in the process of being adopted by at least 43 other states and territories in the United States. I was pleased to hear that the focus of the new standards is on college and career readiness, rather than college or career readiness. There was the obligatory talk of teaching students to think strategically and of preparing them for a 21st-century, knowledge-based economy, but the big takeaway for me was that the goal of these new common core standards is college readiness for all students.

This differs dramatically from my own high-school experience. In the early 80s, I was a proud member of the college-prep track in my small, public high school in Michigan. When I graduated in June of 1984, less than 25 percent of the kids in my graduating class went on to college that September. You started on the college-prep track when you were invited to take the single section of algebra offered in the eighth grade. That invitation was just the first signal that there was never any intention for all of us to be college ready. More than half of my graduating class attended “skills center” for most of the school day during their junior and senior years, where they learned how to run a restaurant or the basics of graphic design.

In my mind, my memories of that early-80s skills center and our current debate on skills versus critical thinking are linked by social class. I believe that the divide that surfaces when we talk about the values of education is at heart a class divide. When I was in high school, the middle-class kids were not filling the seats in the skills-center classrooms. When we consider the working-class and first-generation students in colleges and universities, it seems as if our goals shift: We focus more on marketable skills and productivity than on greater human understanding and the opportunity to create new knowledge.

Personally, I think that it is imperative that higher education require all of our students to consider what it means to play a role in society and to participate in the social world. Education should challenge students to think differently and to think critically about the assumptions they hold. This is one of the main goals of a college education. A rigorous core curriculum with a focus on the arts and sciences can help us achieve that goal, and a set of common core standards at the primary and secondary levels will help prepare students for such a curriculum at the college level.

The best undergraduate programs in our country are known worldwide for their focus on a strong liberal-arts foundation. If we know that this is the best type of education our country can offer, why aren’t we advocating for this type of education for all of our college students? If we know that the skills we focus on teaching today may be outdated in five or ten years, why would we stress skills over the ability to question, think creatively, and take risks?

My son turned six today, and even though his college days are at least 12 years away, I already know what type of institution I will encourage him to attend. If we are recommending a type of college education for some members of society that we would not endorse for our own children, what are we saying?

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