Liberal Arts In Texas   Leave a comment

December 23, 2011

Teaching the Fluff.

The economic crisis the country is in has forced, or enabled, politicians of all stripes to make choices. How to bring some balance back to budgets can be a revenue question or an expense question or both. Since 2009, the questions—who to tax, where to cut budgets, how much to tax, and how much to cut those budgets—appear to have been a matter of ideology as much as fiscal dexterity. Democrats emphasize the revenue side while republicans emphasize cuts.

From my observations it appears that republicans—encouraged or stampeded by tea partyers—have taken great delight in savaging anything that is directly or even tangentially related to the ideals found in the Fair Deal, the New Deal, or the Great Society; whether Medicare or Social Security, the EPA or the NEA. In short, anything that smacks of a liberal “handout” or is a contributor to “big government” is in Sarah Palin-style crosshairs. (You remember her “target map” don’t you, with little rifle-sight crosshairs over the district of any politician she didn’t agree with.)

Education has been a favorite target of attack by republicans for years. Every election cycle, the GOP, the party that is always ready to accuse the left of being elitist, fields its slate of wealthy candidates, many of whom attended Ivy-league schools. And they love to talk about the unfairness of using taxes to pay for public education. Charter schools are the answers one week; vouchers for private schools the next. In the latter case, public money—after all, what is a voucher but a redistribution of public money—is a solution to the problems of elementary and secondary education. But instead of developing public schools they cut the budgets and expect better results. And what are the usual school targets? Why of course they target the arts (“who needs all that sissy stuff? No NFL quarterback ever needed to see some famous painting to hit a receiver 30-yards downfield”;) phys-ed (“they can play at home or at the “Y” or play football”;) school plays (“more sissies; besides, it will just create more Hollywood elitists who don’t generally like republicans much anyway”;) teachers (“come-on, how many teachers do you really need?”); foreign languages (“This is America; English is all anyone needs to know”;) literature (“tell me one thing reading Shakespeare ever taught you that you couldn’t learn in the backseat of a Chevy”.) Sports. (Sports programs have been cut, but usually after removing football and basketball from the cut-list. And in this century as the last, these two sports are primarily for boys, not girls.) I could continue but that would be, using a football metaphor, piling on.

This week, NPR News ran a story about the crisis in education funding in Texas. You know Texas? Everything is bigger (including the inflated sense of self.) This state that gave us “W”, would now give us—if he had his y’all way—Rick Perry. Texas is a state with a rainy-day fund in the billions, but still believes it necessary to cut public education. Of the 50 states, Texas ranks 49th in verbal SAT scores, 46th in math SATs, 36th in graduation rates, and so on. Pretty it isn’t.  But that’s not what truly riles me today. It’s the attitude of some Texans about what constitutes education. Take this exchange from the NPR report:

 Even wealthy school districts are feeling the pinch. Leander is a bedroom community just outside Austin that’s growing like crazy, but it doesn’t have enough money to open two brand new schools that it built to relieve overcrowding.

With less money from the state, Leander had to cut $20 million from its budget and lay off 213 employees, 50 of them classroom teachers. Leander was supposed to open what’s known as Middle School No. 8 this year. It’s an enormous building and there’s a lot of construction going on at the site, but that was slowed this summer because the district cannot afford to open it.

Leander schools Superintendent Bret Champion says Texas raised school funding consistently every year for the past half century, until now. “For the first time since World War II, the state hasn’t funded what it had promised to fund,” he says.

What Can Be Cut?

At a football game between Leander High and Vista Ridge High School, the funding crisis is the last thing on parents’ minds. The stadium fills quickly; it’s supposed to be a good game.

Leander has already eliminated golf and tennis. What if football is next?

“I’d spend a thousand bucks out of pocket myself to make sure it’d stay,” says Ross Briton, whose son plays football. “I’d work two jobs if it took that to do it. End of story.”  Briton says it’s not just a sport here: It’s part of the culture and a big part of the community’s identity. The district should pare down the curriculum before it cuts football, he says. “I would cut most liberal arts out of the high school. I’d keep math, science, reading. I’d add the vocational education back, because I think there’s too much fluff,” Briton says.  Several parents in the parking lot nod in agreement as they walk away;

Think about it. That Texan—apparently speaking for many parents—suggested that “The district should pare down the curriculum before it cuts football.” He’d cut most liberal arts except math, science, and reading. Mr. Briton thinks “there’s too much fluff.”

Does Mr. Briton understand what the Liberal Arts are, and why incorporating study areas other than math, science, and reading is important? The foundation of advocating for the liberal arts in education is to enable students to become well-rounded individuals, ready to step into a modern society with all of the necessary skills to compete. Yes, mathematics and the sciences are important, and being able to read well is essential to succeeding in both. But some additional knowledge is important to put all of the pieces together; to be able to reason, to develop arguments in support of one’s views; to understand the context of the issues facing society and the world. There is a world that impacts all of us and that includes outside influences impacting Texans. Literature, languages, philosophy, and history, should not be casually dismissed. While some Texas high school football fans may seem as only an aberration in an otherwise thoughtful world, one must remember that Texas is one of numerous places that you find boards of education substituting creationism for evolution, or claiming that evolution is “just another theory.” It’s moments like these that the words of the oft-quoted George Santayana come screaming out of one of those unnecessary liberal arts books: “Those who ignore history are bound to repeat it.” Go team.

David Steffen

© David Steffen 2011

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