June 27, 2012

Would da Vinci major in philosophy or engineering?

Reflect for a moment on the man Leonardo da Vinci, considered one of the greatest men in all world history.

If the young Leonardo was a student in the American public education system today, which part of his curriculum would you eliminate in this climate of budget cuts? The arts? Architecture? Mathematics? Anatomy?

I cannot help but think of Vitruvian Man, the remarkable sketch of an anatomically perfect man, the composition of which combined knowledge of art, geometry, and anatomy. While da Vinci was commonly considered a painter in his time, his sketches for helicopters and fanciful machines of the future are nothing but ground-breaking. Leonardo is the Renaissance man.

Today, however, he would be quickly shoved into a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) program without a elective about Aristotle or the Great books near.

Our public education system is failing, and the consequences to our society will continue to be dramatic. High drop-out rates and lower rankings on the world stage frame this ugly drama.

 According to a Reuter’s report citing Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, in January 2011, there were 8.03 million workers in local government education, down from 8.09 million a year before and 8.05 million in January 2008, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. I cannot believe that fewer teachers and more crowded classrooms will improve our situation.

There are many reasons why this educational crisis matters to America, perhaps one of the most notable is the educated citizen. Key to the success of our country and key to assuring our place in the world is a vigorous republic, brimming with engaged, informed citizens.

While researchers cannot confirm this quote came from our second president, Thomas Jefferson is often cited on this topic: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be. If we are to guard against ignorance and remain free, it is the responsibility of every American to be informed.”

What is the definition of “informed?” Federal funds are drying up, and states seek to reshape a failing system. As the axe falls, the first to feel the sharpened blade are the humanities classes. Perhaps I’m naive, but I think is heresy. Not everyone will have a career based on mathematics and science. I know and understand the argument that we are falling behind India and China in the critical science and math skills; however, we cannot forego the humanities.

A quality education is about gaining substantial critical thinking skills. A decent education is the enemy of the low information voter. A good education doesn’t necessary provide the answers, but opens the door to the right questions. A well-rounded education is the key to that proverbial informed electorate—the whole world is at our fingertips through books, the Internet, and other people if we only open our eyes, and minds.

Education should be a priority. My family has many public school teachers and school board members who have walked that difficult public service walk. Our family treasures a good education—from elementary school through some type of post-high school education. This is the path to a better life for anyone. My father was born with a crippling handicap into a poor family during the Great Depression. With the assistance of Indiana Vocational Rehabilitation, he obtained two college degrees and spent 37 years as a public school teacher. There is no better example of why public school matters.

As a society, we need to fund and support education that is broader in scope than just mathematics and science. An engineer who understands psychology and literature can better manage other engineers. A doctor who can communicate with her patients is a better physician.

This afternoon I was speaking to a friend (in danger of losing her job) who teaches an AP Art History course. She spoke with me about teaching her students about the art of Diego Rivera and Freda Kahlo. Rivera’s murals in the Detroit Institute of Art and all over the world illustrate the early struggles of Mexican laborers and are relevant for discussion today, regardless of one’s opinion about labor unions. When a skilled teacher can explain art in context, it can foment greater understanding of the world, and allow informed choices at the voting booth.

No matter your brand of politics, you can’t miss the relevant of Ayn Rand’s tomes in today’s world. Representative Paul Ryan, who is behind the Republican budget, confessed his devotion to the works of Rand in Time Magazine.

Having an understanding of works — from Rivera and Rand to Thomas Jefferson — opens the dialogue we need as a society. All of this begins with a broad-based public education which includes the subjects that ask the big questions. Who are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going? How do others see the world?

The educated person is one who continues learning long after she has received that sacred sheepskin. The pace of change in our world is exponential; I recently read that most of what medical personnel learn in school is passé within a few years. Doctors must keep up with the changes in the field by constant reading and exposure to new material.

The greatest skill we can teach our children is the skill of critical thinking — what to appropriately do with information and when to see more. There’s no magic way to teach this, but leaving out the arts, literature, and music eliminates a sizeable portion of our universe. As we determine societal priorities, we must focus on broad-based public education. Send your Congress person an email and steal liberally from this essay if you wish.

Let’s not stifle the next Leonardo, who may be fidgeting in a hot, overcrowded inner-city fourth grade classroom, contemplating how he or she can change the world.

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originally posted at doesthismakessense.com March 2011.  It has been updated.