Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Content and Curriculum

Question - Who is Samuel Gompers?

Answer - Who the heck cares?

As first semester comes to a close, and our students drag themselves through the gauntlet of final exams, I am once again troubled by the nature of arbitrary knowledge. The study guides with extensive lists of terms for objective tests evaluating skills of rote memorization are fodder for criticism whenever we truly wonder what students - even people - really need to know. So, as students cram names of figures from American history into their heads for a short time, I challenge the significance of a name. No one needs to know who Samuel Gompers is, or was, any more than he needs to know about the struggles of Ralph and Piggy or Elizabeth Bennett. Certainly, society will survive if the function of the dorsal lateral pre-fontal lobe or the square root of one-hundred forty four is lost on most people. So, what are we really trying to accomplish.

Arguably, it comes down to a simple reality of education - people use existing knowledge to make sense of new information. Thus, the more information a student has in his head, the more extensively he will be able to attack more complex problems. Higher level critical thinking is easier and more effective when the mind has a vast store of comparisons and contrasts and scenarios from which to draw. Clearly, as a colleague argues to me, Samuel Gompers is quite significant to my situation as an employed middle class American. His contributions to society continue to reverberate. And, familiarity with the situations of Ralph, Piggy, and Elizabeth can have significant impact on the decisions students make later in life as voters, parents, employees, and citizens. So, it all has significance in some way. But the arbitrary way in which it is presented and evaluated will always be troubling to me.

Gompers, by the way, was the founder of the American Federation of Labor.

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