In The New York Times for Feb. 5, 2015, Andrew Hacker offered this: I'll give you my definition of education: 17 years of sustained sitting." He was challenging the importance of teaching math to high school students.
He ignores how math might be considered an abstract form of human reasoning, crucial to much of our intellectual development. Math introduces young people to a life of the mind.
So did the courses I taught in AP and grade level English. I've recently published a book, in two volumes, asserting, as I demonstrated in my classes, that young people can engage with intellectual matters during this time in their lives.
The State Board of Education for DC is now considering allowing students to test out of any high school class, and receive credit towards graduation, as if they have actually taken the course. Here is what I said at the hearing on this proposed measure:
In my 17 years of teaching AP and grade level English in DC, I thought a great deal about the process of educating young people in high school. I’ve written a book, in two volumes, about this topic. I am here to tell you two things from my experience in the classroom. One: it does not have to be a waste of time for young people to be in a high school class. Two: any test can’t really measure what a student knows of a subject in the humanities.
It is quite possible to engage actively and meaningfully with high school students about real ideas. Genuine education can happen. That’s what I did in my classroom. That’s the premise of my two volumes. Young people are vulnerable, curious, eager to know about themselves and the world around them. We educators ought not to disregard this precious time in their lives.
This is an opportunity to teach them, not put them in front of a computer and take a test, or do a project, in lieu of a classroom experience over months. In a well-taught course, they would engage with the literature or history or government or art familiar to the educated adults we call teachers. They ought then to discuss what they’re learning with their fellow students. Students need practice encountering new ideas, and articulating their own, either verbally or in their written work.
They need to encounter, over the course of a semester or a year, with what citizenship means, what love may require of them, what work is worth doing, what kindness involves, why someone would willingly starve to write a poem, paint a picture. This is the time in the life of young people when they can begin to consider how other people who came before them contended with humanity’s problems.
As a teacher, I sought for my students to read Romeo and Juliet and then cry at the end. Or read about the agony that is Haiti, or police brutality in America, or understand the interminable mendacity of those in authority. In these studies, they may find for themselves a lifetime of work and devotion.
Tests can’t measure this process of real understanding of the world. Or themselves. Only a class, stretching over a semester or a year, can engage young people in this manner.