My view: History, literature, civics and arts on the chopping block
Students read in the library of the Technische Universitaet in Berlin in 2012.
June 26th, 2013
05:00 AM ET

My view: History, literature, civics and arts on the chopping block

By Julian Zelizer, CNN contributor

Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "Governing America."

(CNN) - Everyone talks about our broken political system. Washington is too polarized. Money dominates politics. Politicians don't know how to lead. Citizens are not as attentive to governance and public policy as they should be. Americans either ignore politics or see it is one more form of entertainment, "American Idol" on steroids.

As a result, politicians get away with all kinds of misstatements and truths, in part because the electorate is so gullible.

How do we make our democracy work better?

Political reform will be essential to making sure that our institutions operate effectively. The news media needs to do a better job of separating truth from fiction and backing away from the increasingly partisan outlook of journalism. Civic organizations need to do more to make sure that voters are active in politics and, at a minimum, that they actually vote on Election Day.

But education is also going to be a key part of the equation. The way in which we teach our citizens in schools and colleges is how we shape our electorate from a very young age. If we do not do a good job imparting the basics that are needed to be virtuous members of our democracy, the system will never be repaired.

Unfortunately, there is some bad news on this front. A recent study by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences sounded the alarm that vital subjects such as history, literature, language, civics and the arts are in trouble.

According to the report, the percentage of students majoring in the humanities has dropped in half, falling from 14 in 1966 to 7 in 2012. In 2010, only 45% of high school students were able to demonstrate a basic understanding of U.S. history.

Read Zelizer's full column

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My View: Everything I need to know, I learned in music class
Music education isn't just learning Mozart, Andrew Schwartz writes: "It’s about learning how to think, rather than what to think."
March 20th, 2013
05:00 AM ET

My View: Everything I need to know, I learned in music class

By Andrew Schwartz, Special to CNNAndrew Schwartz

Editor’s note: Tuba player Andrew Schwartz holds a bachelor’s of music from the University of Hartford. He did graduate work at The Manhattan School of Music and is working on an MBA at Georgia State University’s Robinson College of Business, where he is president-elect of the Graduate Business Association. He is an intern at Atlanta-based music startup Tunefruit. Schwartz's story first appeared on CNN iReport.

(CNN) - It’s no secret that education in America is broken. We can’t define a good school, let alone figure out a way to measure success. Yet when money is tight, as it is right now because of the forced budget cuts, the first thing to be cut is always the arts. And that’s a tragedy.

I spent six years in music school before making a switch to business school. I was convinced that I was going to be a musician. I loved music. I was good at it, and I was willing to do anything to get to the top. But then I realized that, even at the top of the music game, the job security isn’t there. So I dropped out of grad school and am now earning an MBA.

But through that transition, I’ve realized why music needs to be a cornerstone of education. Music is an art and a science, and it's one of the best ways kids can learn  creativity and those mythical critical thinking skills. The focus of the curriculum isn’t forcing everyone to learn about Bach or Mozart. It’s about learning how to think, rather than what to think.

READ: Forced spending cuts slash hope for teachers

That “how” is the holy grail of education. It’s exactly what makes a good scientist, a good entrepreneur or a productive member of society. I don’t play the tuba anymore, but I think the lessons I learned from it are actually more ingrained into me now that I have some distance from the actual medium I learned them in. Here is just a portion of the many life lessons I learned through music:

Work hard and it pays off
This one came early on in my short-lived musical career. I wasn’t a very good musician when I first started out. It was obvious why: I only practiced an hour a day. But Katie down the street practiced four hours a day. My solution was to kick it up to six hours a day until I was just as good as she was. I had to make up for lost time, and I soon overtook her.

Make it happen
An amazing musician once said to me: “Make it happen."

There will always be obstacles in your way. My junior year in college, my quartet was making a recording for an international tuba competition. (Seriously.) It seemed almost impossible for us to get together to record, but we found one time: 10:00 p.m. on a Thursday. We had all been in class since about 8 a.m., and I had a serious sinus infection. It might have been the coffee and more meds than a doctor would recommend, but I’m convinced that these simple words cleared my head and allowed me to power through the pain and exhaustion. We made the semifinals.

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My View: Governors, stop bashing liberal arts
Students attend New York University's commencement at Yankee Stadium in May 2012. The jobless rate for grads is 8.9%.
February 21st, 2013
04:00 AM ET

My View: Governors, stop bashing liberal arts

LZ GrandersonBy LZ Granderson, CNN contributor

Editor's note: LZ Granderson, who writes a weekly column for CNN.com, was named journalist of the year by the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association and is a 2011 Online Journalism Award finalist for commentary. He is a senior writer and columnist for ESPN the Magazine and ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter: @locs_n_laughs.

(CNN) - It seems everyone knows a college degree is important but few have a plan to keep it affordable.Just this past academic year, tuition went up twice as fast as inflation and the cost of textbooks rose faster than tuition. Meanwhile, The New York Times recently reported that "wages have fallen to a record low as a share of America's gross domestic product."As a result, the average 2011 graduate left school with $26,600 in student loan debt, helping to push the country's total student loan debt past $1 trillion.

Combine that with an unemployment rate for recent college graduates of 8.9%, and you see the impetus behind the First World question du jour - "Is college really worth it?" That's a question that is easily answered by the 23% unemployment rate for folks without a bachelor's.

Still, the threat of leaving school with crippling loan payments does bring up a more valid question: Should students continue to take out huge loans to pursue majors that don't have a clear path to paying that loan back? In other words, a job?

In an ironic showing of big government, Florida Gov. Rick Scott and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, both conservatives, decided to introduce plans in which state institutions charge less for STEM degrees (science, technology, engineering and math) than liberal arts degrees.

"We're spending a lot of money on education, and when you look at the results, it's not great," Scott told a crowd in Tallahassee in 2011. "Do you want to use your tax money to educate more people who can't get jobs in anthropology? I don't."

That's a pretty good zinger but it doesn't pass the smell test.

First of all - to borrow language from the GOP script - I don't think the government should be picking winners and losers. And state officials massaging tuition costs to lure students away from fields they don't approve of does just that.

There is a difference between an education and training. Just because the vocational outcome between the two might be different doesn't mean it's government's role to assign its value to society.

Not to mention the initial outcomes are not always black and white.

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My View: Hear the music - STEM studies aren't the only path to a better future
Abington Avenue School jazz band students in Newark, New Jersey, learn music through the Jazz House Kids program
January 22nd, 2013
05:00 AM ET

My View: Hear the music - STEM studies aren't the only path to a better future

Courtesy Peter Smagorinsky and BootsyBy Peter Smagorinsky, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Peter Smagorinsky is a Distinguished Research Professor of English Education in the University of Georgia College of Education’s Department of Language and Literacy Education.

(CNN) - “Do you want to use your tax dollars to educate more people who can’t get jobs in anthropology? I don’t.”

Florida Gov. Rick Scott , October 2011

Scott, in this statement, articulates a belief held by many: that education is an entirely pragmatic experience. If a course of study does not produce a useful trade or skill, then it is of little value. What, after all, has anthropology ever done to improve the human condition, except to help us understand our past, perhaps so that we won’t repeat its errors?

Here’s an error you can dig into (if you’re an anthropologist, or perhaps a structural engineer): Dating back to at least the ancient era, when I was a schoolboy in Alexandria, Virginia, people have believed that school-based arts and music programs are frivolous extras that should be the first items on the financial chopping block when budgets are tight. Who actually becomes an artist or musician? Why support a curriculum that doesn’t directly lead to employment?

In Florida, this idea is now realized in a plan to charge engineering majors less for their tuition than English majors, because the technological revolution requires graduates in science, technology, engineering and math, not people who can read poems and write papers about them. I have not yet seen what the Florida plan provides for music majors, but I suspect that soon they’ll be paying a lot more for their courses than even those effete English majors. (Full disclosure: I was an English major at Kenyon College and got a master’s and doctorate in English education at the University of Chicago.)

The science class of the (not too distant) future

Education in Rick Scott’s sense is entirely utilitarian. The arts has traditionally been defended on aesthetic grounds because of their contribution to truth, beauty, goodness, and the human spirit, as people like Howard Gardner of Harvard University have long asserted. The aesthetic argument has rarely successfully challenged the pragmatic argument because the premises follow from such different assumptions, and because utilitarian premises are impervious to appeals to beauty. If you don’t believe me, go to Moscow and gaze upon the Soviet-era architecture, which is all business and no pleasure. And it’s plug-ugly.

I contend, though, that music’s inclusion in the curriculum can be defended entirely on utilitarian grounds. Music has often provided the social updraft that gives young people a worthwhile activity through which they can find a way to succeed in mainstream life. School music programs in this sense are cost-effective and of great long-term value to society, rather than serving as a wasteful distraction to the real business of education, which is to produce today’s workforce. Or so Gov. Scott would have us believe.

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My View: What will you do with an English degree? Plenty
He's now Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In grad school? He studied literature -- W. B. Yeats, to be exact.
January 4th, 2013
12:41 PM ET

My View: What will you do with an English degree? Plenty

Courtesy Michael BérubéBy Michael Bérubé, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Michael Bérubé is the Edwin Erle Sparks Professor and director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at Pennsylvania State University, and the 2012 president of the Modern Language Association.

(CNN) - Almost every college student who considers majoring in English - or French, or philosophy, or art history - inevitably hears the question: "What in the world are you going to do with that?" The question can come from worried parents, perplexed relatives, or derisive, incredulous peers, but it always implies that degrees in the humanities are “boutique” degrees, nice ornaments that serve no practical purpose in the real world. After all, who needs another 50-page honors project on the poetry of Charles Baudelaire?

Well, strange as it may sound, if you’re an employer who needs smart, creative workers, a 50-page honors project on a 19th century French poet might be just the thing you want to see from one of your job applicants. Not because you’re going to ask him or her to interpret any poetry on the job, but because you may be asking him or her, at some point, to deal with complex material that requires intense concentration - and to write a persuasive account of what it all means. And you may find that the humanities major with extensive college experience in dealing with complex material handles the challenge better - more comprehensively, more imaginatively - than the business or finance major who assumed that her degree was all she needed to earn a place in your company.

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