Thursday, August 16, 2007

Flat Worlds, Poison Toys, and Political Thinking

What happens when you depend upon businessmen to make educational decisions, businessmen whose prime motivation in life is the never-ending uptick in corporate quarterly earnings? You end up with a politically-and-artistically- denuded curriculum that's heavy on science, math, and technology--and short on everything else. Welcome to Achieve, Inc. and the Business Roundtable's new vision of the American high school.

When the world got flat, you see, the pedagogical braintrust, not at Teachers College, but the one at the U. S. Chamber of Commerce, made the determination that economics is the only social studies that matters in school anymore, and that if we need to emulate China's totalitarian tunnel vision in order to achieve its level of productivity, then so be it. Cardboard dumplings, poison toys, anti-freeze toothpaste, melamine animal feed, slave labor, environmental disaster, political repression? It's what maximum efficiency and amazing economic engines are built on, according to the Business Roundtable. China's your best example--nobody does it better.

I went in K-Mart the other day, and everything I picked up had an American brand and was made in China. I could not find anything not made in China. I wondered what cost-cutting poison was waiting to be brought home in these pillows and camp stoves, and I wondered how many workers died in forced labor camps in order to have this row of 40 gleaming bicycles, all under a hundred dollars. I finally found a shirt made in Nicaragua. I bought it and left.

Anyway, I found this interesting story today in the NY Times on some pedagogical developments in India that the geniuses at Achieve, Inc. probably haven't heard about, either. There, politics, real politics is being used in Indian high schools to teach and learn critical thinking. And students are eating it up. So, too, are their teachers. Maybe the world is not flat--maybe it never was.

A clip:

NEW DELHI, Aug. 14 — Quietly, a great upheaval is taking place inside Indian high schools.

For the first time, the messy brawl that is modern Indian politics, including some of its ugliest and most controversial episodes, is being taught in political science class. It is part of a broader revision of the school curriculum, with potentially long-lasting implications for how Indian children grasp the workings of their nation and its place in the world.

Using cartoons, newspaper clippings and questions that invite classroom debate on thorny contemporary issues, the new curriculum comes at a time when democracy has firmly rooted itself in Indian soil and is indeed one of the nation’s principal selling points as it tries to assert itself in the world. India marks the 60th anniversary of its independence from Britain on Wednesday.

“Sixty years after independence, it’s a statement of maturity of Indian democracy,” said Yogendra Yadav, one of the two chief advisers to the political science textbook committee. “This couldn’t have been written 30 years after independence. This probably couldn’t have been written 15 years ago.”

Shikha Chhabra, 16, offered an example from her new 12th-grade textbook, “Contemporary World Politics.”

She said she had always been taught that the nonaligned movement, in which India played a leading role during the cold war years and countries carved out at least a rhetorical policy of independence from both the Soviet Union and the United States, was “a wonderful thing.” The new textbook, she noticed, treats it differently. “Now they raise the question — does the nonaligned movement really apply in the world today? Was it just fence-sitting?”

She decided that it no longer applied, joining a contemporary hue and cry among politicians and political observers in this country about the merits of India’s new friendship with the United States. The class had a rich debate about the pros and cons of aligning with the Americans. It came during a chapter called “U.S. Hegemony in World Politics.”

“You do question what India’s strategy should be,” Ms. Chhabra said.

Her teacher, Abha Malik, head of the political science department at the Sanskriti School here, pounded on the textbook, which the National Council of Educational Research and Training, a government agency, rolled out four months ago for both public and private schools. “You can’t have a regular, regular class with this,” she said, beaming. “This book won’t let you sit still.”

In a country where rote learning has prevailed even at the most elite schools, the new emphasis on critical thinking signals a major shift in pedagogy. More striking is the substance of the new curriculum. Before, the emphasis in political science was on political theory. “This is realpolitik,” Ms. Malik said. . . .

Is "hegemony" on the vocabulary list of the Achieve curriculum? Didn't think so.

Posted previously at Schools Matter

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