Anti-Intellectual Education

Eons ago — last week, that is — there was a lively (one of my favorite euphemistic words) debate at Read Roger provoked by a teacher’s Holocaust unit . “What bothers me the most about this project is its profound anti-intellectualism.” wrote Roger. Since I heartily agreed with him, I was very glad to come across Nel Noddings’ Education Week article, “The New Anti-Intellectualism in America.”

Noddings writes about the “fake academic courses” that now exist, courses that make it seem as if students are studying more rigorously, but really aren’t. For example, she writes of math classes where no word problems or proofs are done — critical activities for students to truly understand and not just do rote memorization for tests. While, Noddings notes, they end up with algebra and geometry on their transcripts, what they really have had is “… pseudo-algebra and pseudo-geometry. This is pedagogical fraud, and such students are doubly cheated.”

The tremendous emphasis on specific learning objectives also, Noddings feels, “…works against the development of intellectual habits of mind.” Reducing what students are to learn to a list of outcomes only encourages them to memorize material for tests and then immediately forget it. Sadly, more complex thinking, learning for learning’s sake, the flexing of intellectual muscles — none of that is the goal. As a result, “Students come to expect that they should have answers at their fingertips instead of developing an attitude of inquiry—one of willingness to figure things out.” writes Noddings.

Intellectual education is about struggling to think. It is about messing around with ideas. About grappling with stuff that doesn’t fit easily and tidily into one neatly expressed statement. To me, that is what learning is all about and my heart goes out to those students not getting it. Ends Nodding, “Intellectual life is challenging, enormously diverse, and rewarding. It requires initiative and independent thinking, not the tedious following of orders. It should not be reduced to mental drudgery.” Indeed it should not.


Filed under Teaching

2 responses to “Anti-Intellectual Education

  1. Ain’t it hard to think when all one can think about is how well will I do on the dreaded TEST!!!

    I couldn’t agree with you more. Education is about struggling to think. What a radical concept. It is also about participating in the decisions that have an important effect on about what one thinks. Enough pseudo-education for sure.


  2. I was listening to an NPR commentary by Andrew Rotherham last week which I found to be infuriating.

    In this piece, Rotherham argues that the “educational establishment” is against NCLB because they (we) are being held accountable. What he doesn’t understand is what good teachers everywhere already know. When you reduce what you want students to learn down to what can be assessed cheaply in multiple choice format, much is lost.


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