Traditions and Values in American Education

Traditions and Values in American Education

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Traditions and Values in American Education

The question of whether colleges and universities serve to pass on to students the great traditions and values of Western culture is one of many issues that I would like to discuss as it pertains to my high school teaching. The Presence of Others has given me the opportunity to read the opinions of several educational thinkers on this subject, and from them I have formed a clearer idea about the value of a broad education which would necessarily include the traditions and values of Western culture. To begin with, I should like to discuss Cardinal Newman, who in the 19th century argues for liberal studies because he felt that education is preparation for life. Its purpose is to train the mind for whatever problems arise in an individual's future by grounding him in cultural traditions and values. He describes a liberal education in the following way: "A habit of mind is formed which lasts through life, of which the attributes are, freedom, equitableness, calmness, or what in a former Discourse I have ventured to call a philosophical habit."(Lunsford & Ruszkiewicz 48). I very much agree with this idea. In my opinion a student should be educated broadly, not like me, for instance, who was very well trained in math but not prepared for anything else, and now I am finding it hard to fill in the empty spaces, but the need to know more and learn more is strong in me, so I keep trying. But the point is that even though I am educated, I feel ignorant . That's my reason for saying that students in high school and university should get a broad education. And I am happy that my children have not been trapped by a special talent as I was, and that they are interested in the every area of their education equally. They will be getting the education that I was denied; and they will learn the traditions and values through their history and literature classes, for example, which will better prepare them for life here in the United States especially, where citizens must be able to participate in the democratic process. I will use as an example my son Gagik, who was enrolled in the magnet law program at Monroe High School. But even though he wasn't in a mth program, neverthless, he was able to take higher math up through calculus.

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And now in his thrid year at the university he is majoring in mathematics and economics, which is some distance from law. I am very pleased that he was able to get other classes like history and math, which have made him so much more complete a person than he would have been studying only law. I also very much like Newman's idea "that all branches of knowledge are connected together" (Lunsford & Ruszkiewicz 46). His idea of "internal sympathy" (in the same passage), that each subject has something to give to other subjects is one that strikes a strong chord of recognition in me. For example, my students who have learned to analyze through math become more able to analyze in other courses such as history. Once they learn to analyze, to become analytical, further study in math is easier. And often a solution in math is comparable to something they have learned in chemistry, or if they do vectors in math, they will do better in physics. And conversely an English literature class, which exercises the student in analysis, gives him/her a better sense of the analytic process when he gets into math. Another example that comes to mind is my department chair, Bea Piper. She combines the talents of art and math. And it seems to me that her knowledge of the art of painting, as well as the history of art, has made her a much more rounded person than the typical math teacher.

And it may be a stretch, but I think this background makes her the able department chair that she is. Her interaction with both students and teachers shows a sensitive knowledge of human nature. And she seems to have a broad knowledge of western culture, extending even to eastern cultures such as Russia. She can talk about Shostakovich. That ability to me shows an interest in cultural values, which I think is reflected in her human relations. Another aspect of education that Newman's idea suggests to me is that a broad education exercises the brain from different sides, the right in liberal education subjects, and the left in scientific and mathematical subjects, and the consequence is that our students' brains get exercised in both branches of thought, which ideally will make them more rounded in their ability to solve problems. About 130 years after Neuman Jeffrey Hart seems to have similar ideas, but this time much more rigid, and I would say somewhat unfair. He's harsh when it comes to the "studies" he damns, such as "Nicaraguan Lesbian Literature"--or African Studies, which is more to the point (Lunsford and Ruszkiewicz 129). Nevertheless I do agree with him that students need a core education; they do need to know their history and they need to know what it is to be a citizen, first because, no matter what you will do later in life, the fact that you have been broadly educated, allows you to see the connections between your experiences in life.

And if a student knows his civilization, "he is able to locate new things," i.e., he is able to deal with the unknown, when he is well grounded in the known. The most important idea for me in Hart's essay (Lunsford and Ruszkiewicz 126-130) is that of directing students' choice of classes (the whole essay deals with this idea)iscusses thbecause I think that students in high school and even after as freshmen in the universities are confused about what classes they should take and end up taking classes out of order or classes not appropriate for their current goal . In contrast my high school and university experience was exactly what Hart describes as the ideal humanities education.

My every course was prescribed for me from the beginning, I was richly exposed to the main areas of study, in the sciences, chemistry, physics, mathematics, in the arts, literature, philosophy, history, music, and physical education. Unfortunately I was gifted enough in mathematics to be excused from performing in the other classes, so that I ended up with an excellent math background and ability and with a complete absence of knowledge in the other fields. Here might be an area that Mr. Hart overlooked: although his idea of a liberal education is an excellent thing, he doesn't tell us how one can get the student to understand that. If we work in a system like Hart's and add to it a method to make the students understand why they are learning in that particular system, the educational system should be perfect. To make sure that our students are taking the right classes, we need to lead them. Sometimes they are lost: they don't know where to go or what classes to take. So I think we should have a mandatory curriculum in the high school, where I am teaching, which will point the student to whatever kind of work or profession he feels inclined towards, and if he changes his mind, as high-school students often do, his curriculum will change accordingly. Of course, to be practical there must be an overlapping core for everyone, which we have more or less, so as to guide the student towards a diploma and not let him drift off in many directions which would preclude his graduation at an appropriate age. But Hart's idea that the student needs to be well grounded in a core knowledge of his culture ("When undergraduates encounter the material of our civilization--that is, the liberal arts--then they know that they are going somewhere. They are becoming citiizens." Lunsford & Ruszkiewicz 131) does not recognize the deep changes in our culture, especially since the periods that follow World War II. Our present culture makes more demands for a universal education and at the same time is experiencing a huge influx of immigrants, usually uneducated and often barely literate, who are automatically excluded because of the lack of background in those areas we expect them to have. These students would not only not know the answers to Hart's test questions for his students, they would not even know that they don't know. And that leads us to Mike Rose's idea that we need to account for these new social conditions in our culture and therefore in our schools. If he could be a successful student because of a clerical error, then all supposedly inept students, given the right conditions, can be successful too. He is shifting the grounds of discussion about educational philosopy from content to context by saying that often "a failed education is social more than intellectual" (Lundsford and Ruszkiewsicz 107) I don't think such a point of view could penetrate Mr. Hart's mindset. I think Rose is right about students' capacities. Student capacities are unlimited in my opinion. You just have to discover methods to reach them. When your expectations are low, the students' performance is low, but when your expectation is high, you can get much more from them; then you can get what might be called a full performance. From my experience when I teach the students on a level a little higher than that on which they are, they perform better. It's as if they become more responsible, even though they are scared. In fact I think their fear has something to do with their trying really hard, and so of course they get better results. Sometimes even they are surprised at what they can do.

It's my strong opinion that there is no stupid student. There's no necessity for an honors program. Every student can perform well if we find the way to teach them--unless a student has a learning disability. In fact that's what happened to Rose. Being in a high-level class brought out abilities he didn't know he had. And his experience prompted him to do the same for his students, to get out of them abilities that they didn't know they had Lundsford and Ruszkiewicz (105-118). Because I believe, like Rose, that there is much potential in every student, if they do not have a learning disability, right now I'm doing an experiment with my classes. They are all regular math classes, but I am teaching them using the honors program, and from their progress so far I believe they will succeed. Rose, being the child of immigrants, is naturally interested in the immigrant cultures pervading our society today. He says we need to bring this great body of students into the main culture by both exposing them to the traditional canon and widening the traditional canon to include such novelties as African studies and native Indian poetry. It's time for the canon to take diversity into account. As an Armenian I love traditions and I hold tight to my cultural values. In my culture the family is the center of our life. And respect for the parent is absolute. We are patriarchal and the youngest son is part of the father's home circle, and when the father dies, he becomes the head of the house. Within this system loyalty and respect are paramount. And I like that. I didn't learn these values at school. I learned them at home. But I would have learned values like these if I had had the opportunity given to me in my homeland schools. And now of course I am a strong proponent of the teaching of a traditional core within the educational system. However, diversity is here to stay, and we simply must now include its various aspects within our core of tradition. As a math teacher, I must recognize the variety of cultures represented in my classes and give them the respect they deserve. I think of a little Indian girl in my Algebra 1B class. When she first came, I noticed that when I asked her questions directly, she was quiet and embarrassed about answering questions in front of the class. If I had been less careful, I could have thought that she simply did not know anything about math. But when I talked to another teacher in my department, who was Indian herself, she explained to me that in India women don't talk. At that point I understood that that could be the reason for her silence, so I approached this student differently. I asked her to write her answers instead of responding orally. And sometimes I just talked to her after class, and I tried to make her feel comfortable. At the end of the year she was no longer afraid to answer questions out loud in front of the class. This experience is an example of how diversity enters into the classroom. And just as this personal anecdote illustrates the value of recognizing diversity in the classroom, so we must recognize diversity in the curriculum, even as we maintain our teaching of traditions, the backbone of any culture. The young Indian girl must come to understand such values as freedom and equality that we enjoy in this culture, hard won by America's cultural ancestors, Washington and Franklin, for example. She needs to know from the American literary past the problems faced and the knowledge gained from having faced them which America's great writers have so profoundly examined for us in its literature. And this exposure will help her to live a richer and more thoughtful life in this country. Yet if we are inclusive in our educational policy, she will be able, and I will be able too, to enjoy and preserve her own traditions and cultural values with the same respect that she (and I) will give to the traditions new to her (to me) in her (and my) new country.


Hart, Jeffrey. "How to Get a College Education." The Presence of Others. Eds. Andrea A. Lunsford & John J. Ruszkiewicz.

Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, C. 2000: 126-131. Newman, John Henry. "The Idea of a Univerisity." The Presence of Others. Eds. Andrea A. Lunsford & John J. Ruszkiewicz .

Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's C. 2000: 46-49. Rose, Mike. "Lives on the Boundary." The Presence of Others. C. 2000: 105-118.
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