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How the Conservative Worldview Quashes Critical Thinking -- and What That Means For Our Kids' Future

The education of our children is a core cultural and political choice that reflects the deepest differences between liberals and conservatives.

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Getting Back to a Liberal Education

Once you understand how very different our underlying worldviews are, the things we need to do to preserve our idea of a progressive, empowering education become far more clear. And once we've gotten a firmer grasp on what our own values demand on this issue, the easier it will be to talk about our vision of what American education should be.

Some examples:

Tests are valuable. They give teachers useful feedback about where each kid is, and what can be done to improve his or her progress. But they are only a means to an end – and the end should be a comprehensive, appropriate education. Only totalitarians who reject our democratic goals and values can possibly believe that tests are ends in themselves. There is no such thing as one-size-fits-all education, and no student's potential can ever be described by a single number.

The same applies to teachers. In a democracy, we find competent people, and then we trust them to do the right thing until they've shown us they can't. Teachers deserve at least this much from us. The grinding, constant oversight is an authoritarian response that de-professionalizes and demoralizes smart people. The metrics used to reward and promote them should reflect the full range of skills they bring to their work, and the actual difference they make in the lives of their students. Let's make it easy for really talented people to love this job -- and then let them do it.

The arts, crafts and humanities matter. From kindergarten through college, we've seen 25 years of deep cuts in music, art, lab science, foreign language, school papers, drama departments, sports programs, home economics, and shop class. All these classes have one thing in common: they're the hands-on subjects where kids spend the most time thinking independently, exploring their own creativity, experiencing themselves as productive and competent, and gaining confidence in useful real-world life skills.

What they learn in these classes doesn't show up in test scores. But these lessons yield adults who can take care of themselves in a wide range of situations. You may never use a quadratic equation again for the rest of your days, but no matter where you're headed, your life will be forever richer if you know how to informally test an idea, play on a team, make a satisfying dinner, speak some basic Spanish, handle a wrench and a drill, and write an engaging narrative on a subject you care about.

Teamwork matters. The cooperative skills we learn while playing sports, making music, or doing a class project with friends are essential to economic survival in an increasingly interdependent world. High-stakes testing reinforces the conservative message that you're on your own -- and will rise or fall on your own merit, as defined by external authorities who grade the tests. But a truly progressive education focuses on teaching kids to work together, build relationships, and draw their sense of self-worth from their ability to make strong contributions to the group. In the years ahead, which one of these people would you rather be sitting across the table from at a city planning meeting?

College isn't just about job prep. It's about developing the leaders who will set the standards for our entire culture. When we short-change students on the liberal arts curriculum, we are dooming the next generation to be led by people whose perspective, vision, flexibility, insight, and compassion aren't up to the highest standards. If we want our nation to be better, we need to train better minds -- and for thousands of years, a firm grounding in the arts and humanities have been the main way civilizations around the world have always developed this talent.

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