David Steiner makes case for wisdom

Johns Hopkins University

Ask David Steiner why he wrote his latest book, Nation at Thought: Restoring Wisdom in America’s Schools, and he will get right to the point.

First, he says, education has lost its way. There has been a fundamental turning away from the academic core and a pursuit of proxies such as metacognitive skills for which there is weak research support. Second, what we offer is too often “mind-numbingly dull… students are just deeply bored.”

Third, the education system is fragmented. “If you wanted to design an education system for failure, what we’ve got is pretty close,” he says. There are parallel professional universes in the field—those of test design, curriculum design, and teacher preparation programs—that rarely speak to each other.

Last, he says, we’ve fooled ourselves into thinking that things are improving. GPAs and graduation rates have soared, but real academic results have not. “Dead flat,” Steiner says. “Instead, we now label as a success what we used to call failure.”

While the problems are pressing, the solutions are not so apparent. Thus Steiner, executive director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy at the School of Education, has written a book to provoke a national reassessment and a collective conversation about how to solve our educational crisis. In five neatly arranged chapters and in just 200 pages, Steiner makes the case for an education in wisdom.

“We need to provide a richer sense of education that addresses the human condition, one that isn’t afraid to teach the tragedies, the passions, the joys, the pains, the anguish, and the hopes.”

“We have not used wisdom in designing the education system. We’ve not used it as we have created a hierarchy of subject matters, nor in creating learning standards in the humanities that make reading into a repetitive chore,” Steiner says. “We’ve drained ethics and aesthetics out of our education system. We don’t teach students to think about how to live nor to appreciate what is beautiful.”

Steiner says the first solution is a return to academic excellence. Referencing the National Assessment of Education Progress, the “gold standard” of student evaluation, he notes that 12th grade American students are still within a point of where they were 20 years ago. More troubling, Steiner says, is that scores for wealthy white students are improving while those for underprivileged students—often of color—are declining. The average is flat, but the gap is widening.
“I think that we have we have also failed in the goal of equipping our children to make really exciting career and technical choices,” Steiner says. “In a place like Switzerland, once you pass a test in high school, you choose between a very attractive college track and a very compelling career technical track—there are real opportunities either way.”

By chapters four and five, Steiner is expounding on ways to inspire an exciting learning environment that instills the knowledge that will furnish students’ minds for a lifetime.

“We need to provide a richer sense of education that addresses the human condition, one that isn’t afraid to teach the tragedies, the passions, the joys, the pains, the anguish, and the hopes. To engage in what is worth making a part of the self,” Steiner says, calling for an educational system that asks big questions of children and helps them address them rigorously and deeply.

Steiner is fully aware that what he has proposed courts controversy, but he’s not afraid to accept that challenge. It is a book whose scope is wide and whose intended audience is not solely scholars.

“I hope for constructive disagreements,” Steiner says. “But I am convinced that we have stopped asking the fundamental questions about education. I’m hoping to reanimate us to do so, and to provoke. There’s not much advantage to being in your 60s if you can’t say what you believe.”

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