Interview with Dr. Edwina Pendarvis (I): Anti-Intellectualism in US Schools
During such discussions on the differences between Chinese and American education, we interviewed Dr. Edwina Pendarvis for her input on what went wrong with the US education. Dr. Pendarvis is Professor Emeritus of Gifted Education at Marshall University and an Internationally recognized scholar of high-achieving students.
In the following interview, she shares her thoughts on the anti-intellectual tendency in US schools, roles teachers and parents could play and her experiences with Chinese and American students. From an expert’s angle, and her experience working with parents and teachers, she sheds new light on the US-China education debate.
Question: Would you mind telling us about your background?
Dr. Pendarvis: I started teaching as soon as I completed college, at 21 years old, and have been in the field of education ever since. At first I taught high school English, then after completing a master’s degree in gifted education, taught in a gifted resource room that included (at different times) students in kindergarten through middle school. I got a doctorate in special education (includes education of gifted children as well as children with learning, emotional, or physical problems). I worked as a state-level administrator in special education for several years, and then began teaching at the university level. At the university, I taught education courses and worked with parents of gifted children, as well as with schools, to design programs that would meet the learning needs of high ability students. At the university, for a year, I directed the honors program for high-achieving students at Marshall University. I’m a parent of two children, now grown. Most of my experience, both practical and in regard to research focuses on exceptionally bright students. It also focuses on rural and suburban schools. I have no experience with schools in large cities. Often the problems, and perhaps the strengths, of rural and suburban schools are different from those in urban areas.
Part I: Are US Students “Out of Their Minds”?
Question: You co-authored Out of Our Minds: Anti-Intellectualism and Talent Development in American Schooling. Would you mind elaborating on the “anti-intellectualism” tendency that happens in the US schools? Is this something that happens in higher education as well?
Dr. Pendarvis: Anti-intellectualism is a strong element in the culture of the United States. It permeates citizens’ lives in school and out. It has been written about often and has been attributed to many sources. Some see it as coming out of the origins of protestant religion, the religion that is most tied to capitalism, of course. This religion is highly egalitarian (it came about partly in reaction to the hierarchy of the Catholic church that grew so strong in the European middle ages) and regards one person (man, anyway) as completely equal to another. It is distrustful of any hierarchy, including that of seeing one person as smarter than another. It also distrusts logic and considers faith and feeling more important. When an argument is complex, it is often seen as sophistical, or deceptive. However, the roots of this anti-intellectualism go back to many sources. (Some universal, I think, and so I’m not saying that Americans are completely different, but only different in degree according to their different history.) Part of this anti-intellectualism also comes from the fact that so many early settlers in this country were poor and were escaping oppression, mostly not religious oppression, but class oppression. They were escaping, in general, people who were better educated and who used the law and its documents to take away what little poor people had. So, the settlers often had an ambivalent attitude toward writing and reading. In the beginning, many trusted only the Bible and thought reading was important only for reading that book. As they got more land and more settled, they valued reading and writing for practical reasons of owning property and keeping up with news on events. Few, however, found value in reading for understanding life or for the beauty of language and thoughts until the early 20th century.
Question: If the “protestant religion” is one of the possible causes to anti-intellectualism. Why did the best universities start with religious roots? Has the protestant religion played a positive role in the shaping of American education?)
Dr. Pendarvis: I’m not an expert on this, but I’ll say that my understanding is that the scholarly tradition of the middle ages was associated with Catholicism. Some of this tradition was carried on through the universities, which prepared clergy, both protestant and catholic. Though Protestantism rebelled against many aspects of Catholicism, it also grew out of it. However, Protestantism, especially as practiced in America and as it changed during the nineteenth century, became less and less interested in metaphysical and ethical argument and more committed to authenticity of feeling as a way of knowing. I’m especially attuned to this because of living in the Appalachian region, which was one of the major areas dominated by revivalism and fundamentalism. Preachers on the frontier here sometimes couldn’t read. Their education was less important than their oratory. This popular religious attitude has influenced public schools more than universities because it is also partly a class phenomenon. The people to subscribe to this common form of Protestantism were rural and small town mostly and often were poor and working-class. They didn’t usually attend universities. (Now more people subscribe to this form of religion, and also more people of the protestant religion attend universities because a university degree is becoming as necessary for a job as a high school degree used to be.) Anyway, yes, universities, were developed partly in response to religious denominations’ needs, including Protestant denominations, (and so have contributed positively to the US education system) but here, the intellectual elements of at least the Protestant religion have been pretty much overwhelmed, in my opinion by a seeking for consolation, affirmation, and community rather than for truth). I’m not saying this religion is the sole source of anti-intellectualism here in the US. All I’m saying is that it plays an important role in this trend to devalue and disparate intellect.
Our struggles to build a country are so recent and so physical that we’re not over it yet. With compulsory schooling, once it was widespread, came some efforts to develop individuals’ appreciation of wisdom and beauty. That was a luxury that could be afforded by then because people were more prosperous, in general than they’d been. Textbooks included poetry and stories that students enjoyed and, with poetry, often memorized. One school subject was considered about as important as another because the main point was getting a basic education that would prepare you for life, not for a particular job. It’s an over implication, but that was pretty much true until Sputnik in 1957! Then, of course, math and science became important because the US was afraid that the USSR would control the world if it controlled space. We developed excellent math and science programs at that time and during the 1960s. However, these programs were so demanding that teachers hated them. They blamed the students and said the programs were too hard for students. A lot of the problem, though, was that the math and science programs were more difficult to teach and were, in fact, more than the teachers felt capable of handling. Parents also didn’t understand the reasoning behind these difficult programs. They saw them as impractical and taking too long to teach. Perhaps, at this time, these programs should have been kept and provided only to the most talented and interested students. Instead, they were simply rejected. Schools went “back to the basics.” Also at this time, many students with learning and behavior problems were beginning to stay in school, more than in the past. Teaching them was harder than teaching more compliant and interested children. Textbooks were watered down and made much simpler. If you compare, for example, a fourth-grade textbook from the 1960s with one in the 1990s, you’ll see a big difference. The older one is much harder, but also more interesting in ideas.
This change affected average students, not just gifted ones. Average students didn’t have any trouble with those textbooks in the 1960s. But the “average” became lower over the years. I don’t want to give the impression that I think these students with disabilities were at fault. It’s the lack of attention to anything beyond the basics that is still the main problem. But what is basic has gotten much less challenging over the past half-century. Since the 1960s, college here has become more and more specialized and geared toward jobs. That’s understandable in view of global competition. I think one reason our universities are good is just the wealth of the country. We can afford excellent laboratories and libraries. There is a big difference between universities and the rest of public education. It is, in effect, education for keeping the country wealthy and powerful. K-12 education can no longer do this. Though many more students go to college here than in lots of other countries, it is still a small enough proportion and well funded enough that it can provide a comparatively more challenging education. It can’t completely overcome the deficits produced by the unchallenging nature of the K-12 schools, however. Many college students want to learn the bare minimum needed to make a decent grade and get a decent job. They’ve grown up distrusting complicated ideas and they often don’t want to hear them in college either, unless there’s a financial pay-off. Many students think their ideas are as good as those of their professors, though their professors may know a few more facts. Because professors aren’t wealthy, students don’t respect them much. The only worthwhile intelligence is intelligence that makes money, for the individual. Improving society isn’t regarded as a very important goal here. It goes back, in part, to the idea of the individual as the important unit, not family and certainly not society, even though we are taught to give lip service to the importance of benefiting society.
Our short-sightedness in focusing on the immediately practical and despising the intellectual results in impatience with difficult ideas. That, to me, is the reason for our relatively low achievement in higher mathematics and science. We may value them, but we undermine students’ ability to learn them well.
Question: In earlier correspondence, you mentioned that students in the US are not sufficiently challenged. Do you refer to the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) subjects that Compton was talking about? Are you referring mainly to gifted students, or any average students? Whose problem is it? Are there any solutions?
I’m referring not just to STEM subjects, but to all subjects and to students at all levels. As you can probably tell from my earlier answers, I see this as a problem that has cultural and economic roots. One of the things that worries me particularly right now is the fact that so many poor and rural children have so little access to computers. These children will grow up doomed to a separate life from the mainstream. Right now many poor rural children are living in “micro” economies that depend on barter, hunting, gardens, and/or crime to survive. This will become even more true if things continue as they are. The new basics should include the basics of computer use. Schools here usually talk about these as 21st century skills. Solving that problem won’t solve the problem of challenging average and high-achievers. I just mention it because it’s becoming so glaring a problem here.
I can’t recommend any far-reaching solutions because I think they will come about only through far-reaching cultural and economic changes. As far as small solutions that I have seen, I know that parents of high-achieving students acting together can change school curricula and programs to make them more challenging. Parents of gifted students in states that require IEPs (individual education plans) for gifted students (as all do for students with disabilitie) can also get more challenging programs for their children if they’re willing to make administrators and sometimes teachers angry with them. I’ve worked with many parents of gifted children who have done that. It is time-consuming for these parents and can sometimes be emotionally painful for them because of the attitudes of educators who often think the parents are too demanding.
In the next two installments, Dr. Pendarvis will be discussing possible strengths or weaknesses when US education is compared with the Chinese counterparts, as well as parent and student responsibilities in education. Stay tuned!
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