By Jim Mamer

I read this wonderful column about a week ago, but I didn’t write a comment because I couldn’t think of anything to add. I might simply have written “thanks for the beautiful column” but that would have been a very limited and personal message based on my 35 years of teaching history, politics and economics in California high schools, where my primary mission, even when it was not precisely defined, was just what Mr. Hedges articulated in a few short sentences: “Education is not only about knowledge. It is about inspiration. It is about passion. It is about the belief that what we do in life matters. It is about moral choice. It is about taking nothing for granted. It is about challenging assumptions and suppositions. It is about truth and justice. It is about learning how to think.”

Then, on July 24, I read a column in The New York Times titled “Teaching Social Skills to Improve Grades and Lives.” Who could disagree with helping children to develop better social skills? But in midcolumn I ran across this: “This year, researchers from Teachers College at Columbia University did some number crunching to estimate the economic value of six different social and emotional learning programs that had strong track records. They looked at the programs’ impact on things like future wages and social costs and found that the programs yielded an average return of $11 for each dollar invested.”

Alarmingly, we have come to a point where helping children develop healthy social skills needs to be justified by linking it to some “economic value.” This obsession with “economic value” comes at a terrible cost, one that leads to an institutional devaluation of humanities and an institutional glorification of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). It has led to simplistic metrics developed under No Child Left Behind (and Race to The Top), meant to hold teachers and schools “accountable” on the basis of one-dimensional student scores on state tests.

I’m not being naive. I recognize that students grow up and need good jobs. I recognize that schools and universities have important roles to play. Tests can be useful. Writing essays can be useful. Math is important. Certainly schools need to teach those skills, but, more important, schools need to understand that and we must insist that—as Coleman Brown knew and as Chris Hedges wrote—education is not only about knowledge. It can be about math and science and language. It can be about Shakespeare and Dostoevsky. It can be about Paul Tillich and Virginia Woolf. It can be about the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, the struggles of Frederick Douglass and the prose of Graham Greene. But it must be about the belief that what we do in life matters. It must be about inspiration and passion. It must be about the necessity of moral choice. It cannot be, and should never be, “number crunched” into specific dollar yields linked to specific dollars invested.

So thank you, Chris Hedges, for a beautiful column. And thank you for sharing with us the life and wisdom of Coleman Brown.

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