I love skim milk. I crave its’ thin, watery consistency, that near ethereal bluish hue it imparts when poured fresh from the carton into a tall glass. If my stomach is giving me fits, I reach for a glass of milk. When hit by a sudden late-night craving, a simple cookie just won’t do; I must, must pair it with a tall, cold pale one. When asked what I miss the most when living overseas, “skim milk” is always my quick response. Sure, I can deal with the UHT boxes of “low fat” (read 2%) milk for my daily oatmeal but I complain bitterly and I never drink a glass of it, even if it’s super cold and I’m eating a cookie. I love skim milk that much.
Except, when I don’t. I don’t love skim milk in my tea; whole milk works but half and half is even better. I love dribbling thick cream over freshly picked, late-summer berries or gently folding whipped cream into a mess of melted chocolate for a quick yet devastating mousse. I would never consider making chocolate mouse or drinking my morning tea with skim milk, even though I can easily drink through a gallon or two a week if left to my own devices. You see, for me, milk is not merely a drink; it is a gastronomic delight that presents a myriad of culinary possibilities. How I choose to drink, eat, or cook with milk depends on my objective; it’s personal, evolving and at times, a highly creative act. Yet, for one of my best friends, milk is the enemy. She hates milk, would never drink a glass of it and begrudgingly adds a bit of half and half to her tea; skimmed milk is something incongruous with her reality. Perhaps this is why philosopher Mortimer Adler’s (1984) analogy equating the equality of educational treatment [of students] to filling them “to the brim with the same quality substance-cream of the highest attainable quality for all, not skimmed milk for some and cream for others” does not resonate with me. Quite simply, while I crave a glass of skimmed milk to sate my appetite, some people prefer the creaminess of whole or none at all.
It is a fundamental flaw to believe that the sameness of content equates to equality in education. Humans are uniquely human; we have hopes, desires, dreams and we arrive at a fundamental understanding of these urges at different seasons of our lives. While Adler speaks to an equality of opportunity, he acknowledges that inequality of results will occur due to “inequities in native endowment and inequalities in nurtural or environmental backgrounds”. This incongruence between equity in intent vs. equity in outcome is explained away as necessitating a measurement of accomplishment based upon “a proportional equality of results—a mastery of what is to be learned by all to an extent that is proportional to the individual measure of their capacity for achievement”. Isn’t this what is already occurring in American education, one group of students achieving at standard level (read White and Asian) with a substantial population of below standard performances (read Hispanic and Black students)? What about the large numbers of students that enter Grade 9 and never make it to graduation four years later? Adler believes that the educational system in the United States is elitist and suffers from a lack of basic education for all students and he’s right. One needs look no further than the National Center for Education Statistics to see the deep trouble that American education is in; according to the data released in November of 2012, our nation’s capitol failed to graduate forty-one percent of students that entered Washington DC schools as freshmen. According to PBS blogger Kelly Chen, “Black and Latino students continue to fall behind with 60 and 58 percent graduation rates, respectively”.
While Adler is not the only educational reformist to call for a “back to basics” sort of approach, his siren’s song of improving the quality and accessibility of education for all is compelling indeed. But is a program that sets “…the same educational objectives for all, calls for the employment of… a required curriculum for all, with the elimination of all particularized job-training and of all electives in the upper years” truly the path to equality in opportunity? Adler believes that quality of education is found through sameness, “They must all be given the same quality of schooling—schooling along one and the same track, both for those not going on to college and for those going further”. While Adler denigrates the elitism and I would further add irrelevance in much of present-day education, he proposes more of the same; an educational system that is rigidly focused on the philosophical perspective of perennialism, which according to the Oregon State department of education (ND) is a “demanding curriculum focuses on attaining cultural literacy, stressing students’ growth in enduring disciplines. The loftiest accomplishments of humankind are emphasized– the great works of literature and art, the laws or principles of science”. By eliminating job training and electives in the upper years, would we not further alienate students that feel school is not preparing them for the realities of life in a difficult economy where job skills and practical work experience are a must? Further, in a culturally diverse nation such as the US, whose cultural literacy, literature and works of art would we be teaching? As I glanced through the list on The Master Works of Western Civilization, I see a long list of dead white men and what appears to be a token nod to women’s contribution to literature with the novel Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte thrown in. Have woman only recently learned to write, and that is why they are not included on the Master Works list? Native and minority voices are utterly void of mention as well.
In the end, I must look to my personal experiences and connections with those around me for guidance in this question. I think about a conversation I had with a new hairdresser this past summer. When she learned that I was a teacher that was currently working on a M.Ed., she began talking about her own experiences in high school and the benefits of a decidedly non-higher education track. She shared that she knew she never wanted to attend college; she wanted to be a hairdresser and that was the goal she worked towards. Fortunately, her school offered a school-to-work program where she was able to take work-study classes, had job-release time that led her towards her goal. When she graduated from high school, she had already completed part of her training and was able to quickly move towards building a business. At 26, she has no student loans, is doing what she loves and is a productive citizen and credits it all to the opportunities provided her in high school, opportunities vastly different from what most of her friends chose. Has she read Goethe’s Faust? I doubt it, but does that mean she isn’t capable of embodying the three callings of American education, according to the Paideia principles:
(a) to earn a decent livelihood
(b) to be a good citizen of the nation and the world
(c) to make a good life for one’s self
My hairdresser commented on friends of hers that pursued a more academic track in high school, went to college or did not, and are struggling to find meaningful work that will support them and in some cases, their young families. While in her chair, we talked politics, the best way to raise a family (she’s expecting) and what makes life worthwhile. It was a lovely conversation.
In America, it is common to homogenize milk, a process described by wikipedia as an ” intensive blending of mutually related substances…to form a constant of different insoluble phases”. Milk from different dairies is mixed together “in order produce a more consistent raw milk prior to processing and to prevent or delay natural separation of cream from the rest of the emulsion. The fat in milk normally separates from the water and collects at the top”. There are advocates and detractors of the homogenization process and I will leave that argument for them. But just like milk, we all start as mutually related, yet different substances; we are uniquely human. Equity in opportunity doesn’t mean homogenization. We don’t all drink from the same cup, we don’t all prefer cream, nor are our vessels the same shape, color, or size; reaching one’s fullest potential is a much more complex, individual endeavor that requires personal buy-in and relevancy. As for me, I’ll stick to skim.
Adler, Mortimer. 1984. “Introduction” to The Paideia Program: An Educational Syllabus. Retrieved from https://bbweb-prod.spu.edu/courses/1/EDU6526_28255201232/content/_825513_1/Adler.pdf
Chen, Kelly. (November 30, 2012) Latest Release of U.S. High School Graduation Rates Still Preliminary. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/2012/11/latest-release-of-high-school-graduation-rates-still-too-preliminary.html
Philosophical Perspectives: Educational Philosophies. Retrieved from http://oregonstate.edu/instruct/ed416/PP3.html
The Master Works of Western Civilization. Retrieved from http://www2.latech.edu/~bmagee/201/great_books_etexts.html