December 28, 2006

No Schopenhauer please, I'm American

My 18-year-old son looked up from his Hegel, Kant and Schopenhauer and asked, “Mom, did you study philosophy in high school?” What could I say, but, “no”. I ran across a few philosophers in history or English courses, but no philosophy courses were offered. He shook his head in horror and disbelief…. Here I go again, defending my American education-based ignorance. No, I did not take Ancient Greek or even Latin (thrown out of the public school system in the post ’68 frenzy of “new ideas” only to be later reinstated as a “new idea”), not to mention philosophy. But I did get into a “top” college, which sounds like collegio, a high school level boarding school generally for students who cannot make it in the public school system due to behaviour problems. Liberal arts – with something called a “major” – not a real education filled with specific content.

Cultural Moment. I actually did have an education, liberal arts as it was, but the content was different because the aim was different (learning to think, communicate, analyze, solve problems etc) which serves the American need for future-oriented workers. The US has little need for content-laden cultural and historical background that ties you to the past. Onward we go, from the present to the future with lots of skills and entrepreneurial spirit, often based on scattered ad-hoc content.

Italians place importance on a mass of shared cultural information. This was essential at the time of the founding of modern education with the Gentile reforms of the 1930s. Italy was still a young country and it needed to have everyone on the same page – culturally, not emphasizing regional differences but national unity: common history, literature and roots that go back Ancient Rome. No room for fostering individualism, but unity in one national cultural background through education. As one reform falls to the wayside after another, this still holds true. Avanti I Promessi Sposi – the national novel.

I appreciate the wealth of content that my sons are receiving and the skills they are learning to be able to absorb this mass of information. I also appreciate the skills that I learned that allow me to absorb masses of information I encounter every day. In the end, both systems work.

I will get back to education another day – lots of interesting differences!

A presto,

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