kitchen table math, the sequel: Intellectual DNA

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Intellectual DNA

I've just left a comment at Robert Pondiscio's post "In Defense of the Liberal Arts" at the Core Knowledge blog:
I had a revelation not too long ago re: the liberal arts disciplines (including math, science, philosophy, rhetoric).

The disciplines are the intellectual DNA of the professions.

Law and medicine are called the "liberal professions" because they derive from or are descended from the liberal arts disciplines. If you've had a liberal education, you're at a tremendous advantage when it comes to learning a liberal profession.

I've believed for some time nowbecause I think I've lived itthat a solid grounding in the liberal arts disciplines turns you into a fast learner in the world of work. Siegfried Engelmann has a terrific new article out on the ways in which teaching to mastery increases the speed of learning. A central reason why disadvantaged children are slower learners when they begin school than advantaged children is that they lack the prior knowledge middle and upper-middle class parents take for granted.

It seems likely to me that, for adults, a liberal education is the equivalent of the "prior knowledge" advantaged children bring to Kindergarten. A student who graduates college with a "survey" knowledge of the liberal arts disciplines combined with a major in one discipline brings a vast store of prior knowledge to the world of work (and family & politics & religion)
I'll get passages from Engelmann's article posted soon, I hope.


Barry Garelick said...

I left one too. It's awaiting moderation by the Core Knowledge politburo. It was in response to Pondiscio dissing the use of the words "skills" as in those that are transferable, and stating he was more comfortable with "habits of mind" instead. Others echoed his sentiment. My comment follows:

I have a knee-jerk reaction to the term "habits of mind" primarily because the way that term is used in ed school (which I've attended recently) is pretty much as Chester Finn describes it in his "conversation" with Deborah Meier in the Sprin 09 Education Next. Specifically, he says:

"Let me note, finally, that I’m unimpressed by Meier’s “habits of mind” alternative to content (see below). It’s wonderfully seductive, but the serious psychologists with whose work I’m acquainted (see, for example, “Reframing the Mind,” check the facts, Summer 2004) don’t put much stock in this Howard Gardner–originated proposition that youngsters can learn skills devoid of content. It’s the absence of essential core content from her view of schooling that lies at the heart of our curricular disagreement."

His reference to "Reframining the Mind" is an article by Dan Willingham.

I recently took a math teaching methods course in which one of the textbooks we had to read talked about "habits of mind". I believe habits of mind develop by working with the material (like algebra) and developing algorithmic and analytic habits that are appropriate in the context of what is being taught. The textbook, however, advised learning certain "algebraic" ways of thinking in 6th or 7th pre-algebra classes, before students actually are given the symbolic manipulation tools that would make development of such habits of mind do-able. Kind of like learning German by speaking English using German constructions; e.g., "I know that he the book not read has." All you need then is the vocabulary since the habits are already in place.

In other words, no habits of mind before their time.

Paul B said...

Exactly right about all those little 'insignificant' things adding up to a tremendous disadvantage if you don't have them. I remember old report cards with 8 or so different 'subjects'. This was the norm from K-12 but now we have three plus 'specials'. Perhaps we've really blown away the most important building blocks.

I've written about a personal reflection on such
connections and after reading this post it seems relevant. You might enjoy it.

RPondiscio said...

Barry, my reaction to "transferable skills" is precisely the same as yours to "habits of mind." The skills vs. content debate is, to my mind, one of the most serious threats to education around. I would bet more than nine out of ten teachers agree with the statement "it's more important to teach children transferable skills like problem solving and and critical thinking than specific content." No matter that it's not possible to *transfer skills* from one domain to another.

I tend to think that what makes the beneficiaries of a broad, liberal arts education adaptable to many professions is that they have lots of prior knowledge for new information and training to stick to. Thus, I like Catherine's DNA metaphor.

And Barry, as a side note, I'm considering changing my name to Robert Politburo. It's catchy. Thanks for the idea.


Barry Garelick said...


As long as the politburo agrees in principle, that's all that matters.

A rose by any other name is "teaching problem solving and critical thinking skills". Saying it without vomiting requires another type of skill, however.

Catherine Johnson said...

I'm going to start collecting examples of liberal education helping in 21st century life.

One example: school district politics.

Believe it or not.

parents need a unionhow to change the system

Paul B said...

Here's one to get your collection seeded.

Rhetoric 101:

How to spot a strawman; one of the nastiest and lowly tricks of the 21st century politician.

To do so requires that you be fully aware of historical fact, else you are at the mercy of obtaining your factual knowledge from the straw argument. Since we are in the century of ignorant journalists it's not sufficient to rely on media to do your analysis.

Catherine Johnson said...

Paul - can you give an example? (Not questioning you - but we need an example to make this 'stick.')

Catherine Johnson said...

I've written about this before: my liberal arts degree was enormously helpful in dealing with my children's autism. The biology & psychology courses I took were sufficient foundation for me to be able to learn what I needed to learn about the brain, neurology, & psychiatry to semi-understand my kids & make reasonable decisions about their education, medical treatment, etc.

Catherine Johnson said...

My lack of mathematical knowledge has been a handicap when it came to finances.

Catherine Johnson said...

History and math are the enormous gaping holes in my education.

Ed has been saying lately that he wishes he knew more about political science (not game theory but old-fashioned poli sci...)

concernedCTparent said...

This morning I finally picked up my copy of Powers of the Mind: The Reinvention of Liberal Learning in America by Donald N. Levine (purchased upon recommendation of Palisadesk) and read this:

"[L]iberal education concerns what is arguably the most important of all human goods-- the wherewithal for leading good lives as human beings and citizens-- and questions of education figure among the most complex of all human problems."

And that was just in the prologue.

I can't wait to read more and then follow up that books with The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, & Rhetoric which if memory serves, was recommended by Myrtle way back when.

You and Allison were certainly on to something, Catherine. KTM is very much carrying out the role of the monks in the middle ages-- preserving knowledge. Most of my favorite books lately have been recommended right here on the pages of KTM.

Thank you!

Paul B said...


Pick the latest speech of the POTUS. He's a master at the device.

Anonymous said...

I just read Susan Wise Bauer's The Well-Trained Mind, also on classical/liberal education. It's a great resource (not just for homeschoolers) and a new edition is due out soon. The website and links are equally good.

concernedCTparent said...

The new edition is available now. The substance hasn't changed significantly from the earlier edition (as expected), but some of the recommended texts and curricula have been updated. For my two younger children, The Well Trained Mind curricula (Writing With Ease and First Language Lessons) have been a great addition as well.

It's certainly a good resource for any parent (not just homeschoolers) who wishes to augment their child's studies whether by afterschooling or summer studies.