In which McChesney explains why I hate math.

Media shapes our understanding of world events.  As McChesney argued, how media frames issues – what issues and actors it emphasizes, and more importantly, which it ignores – delineates our thinking  and influences whether constituents can practice true democracy.

[ Sidenote: The idea that Joe the Average American Plumber is not really qualified to pick his own leader is not a new one— the Founding Fathers constructed the electoral college to deal with this problem. ]

In class, we focused on McChesney’s argument that globalization and the consolidation of global media can threaten democracy on a global level.

I’m more interested in applying this idea of “framing” to another key culture-building institution, one often cited as playing a key role in the creation and  perpetuation of “national myths”—the education system.

In school we are taught not only subject matter which has been framed from a specific standpoint[i], and NOT taught key other information[ii] but other important lessons as well, like how to approach problem solving,  critical thinking, and what constitutes success.  All of these are filtered through the lens of the US Education system.

Education system has the same incentive for conservatism as media conglomerates- it is structured and run by people whose power is derived from the system they have created and take part in.  Any questioning of the system is also a questioning of themselves.  Additionally, the state relies on its education system to cultivate future citizens, and has no incentive to spur the growth of citizens with whose views it is not familiar.

Example of Differences in Framing: Algebra

In the United States, students are not introduced to algebraic concepts until 7th, 8th, or 9th grade.  According to a math-teacher friend, the use of variables is a radical concept that many students have a really hard time fitting into their view of mathematics.  Students keep trying to approach math as they have always done- and it just doesn’t work.[iii]

In CIS countries, you have a radically different story.  Elementary students as early as 2nd grade are taught algebra concepts as part of the normal curriculum.  The results of a different system for framing mathematics speak for themselves: in a comparison of top 12th grade advanced math students, Russian students scored second in the world.  US students scored 15th.

One author, John Taylor Gatto, argues in his book The Underground History of American Education that  “the historical argumentation for and structuring of contemporary schools is a project that has been fostered by the need in hierarchical societies for docile soldiers, workers, consumers, et al, at the service of warring rulers in Europe and industrialist capitalists in the US.”

Sound a little too conspiracy-theory whack-job-by for you?  Gatto won the New York State Teacher of the Year Award two years running.   He might be on to something.

So what does all this mean?  School systems have been consolidated for a long time, and have always shaped the lives and perspectives of those brought up through them- so is it more of a problem now?

1)      As national programs like No Child Left Behind go into effect, curriculums teach more towards a national standardized test.[iv]

2)      The idea that more exposure to viewpoints = more able to make decisions seems to imply that the “most qualified” students/future constituents are those who have had exposure to a variety of educational situations.  For example, international experiences might help to teach new thought processes, or participation in outside tutoring/education with non-traditional structure may help.  One thing’s for certain–  the predominance of students with access to such resources will be from upper-middle class families.

3)      The Bologna Process- which forces countries interested in joining the EU to switch education systems and standards- could have profound impacts on realms outside of education.

Just as media shapes our world-view, so education limits the way we structure our thought processes.  Implications of this  are broader than democracy.  Our competitiveness in the global workforce, as innovators, entrepreneurs and voters  is at stake.


[i] Thanksgiving Day Celebration, anyone?

[ii] Japanese Internment Camps, what are those?

[iii] Nobody report me- I didn’t get IRB approval for this interview!

[iv] I wonder if the adoption of the SAT impacted how math was taught in the US over the long-term?

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2 Responses to In which McChesney explains why I hate math.

  1. qiongxie says:

    I think this is a very interesting post. The way how you relate the media conglomerates to the structure of education system in US. Yes, every country has their own situations and the decision makers are also very diverse. I have to say we people are always bound to something, such as our school knowledge. If we students are taught by solving problems in a specific way, we are used to it. For some people, it is even hard to change if they do not have external resources. Or if they are more like doctrinaire people. The typical way for those people to defend against people who are against them, by saying “That is how I learned from school. Our teachers taught us to do it.” It sounds there is no alternative ways to tackle with problems.

    But as you said” the state relies on its education system to cultivate future citizens, and has no incentive to spur the growth of citizens with whose views it is not familiar”. So the schooling education seems to cultivate people to share the similar world view, culture. But if people go to different schools, for example, public school versus private school. They might have totally different experience. It is really depending on how people frame the curriculum and what the decision makers value about.

  2. jhenske says:

    Education is such a big mess in the United States. We hear “national standards” and immediately panic, assuming that any standardized approach to education will lead to its demise. But Russia’s education system is entirely standardized, and it is proving to be successful. If our education was proven to be the best, it would not matter whether it was entirely standardized system where every 6th grader in the country covered the exact same material at the same time on the same day or whether every school was completely different- a good education is a good education, and it is vital to maintain competitive in the global environment.

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