Elementary schools deliberately fail to teach knowledge, hurting their most vulnerable students.
This philosophy of education also prevails in some precincts of higher education. Especially in fields where academics teach radical politics in the guise of "critical thinking," conveying content that would make students conversant with knowledge in a field is widely considered to constitute bad teaching. So in addition to imagining elementary school kids being subjected to the kind of instruction Wexler describes, imagine college students who don't know how market systems work sitting in a circle and describing the ill effects of neoliberalism. Or imagine those same students not understanding how American political institutions work but earning top grades for identifying the multiple forms of oppression inherent in liberal democratic forms of government.
Heartbreaking. Wexler does an excellent job explaining a real problem. It brings to mind something I learned in grad school. Children exhibit enormous curiosity prior to starting school. If I recall correctly, curiosity levels plumment by almost half after the first year of full-day schooling and continue do drop by half with every passing year spent in the classroom. Perhaps there's no way to educate people in this society without sacrificing a bit of our children's curiosity, but that violation of spirit can be so frequent and severe that its consequences last a lifetime... even generations. We ought to try alternate approches, like phonix and "in context" learning, as Wexler suggests.
In high schools, I think we should be teaching more from the Western cannon than we are currently. I'm not a purist about it, but I know how rich an experience it can be to read works with compelling, youthful, yet timeless themes, like Romeo and Juliet. I've taught it to kids of wildly different backgrounds and it made no difference. More than any work I've taught, it inspires the most kids to stretch to the point of success. They feel proud when they begin to understand it, and accomplished when they're done in the way that only positive growth affords.
We need to make learning relevant by meeting students where they are with respect to universal themes relating to their stage of social and emotional development. That can be done in part by paying enough attention to students to know what they're curious and hopeful about, and by choosing appropriate, relevant, and challenging material.
I can't help but think of the evolutionary environment. Children were immersed in a culture that taught them directly relevant knowledge and skills. They learned by watching, listening and doing. They were constantly surrounded by adults interested in their progress - for it meant long-term survival for them all. Modern teachers are asked to fill the void of that lost cultural context, to patch meaning together out of materials from the ether. That's asking too much. What's the answer? Perhaps there isn't one.