Revisiting “E-Literacy.”

As much as I hate to admit it, there are some who would disagree with my take on the sad state of affairs in the world of American education. Indeed, there are a great many people — some of whom write books and many others who teach in that world — who insist that things couldn’t be better. They love the kids and they love the way things are going. They explain away the wealth of data that show that the kids are not learning anything with the claim that the tests are simply archaic and don’t register the intellectual skills the kids in the millennial generation are acquiring with their electronic toys. Indeed, many of them think the schools themselves are archaic and the kids are learning what they really need to know to get along in tomorrow’s world OUTSIDE of school, with those toys. While there are those of us who would insist that the toys are rotting the kids’ brains (as I have said in an earlier blog), there are a great many people who defend the toys and insist that the kids will save the world with the digital facility and e-literacy they are acquiring with those very toys.

In fact, in 2005 Randy Bomer of the National Council of Teachers of English (!) attacked as too narrow a study called the American Diploma Project that was designed to help design curricula that would assist young people become better prepared for work in a changing world. Bomer defended the use of electronic toys and applauded the proficiency with which the kids use the toys, insisting that their critics are out-of-the-loop idiots. He remarked that today’s high school graduate (who may not be a-literate, as they say) is e-literate, he or she

“can synthesize information from multiple information and technical sources. . . .[they can] analyze the setting, plot, theme, characterization, and narration of classic and contemporary short stories and novels. . . .They are inventing new forms of literature.”

High praise indeed. And a breath of fresh air for those who find the constant criticism of America’s schools unsettling. We always like to hear those things that make us feel better about the way things are and allow us to dismiss the nay-sayers with a sigh of relief. Unfortunately, however, it’s a pile of rubbish.

One must wonder what this new “viewer literacy” really amounts to — if it can be called “literacy” at all. And the claims Bomer makes are outlandish — given that every test devised (and one must agree that tests don’t always tell the whole story) reflect the inability of these young people to understand the printed word or work with figures. How can such people be said to be able to “analyze the setting, plot, theme, characterization, and narration of classic and contemporary short stories and novels.”? Especially when they don’t even read comics or cereal boxes — as the students themselves defiantly tell investigators (reading is “too analogue”). They take great pride in the fact that they don’t read and generally regard reading as a waste of time — though they will spend more than three hours a day, on average, watching television (while they send text messages and check their Facebook page) and never think for a moment that it is a waste of time.

But, in the end it is all about thinking, which requires both synthesis and analysis. Mark Bauerlein, author of The Dumbest Generation, has made a study of e-literacy. He quotes his critics who defend it on the grounds that e-literacy

“is not just knowing how to download music, program an iPod, create a virtual profile, and comment on a blog. It’s a general deployment capacity, a particular mental flexibility. E-literacy accommodates hypermedia because e-literates possess hyperalertness. Multitasking entails a special cognitive attitude toward the world, not the orientation that enables slow concentration on one thing, but a lightsome, itinerant awareness of numerous and dissimilar inputs.”

So say its defenders who go on to insist that

“The things that have traditionally been done — you know, reflection and thinking and all that stuff — are in some ways too slow for the future. . . .Is there a way to do these things faster?”

But, jargon and wishful thinking aside, thought does take time, much as we might hate to admit it. And faster is not necessarily better. The fact that the kids show remarkable dexterity and quickness with their toys — one claim is that they can read four books at once (!) — is praiseworthy on some level. But when we are told that this dexterity will (or should) replace the traditional way of knowing and thinking about the world we must pause. The kids feel out of place in schoolrooms. I get that. But we know enough about them to realize that this is a statement about their narcissism, not about the schools, and many would consider it a condition that needs to be addressed and remedied so these kids can make their way in the real world where things are not always to our liking and problems need to be thought through and solutions found by careful, and slow, reflection and the consideration of possible outcomes in dialogue with other thinkers. If computers can help speed up that process, perhaps this is a good thing. Defenders of video games contend that they encourage “collateral learning,” and how to “make the right decision” and do it quickly. But there is no hard evidence that these toys teach anything that can in all seriousness be called “thinking.”

In the end a human being, or a group of human beings, must carefully consider what the computer spews out and determine which of several alternatives is the best course of action. Whether games will help people acquire the necessary skills remains to be seen. The “right decision” taught by the electronic game may simply prove to be the one that directs the drones to kill the most people. But the kids themselves will become adults who are expected to play a role in this democracy. Electronic toys cannot make moral judgments or judge which of two or three political candidates will do the best job. E-literacy won’t get them there. A-literacy is required: the ability to read and understand what they read, write coherent sentences that can be readily understood by others, and speak persuasively in order to help others grasp the claims they are determined to make. And people need to judge of better or worse, whether they like to admit it or not.

In the end, we may well admire the skills these kids show with multiple electronic toys, and even their ability to learn new ways to do things that take their elders seemingly forever. But we should hesitate to admit that this way of doing things will prove superior at the end of the day — especially since we really don’t know where e-literacy will take us. And as a general rule, we should not allow the kids to tell us how to design educational curriculum: they have no idea where they are going: their toys may indeed be taking these kids down an intellectual blind alley. In any event, given the addiction that has already been attributed to so many of them, we will have to depend on the toys themselves to pave the way to a new tomorrow: the kids will simply be doing what their toys tell them to do. I prefer to take the path well-travelled. At least I have a pretty good idea where the traps and pitfalls might be found and I can use the wisdom of past generations as a guide.

Watch Out For Snakes

I reached back to 2011 for this repost. It deals with one of my favorite topics and remains as relevant today as it did then — especially with an election coming up. 

If I enter a room filled with paper bags, one of which holds a rattlesnake while the others are filled with treats, am I free to grab a bag filled with treats? In one sense I am, in another I am not. I am free to grab any bag I want to because no one is holding a gun to my head and my hands are not tied. But I am not free in the sense that I do not know which bag holds the treats and which might hold the rattlesnake. Real freedom consists of knowledge and if I am ignorant I am not really free. There is a fundamental difference between blind choice and informed choice.

This is a simple illustration of a very important point that has been lost on most of us because we think that the more bags we have, the more bread in our stores, the more items on Amazon, the freer we are. And in this sense we in America are more free to grab almost any bag we want to — well, most of us are, and the wealthier we are the more bags we can grab. But real freedom is not a function of the number of bags. Unless we know which bag holds the snake, we are hopelessly ignorant and our ignorance can render us very sick or even dead from a fatal rattlesnake bite. Just think about political elections and the snakes we have grabbed, especially of late, to guide the country!

This is why education is so important: because it is only through an education properly conceived that we can be truly free. A liberal  education sets us free from ignorance, that is, from the things that can truly harm us. Ironically, Harvard College introduced the concept of “elective courses” into their curriculum in the 1930s when they mistakenly assumed that freedom is a matter of blind choice. Other colleges soon followed their lead, as did the high schools and even many grammar schools (the “free schools”). Now the idea has become so entrenched in the heads of educators that they are eliminating any semblance of liberal education by reducing — or eliminating altogether — the core courses that are pretty much all that remains of the notion that there are some things people should know in order to become truly free. The assumption that the young are free is absurd, since freedom does not consist in the ability to choose the bag with the rattlesnake in it.

Freedom regarded simply as blind choice will eventually become chaos when carried far enough. Real freedom comes from a restricted number of choices based on knowledge and the ability to think about the clues that might lead us to the bag with the treats and away from the bag with the rattlesnake. Education, properly understood, is about real freedom, not about blind choice.

More Critical Thinking

My elder son recently sent me a U-tube segment in which George Carlin rants for a minute or three about the stupidity of the American people who, as he would have it, allow the very wealthy and powerful to lead them about by their noses. As long as we are diverted and entertained we will allow those in positions of power to do whatever they want to do. He puts it down to our lack of critical thinking on our part. It is very funny. And it is spot on.

In a more serious vein Hannah Arendt said many years ago the same thing about the Nazis. She insisted that if the Germans had been more critical they never would have allowed Hitler to take power and eventually destroy their country — murdering millions of people along the way. She would have us all be more, not less, “judgmental.” Imagine that!

When I taught philosophy in a public undergraduate university I knew that I would never have many majors who would go on to graduate school and eventually become professors of philosophy themselves. There were a few who did so and they have done me proud. But there would be hundreds of students who were taking my courses simply to full a requirement or as an elective to see what all the fuss was about (!). In any event, I made the major quite small in order to encourage more students to sign up and also to allow them to get philosophy as a second major along with, say, sociology. Or biology.

My goal in teaching my courses was to teach critical thinking. In a word. I used the material not in order to drum a few assorted and esoteric facts about the history of philosophy into their heads, but in order to try to get them to think about the issues that have always perplexed and confused mankind (if I can use that word any more). I wanted, above all else, to have my students — most of whom would take only one or two philosophy classes in their four years — to think about things they never thought about before. I also wanted them to think about the things carefully and critically — not just sit around and bullshit.

Robert Hutchins once warned against “thugs who teach you what to think and not how to think.” I never wanted to be a thug!

Early on I wrote an ethics book in which I combined the rudiments of ethics with some of the elements of critical thinking — such things as informal fallacies, for example. Throughout the book I asked the question “why?” I wanted those reading the book to revert to their childhood when all was wonderful and their curiosity was unlimited. I suggested a number of theories as I went along and then asked the reader what he or she thought. “What do you think?” I wanted them to realize that what they read is not the TRUTH, but words on a page which they should subject to their critical thinking skills. I wanted them to develop their own thoughts about ethics while at the same time coming to the realization that ethics is not all about opinions, but it is about principles and suggestions as to how we can better make sense of complex moral issues. In the end we cannot do the right thing if we lack compassion, but ethics can help us become clearer about which path to choose.

In a word, I had two goals. I wanted the readers to have a new respect for orderly and systematic thinking about complex ethical issues while, at the same time, they began to develop critical thinking skills that they would take with them to other disciplines within and without the university. I wanted to help them begin to take possession of their own minds and not be puppets of others, like those Carlin mentions, who would take their minds prisoner and lead them by the nose.

Did I succeed? I do sometimes wonder, though I do know there are a scattered number of success stories (including one of the best students I ever taught who regularly makes comments on this blog). To a retired teacher this is what it is all about. But for those who took my classes — and who read the book (which did very well in the market place, by the way, and is still selling copies) — I wanted them to learn and grow.

But, in the end, Carlin is right because what I was doing was so terribly small and the ignorance that surrounds us is so terribly large. I do know, however, that it all begins with the question WHY?” We all need to ask it more than we do. And we need to embrace those thoughts that might be uncomfortable but which stand up to sustained, critical thought.

Sad Irony

In the midst of the pandemic, which our feckless president dismisses as a “hoax,” there is a movement of major importance that is getting inadequate attention. I speak about the “Black Lives Matter” movement. Following the murder of George Floyd by a  Minneapolis policeman a few weeks ago, there has been a surge in attention to the undeniable fact that police target the blacks and that they live in fear of those sworn to protect and serve them while the rest of us rest content and simply complain about the protests.

But during this period when the movement needs all the momentum it can possibly gain, the reporters are constantly sticking microphones in the faces of black athletes asking them their opinion about the movement and what it means to them. This is a good thing, in my view, because all the attention the movement can get is beneficial and will, hopefully make the world safer for blacks in the future. The problem is that many of those athletes are tongue-tied when asked about problems outside their area of major interest, which is the sport they have devoted their lives to.

The irony here is that many of these men have either attended or even graduated from America’s colleges and universities and some have college degrees but still have no way to express themselves at a time when expression is of major importance to them and others like them. It is another indictment of the state of education in this country. This is my point.

Don’t get me wrong, I speak about many of the professional athletes’ interviews, not all. There are a number who are bright and articulate and who make a strong case for their movement. But a great many simply cannot find the words they want to express the strong views they hold about social injustice in this country. And this at a time when strong views are of vital importance to the movement.

We need to pay attention to a problem that has been with us for a great many years and which makes the lives of black people fearful and miserable in a country that should make them feel safe and secure. And we need eloquent spokespersons to spell out the legitimate complaints these people have so we can seek solutions. It is not enough to simply identify the problem, it is essential that steps be taken to overcome the problem and make it go away. But we must begin with a clear idea of what the problem is. So white people in a position to make a difference need to listen to black voices.

As an educator all my adult life I cringe when I hear professional athletes, black and white, fumble and struggle to find the words they want to express their point of view. In this instance, we need to hear them speak and we need to hear what they have to say and take it seriously. These are presumably college-educated men and women but they sound like they are trying to speak in a foreign language.  I don’t blame them: their alma-maters have failed them miserably.

Let me say again that this is true of a great many professional athletes. Not all. And it applies to supposedly educated white athletes as well. Their education has not served them well and it is particularly noticeable at a time when they need to speak out and we need to listen to what they have to say.

America’s Chronic Anti-Intellectualism

As a retired college professor who has thought about education all of my adult life  (and even written a book about it!), I have posted a number of blogs on the topic. This is one of my favorites from 2014.

Every now and again as we read good books there appear, as if by magic, words that express so well some of the loose, disjointed ideas we have in our own heads. In reading Richard Hofstadter’s remarkable work Anti-Intellectualism in American Life I came across such words. Indeed, I have come across such words numerous times, as readers of these blogs are aware! In any event, Hofstadter’s comments about anti-intellectualism within our educational system ring true: I have seen it first hand and am aware that it has grown considerably over the years as the schools have moved steadily toward a more “practical” system that develops the “whole child” or teaches them job skills, and downplays the importance of developing their minds.

As Hofstadter suggests, this attitude has been commonplace  in our culture since the Civil War; we could be caught, increasingly, worshipping at the shrine of The Great God Utility — expecting of our educational system what we expected of our religion, “that it be [undemanding], practical and pay dividends.”  Still, there were a few people, like this “small town Midwestern editor” quoted by Hofstadter who understood the need for intelligent citizens in our democracy:

“If the time shall ever come when this mighty fabric shall totter, when the beacon of joy that  now rises in pillars of fire . . . shall wax dim, the cause will be found in the ignorance of the people. If our union is still to continue . . .; if your fields are to be untrod by the hirelings of despotism; if long days of blessedness are to attend our country in her career of glory; if you would have the sun continue to shed his unclouded rays upon the faces of freemen, then EDUCATE ALL THE CHILDREN OF THE LAND. This alone startles the tyrant in his dreams of power, and rouses the slumbering energies of an oppressed people. It was intelligence that reared up the majestic columns of national glory; and this sound morality alone can prevent their crumbling to ashes.”

Aside from the fact that few editors today, Midwestern or not, have this man’s facility with words (or his love of hyperbole), he points out the necessary connection between educating young minds and the preservation of our republic, which we seem to have forgotten: education not as job training or increasing self-esteem, but as empowerment, the ability of citizens to use their minds and make wise choices. The Founders were banking on it. Our schools seem to have forgotten what they are supposed to do. As Hofstadter goes on to point out:

“But if we turn from the rhetoric of the past to the realities of the present, we are most struck by the volume of criticism suggesting that something very important has been missing from the American passion for education. A host of educational problems has arisen from indifference — underpaid teachers, overcrowded classrooms, double-schedule schools, broken-down school buildings, inadequate facilities and a number of other failings that come from something else — the cult of athleticism, marching bands, high-school drum majorettes, ethnic ghetto schools, de-intellectualized curricula, the failure to educate in serious subjects, the neglect of the academically gifted children. At times the schools in this country seem to be dominated by athletics, commercialism, and the standards of the mass media, and those extend upwards to a system of higher education whose worst failings were underlined by the bold president of the University of Oklahoma who hoped to develop a university of which the football team could be proud. Certainly some ultimate educational values seem forever to be eluding the Americans. . . . Americans would create a common-school system, but would balk at giving it adequate support.”

A page later, Hofstadter quotes the great education reformer, Horace Mann who predicted as far back as 1837:

“neglectful school committees, incompetent teachers, and an indifferent public, may go on degrading each other until the whole idea of free schools would be abandoned.”

In order to remedy this situation, Mann pushed hard to establish “normal schools” in Massachusetts on the Prussian model, which he saw first-hand. These schools were set up to train teachers, and they gradually spread in this country to become the “teachers colleges” that evolved into the state colleges which, in turn, morphed into the state universities we see everywhere.  The job of these state colleges and universities was, and still is, primarily to train teachers. As part of this process, teachers were to be “certified” to guarantee their competence. But this process, together with the starvation wages they are paid, has practically guaranteed that the poor quality of teachers that Mann pointed to in his day would persist. The process of “normalization” brought with it a huge bureaucracy, which has been aptly named “the Blob,” that has threatened to strangle the training of teachers and has turned many bright young people away from the profession, practically guaranteeing the very condition Mann determined to avoid. America now draws its teachers from the bottom third or bottom quarter of the college pool thanks in large part to the poor salaries they are paid and the “methods” courses they are required to take in order to be certified.

In any event, Mann’s words struck me not only as insightful, but as prophetic. In the end, the current condition of public schools in America comes down to the indifference of the public — their addiction to the extra-curricular coupled and the practical along with their refusal to pay teachers what they deserve —  not to mention a system of teacher training that tends, on the whole, to belittle intelligence and discourage those who would almost certainly make the best teachers.

Improved Learning

I repost once again because I have begun to think that some of my best thoughts have already been set forth and there are a few new readers who might find them worth pondering.

There must be many school administrators who have too much time on their hands. They keep trying to come up with new ways to teach and learn forgetting that the best way to do that is to get the brightest teachers you can by paying them a decent salary and then turning them loose in the classrooms. Instead, they have fallen hook, line, and sinker for the electronic toys that have been incorporated into schools at nearly every level. This is part of the common educational practice of bringing the subject matter down to the level of the student rather than to have the student stretch and grow to reach a higher level. “Dumbing down the curriculum,” as it is called. Give ’em what they want. The kids play with electronic toys, let’s incorporate them into the curriculum. Somehow. The latest educational fad in “higher” education is to make learning even easier and less painful: let the students stay at home where they can sit in front of a computer screen as passive vessels instead of in a classroom where they might accidentally interact with each other or, worse yet, the instructor.

I’m with Albert here: led by a purblind educational bureaucracy we are rapidly turning out idiots who cannot interact with one another and cannot use their minds except to turn things on and off. Socrates was never “certified” to teach, and he didn’t use the latest electronic gadget, either. Plato’s Academy also did rather well without the latest electronic toy, thank you very much. After all, Plato was able to turn out people like Aristotle without a huge cadre of administrators looking over his shoulder, a committee of well-meaning board members to answer to, or a single computer.

Our addiction to electronic toys has seriously inhibited human interaction as we see people walking down the street holding electronic devices to their ears or looking down at the device they are sending text messages from: they don’t talk to one another any more, they talk at one another — in broken English. As suggested above, the latest fad in higher education is the trend toward on-line learning, which is simply another way to guarantee that students will learn very little. I dare say it will soon catch on at the high school level as well.

However, studies have shown repeatedly that the lecture method — in the classroom or on-line — is the worst way to teach a subject for most students. In addition, the drop-out rates in on-line education are off the charts. Real learning takes place when people interact with one another. On-line lecturing is simply multiplying the lecture-system mistake by making it easier and faster — and cheaper. And there’s the rub. Education has become so costly that students are turning to on-line “universities” like The University of Phoenix, and the other colleges and universities realize they must either join the party or sit by as their high-paid faculty lecture to empty halls. It’s sink or swim. We are now told that a group of so-called “prestige” universities wants to join the fray:

Now 30 Under 30 alum 2U, which has previously focused on online graduate degree programs, has decided to throw its hat into the ring. This week, the company, formerly known as 2tor, announced a partnership with a consortium of 10 universities to offer undergraduate courses online. The company’s new program, Semester Online, will launch in September 2013 with a catalog of about 30 courses offered by Brandeis, Duke, Emory, Northwestern, University of North Carolina, Notre Dame, University of Rochester, Vanderbilt, Wake Forest, and Washington University in St. Louis.

Whatever the reason, we insist on embracing the latest fashion even when the evidence proves that it not only fails to deliver the goods, but it actually inhibits the results — teaching and learning in this case. Electronic gadgets do not enhance learning; as Jane Healy has shown, they actually inhibit learning. Their use has led to the incapacity of parts of the brain to function as they should, thereby making thought and coherent speech more and more difficult for growing numbers of young people. Instead of embracing the latest fad, we might be better advised to simply reflect on the goal of education which is to enable young minds to grow and develop. We need to stop worrying about what is latest, or cheapest and easiest, and start to recall what is most effective: a good teacher in a room interacting with interested and curious students. Preferably they should sit in a circle or, better yet, around a table.

Once Again In the Toilet Bowl!

I update and repost this in my ongoing effort to spit into the wind. There is something radically wrong in academia where the business model has become the paradigm and students are regarded as clients. But major sports are clearly still the tail that wags the dog!

Don’t get me wrong. I sit glued to the TV during the end-of-the-year orgy known as the Bowl Season. I have yet to learn how to watch more than one game at a time, however, try as I might. But, let’s get serious: 40 bowl games in about two weeks is enough to make the head spin and the stomach turn over even if one weren’t gorging himself on chips and warm beer. The bowl games are now appropriately named after their corporate sponsors and I am waiting for the Kohler/American Standard/Eljer Toilet Bowl to be announced soon. That one I want to watch!

But the “Bowl Season” is a symptom of something terribly wrong. The big-time collegiate athletic picture in this country smacks of greed, hypocrisy, and dishonesty. I say that as a devoted game-watcher and former small-time collegiate coach. Seriously folks, what on earth does this have to do with educating young minds? Answer: nothing whatever; it’s about fielding a competitive team in basketball of football, keeping the alums happy and the undergrads diverted so they don’t realize that their money is being squandered on what their parents mistakenly think is a four-year degree that will give their kids upward mobility. Bollocks! It’s all about having fun and getting into a bowl game — even if your team is 6 and 6. It makes no difference. The point is to get on TV and see your school’s name on ESPN. There’s money to be made, so don’t let education get in the way. Money for some, at any rate. But it isn’t money that improves the quality of education in any way shape or form.

All of which simply confirms Curtler’s Law, which states that the quality of education at a Division I school varies inversely with the success of the football program. And I must add that as a Northwestern alum I worry that they are winning football games of late (though not this year, sad to say). In the end it’s not about education: it’s about success on the field. If the money that is now pumped into Division I athletics, especially basketball and football, were spent on academic scholarships think of the dividends it would pay. But that’s not going to happen because the temptation to sell the university’s soul for big bucks has been too much for several hundred universities around the country, very few of whom will ever see the money roll in. Just think of poor little cousins trying to keep up — like South Dakota State University.

Things are already rotten in the state of academia all over the country, at every level.  In the typical American college or university, for example, curriculum is incoherent and priorities are skewed; the students themselves, pumped up by an unwarranted sense of entitlement and ill-prepared for study, are busy planning the weekend’s next party. The institutions regard them as a source of money, as faculty fight for their precious territory and students are lost in the shuffle. But at the Division I level it’s even worse: faculty also fight for their territory but also are caught up in the publish-or-perish frenzy that directs their attention away from their students; classes are crowded, and students must sit in auditoriums while being taught by graduate assistants who have their own agendas and are therefore unwilling to push the students to do their best. These problems are compounded by the sports mania. What the large, Division I universities do not need is the distraction of big-time football and the diverting of monies and attention away from what is of central importance to any college or university. In the end, the student is the victim.

But never mind. If we are lucky maybe next year we will make it to the Toilet Bowl.

The Pyramid Ideal

I recently posted a brief exposition describing a challenge program I foisted on the honors students at the university where I taught for 37 years. There were several comments, but one from my fellow blogger, John, which was most encouraging, prompted me to explore a few thoughts connected with his remarks. I have blogged endlessly (some would say) about education, but it is close to my heart and I am sorely dismayed by the present state of education and seem always to be coming back to the topic closest to my heart.

It does seem to me that the ideal image of education would be the notion of a triangle, or pyramid, that stands on a broad base and tapers to the top. England followed this model for years with its public schools providing the broad education in the arts and sciences — mostly the former — while the university (or “uni”) providing the finishing touches in the way of specialization for the professions. Some American colleges and universities adopted this model but, of late, that model has been largely displaced by a more practical one that stresses job preparation and pretty much ignores education altogether.

Let’s one clear about some things: education should NOT be confused with job training or with mere schooling. There are manny people who have spent years in school — some with PhDs if you can imagine — who are not well educated people. And there are those with poor or inadequate schooling who are well educated people, which is to say people who have continued to read, think and grow as intelligent adults.

But in this country by and large we have been sold the idea that schooling and education are all abut preparing for a job or, as we like to call it, a “career.” This started years ago in order to keep young people in school and when it was clear that those who had a college degree made more money in their lifetime than those who lacked the degree. It’s when the colleges and universities started to be all about money, to be businesses run for profit. Whatever the reason, higher education, so-called, took a wrong turn and lost its sense of its proper purpose — which is to put young people in possession of their own minds, to prepare them for life, not work.

The model that provides the best idea of what education should be all about is that of the pyramid, as I suggested above. The base should be broad and strong and should start in the grades — or high school at the latest. That base should provide students with knowledge about literature, history, civics, mathematics, and the sciences — both the social sciences and the hard sciences. Those who go on to college should then begin to narrow that base and learn more about less. And at that point they might learn some of the basic skills that will prepare them for specific jobs. But the data show us that folks change their minds about what they want to do with their lives, and how they want to make a living, several times before they are forty. So the broad base is essential.

The broad base allows the young person to change direction. One who is trained in one field and who becomes disenchanted with that field after a few years cannot, as things now stand, change direction without going back to school and learning new skills. One who has had a broad base in the arts and sciences — what have dismissively been called the “elitist” liberal arts — does have that ability. They have learned to use their minds and how to learn new things on other own — without having to go back to school.

The data suggest that those with a liberal education make the most successful employees, ironically, because of those skills I have mentioned, skills of communication in speaking and writing, a broad perspective, and a lively imagination. They therefore have that flexibility I mentioned above, the ability to change direction later in life. And, moreover, the data suggest that they make more money in the long run than those with a narrow focus — even though the initial job may be hard to find. But, then, these days that seems to be true for all of those who graduate from our schools of “higher learning” no matter how early they started to prepare for a specific job — a job that is often not there when they graduate.

And that’s the rub. No one at the age of seventeen or eighteen can know what jobs will be available to them when they are twenty-one or twenty-two — no matter what someone tells them. The only certain thing is that things will change. And the best way to prepare for change is to have a pyramidal education, one with a broad base that provides a solid foundation.

Useless Knowledge

A good friend printed on his Facebook page a list of clever Latin phrases that colleges might adopt for their institutions. On that list was one that stood out to me:

Pro scientia inutili
“For useless knowledge”

This, of course, is tongue in cheek and meant to make us smile, if not laugh outright. But I would like to make a case that this as what colleges and universities should aspire too. This is a motto any self-respecting college or university should embrace. We are focused far too much on utility in this country — to the point that if something is not found useful it is tossed aside. But some of the greatest ideas ever shared among humans were initially thought to be useless. Like the notion of human rights, for example. Or the notion that persons are ends in themselves — the root and branch of ethical behavior. Moreover, many of the things we treasure above all else are useless, things such as love and beauty, for example, not to mention the smell of burgers cooking on a barbecue or the taste of your favorite cold beverage on a hot summer’s day.

But, returning to the subject, the point is that the most valuable knowledge is useless knowledge. In any event, knowledge in and of itself is not what education is all about. On the contrary, most knowledge is a means to an end while education is what is left after we have forgotten all the “knowledge” we learned in school. Education is all about putting young people into possession of their own minds — as I have said again … and again. It’s about learning how to think. And that may or may not involve knowledge. At best, knowledge can lead one to think: as noted above; it is, or ought to be, a means to an end — even though seemingly useless.

America has shown itself repeatedly to be a country that denigrates not only useless knowledge but intellect itself. A fundamentalist preacher  recently noted on his radio show that educated women make the worst mothers. This is not only offensive to women, it is downright stupid. Moreover, it is an attack once again on intelligence. And as such it simply joins a long list of attacks against the development of the human mind that we find when looking back on American history.  I have often wondered where this suspicion of intelligence, this anti-intelligence, comes from. Were the first people who came to this country — often as outcasts from their homeland — the mindless dregs who were regarded as a burden on those who remained behind? One does wonder.

In many European countries intelligence is prized above all other human accomplishments. Teachers are regarded with respect and even admiration (witness tiny Finland where teaching positions are prized by the best and brightest). In America they are regarded with suspicion and distrust and relegated to the dustbins. “Those who can do; those who can’t teach.” And they find themselves at the bottom of the list of professional occupations: low pay and low esteem. We don’t pay those who want to help others learn enough to allow them to live comfortably. The brightest young people in this country as a rule do not aspire to teach. This, again, is because of the inherent distrust of the mind and the rejection out of hand of the notion that intelligence is something worthy of development. Teachers, like the things they teach, are also useless.

I generalize, of course. But it has been said by others much wiser and more widely read than I that ours is a country that has been from the outset anti-intellectual. Even our founding fathers who were among the most intelligent of those who made America their home — people like Thomas Jefferson — regarded usefulness as the prize to be achieved, not realizing that useless knowledge was what made folks like them stand out. They were, by and large, practical men with little patience for useless knowledge. They set the tone.

The liberal arts have always been useless. They are about acquiring the tools of intellectual growth, about learning how to learn and how to think. In this country they are dismissed as “elitist.”  As Robert Hutchins once said, however, the only questions worth asking are those that have no answers. They do not lead to practical results, but they force us to think and think again. Useless knowledge is about those things that we ponder and which make our minds grow and expand, enabling us to work through the plethora of information that passes for knowledge to those tiny insights that are valuable in and of themselves. Useless knowledge enables us to recognize fools and charlatans when we see them and makes us wise enough to vote into political office those who might actually be qualified for office and not merely able to pose as wise when they are actually quite stupid. It makes a human life worth living.

Usefulness is not what it is all about. On the contrary, useless knowledge is what it is all about — if our goal is to become as intelligent as possible. Think about it!

Teacher Burnout

I only taught at the grade-school level for one year — and that was at a private school in New York. It convinced me that I wanted to teach, but it also convinced me that I wanted to teach at a higher level where I could continue to learn and grow. But I knew right away how hard those who teach the very young work and I knew that I loved teaching.

So did a young woman in South Carolina by the name of Sariah McCall who recently left teaching because she “couldn’t set [her]self on fire to keep someone else warm.” That is to say, she burned out. As an article in Yahoo News recently reported:

McCall says she never saw herself leaving teaching until it was happening. However, when she found that her job became “less about teaching the kids than making sure that mandates were fulfilled,” McCall made the decision that her own well-being needed to take precedence. “You can’t keep killing yourself over it because it’s not helping anybody. I had to prioritize that I had to be more important than my career. And it still sounds really selfish and I still feel guilty about it,” McCall explains.

If you wonder why she felt the need to leave teaching, take a quick look at her daily schedule:

Sariah McCall was in her classroom every morning at 6:45 a.m., taught bell-to-bell classes, attended meetings during her planning period and worked assigned lunch and recess duties with little time to eat or go to the restroom. When the bell rang for the 2:15 p.m. student dismissal, she worked an assigned bus or hall duty, followed by lesson and classroom prep. Sometimes, she left school by 5 p.m. At home, McCall would work on more grading and paper work until 11 p.m. or midnight, then finally sleep — and repeat.

In our self-absorbed age, it is rare to find a person like Ms McCall who was dedicated to others and to helping them grow into intelligent and responsible adults. But South Carolina, in this report, is seeing quite a lot of this of late. In fact, the reports tells us that 7300 teachers left teaching  for one reason or another during or at the end of the 2017-2018 school year! This is not only sad. It is borderline tragic (and I refuse to overuse that word!) We all suffer when those who teach must quit or face ill-health or nervous disorders because of the endless trite nonsense they are required to do outside of teaching. Or because they can’t make a living.

The answer to this dilemma is quite simple — and I have mentioned this once or twice before. We need to pay the teachers what they deserve, as they do in tiny Finland. This will attract more and better teachers to begin with and perhaps restore some semblance of respect to a calling that is currently much maligned. After all, we measure success in dollars in this country and underpaid teachers are not regarded as successful people by and large.

But we also need to cut out all the bullshit that goes along with teaching generated by an overabundance of administrating types who have little to do themselves aside from determining what others should do. We have far too many administrators in the education establishment at all levels. These are people who are paid well and who go to meetings (after meetings, after meetings) and try to reinvent the wheel. If they were once in the classroom they are no longer and because of the distance now between themselves and the teachers they forget the demands that are placed on the teachers who are simply exhausted filling out forms and checking boxes — making sure they are in “compliance.”

And, of course, the parents at home are too busy to raise their children properly so they are sent off to school, spoiled, undisciplined, and unruly where the teachers are supposed to build the character that has been ignored for six years at home while the parents were earning enough money to maintain their “lifestyle.”

Parents and administrators simply demand far too much of the teachers and fail to reward them adequately. It’s that simple. So stories like that of Sariah McCall will become more and more commonplace as our education system continues to slip into the abyss and small countries like Finland show us how it is done while we turn our faces away — not in shame, as we ought, but out of indifference to a serious problem that undermines the basic premiss of a free society.

A democracy simply cannot survive, if survival is still a possibility, without an educated citizenry. And that requires a bureaucracy pared to the bone coupled with good teachers paid a fair wage and supported, not attacked, by the populace at large that currently wants only to save tax dollars and make sure their children are not taught about evolution.