The Kids and The Critics

When Mark Bauerlein joined the ranks of such thinkers as Maureen Stout, Jane Healy and Charles Sykes (among many others) by seeming to attack the younger generation in his book The Dumbest Generation he was both praised and pilloried. One of his critics sounded one of the most hackneyed mantras around by attacking the author in a familiar ad hominem: “Here we go again, an aging schoolmaster knocking the kids. The old ones did it when Elvis arrived and now they do it because of Grand Theft Auto. We’ve heard the grievance many times, the lament of graying folks, so let’s not take it too seriously.” Well, as one of the graying folks who has added his shrill, small voice to the chorus, I take offense at the ad hominem and would simply say: look at the evidence. Today’s kids are generally wasting their time in school — when they even bother to attend. They are learning very little and the emphasis on job preparation and the love affair the teaching establishment has with technical gizmos is depriving the kids of the chance to expand their minds and become vital participants in our failing democratic system. More than anything else, a democracy requires an educated electorate — or at least one that knows how many Senators each state has and how many Supreme Court justices there are. Today’s kids do not: civics is seldom even taught in the schools any more. Worse yet, the kids simply don’t care.

I do wonder how many of Bauerlein’s critics have actually spent time in the trenches — in the classroom with the kids they glorify and defend as tomorrow’s answer to today’s problems. It certainly makes sense in this youth-worshipping culture where aging is regarded as a certain sign of senility that there would be fierce defenders of the kids, defenders like James Glassman and William Strauss (authors of The Next Great Generation) who are convinced the kids are under immense pressure these days and are being unfairly attacked by people like Bauerlein and Stout and the rest. But as one who spent 42 years teaching kids from 9 years of age through graduate courses I can say I have seen first hand what all the data reflect: the kids in fact experience very little academic pressure and they spend precious little effort on things academic — the average college student spending 3 hours and 41 minutes a day watching television and enjoying seemingly endless weekend parties. There is a serious problem in the classrooms of this country as the kids are taking advantage of a system that asks very little of them. Please note that I do not fault the kids, so those who defend them can save their pet ad hominems. I fault the system, of which I was a part for so long, because it is defrauding the kids and their parents who are spending large sums of money to pay for something that isn’t worth much in the final analysis.

I kept examples of my many of tests and syllabi that I passed out during my years of teaching at the college level and I saw first hand the deterioration of the education process: I simply could not assign difficult reading assignments or ask complex questions on tests toward the end. The students weren’t able to understand what the authors wrote or what I was asking – with notable exceptions, thank Heavens! If Bauerlein meant by “dumb” what the word literally means, he was perfectly justified in ascribing that quality to today’s youngsters. They are dumb: they cannot speak. Nor can they read or write or add. They are, for all intents and purposes, illiterate, and recent studies show they are defiant and even proud of that fact. They regard reading as a waste of time. It’s not surprising that their vocabulary has shrunk by 72% since the 50s when it was already shrinking. They cannot grasp such things as hypothetical sentences where consequences are dependent on antecedents for their full meaning.  They cannot understand what authors are saying in books that have been read and understood for centuries. Many cannot grasp the “cheaters” that are written down to the ill-equipped in order to explain what the books say. Worse yet, in a recent N.A.E.P. civics exam a full 45% could not understand basic information on a sample ballot. They cannot calculate a tip in a restaurant — even if it’s only 10%. And they cannot write complete sentences, though, I am given to understand they tweet endlessly in a kind of newspeak which we must assume they do understand. The data are overwhelming and it makes perfect sense since very few of them read even the backs of cereal boxes any more and they are allowed to use calculators in math class. They have traded their books (which, admittedly, many of us read only grudgingly lo those many years ago) for their electronic toys. These toys are rotting their brains, from all reports. And this is what has people like Bauerlein and Jane Healy worried. They have collected the data which so many others choose to ignore and it stares them in the face. As educators themselves, they know what those data mean and it disturbs them deeply.

So those who fault the “graying folks” for merely turning over the cold ashes of past worries about the younger generation should take notice. There really are new and serious problems and they cannot be dismissed with a toss of the hand and smart remarks about the age and character of those who point them out. It’s time to stop shooting the messenger. To be sure, there may be some exaggeration amid the reams of criticisms of today’s youth. But in both education and in the general culture as well what we’re seeing is a descending spiral in which many of those who should be addressing the problem are part of the problem itself, simply because they refuse to admit it is there.

Fixing the Schools

Despite the fact that official spokespeople for the teacher’s unions, and teachers themselves, repeatedly make excuses for the poor scores their graduates keep recording on standardized tests, it is clear that there is a problem in the schools. American schools consistently rank among the lowest in the world among developed countries, and talk about “bias” on the tests won’t get us around that fact. Until those in the profession (and those who make their living from those in the profession) admit there is a problem, it will not go away. But the problem is complicated.

To begin with the obvious, teachers are not paid what they are worth. That’s a given. Compared with other industrialized nations — even tiny Finland that provides the world with a paradigm for the way to educate students — our teachers are not paid a living wage; many have to find supplementary work to make ends meet. Talk about long summer “vacations” is bogus. Most of the teachers I know have to find other work in  the summer. If we want to attract the best minds to the profession, we need to start paying them what they are worth. But that is only part of the solution.

Another key element in the equation is the fact that teachers in the public schools in this country must be certified to teach. This is not true in the private schools where, generally speaking, the students perform better on standardized tests. Nor is it the case, again, in Finland — though they do require a Master’s degree. There may or may not be a connection between low test scores and certification requirements for American public school teachers. In any event, in order to “guarantee” that our public school teachers can do their jobs, a very large bureaucracy has been built up that certifies public school teachers by dictating to the colleges in the various states what they must teach future teachers. Most of these courses must be taught by those who are themselves certified to teach and in many cases the courses they require are what are referred to as “methods” courses. The assumption is that teaching is a science and can be taught, but only by those certified to teach (a vicious circle). This assumption in any case is blatantly false. Teaching is an art and while experts can give beginners tips on how to do the job, it comes down to intuition and common sense in the end. In addition, methods courses are deadly dull and drive away many of the bright students who might otherwise make their way into the profession. I know this is the case from forty-one years of advising students, seeing any number of bright students drop out of the teaching ranks because they simply couldn’t stand to take the dull methods courses that tend to teach the obvious. Thus, if we want to attract the brightest minds to the profession, we need not only to pay the teachers well, we must also do away with the certification requirements, starting with the methods courses. It would serve the nation well if teachers were required to major in a discipline of their choice and then take an additional year of student-teaching. Knowledge of the field of study coupled with a year of working in the schools with a master teacher would help the young teacher learn the ropes.

There is a third step, however, and that has to do with dismantling “the Blob,” former Education Secretary William Bennett’s term for the “education establishment.” This blob consists of an “interlocking directorate of schools of education, local school administrators, and cadres of officials, ‘experts,’ and bureaucrats who populate the state departments of public instruction,” as Charles Sykes points out in Dumbing Down Our Kids. As Sykes goes on to point out, this directorate is mutually supportive and not open to criticism: they make the rules and guard the chicken coop to make sure everyone follows those rules. This is an absurd situation.

If we could implement them, these three steps would take this country a long way toward the goal of excellence in teaching. But that would not suffice to raise the level of learning in the schools. It starts in the home. Parents must spend more time with their kids, as Jane Healy has shown, reading to them and telling them stories. There are a number of windows of opportunity in pre-school years that close rather quickly, and if these openings are ignored, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, for even the best teachers to help the student learn. As things stand now, according to the studies of brain development that Healy refers to, the left hemisphere of the brains of a growing number of young children never develop, something that should happen before they ever enter school. And without that hemisphere of the brain functioning, learning cannot take place.

In the end, unless we show ourselves, as a society, committed to the welfare of our children with better parenting, a determination to eradicate the many layers of the education establishment, and a willingness to pay the piper, improvement will never happen and our schools will continue to trail behind those of other developed nations.

Lowering the Bar

In 1994 the College Board in Princeton, New Jersey — which had been tinkering with test scores for years in order to try to make them more respectable — “took the more dramatic step of simply raising the average test scores by fiat. As a result of the College Board’s decision, the typical score on the math section [of the SATs] will rise by about 20 points, while the typical verbal score will jump 80 points with no improvement in achievement in either area.” This was written (with italics) a year after the “adjustment”  by Charles Sykes in his book Dumbing Down Our Kids.

Some time earlier, in fact, beginning in the early 1970s, the colleges started trashing core requirements on the assumption (false as it turns out) that students were better prepared by the high schools and knew what they needed to learn. Or, more likely, because the faculties at America’s colleges and universities were so narrow in their own areas of specialization they couldn’t answer student challenges when asked why they needed to study such “irrelevant” subjects as history. In any event, the core requirement was reduced or eliminated altogether in many major colleges and the minor colleges soon followed suit. The result, of course, is a rash of miseducated college graduates who know a bit about one subject and practically nothing about anything else.

In the past few years an organization has sprung up in Washington, D.C. called “The American Council of Trustees and Alumni,” headed by Anne Neal who is one pro-active individual determined to reverse the trend. Her group has conducted a number of studies that show how widespread the problem is and make it clear that only a handful of colleges are requiring much in the way of general education. And this in the face of the undeniable fact that the students who now enter college are ill-prepared for college-level work. Even at the so-called prestige colleges (we might say starting with them), students are simply given their heads — except for major requirements, which have tended to increase. The result is a shrinking core requirement — in some cases no core requirement at all — with overblown major requirements and a smattering of elective courses to fill out the undergraduate degree, producing young adults who can barely read, write or figure and who know precious little about much of anything except the material they need to know to pass out of their major.

Neal’s group has had a growing impact as colleges around the country have no idea how to respond to her challenge and alumni are becoming disturbed to think that their diploma may soon be worth less than the paper it is printed on. Whether or not the A.C.T.A. will have any lasting impact remains to be seen. They most assuredly are getting the word out, even in such prestige newspapers as The Wall Street Journal, due in large part to Ms Neal’s tireless enthusiasm. If trustees and alumni finally get sick and tired of the downward spiral which is American education, they can certainly play a role in reversing the trend. If the colleges start to require substantive core courses that enlighten the students and expand their minds, the high schools will have to raise their standards to prepare their students for the more challenging courses they will be required to take in college. And the elementary grades will also have to fall in line or see their students fail later on. This is an unlikely scenario, I admit, but it is the only real hope for American education which seems to be at present struggling to keep its head above the sludge of narrow self-interest, an unwarranted sense of student entitlement, and the illusion that it is preparing its graduates for the real world.