Delivery Systems

In responding to a comment on a recent blog I noted that in teaching our kids we have become caught up in the methods of teaching and have lost sight of the all-important question of what it is that teachers ought to do — not how they might do it more effectively. I want to expand on that for a bit.

We are talking here about what have been called “delivery systems,” the how of teaching rather than the why of teaching. In my response to the comment mentioned above I referred to them as “gimmicks and tools” — mostly gimmicks that arise from the mistaken notion that teaching is a science when, in fact, it is an art. Teacher evaluations, for example, are focused on the question “how well does your teacher teach?” This reflects the larger societal preoccupation with methods rather than substance.  Science, for example, has become technology. The scientist often is so focused on the question of how to develop the theory he or she is advancing that they fail to stop and reflect on the question of why the theory was advanced in the first place. We demand better widgets forgetting to ask why we need the widgets in the first place. The study of pure science, with no monetary pay-off, is anathema today. Indeed, the study of anything for its own sake, or for the sake of the joy and/or enlightenment it might bring with it, is lost in the question: what’s in it for me? What’s the pay-off?

In teaching, methods courses are the main focus in colleges of education; the issue is how to deliver the goods. And ever since the birth of “progressive” education in this country in the late thirties of the last century the focus has been on the child who is to be taught rather than the subject matter he or she is to be taught. Curriculum development is now predicated on the question: how can we best deliver the goods to disinterested, unruly children? How can we keep their attention long enough to help them actually learn something? How can we make sure “no child is left behind”? Clearly, this is a consequence of the effects the entertainment industry’s had on this country as the teacher has for many years been measured against Mr. Rogers or Big Bird. How entertaining can you be? Can you grab and hold the child’s attention?

In any event, the central purpose of education has been lost in the shuffle. That question ought to be, at all levels, how can we help this young person expand his our her mind and become free in the process, capable of making informed, independent decisions on complex issues? This is why education has always been associated — or should have been — with the democratic system that gave birth to the notion of universal education in the first place. A democracy cannot function without a literate, informed, and thoughtful citizenry. This has been known in this country from the outset. It is why Thomas Jefferson established the University of Virginia. But it has been lost in the cloud of smoke that has expanded of late, the ofttimes incoherent discussion of the delivery systems. How can we do this better? But just what is the THIS? That’s the question we ought to be focused upon.

As I say, this problem is simply a part of a larger social issue where we have become lost in sometimes loud and unruly discussion of the tangential issues that surround us. We seldom ask why it is we are doing what we are doing. We simply ask how we can do it better — get better reviews, bigger pay checks, more “likes,” promotions, profits, approval, or applause.

Recent history, especially, has driven home the obvious point that our democratic system stands or falls with our educational system. To what extent can we honestly say our citizens are not well educated, perhaps, but well enough educated to be able to discriminate between the genuine article and a political fraud? The evidence suggests our political system is failing the test. It also suggests that education’s failure may well be any the center of this problem. Before we can hold on to the realistic hope of reparation of a political system that seems to be broken, we must first repair the education system that is supposed to be turning out citizens capable of choosing wisely. That should be our first priority.

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The Blind Leading….

Readers will recall when recently the football team joined a young man on the University of Missouri campus who was fasting in order to effect change on that campus regarding alleged racism and the unwillingness of the administration to deal with the issue. The football team threatened to refuse to play and the result was the desired resignation of the president. There is no doubt about two things (1) racism is a poison and needs to be stamped out wherever it appears, and (2) a Division I football team refusing to play speaks louder than words.

There was much hullabaloo about the event and a number of articles and posts on social media — including a post by yours truly. One of the better articles attempted to put the event in perspective and led in with a photograph of the football team, with its coaches, after they had their way. A caption under the photo grabbed my attention:

“In just 48 hours a sub-500 football team affected [sic] a change that could have a monumental impact on the world of college athletics — athletes controlling what happens on campus.”

Think about this. The fact that this group of athletes was successful — in light of the fact that previous attempts by football teams failed to bring about change, as in the case of Northwestern’s team that wanted the players to unionize — indicates the power of extortion. There can be no doubt that the threat of non-playing at a time when revenue from TV and attendance is very much at stake had an important impact on the decision of the president to resign. After all, colleges and universities are becoming increasingly about business and profits (just ask the University of Iowa where a businessman with no academic credentials whatever was recently hired as president). But as an educator the thought that festers in my soul is the thought that football players can “control what happens on campus.”

Now, if this refers simply to the elimination of other cases of racism and other forms of bigotry on college campuses, so much the better. That’s as it should be. But if the influence of athletes threatening to withhold their services can effect “what happens on campus” generally one must pause. Clearly, this group of athletes was inspired to do the right thing and they were effective. But the thought of a group of athletes, or a group of students of any stripe whatever, holding a gun to the head of the administration and faculty to effect change in, say, curriculum is worrisome indeed. Such a thing is not totally absurd., as hinted at in the caption quoted above.

If a group of students were to put pressure on the administration and faculty to alter the curriculum — to substitute, say, physical education for physics — this would be anathema to everything higher education stands for. I exaggerate, of course, but interestingly enough, the precedent has already been set, and not by a group of football players at Missouri. It was set in the 1960s when militant students took over the Dean’s office in places such as Columbia University and Berkeley and insisted that there be curricular changes.  In a number of major universities during that period a great many core courses were eliminated completely on the grounds that the students found them “irrelevant.” In a word, if the students didn’t want to study, say, world history, then world history was dropped. The faculty and administration capitulated, possibly out of fear. This started a wave of rejection until within 20 years there were very few core courses on any college campus anywhere in this country. As a result, we have seen an increasing number of college graduates who know nothing about anything except those few items that happen to be of interest to them. Many of them cannot read, write, or speak coherently; they know nothing about the way their government runs (or doesn’t run) or about their history, black, white, feminine or masculine; and they have no idea whatever what science is and why mathematics is integral to the exact sciences. They are increasingly susceptible to the drivel that spews forth from the mouths of public figures who want to sell them left-handed monkey wrenches.

Thus, the thought of the athletes running the show is disturbing on a number of fronts. To begin with, it is simply a sign of a power struggle that has been lost by those who should have shown the way, and secondly it suggests the possibility of further changes in the climate of higher education that will move the students farther and farther away from the goal of true intellectual freedom, which should always be the focus of any education. Students should have a say in what they study, to be sure, but they should not be allowed to rule out whatever doesn’t happen to appeal to them at the moment. While education starts in the schools, it bears fruit later on, after graduation. But it needs a start in the right direction or else it will spin in circles and lead the college graduate into blind alleys.

Feel-Good Schooling

At the risk of flogging a dead horse, I want to return briefly to the problem in our public schools. I have addressed this problem in previous blogs and even suggested remedies for the problems. But I know full well that any suggestions I might make will fall on deaf ears. And that is the issue I want to address.

Until or unless the education establishment admits there is a problem in America’s  public schools, it goes without saying that the problem will go unsolved. There can be no solution if those who are involved see no problem in the first place. And that is clearly the case. I have been in contact with a number of teachers and without exception their posture is one of defense: excuses and rationalizations come tumbling out. I read these same excuses in the articles defending the status quo. There are none so blind as those who will not see, as the saying goes.

Those, like me, who are “outside” the establishment are dismissed because we simply don’t know what’s going on. The fact that I taught for a year at the elementary level and 41 years at the collegiate level and have read any number of books on the subject, in addition to writing one of my own, is deemed irrelevant. I am one of “them.” And unless you are on the inside you simply don’t understand what is going on — what the teachers have to put up with daily, and how they struggle against insuperable odds to open young minds. But I do know these things. I visited enough public school classes to know I couldn’t teach in our public schools. I wouldn’t last a month. I also know there are dedicated teachers out there who perform miracles every day, and exceptional students who go on to lead exemplary lives. But I also know there is a larger problem and it needs to be addressed.

Sad to say, those who dare criticize from within the establishment are not heard, either. I have mentioned Maureen Stout, who wrote an excellent book about The Feel Good Curriculum, subtitled “The Dumbing Down of America’s kids in the name of Self-Esteem.” She taught for years in the public school system in California and now holds a teaching position in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at California State University in Northridge. Her book is a well argued attack on “the self-esteem” movement, which is described as “a radically child-centered, therapeutic model of schooling, which has transformed schools into clinics and teachers into counselors, creating a generation of self-righteous, self-absorbed, underachieving children.” Indeed so. But her book was never on the best-seller list and in the twelve years since its publication it has had no noticeable effect. The establishment simply refuses to listen to criticism.

The educational establishment resembles the A.M.A.in policing itself, a situation that is designed to breed corruption. But in many ways, the educational establishment is worse, because (so far as I know) teachers cannot be sued for malpractice — which is a way of curbing abuse, surely — and they have created a huge and powerful bureaucracy which protects them from political influence that might have meaningful results. The only thing parents can do, as they have done in Wisconsin, is to retaliate against the teachers themselves by reducing their public support. And that is cutting of one’s nose to spite the face. It is not the solution. Teachers need to be paid more, not less. That’s the only way to attract the best and brightest minds to a profession that now attracts students from the bottom third of the colleges and universities, nation-wide.

And, as I have written in an earlier blog, the only way to begin to solve the problem is to eliminate the certification process, thereby crippling the Blob that controls the education establishment, and return schooling to the best teachers, attracted to teaching by the expectation of greater prestige and higher salaries, and then given their heads. But this won’t happen. Indeed, nothing much will happen, unless the establishment, including the teachers themselves, admits there is a problem and opens itself to constructive criticism.