Widespread Ignorance

One of the major reasons the Trumpet has been so successful in convincing people to follow him wherever he leads is that there are a great many ignorant people in this country. I’m not talking about ignorance of rocket science or nuclear physics. I am talking about ignorance of the most basic truths about this country and its history and political machinery.

The problem is of special concern to me as an educator because I feel like I am a part of the problem and even though I sense how to solve the problem I don’t see any serious attempts being made. The solution is not to attack the public school system by increasing the number of charter schools or allowing for “vouchers.” The solution is to eliminate schools of education with their ridiculous “methods courses”; require a solid academic major of our teachers; pay the teachers more; eliminate the bureaucracy that controls public education; keep politicians out of the mix; and truly commit ourselves as a nation to an education system that will be worthy of imitation.

But let me turn to the evidence that steps such as these are absolutely necessary: let us probe the depth of ignorance in this country for a bit. It is not new, of course, since there has always been a strong anti-intellectual strain in this country that leads many to suspect well educated people of being cynical and judgmental — and, worse yet, liberal. This may or may not be the case, but it is irrelevant. The fact is, we are failing our young people and they are easily led.

As far back as the Korean war it was known that the young men who were captured during the “police action” were easily “brain-washed,” that is, led to change their allegiance and believe what they were told. It was discovered that the North Koreans were very good at convincing these young men because they were ignorant of their own history. The captors were able to tell them things about their own country’s history that were either altogether false or only half-true, and the captives were generally helpless to ward off the disinformation and were easily led to believe what their captors wanted them to believe.

More recently an interviewer asked one of Donald Trump’s followers why he was convinced that Barack Obama was a terrible president — one of the cardinal tenets of the Trump dogma. He responded that Obama was responsible for 9/11 because he wasn’t in his office, he was not attending to business. Asked where Obama was at that time the man responded that he didn’t know but would love to know that. Apparently the fact that Obama wasn’t president when the Twin Towers were destroyed had escaped this man. And, I dare say, if it were pointed out to him he would dismiss the fact as a liberal fiction. Again, ignorance creates a blank slate on which demagogues are able to write their own program and have it believed without question.

There are other examples, of course, and anecdotes don’t prove much of anything. But national and international tests reflect the same wide-spread ignorance on the part of those who graduate from America’s schools, which is frequently dismissed (by educators themselves) as simply a reflection of the fact that this country must educate so many of the poor.  This excuse will not stand up to criticism, as evidenced by the recent Program for International Student Assessment results:

According to this line of reasoning, the US doesn’t make it on the list of the top 25 countries in math (or top 15 in reading) because America has higher poverty and racial diversity than other countries do, which drags down the national average. . . .Wrong!

. . . PISA test results, released Dec. 3, 2013, show that the U.S. lags among 65 countries (or sub country entities) even after adjusting for poverty. Top U.S. students are falling behind even average students in Asia. . . . Asian countries (or sub entities) now dominate the top 10 in all subjects: math, reading and science.

And that ignorance makes it relatively easy for a demagogue to present half-truths and blatant falsehoods as the truth and have them believed. Without reservation. If something is repeated often enough and there is no factual frame of reference for questioning what has been said, it will be believed; it will be held to be the TRUTH. And this problem is exploding with the recent revelations that bogus news on the internet is being taken as legitimate by a great many ignorant people who previously relied on such publications as The National Enquirer for their news.

It is fair to say, I do believe, that the root cause of this ignorance is the failure of our schools and that radical steps need to be taken in order to remedy the situation. If this does not happen (and I am not optimistic) then the number of followers of demagogues such as our president-elect will continue to grow.

Trump And American Education

Whatever other conclusions we might draw about the depressing number of Americans who have decided that Donald Trump can save America, one things stands out as a surety: it is an indictment of American education. I say that as one who spent 42 years of his life seeking to help young people gain control of their own minds and become independent, thoughtful citizens of the world.

We have known for some time that America lags behind the other so-called civilized nations on earth — anywhere from 17th in the world to 35th — and far behind such tiny nations as Finland. Indeed, a commission formed under Ronald Reagan in 1983 published a document titled “A Nation At Risk” that concluded that America was in serious trouble in contrast with other nations in such basic subjects as mathematics, science, and language comprehension. Skeptics at the time insisted that this was a “conservative” group put together by a reactionary president and it was dismissed as so much hooey. In a word, we shoot the messenger rather than to take the message to heart. All sorts of excuses were made — and are still being made — for the world rankings that placed this country in a bad light. But the fact remains that subsequent studies from agencies around the globe support what that commission determined was the case back in the early eighties.

There are reasons, of course, why America falls behind such countries as Finland — and I have touched on them in previous posts. It is obvious, for example, that teaching is not a prestige occupation in this country  and does not attract the best and brightest of our college students, as it does in Finland. In a country such as ours where success is marked in dollars and cents, the students have disdain for anyone who would work for slave wages — such as their teachers. We pay our teachers barely enough to live on and then expect them to teach difficult subjects to our children who as parents we have not taken the time to raise properly. Thus, much of their time is taken up with attempting to discipline spoiled children while at the same time they are told that they must not touch the students or even raise their voices.

Whatever the reasons, and I expect there are many more, the fact remains that our kids are simply not being taught how to read, write, and think. I know this  from my own personal experience during which I saw the level of learning drop from year to year and realized that much of my time was taken up explaining what the assigned text was saying — rather than expecting students to take the text to task and raise troublesome questions about what the authors were saying. My readings became shorter and easier to comprehend and my tests became easier to take. And my own readings about the experience of other teachers around the country — at the primary and secondary levels as well as in “higher” education, where much of the work has become remedial — confirmed my own experience.

In any event, what this all translates to is that large numbers of people are easily taken in by a glib speaker who seems self-assured and says the kinds of things people want desperately to hear. And this is especially the case if that speaker pledges to start anew, with a clean slate, and make America great again. They don’t know what the man is talking about except that they have been told all their lives that certain things are taboo and this man tells them this is not so; and they don’t even realize that as an American president there is very little he can do, in fact, because of the limitations of the Constitution he would be sworn to uphold — but which none of those people have read and about which the man himself has shown astonishing ignorance. No one with a modicum of critical thinking skills would be taken in by such a charlatan. He has bragged that he holds the educated in low esteem, but he need not do that because there are very few educated people any more — at least in the sense of this word that has any meaning whatever: those who can read, write, speak, and figure the tip in a restaurant.

The fact that folks have fallen in behind a self-absorbed demagogue should not surprise anyone. It was inevitable, given the failure of our education system. That’s where the problem starts.

Enough Already!

I write this a few hours after Tiger Woods was forced once again to withdraw from a golf tournament because of pains in his lower back. Indeed, we have been given a detailed description of Tiger’s problems, including the fact that his “glutes” tightened up because fog delayed his tee time and he hadn’t had time to warm up properly when he had to actually hit his first shot — something the producers thought America needed to know. I suppose if those producers discovered what brand of deodorant the man uses they would determine that this is something America needs to know as well. Anyway, the whole withdrawal thing has been covered ad nauseam in the public media since the moment it occurred, including uninterrupted coverage on the Golf Channel of his long trip from the golf course via golf cart, his change of shoes, a closeup of his woebegone expression full of self-pity, to his eventual disappearance in his expensive rental car — the hell with the golf tournament and the fact that the rest of the players were still on the course! It does make one wonder.

After Tiger failed to make the cut in his last tournament, turning in a score that would suggest he was a moderately good amateur club player, the TV airways have been filled with endless analyses of his golfing problems, which focus on the fact that he has lost confidence in his stroke and is worrying too much about the mechanics of the game, etc. etc. To which I say two things: (1) Enough already! The man is over the hill and there are other good golfers out there who deserve a little TV time, and (2) Tiger’s problems have nothing whatever to do with his golf swing. They have to do with his utter confusion about just who the hell he is.

Tiger Woods is the reductio ad absurdum of the self-esteem movement that has swept the country and dominates our schools. He has been told since he was old enough to swing a golf club (on national TV at an age when most kids are still sucking their thumbs) that he is the greatest thing since sliced bread. Growing up he became convinced by doting parents and an adoring public that he could walk on water. After seeming to fulfill the hopes and expectations of all and sundry by winning stacks of golf tournaments while making an obscene amount of money, marrying a beautiful wife and having two lovely children, he was discovered to be an inveterate adulterer. His wife found out about his infidelities and chased him out of the house with one of his golf clubs (reportedly). Then came his total humiliation, including a very public divorce and a stay in a rehab center where he was supposed to learn how to keep it in his pants, after which he tried to come back to the golf course and win a few more major tournaments. It didn’t happen. He actually won a few minor tournaments, but it was clear that he was a shadow of his former golfing self. Why were we surprised? His self-concept had been shattered. He suddenly found himself up to his ears in the very water he had been told for years he could walk upon.

Though, doubtless, there are some who watch to see if Tiger still has some of the magic that made him one of the best golfers ever, I suspect that much of the golfing public continued to follow him with something akin to morbid curiosity: after all, how often does one get to watch the gradual meltdown of a major star, a superb athlete who could no longer “bring it” the way he had done for years? But those “fans” are like buzzards picking at the innards of a dead carcass; thanks to the entertainment industry the sporting pubic has been fascinated by the man’s demise, refusing to just let it go. Enough already! Let the poor man try to put his self back together, if he can — though a good psychiatrist would be more to the point than another swing coach. But, in the end, we assuredly can learn a valuable lesson from his fall from on high.

As I say, though an immensely talented athlete, he is a prototype of the spoiled child who has been told all his life he was exceptional. Reeking with self-esteem, he suddenly learned he had feet of clay. His sense of who he is has been severely damaged and no amount of stroke correction and no change in coaches can repair the damage that was done by doting parents and an adoring public who apparently never let him learn about failure. He is today a tattered shell of his former self, complete with numerous physical problems to go with a middling golf game. Just listen to his press conferences and read his body language!

Thus, those who think that we do our kids a favor by telling them how terrific they are until they feel entitled to have whatever they want should take a long look at Tiger Woods and reflect on the damage we can do to young people when we lead them to think they are superior beings and forget to remind them from time to time that, like everyone else, they are flawed. We need to let our kids fail so they can learn how to deal with failure. And we need to reserve our praise for those moments when they actually accomplish something noteworthy. Otherwise, they might fall from the heights we place them upon — like Tiger Woods.

Learning From Failure

Toward the end of the recent British Open golf tournament (referred to, simply, as “The Open”), Rickie Fowler was chasing Rory McIlroy and actually tied him on the 12th hole during the third round. Later that round, he stumbled a bit, got a couple of bogies while Rory was getting two eagles on the last three holes to finish 6 shots ahead of his closest competitor. Rickie was later interviewed and he was confident that he could play better on the last day of the tournament and had a good chance of winning (which he nearly did).  He had played well to that point and he thought he knew what had gone wrong during those last few holes. He could learn from his mistakes and correct them and would do better, he was sure.

What a novel idea! To think that a person could learn from his mistakes! So many educators who are on the “self-esteem” bandwagon hell-bent to destroy their students’ ability to succeed in a complex world should take note. Failure is not, in itself, a bad thing. It can make us stronger. It’s what we make of it that is important. If the child never learns to fail, pick himself up, dust himself off, and try again he will never be a success in the “real” world. Fowler did just that. In the final round he played beautifully and gave McIlroy a merry chase, losing by only two strokes, thereby assuring himself a coveted place on the Ryder Cup team.

It’s ironic that it is in sports that these lessons can still be learned, not in the classroom where failure is generally regarded as an inherently bad thing. But, again, there are those who would not have the kids keep score in sports so they never fail there either. In a word, there are those among us, parents, coaches, and teachers, who live in a fantasy world where no one fails and everyone feels good about himself regardless of whether those feelings are well-deserved. And those parents, coaches, and teachers think they are preparing the kids to be a success in later life, whereas the opposite is the case. They are preparing those kids to be failures because they will never have failed before and will not have any idea how to deal with it when it comes. And that failure will come, eventually at some point in some form or other, is a certainty.

Steinbeck’s Wisdom

John Steinbeck apparently believed that there is some good in all of us — no matter how degenerate we appear. He was fond of writing about the scraps and bits of cast-off humanity that others ignored. In Cannery Row, for example, he writes about a small community of people who are likely to be unnoticed and dismissed as beneath contempt, if not avoided at all costs. The main group of five men, led by Mack, are “bums” in the eyes of most of us. They don’t work unless absolutely necessary — and then only as long as they must. They live with their dog they love too much to train or restrict in any way in a deserted warehouse, called the “Palace Flophouse,” owned by a Chinese man who has decided he is better off letting them live there rent-free than to turn them away and possibly suffer unseen consequences. The only “respectable” character, and the central character in the novella is “Doc,” an educated marine biologist who collects specimens along the California coast, prepares them for dissection and study in America’s colleges and universities, and lives a quiet and sober life among his jars, his books, and his beloved records (remember them??)

Midway through the novella a bizarre incident occurs in which Mack and his boys drunkenly trash Doc’s laboratory and home in their well-meaning desire to throw him a party because he has been good to them; Doc is indeed beloved by all in Cannery Row because he is gentle, caring, and only too willing to put himself out for others. Mack and the boys (“I and the boys,” as he says) feel awful about what their excess of enthusiasm has brought to Doc’s doors — it takes Doc, who arrives after the party is over, a day to clean up the mess they have left behind. Accordingly there is a rift between Doc and Mack’s crew, but it is one they are determined to mend — by throwing him another party (at the suggestion of the madam of the local whore house)! In the meantime, as they go about planning the party in secret, Doc is having a beer with one of his friends and reflecting on Mack and his boys “the Virtues, the Beatitudes, the Beauties,” as Steinbeck calls them; Doc comes up with the following speech which strikes me as worldly-wise:

“Doc said, ‘Look at them. There are your true philosophers. I think,’ he went on, ‘that Mack and the boys know everything that has ever happened in the world and possibly everything that will ever happen. I think they survive in this particular world better than other people. In a time when people tear themselves to pieces with ambition and nervousness and covetousness, they are relaxed. All our so-called successful men are sick men, with bad stomachs, and bad souls. But Mack and the boys are healthy and curiously clean. They can do what they want. They can satisfy their appetites without calling them something else.’ This speech so dried out Doc’s throat that he drained his beer glass. . . .

“‘It has always seemed strange to me,’ said Doc. ‘The things we admire in men, kindness, and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling, are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism, and self-interest, are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.'”

Can I hear an “AMEN”!!??

Teachers Strike

As I write this, the teachers’ strike in Chicago’s public schools continues over two key issues. As a recent story tells us:

The two sides were not far apart on compensation, but were on other issues, including health benefits — teachers want to keep what they have now — and a new teacher evaluation system based partly on students’ standardized test scores, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis said.

I won’t address the health issue as it isn’t clear from the article what that involves. Further, I am not in a position to comment on the Chicago strike in particular as it is a complex issue in which both sides have strong arguments — though if William Bennett is to be believed and the average salary for Chicago teachers is in fact $71,000.00 while 46% of the teachers themselves send their children to private schools it will be difficult for the teachers to garner sympathy from people not directly involved, especially since the city’s school system is reportedly $615 million in debt and America’s economy has seen better days.  Bennett seems to think it’s all about money, whereas the teachers themselves are concerned about the requirement that they teach to standardized tests and then be evaluated by how successful their students are on those tests. I will ignore the question of the money since that seems to have been settled and instead focus attention of the general question of teacher evaluations which is complex and requires some careful thought.

From the teachers’ perspective evaluations are suspect because they appear to be a way of giving the administration arbitrary power over them that might result in lower salaries or the termination of the teacher’s job. Evaluations are very hard to get in the first place and they are seldom objective — depending on such personal factors as popularity, easy grading, good looks, or heaven knows what. I used to be delighted by my favorable evaluations when I taught until I discovered that one of the students had given me high marks on his evaluation because I drove a sports car! So it goes.

In this case the Chicago teachers worry that their promotions and salaries will be based on how successful they are at teaching students to do well on standardized tests. They argue, correctly, that a student’s success on standardized test does not reflect how well the teacher is doing in the classroom. It stresses rote memorization and penalizes the more creative teacher. Teaching and learning are essentially mysterious, like writing a symphony, painting a picture, or throwing a pot. Some things simply cannot be quantified. Again, the difficulty here is how to get an evaluation from a student (or anyone else) that is not somehow biased and skewed so that the teacher doesn’t get screwed. It is a sticking point.

On the other hand, administrators and school boards know (as we all do) that there are some teachers out there that are doing a poor job and they want to weed them out and get better teachers to take their places. There are a great many students graduating from colleges all around the country who might do a much better job than those teachers who simply go through the motions five days a week and draw their paychecks without making a positive impression on any of their students. And judging from the available data, the kids in Chicago’s schools are not doing very well at all. How do we get the data we need to make informed decisions? Bureaucrats are enamored of “outcomes,” which is the new adminispeak. Evaluations seem to be the answer. And using standardized test scores seems the way to go because we have numbers to look at and we know numbers don’t lie.

But they do. And that is the core of the problem. To my knowledge there is simply no way teaching can be evaluated in a fair and impartial manner — prejudice and bias always creep it. Using standardized test scores is certainly not the way to go. The teachers are right to want the administration to get out of their face and let them teach. But the administration needs some way to evaluate the performance of those who are on the public dole: they owe it to the taxpayers, if not to the kids. But as suggested above  teaching is an art, not a science, and until someone comes up with a fair way to evaluate something as enigmatic as teaching and learning, the teachers have the stronger hand. We will just have to trust the judgment of the administrators who oversee the schools and hope they do the right thing by the students and their parents. After all, that’s what they are paid for.