Sad But True

I know I tend to repeat myself about the sad demise of education in what was once one of the the more literate countries on earth (?), but the evidence is “out there.” Our schools are simply not getting the job done, and cutting off funding is not the answer. On the contrary. But this brief note in a recent New York Times story pretty much puts the icing on the cake:

“Just how bad is our reading problem? The last National Assessment of Adult Literacy from 2003 is a bit dated, but it offers a picture of Americans’ ability to read in everyday situations: using an almanac to find a particular fact, for example, or explaining the meaning of a metaphor used in a story. Of those who finished high school but did not continue their education, 13 percent could not perform simple tasks like these. When things got more complex — in comparing two newspaper editorials with different interpretations of scientific evidence or examining a table to evaluate credit card offers — 95 percent failed.” 

I saw this in my college classrooms on a day-to-day level and started to do some research years ago to see if it was just in my experience. But it is not. It is a problem that is endemic in a culture that is increasingly disinclined to read and write and, of late, addicted to electronic toys. And it helps explain why our recent presidential election went the way it did. The only way out is to make a genuine commitment to education, including full funding; and one would like to see the Blob dismembered — the Blob being the huge bureaucracy that controls public education at all levels. If tiny Finland can get it right, we certainly can — if we want to!

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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.

Socialism Revisited

I am reposting a piece I wrote in 2013, before Bernie Sanders declared himself as a candidate for president, but a time when the word “socialism” was misunderstood and used pejoratively — much as it is today. Sanders is dismissed by many, including the media apparently, because he is a “socialist.”  But how many who readily dismiss the man understand what the word means? This post was an attempt to clarify the meaning somewhat, so I post it here again. Please note that Sanders refers to himself as a “democratic socialist.” The modifier is important.

In every generation there are a number of words that take on pejorative overtones — many of which were never part of the term’s meaning in the first place. Not long ago, for instance, “discipline” was a positive concept, but it has become a bad thing thanks to pop psychologists and progressive educators who ignore the fact that mental discipline is essential to clear thinking and the creation of art instead of junk. Another such term is “discrimination” which used to simply suggest the ability to separate the wheat from the chaff, good paintings and good music from random paint scattered on canvas or mere noise. Indeed, it was a sign of an educated person to be regarded as discriminating. In recent days, thanks to the Tea Party, the latest loaded, “scare term” is “socialism.” The political scare term used to be “communism,” but that term was somewhat neutralized when the Soviet Union broke up and reconciliation became the word of the day. But even when it was in use, most people would have been shocked to know that in its pure form communism was in close harmony with the teachings of Jesus Christ. Further, the Soviet Union was never a communist nation by any stretch of the term. If anything, it was a socialistic dictatorship.

But let’s take a closer look at socialism. The term means, strictly speaking, that the state owns the means of production. That has not come to pass in this country, even with the recent federal bailouts of the banks and auto companies — initiated by a Republican President, by the way. But there certainly has been growing involvement on the part of the government in economic circles, ever since F.D.R and his “New Deal.” Frequently these incursions were made to fill a void created by uncaring corporations, many to protect our environment which seems to be of no concern to large-scale polluters. Further it may be a good thing that such things as anti-trust laws interfere with the unbridled competition that many think is essential to capitalism — an economic system that has resulted in a society in which the 400 richest Americans now have a combined net worth greater than the lowest 150 million Americans and nearly half of the population lives in poverty. In any event, even if the current President, and others of his ilk, has been accurately accused of promoting “socialism,” we might want to know if this would be such a terrible thing. Take the case of Finland, a decidedly socialistic nation.

Finns pay high taxes “but they don’t spend all their money building $22 billion aircraft carriers, $8 billion submarines, $412 million fighter planes, or spend a million dollars a year keeping each soldier in foreign adventures such as Iraq and Afghanistan,” as noted in a recent article by Ed Raymond in Duluth, Minnesota’s Weekly Reader. On the contrary, Finnish children are guaranteed essentials in the way of food and clothing, medical care, counseling and even taxi fare, if needed. “All student health care is free for the family. The state provides three years of maternity leave for the mother and subsidized day care for parents. All five-year-olds attend a preschool program that emphasizes play and socializing. Ninety-seven percent of six-year-olds attend public pre-schools where they begin to study academics. ‘Real’ school begins at seven and is compulsory,” as Raymond goes on to point out.

Finnish schools are rated the highest in the world; their teachers are held in high esteem, paid well, and are drawn from the top quartile of university students. Last year in Finland there were 6.600 applicants for 660 empty teaching slots. The student-to-teacher ratio is seven to one. Contrast this with our over-crowded classrooms and an educational system that underpays and overworks teachers and holds them in low regard. Clearly, there is something here worth pondering, and it lends the lie to the notion that socialism is an inherently bad thing and something to be avoided at all costs, especially given the fact that recent studies have suggested that the Finns are among the happiest people on earth.

Am I advocating socialism? Not necessarily. But I advocate fairness and I am in total support of those who want a system that taxes the wealthy as well as the poor; those who think a good slice of the “defense” budget would go a long way toward funding projects such as Bernie Sanders envisions; I also support attempts to provide health care for those who cannot afford it; I vote for political candidates who seem to care more about people than about profits; but above all else, I oppose those who throw about terms they don’t understand in at an attempt to frighten others rather than to advance understanding.

Recipe For Failure

I am pleased to offer up the following recipe for your consideration:

Begin with two cups of parents who work hard to keep their heads above the financial waters and who must therefore largely ignore their kids who are left to their own devices. The parents are riddled with guilt, have forgotten how to say “no,” and have read books by childless pop-psychologists about how to raise children; as a result their kids are spoiled at home and have never learned the need for self-denial and hard work. However, all have learned well the path of least resistance.

 (Courtesy of Facebook)


(Courtesy of Facebook)

Add slowly one cup of kids whose time is almost entirely taken up with the “social network” and who use electronic devices to “stay connected” while losing real contact with others and with the world around them, bearing in mind that those toys are damaging their brains, eventually rendering portions of those brains chronically damaged.

Add three tablespoons (no more, no less) of the self-esteem movement in the schools the kids attend that insists the kids are terrific when all the evidence suggests that they are falling way behind the rest of the developed world. In fact, when a mathematics test involving 24,000 students worldwide was followed by the yes/no question whether the student was good in math, American students rated themselves highest on self-esteem and actually scored lowest on math! They have been taught to expect rewards for little or no effort. Clearly, schools in America have become like the caucus race in Alice in Wonderland “where the participants run in patterns of any shape, starting and leaving off whenever they like, so that everyone wins.” Everyone gets a prize — but, in fact, no one wins.

Mix in three teaspoons of underpaid, harried, and poorly-trained teachers sustained by a thin gruel of psychobabble and filled with disdain for the tradition that produced the great men and women of the past. Martin Gross, in his Conspiracy of Ignorance drives the point home thusly: “The problem is not the kids but the Educational Establishment, which is an unscholarly, anti-intellectual, anti-academic cabal which can best be described as a conspiracy of ignorance, one with false theories and low academic standards. Well conceived, internally consistent, it has been powerful enough to fight off all outside challenges and true change. All at the expense of our schoolchildren.” 

Blend in carefully one cup rejection by the entire Education Establishment for the data that show clearly that there is a serious problem in our schools and that other nations, such as tiny Finland, have it right while we have it all wrong.

Stir slowly over a low heat while holding your nose and don’t, please, attempt to eat the mess because it will make you sick.

Lost Its Way?

The stereotype of the old-fashioned schoolroom shows us the stern-faced teacher walking up and down the rigidly straight aisles with a ruler in her hand glowering at the children who were told not to speak in class or even to sneeze. If a child dared to make a noise and, say, whisper to the child next to her, the ruler would come down swiftly and the child would break into shrieks and later have nightmares about those terrible days. The idea was, it seems, to keep the kids in line, force-feed them knowledge — teach the kids the “three Rs” whether they wanted to learn or not.

Following the lead of people like Jean Jacques Rousseau in France and later A.S. Neill in England, parents and teachers in this country began to realize that this model was somehow wrong and that the child matters. Theory started to shift toward what we now call “child-centered education.” The subject-matter began to be thought of as less important than the child who was being taught. Such notions as “authority” and “discipline” took on a pejorative meanings, calling up images of the ruler coming down on the knuckles of the small child by a teacher who suffered from Jehovah’s complex. Soon popular psychologists got on the bandwagon, thinking they could not only teach better than the teachers, but also raise children better than the parents. Parents and teachers were told not to “inhibit” the child, that “stern discipline” was not the way to go, that the child ought to be treated like an adult and allowed to find their own way. Teachers and parents were told to be their kids’ friends, not authority figures. Soon the “free schools” sprang up, patterned after Neill’s Summerhill school in England — where students were allowed to select their own subjects and study them when they were ready to, and not before. His system worked with many bright, precocious children, but in the majority of cases the children learned little and the experiment was called by many people, including Bertrand Russell, a failed experiment.

But the child-oriented movement in this country had gained headway and began to take this country by storm. Supported by people like John Dewey (who later abandoned the theory, realizing that it had gone too far afield) and by the pop-psychologists who fell all over themselves rushing to get their books into print, parents and teachers questioned their own instincts and fell in line behind the so-called “experts” who may or may not have ever taught or even to have children of their own. They were not to restrict the children; they were there to support the child no matter what, always say “yes” and never say “no.”  Thus was born the permissive society with which we are now so familiar where students are told they can walk on water even when it is not frozen and “authority” and “discipline” have become bad things — in the home as well as the classroom. Neill took a plain truth, namely, that students learn more quickly those things they enjoy — and developed it into a blatant falsehood, namely, that they will not learn those things they do not enjoy. In fact, students learn to like a great many things they might have avoided had they not been required to study them. Further, maturity is a function of being able to do those things we are not fond of doing, or which we have an aversion to doing.  Child-oriented education has resulted in numberless children who are mis-educated and remain immature well into adulthood.

While this might be seen as (a necessary?) swing of a pendulum away from the stereotype given at the outset of this discussion, the pendulum at present shows no signs of moving. There is little evidence that more than a handful of folks connected with education realize how damaging this theory has been to the education of our children — as evidenced by comparisons of the American school system with the likes of Finland. Take, for example, the current notion of discipline which is regarded as a bad thing, whereas, in fact, intellectual discipline involves the ability of a mind to follow an argument, form cogent arguments, perceive untruths and formulate responses to blatant falsehoods. In a word, discipline is essential to real thought. It does not require teachers patrolling the classrooms with rulers in hand. But it does require teachers who are acknowledged as legitimate authority figures and who are committed to teaching tough subjects and demanding positive results from their students. Above all else it requires teachers who demand that their students learn to read, write, speak their language, and calculate such things as the tip in a restaurant — things that increasing numbers of American students cannot do. The sort of thing that passes for thought in a classroom where discipline is thought to be a bad thing is merely disjointed, incoherent drivel.

Flaubert said that discipline makes art of impulse. Similarly, discipline makes thought out of tangled, incoherent ideas and half-truths. Undisciplined thought is not real thought at all, it is mere impulse, gut feelings. And coming from kids who are, in many cases, overflowing with  undeserved self-esteem, the way is paved for our mindless age of entitlement where spoiled kids cannot read, write coherently, or figure. But let us not simply assume that the pendulum will swing back somewhere just short of the teacher cruising the aisles with ruler in hand  — say, to the vital notion of intellectual discipline instilled by demanding teachers who recognize and reward genuine excellence. It’s not going to happen unless enough people realize that the pendulum needs a push. And, sad to say, there appear to be very few around who even recognize the fact that the pendulum has become stuck in place.

Regressive Education

There’s a post going around on Facebook that shows a child sitting on a high chair in the corner with a dunce hat on his head. The caption reads “In 100 years we have gone from teaching Latin and Greek in the High Schools to teaching remedial English in the Colleges.” So many items on the internet, and especially Facebook, are mindless drivel, but this one makes a good deal of sense, though it is a bit simplistic. Adopting the model of A.S. Neill’s abortive “Summerhill” project in England, the birth of “Progressive” education in the 1930s in this country — which took the nation by storm in the late 1950s — has resulted in a regression of a system designed to improve young minds to a system designed to cater to the young and leave them pretty much untouched.  From the notion that teachers know best what their charges should learn, we have come to the point where we let the kids pretty much learn what (if anything) they want. And we make sure they have enough toys to make the process as pleasant as possible. Welcome to the age of entitlement! The notion that education is about knowledgeable elders helping young minds grow and develop has been lost in the process; for some reason we are now afraid to even suggest that anyone is smarter than anyone else.

I have blogged repeatedly about this issue and while this may allow me to let off steam, it has certainly not altered the situation one whit. Nor is it likely to do so. I know that. But it is clear that when a small country like Finland can lead all of the developed nations on earth in education and a rich, advanced nation like the United States lags far behind, there is something radically wrong with the system in place in this country. Finland pays their teachers higher salaries than the OECD average — to the point where only 10% of those who apply actually find a teaching position. Teaching is not a chore; it is a privilege. Teachers are themselves educated to the level of a Master’s Degree, and they are not required to take “methods” courses. They are given their heads and allowed to teach as they determine the situation and the children in their classes require. In a word teachers do not have a huge bureaucracy looking over their shoulders, dictating course work and watching their every move to make sure that they do their job as those in the education establishment see fit. Because teachers are not dredged from the bottom of college classes and paid a pittance, as they are in many states in this country, they are bright and deserving of the trust the parents put in them. It works. While our “progressive” education system struggles, kids in Finland, and in most other developed countries, have learned the value of a solid education and they make their parents proud. We, on the other hand, spend most of our time making excuses and apologizing for a system we refuse to acknowledge is broken.

So while the middle class slowly disappears behind a growing mountain of giant corporate interest and a few very wealthy people like the Koch brothers, and our Democracy is being swallowed up by a greedy, self-serving capitalist economy, the young people who might some day figure out a way out of this morass are being cheated by a system that puts them in crowded classrooms with underpaid and exhausted teachers and eventually dumps them out on the streets with no sense whatever which way they should turn because they cannot read the street signs.

Whereof We Speak

In every generation there are a number of words that take on pejorative overtones — many of which were never part of the term’s meaning in the first place. Not long ago, for instance, “discipline” was a positive concept, but it has become a bad thing thanks to pop psychologists and progressive educators who ignore the fact that mental discipline is essential to clear thinking and the creation of art instead of junk. Another such term is “discrimination” which used to simply suggest the ability to separate the wheat from the chaff, good paintings and good music from random paint scattered on canvas or mere noise. Indeed, it was a sign of an educated person to be regarded as discriminating. In recent days, thanks to the Tea Party, the latest loaded, “scare term” is “socialism.” The political scare term used to be “communism,” but that term was somewhat neutralized when the Soviet Union broke up and reconciliation became the word of the day. But even when it was in use, most people would have been shocked to know that in its pure form communism was in close harmony with the teachings of Jesus Christ. Further, the Soviet Union was never a communist nation by any stretch of the term. If anything, it was a socialistic dictatorship.

But let’s take a closer look at socialism. The term means, strictly speaking, that the state owns the means of production. That has not come to pass in this country, even with the recent federal bailouts of the banks and auto companies — initiated by a Republican President, by the way. But there certainly has been growing involvement on the part of the government in economic circles, ever since F.D.R and his “New Deal.” Frequently these incursions were made to fill a void created by uncaring corporations, many to protect our environment which seems to be of no concern to large-scale polluters. Further it may be a good thing that such things as anti-trust laws interfere with the unbridled competition that many think is essential to capitalism — an economic system that has resulted in a society in which the 400 richest Americans now have a combined net worth greater than the lowest 150 million Americans and nearly half of the population lives in poverty. In any event, even if the current President, and others of his ilk, has been accurately accused of promoting “socialism,” we might want to know if this would be such a terrible thing. Take the case of Finland, a decidedly socialistic nation.

Finns pay high taxes “but they don’t spend all their money building $22 billion aircraft carriers, $8 billion submarines, $412 million fighter planes, or spend a million dollars a year keeping each soldier in foreign adventures such as Iraq and Afghanistan,” as noted in a recent article by Ed Raymond in Duluth, Minnesota’s Weekly Reader. On the contrary, Finnish children are guaranteed essentials in the way of food and clothing, medical care, counseling and even taxi fare, if needed. “All student health care is free for the family. The state provides three years of maternity leave for the mother and subsidized day care for parents. All five-year-olds attend a preschool program that emphasizes play and socializing. Ninety-seven percent of six-year-olds attend public pre-schools where they begin to study academics. ‘Real’ school begins at seven and is compulsory,” as Raymond goes on to point out.

Finnish schools are rated the highest in the world; their  teachers are held in high esteem, paid well, and are drawn from the top quartile of university students.  Last year in Finland there were 6.600 applicants for 660 empty teaching slots. The student-to-teacher ratio is seven to one. Contrast this with our over-crowded classrooms and an educational system that underpays and overworks teachers and holds them in low regard. Clearly, there is something here worth pondering, and it lends the lie to the notion that socialism is an inherently bad thing and something to be avoided at all costs, especially given the fact that recent studies have suggested that the Finns are among the happiest people on earth.

Am I advocating socialism? Not necessarily. But I advocate fairness and I am in total support of those who want a  system that taxes the wealthy as well as the poor; I support this President’s attempts to provide health care for those who cannot afford it; I vote for political candidates who seem to care more about people than about profits; but above all else, I oppose those who throw about terms they don’t understand in at an attempt to frighten rather than to advance understanding.

Romney Goes To School

Taking a page out of “W’s” book, Mitt Romney was recently in Philadelphia getting close to the folks in the inner city and posing as a friend of public education. Actually, we don’t know why he was there, but he took his jacket off and rolled up his sleeves to show he’s a “regular guy,” and he had some interesting things to say in defense of his claims that smaller classes do not benefit students. In a story in The Los Angeles Times we read that, according to Romney,  The consultants found that, “gosh, in schools that are the highest-performing in the world, their classroom sizes are about the same as in the United States. So it’s not the classroom size that’s driving the success of those school systems,” . . .. Instead, parental involvement and top-flight teachers and administrators make the difference.

I have no idea who “the consultants” were, but the notion that smaller classes don’t make it easier to teach is bullocks, as my English friends would say. The teachers in the room when Romney gave this little speech were quick to object. As the article notes, Romney was challenged repeatedly during a round table discussion with educators to defend his claim that reducing class size doesn’t improve student performance. Anyone who has spent any time in the classroom at all knows that the ideal is one-on-one and the effectiveness of teaching goes down proportionately from there. Classes of 50 are pretty much a waste of time for most (though certainly not all) students and classes larger than that are a bit of a joke. Much depends on what one wants to do in the class, of course, but large classes, as a rule, translate into time wasted. Online classes, as I have blogged about before, are mostly useful for transmitting information and the data suggest that the dropout rate is very high in such classes. One speculates that it might be a function of the lack of personal contact between teacher and students — and among the students themselves. Some of the best classes I taught in my 41 years of college teaching were ones in which I said very little and the students discussed the issues among themselves, with a gentle push from time to time to keep them on topic.

In any event, what Mitt had to say was not altogether wrong. He is certainly correct in saying that it all starts in the home. Parental involvement and top-flight teachers are of immense importance, especially in  the early years. For Romney this is an argument in favor of overhauling the education system, of course, and moving from public to charter schools. To be honest, though I would like to see the public schools be improved rather than, in effect, eliminated,  I am somewhat in sympathy with Romney here. I do think that our schools are failing in part because much of what is done in “teacher’s colleges” is a waste of time and money. And the data suggest that as a nation we are at present drawing our teachers from the lower third of the student population — probably because pay and benefits are so poor. This raises the issue of teachers’ unions.

Mitt contends that pressing for smaller classes is a ploy by teachers unions — one of his favorite targets — to get more teachers hired. But it is the unions that have made it possible for teachers to (barely) keep their financial heads above water and if things are to improve in the profession it will take more money, not less. If we want to upgrade the ranks of the teachers, we need to start paying them a living wage — as they do in Finland which Mitt correctly holds up as a model of public education. In that country competition is fierce to get the high-paying and high-prestige teaching jobs. The contrast with this country is sharp.

So, on balance, Mitt is correct in saying that parents need to become more involved in what their kids do before and especially early on in school. And he is right that we need first-rate teachers. But he is wrong to say that small classes are not a benefit to the kids. And he must realize that teachers’ unions are essential if we are to hope to improve the condition of the chronically low-paid teachers in this country and attract a better quality of mind to the profession, which he admits we need.