Words To Ponder

Ulysses S. Grant was a truly remarkable general during the Civil War. After several of his generals failed to win a single battle in the first years of the war, Lincoln heard about a general in the West who was winning in stunning fashion. He considered bringing the general East and putting him in charge of the Army of the Potomac which was gun-shy and had a habit of losing. He was warned that the man was a drinker and he famously said, “Find out what he is drinking and give some to the rest of my generals.” The rest, as they say, is history. Grant went on to defeat the man whom many regard as an even greater general than he was.

In the event, Grant became President of the United States. As is often the case with the “Peter Principle” it happened that a person who was good in one position demonstrated after promotion that he was not very good at another. In a word, his presidency was repleat with scandals and Grant was at best a fair and middling president, great general though he was.

But he was brilliant and a wordsmith whose battle-field commands to his troops were written with remarkable clarity and who was able late in life, at the urging of his good friend Mark Twain, to write his Personal Memoirs which are regarded as an example of the highest expression of the writer’s craft. His words not only sounded and read well, they made sense. Unlike a president whose name will not be mentioned, the man could make his ideas crystal clear and his ideas were worth pondering.

A good friend of mine is currently reading a biography of Grant written by Ron Chernow and he was so impressed by a passage in the biography he sent it to me and I would like to share it with you. If nothing else, it provides a sharp contrast to the outpourings of words that comes forth from the Oval Office these days. But it provides a great deal more. It provides ideas worth pondering.

Note that when Grant talks about “free schools” he is talking about public education which has lately come under fire and is blamed by many for the growing number of shortcomings this country has experienced. Indeed, there are those on the right of the political spectrum who would eliminate public education altogether and insist that the government subsidize private schools.  Many of those are of the “spiritually certain” persuasion who insist upon melding in mysterious ways church and state. Grant opposed both. Chernow begins with a quote from Grant:

“‘The free school is the promoter of that intelligence which is to preserve us as a nation.’ He affirmed that in the near future, ‘the dividing line will not be Mason & Dixon but between patriotism, & intelligence on the one side & superstition, ambition & ignorance on the other.’ He wound up with an eloquent appeal for separating church and state: ‘Encourage free schools and resolve that not one dollar of money appropriated to their support no matter how raised, shall be appropriated to the support of any sectarian school … Leave the matter of religion to the family circle, the church & the private school support[ed] entirely by private contributions. Keep the church and the state forever separate.’”

Let’s focus on the initial comment: “The free [public] school is the promoter of that intelligence which is to preserve us as a nation.” This strikes me as a penetrating observation as it brings together two ideas that are often found far apart: the preservation of a free society and the education of the young. The founders knew, as did Grant, that these two must be bound together and protected against erosion from special interests, greed, and the lust for power. The latter forces are taking over in this country as we find increasing evidence that our young people are not intelligent (on the whole) and the schools are failing while defending themselves from demands that they be all things to all people — and do so for little or no money.

It is time for us to face the fact that this country will not survive as a Republic if the education system is not radically overhauled. This will require at the very least that the teachers who are overworked and under-compensated be paid an attractive salary and at the same time that the Education Establishment (smilingly referred to as the “Blob”) acknowledges that the system is not working. Compared with tiny Finland, for example, the United States is failing its children. Period. Full stop. The teachers in Finland are rewarded for their efforts and the best and brightest college graduates seek jobs in the classroom whereas in this country we attract the students from the lower third of the student population in our public colleges and universities. Teaching doesn’t pay in America and it lacks prestige. This is not a formula for success.

Education must be a top priority in a country where athletes earn obscene amounts of money and teachers must work in the Summers simply to make ends meet. There is no question that were the priorities of this government different a great deal of money might be spent healing the wounds in public education instead of, say, building a wall separating this country from Mexico. The money is there. We simply choose to spend it on wall-building and what we like to call “defense.” But we need to defend ourselves against ignorance which is the greater threat to this country and to the ideals that have made it great.

Let us, indeed, make America great again. Let us inject lifeblood into a sick and weakened education system which we require to “preserve us as a nation.”

 

 

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Hard To Believe

A recent story from the newswires of CNN raises some deep and disturbing issues:

Administrators shut down 24 schools in Augusta County, Virginia, on Friday after a homework assignment on Islam drew fury from parents, CNN reported.

Cheryl LaPorte, a world geography teacher at Riverheads High School, assigned her students homework using a standard workbook on world religions that asked students to copy religious calligraphy.
The assignment read: “Here is the shahada, the Islamic statement of faith, written in Arabic. In the space below, try copying it by hand. This should give you an idea of the artistic complexity of calligraphy.”
The calligraphy translated to, “There is no god but Allah, and Mohammed is the messenger of Allah,” according to CNN.
The assignment immediately drew ire from some parents who called for LaPorte’s firing for “violating children’s religious beliefs,” reported The News Leader, a local newspaper. The Virginia Department of Education reviewed the the assignment and found that it did not violate student rights.
The cancellation of school on Friday essentially started the district’s winter break early.
School administrators released a statement to parents saying that while there was no specific threat to students, schools were closed on Friday.
They cited a risk of harm to officials as the reason for the closure. “Some communications posed a risk of harm to school officials,” the school’s statement read, according to WHSV-TV, a local news station. “Others threatened significant protests on or near school property. Those communications are in the hands of the sheriff.”

The threats to teachers and administrators raises the greatest concern. We have truly become a nation of bigots and haters who see no reason not to threaten those who disagree with us. And, of course, there are those running for the highest office in this land who not only encourage this attitude, but give it strong impetus. One might feel these things, but it takes assurance from those around us to actually make those feelings public. And when those around us are led by a few who are regarded as smarter  (and more “successful”) than the rest of us, it becomes all too tempting to give vent to the most hateful feeling that are deep within us. And if this seems a bit of a stretch, please consider that Donald the Trumpet, for one, recently spoke with an interviewer about his relationship with Vladimir Putin whom he admires as a “strong leader” and responded to the question of whether he would approve the killing of journalists with the following dismissal: “He’s running his country and he’s a leader,” . . . Unlike what we have in this country.”

In any event, at a time when we need increased understanding of those who differ from us, the parents who shouted loudly at this class assignment were guaranteeing that they and their children would have little or nothing to do with the religion of Islam. “Don’t confuse me with the facts. My mind is made up.” This sort of attitude tells us many things, but above all else it shows what a difficult, if not impossible, job our teachers have in opening closed minds when the parents of their students resist strongly and threaten grievous bodily harm. It was wise to close the schools until tempers cool off. But the deeper problems will persist.

Dreaming Aloud

When I am elected to be Philosopher King, I shall wave my magic wand to clean up some of the mess we are leaving for our children and their children, with special emphasis on the following:

1. Immediate cessation of fracking.

2. Promote the development of alternative energy with tax subsidies (commensurable with the ones currently enjoyed by Big Oil), including solar, wind,    and the tides.

3. Eliminate tax subsidies for oil exploration and development (shift them to #2).

4. Fund research into desalination methods to convert sea water into potable water for human and animal consumption and use in agriculture.

5. Tax the wealthy proportionally and reduce “defense” spending by half  to raise the money for the above.

6. Raise the minimum wage to $15.00 to help restore the middle class.

7. Mandate federal tax penalties on all families for any children beyond two to encourage “zero population growth.” Tax breaks for childless couples or those with only one child.

8. Restore, on a permanent basis, international family planning programs that have twice been eliminated by Republican administrations.

9. Eliminate teachers colleges and all certification requirements for teachers. Require all teachers to take a solid core of liberal arts courses and a legitimate academic major with a fifth year as an intern working with an experienced teacher.

10. Raise starting teacher’s salaries by at least 50% to attract the best and the brightest.

11. Disallow all electronic toys in schools, except computers, and require writing, reading, and memorization of such things as poetry and the multiplication tables.

12. Predicate all wages and salaries in all lines of work on years of schooling to encourage students to remain in school and pay attention.

13.Eliminate all donations above $100.00 in political elections and eradicate all lobbying by special interests at the state and federal levels.

14. Implement term limits in all public offices at the state and federal levels.

Well, I can dream, can’t I??

Take Jameis Winston, e.g.

The off-field activities of the college football player Jameis Winston are most thought-provoking. As you may recall, he is the Sophomore quarterback at Florida State University where he won the Heisman trophy as a Freshmen. As was the case with “Johnny Football” before him, the award and subsequent attention seem to have gone to his head. Winston is under investigation by the University for alleged rape of a young women last year. He was also arrested for shop-lifting some crab-legs. And recently he was suspended by his team (for half a game!) for standing on a table in the student union and shouting obscenities. In each case he appeared before the public in a choreographed press conference where he told the gathered reporters that he has learned his lesson and this will not happen again. Yeah, right. He is an example of a self-involved youth who feels himself entitled to special treatment. After all, he has received it most of his life, why not now? And, of course, there are growing numbers of athletes at the collegiate and professional levels whose behavior is not only violent, but also exemplify the type of person described by Thomas Jefferson (of all people) in the early part of the nineteenth century:

“Now, take any race of animals, confine them in idleness and inaction, whether in a stye, or a stateroom, pamper them with high diet, gratify all their sexual appetites, immerse them in sensualities, nourish their passions, let everything bend before them, and banish whatever might lead them to think, and in a few generations they become all body and no mind.”

There is a good deal of talk about holding athletes to a “higher standard of decency,” but I would be perfectly satisfied if they were held to the same standards as everyone else: one would not expect anyone to stand on a table in a public place shouting obscenities, to rape young women, or to steal crab legs. But let us not assume for a moment that this sort of behavior is limited to spoiled athletes. Let us admit that today’s youth — well into adulthood — have been so indulged. In our schools where self-esteem is the name of the game, spoiled children, raised by tired, preoccupied parents who have been told by so-called “experts” not to thwart the child’s natural instincts, develop a sense of entitlement that assures each of them that they are the only ones that really matter in this world. They, too, resemble Jefferson’s type described above: they become “all body and no mind.” The example of athletes such as Winston are simply extreme cases of a phenomenon that has become widespread in this culture. Attention might be focused on those who seem larger than life, but while we may criticize their behavior we must admit that they are encouraged in our culture to behave in this manner and they are tokens of a type. Further, they have been told that if they appear sincere and say they are sorry they will be forgiven. After all, we want to see them play on Saturday . . . or Sunday . . .  or Monday night . . . or Thursday night.

In any event, let us keep our eye on the larger picture where a sense of entitlement is increasingly common, and certainly not restricted to athletes.  It is an attitude fostered in the homes and at school, and it stems from the wave of pop-psychology books that were published in the 1950s and 1960s telling parents and teachers how to raise and teach their children. So their parents, exhausted from the work-a-day world where they struggle to provide their families with “necessities,” seldom discipline their children; and in school, where the self-esteem movement has roots going back to Rousseau, they are told they are terrific when they are not. This is certain to turn out young people who feel entitled to whatever it is they think they might want.

Jefferson knew a thing or two. We shouldn’t wonder at the behavior of spoiled, rich athletes or kids out of control: the chickens are coming home to roost.

Computer Fix (Revisited)

I am re-blogging a slightly modified post I entered well over a year ago because it is still timely. In fact, our obsession with electronic toys has grown by leaps and bounds and those who keep “updating” our schools by supplying all the kids with computers are ignoring the facts. This was brought home to me recently when reading a story in the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

The story recounted the determination of the St. Paul School Board to put iPads in the hands of every student from kindergarten through high school. The district recently passed a referendum that allowed them to allocate $9 million a year for the next few years for its “Personalized Learning Through Technology Program.” I kid you not! $5.7 million will be spent this year and $8 million a year thereafter to make sure no students are left behind (as it were.)  According to spokespersons, this “would make learning more engaging, hands-on, and tailored to the needs of the students on their own digital turf.” I hasten to note that this person is speaking about “wants” and not “needs,” since it’s not clear that the students need to be met on their own digital turf. Rather, they should move from that turf and seek something higher, something that will actually make them smarter and not just indulge their current urges. What they need is better teachers who are paid a living wage. But a $9 million referendum that might be used to raise teachers’ salaries would surely fail to pass. Parents may agree to build more buildings, put toys in the hands of their kids, and expand the sports programs; they will never agree to pay the teachers what they are worth. And this explains a great deal about why America’s schools are in the dumpster at present.

But, the spokesperson, responds, “Our students are millennialists who have tremendous digital fluency and we must tap into that.” To which I simply ask “why?” Why should we tap into a fluency they already possess? Shouldn’t we seek to develop skills they do not already possess? How else can they grow? But of course, the name of the game these days is to lower the bar and meet the students where they are even though this means they will remain where they are. The point was made by a pundit in the same paper who agrees with me that this is a complete waste of money and totally wrong-headed.  Joe Soucheray points put that “First of all, iPads are not learning tools. They are toys. It is not plausible that the average kid handed a free iPad is going to do anything with it but play games and get deeper and deeper into the social media funk, while, meanwhile, perfectly good books are going unread and unknown and gathering dust on the shelves.”

It seems as though every photo we see showing a modern classroom puts the smiling kids in front of a computer screen: we have become convinced that these tools are indispensable and of unquestioned value to all students of all ages. But this is not the case. We are being sold a bill of goods. The good folks in St. Paul, Minnesota have been sold a bill of goods. And, I dare say, other communities will want to “keep up” and will soon decide that their kids need more technical toys as well. The problem, as Jane Healy pointed out years ago and which has been corroborated numerous times since, is that mounting evidence shows these devices leave the left hemisphere of the child’s brain undeveloped and they are subsequently unable to develop speech and thinking skills. There are a number of “windows of opportunity” that are open in the child’s early years. Once those windows are closed by replacing reading and story-telling with TV and other electronic toys, it becomes nearly impossible to open them again. This strikes me as a problem worth pondering again.

Professor Healy, whom I have referred to in these blogs before, has written a book Failure to Connect that comes out against computer assisted learning, especially in the early grades. Her message comes through with considerable conviction and persuasive power. One of the reviewers on Amazon who knows whereof he speaks gave the book high grades:

“As a person who grew up in the technology age, who has over 10 yrs of experience in industry, who has two young children in public schools, and who happens to be working on a Ph.D in issues of technology and society, I am directly involved with the issues she raises. Healy’s research and argumentation leave something to be desired, but her basic conclusions are correct: there is little or no justification for the use of computers or other high technology devices in schools, especially elementary and middle schools. [Those] who are critical of Healy are not addressing the main points: (1) there is little evidence that computer-aided instruction improves academic performance; (2) there is sufficient evidence, although no proof, that computer usage can be both physically and mentally harmful, and this justifies great caution; (3) the idea that kids need computer experience ‘to get ready for the real world’, or ‘to be competitive’, is a complete myth. Everything a child needs to learn about computers can be accomplished in the last few years of high school. Children in K-5 especially have virtually zero need for computer technology, and no one I have come across has provided arguments to the contrary.

“Too many teachers and parents mindlessly follow along with the trend of computerizing our schools. In a debate dominated by one side, all opposing views are welcome. Healy provides an accessible account of the anti-technology case, and this alone makes her book well worth reading.”

I quote the comments at some length because they are both well stated and also to the point. It is certainly the case that the argument in favor of using computers in the classroom has been made, for the most part, by those with a vested interest in their use — to wit, the corporations that stand to profit from computer sales. Parents and teachers have also found it a way to keep the kids occupied, and it appears as though they are a terrific aid to learning. They can be, but only if we equate “learning” with “collecting information.” Real learning requires good teaching and the asking of pertinent questions. Healy, in contrast with those who defend the toys, has no axe to grind. Further, she has had considerable classroom experience and has also taught in schools of education. She started her career in complete support of computer-assisted learning and after years of hands-on experience and considerable research decided that putting computers in the hands of young kids is a serious mistake. Listen up, St. Paul, Minnesota!!

Healy has for years given careful thought to the question of what we are doing to our kids’ minds. Modern brain scan devices have provided us with mounting evidence of the damage these toys can do and that evidence is strong, as the reviewer above suggests. We should pull back and rethink our fascination with things technical: they appear to be damaging the brains of those who use them, especially young kids. Whether or not we buy Healy’s thesis, prudence would urge caution, surely, though it’s a bit late for that in St. Paul.

Is there any better way for a child to learn than to have them in a room with a dedicated teacher who listens, asks questions, and carefully explains what kids need to know? Surely not. It takes work and a devotion to what one is doing, but computer toys simply cannot replace dialogue. We need to think again about our mindless conviction that what is newer and faster is ipso facto better. What can technical wizardry possibly promise that would in fact improve on human contact and interaction? Nothing.

The Teacher As Victim

If Richard Hofstadter were writing today as he did in 1962 when he explored the origins of anti-intellectualism in this country, he might be struck by the open attacks on the public school system. But he would not be surprised by the low opinion the general public has of the teacher in the schools. In his book, Anti-Intelectualism in American Life, Hofstadter quotes at length a pamphlet written by a New England farmer, William Manning of North Billerica, Massachusetts in 1798. Manning argues as best he can against “book learning” and defends a pragmatic theory of education in which children are taught their three R’s but little else. As Hofstadter tells us:

At the heart of Manning’s philosophy was a profound suspicion of the learned and property-holding classes. Their education, their free time, and the nature of their vocations made it possible, he saw, for the merchants, lawyers, doctors, clergymen, and executive and judicial officers of state to act together in pursuit of their ends, as the laboring man could not.

Now if we dismiss the bit of paranoia at the heart of Manning’s attack on the intelligentsia of his day, he has an interesting point — one that goes a long way toward explaining why the popular mind has such a low opinion of teachers whom Manning sees as also belonging to the leisure class. That is to say (as Manning himself put it), they are among “those that live without work.” Please note here that “work” means laboring, sweating, physical engagement in “the real world.” Life in the ivory tower or the classroom is clearly other-worldly, and does not involve real work. I suspect this is an attitude that is shared by many today who see the teachers around them working short hours with long vacations. Folks who struggle to succeed in the work-a-day world don’t regard those who teach as doing real work. “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” Or, as President Joseph Caldwell of the University of North Carolina said late in the nineteenth century, “To teach school is, in the opinion of many, little else than sitting still and doing nothing.” I suspect that many a teacher would love to see these folks spend a week in front of one of their classes!

But rather than choose sides on this issue (and it is clear which side one who taught for 42 years would come down on!) I would like to draw some lessons from all this. To begin with, the attack on our schools is nothing less that one of the many signs of the anti-intellectualism that pervades this country. The notion that teachers don’t do real work is, I dare say, widely shared — given the misconceptions that are abroad. I know when I taught at the university level there were several studies undertaken in order to fend off the attacks of the critics who hold the purse strings that showed the average college professor worked 62 hours a week. The public misconceptions arose from the fact that the normal teaching load was 12 hours of classroom teaching a week, even less in larger universities where professors publish or perish. So folks naturally assumed that college professors are lazy and overpaid. Some are, to be sure, but not all. Even more unsettling, however, is the fact that I know a number of high school teachers, of all people, who regard college professors as among those who “live without work.” There’s resentment all around us! But the critics are wrong: teaching is real work, at any level. The notion that a 12 hour class load is not real work ignores the countless hours a college professor spends preparing lectures, advising students, attending (boring) meetings, and grading papers. I am sure elementary and high school teachers, who must not only teach their subject but also try to keep order among unruly kids, spend many hours away from their classrooms doing the same sorts of things as well — including, in their cases, meeting with parents. Anyone who thinks this is not real work needs to think again.

But very little thought is involved in this controversy, as we can see by reflecting on what the Massachusetts farmer was saying in the eighteenth century. When one’s frame of reference defines real work as laboring in the fields or spending eight hours a day in a shop, a cubicle, or on the assembly line, the life of the teacher must seem easy and totally lacking in worth. Despite the fact that a solid core of merchants and businessmen in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, like Andrew Carnegie, were staunch supporters of education as developing young minds, after the Civil War the antipathy between the average business person and the intellectual became sharper and deeper, and as more and more of the nation’s children needed to be schooled education increasingly became a matter of “life adjustment” or job preparation, and teachers continued to be held in low esteem. Increasing numbers of business persons, and others in the work-a-day world, adopted the perspective of the farmer from Massachusetts. And that’s the key here: we are faced by two opposing and conflicting world-views. This is not an issue that can be settled by thoughtful debate. It is an issue of the heart: it’s about feelings, such as resentment and envy based on misconceptions. One can hope to correct those misconceptions, but I doubt that the feelings will be altered by even the most lengthy discussion.

In a word, the anti-intellectualism that Hofstadter so carefully examines has its roots deep in a country that was wrestled away from the wilderness (and the native people) by men and women of little learning but immense courage, practical skill, and determination. It’s easy to see why they and their progeny distrust those who get paid to work with their minds and seem to have it easy. Even today in the popular mind teachers “live without work.” This is nonsense, of course, but it is what a great many people believe and I don’t see it changing in the near future. Unless there is a radical change in cultural perspective, teachers will continue to have it hard and can expect little or no sympathy from those who are convinced they are overpaid and “live without work” — which goes a long way toward explaining why this country’s educational system is in such dire straits.

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.

Waste and Abuse

I read with interest a recent post by Mindful Stew in which the author made the outrageous suggestion that teachers be paid what they are worth. Well, actually he suggested they be paid $100,000 to start, but that was to get our attention. And he did get readers’ attention! The comments were numerous and many of them insightful, though others a bit spiteful. The most frequent objection to the notion that we should pay more taxes to support public education is that there is waste and lack of accountability in the public sector. This is true.

I worked for nearly four decades in the public sector, teaching at a small Midwestern public university where I saw countless examples of waste and downright stupidity. As coach of the women’s tennis team, for example, I was expected to order supplies from approved vendors whose names were on a list provided to all coaches when I could buy a gross of tennis balls from Wal-Mart for 35% less than I would have to pay the “approved” vendor — which I did. The women’s basketball team would climb on a bus and travel five hours to Duluth to play a game on the same night the Duluth men’s team came to our campus! Eventually this stopped, but the objection at the time was that if the men and women played in the same place on the same night the men would get a larger audience. So for that reason the practice went on for years. Needless to say, the athletic teams — even at this small university  — stayed in expensive motels. And then there was the time-honored budgetary practice of punishing frugal employees. If the budget was not spent at the end of the fiscal year next year’s budget would be cut by that amount. And there are countless other examples of waste and stupidity. I dare say my readers who work or have worked in the public sector could add many of their own.

So let’s agree that there is waste and abuse of the money we send the state or the federal government to help provide services. There should be accountability, clearly. And employees should be rewarded when they save the taxpayers money, not punished — as should departments and agencies. But none of this really addresses the central issue which is that our teachers are horribly underpaid — barely above poverty levels in many states. For many teachers there needs to be another wage-earner in the family and it is a rare example of a teacher who can even think of buying a home, especially in the first years.

As a consequence of these low salaries, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of young people in this country who steer away from teaching because they know they will struggle. It shouldn’t be about money, but money is essential. Anyone who denies that is purblind or downright stupid. Many of the comments on “Stew’s” blog were from people who went another direction because of the low salaries in teaching. As a consequence, numerous studies suggest that nationwide we are now drawing from the bottom third or in some cases the bottom fourth of the college pool: our teachers were not among the highest achievers in our colleges — as a rule. I have heard from and read blogs by teachers who are sharp and very committed (including “mindful stew”), and while teaching at the college level for forty years I had a number of advisees who became outstanding teachers. But these people are the exception, sad to say.  In most cases around the country our kids are not getting the best teachers and it is not a huge leap to conclude that much of this is due to low salaries which bring with them low self-esteem and low-expectations. I have even read a couple of comments that pointed out that the kids themselves have a low opinion of their teachers because they know they are poorly paid. I dare say they hear this at home. In our culture, like it or not, money speaks volumes.

In any case, while I might blanch at starting teachers at $100,000 a year, a salary of $50,000 does seem reasonable. We can all certainly afford to pay a few hundred dollars more a year to support education. But in the meantime, if the school districts have a problem finding the money to pay the teachers they could save a considerable amount of money by reducing the number of administrators and support staff by 50-60% There’s a bunch of money going to waste there! A couple of well-organized administrators and two or three efficient secretaries could run a school of several thousand easily. It is done in business all the time, though I hate to suggest that we borrow from the business model. Or (and I hesitate to say this) we could reduce the inordinate number of athletic teams at the high school and college levels and concentrate on the few that truly benefit the students and contribute to the goal of educating young minds. But this borders on heresy.

Bizarro World!

I always loved Jerry Seinfeld’s humor and my wife and I watched the re-runs of his sit-com until we could say the lines with the actors. One episode developed the notion of a “bizarro world” where everything is backwards. The idea is stolen from Lewis Carroll, of course, but many a good idea was stolen from someone else. In any event, I sometimes think we live in such a world — especially when I listen to or read some of the comments made by politicians. A case in point is a series of remarks by Mitt Romney quoted in today’s Yahoo News in which he made comments about tax cuts that John Sununu felt necessary to defend. (If we judge people by the company they keep we must be at least mildly concerned by Mitt’s new friends.)  In any event, Romney’s comments, in part, are as follows:

“He [President Obama] wants to hire more government workers. He says we need more fireman, more policeman, more teachers. Did he not get the message of Wisconsin?” Romney said, referring to the failed recall effort of Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker. “The American people did. It’s time for us to cut back on government and help the American people.”

Of course, we can expect the Republicans to play the Wisconsin card at every opportunity. Indeed, if Walker had been recalled the Democrats would have played the same card. But in any event, the notion that “America” has spoken is absurd: the voters in Wisconsin spoke on one issue that makes clear their desire to hang on to their money until their eyeballs pop out. It is, as I am fond of pointing out, a case of short-term thinking that plagues us all. We can’t see the forest for the trees. We think that by saving a few tax dollars we will benefit. We may in the short term, but certainly not in the long run: the cost will be irremediable.

There is simply no way reducing the numbers of firemen, police, and teachers can benefit this country. To say, as Romney apparently did, that “it’s time to cut back on government to help the American people” is oxymoronic, to coin a term. How is it going to help the American people to have a few more dollars in their pocket if there are not enough policemen to keep thieves from stealing them? Or if their house is burning and the remaining firemen are putting out a fire somewhere else? Or if their children grow up and keep electing the same damned fools their parents voted in?

I am aware that government has grown huge. But much of that growth has resulted from individual and, especially, corporate irresponsibility. Many of the government agencies that have sprung up are a direct result of the damage large corporations have done to the environment. Many more are the result of the fact that we all seem to lack foresight. But many, if not all, of these agencies are indeed essential to life as we have come to know it.  Making drastic cuts in essential services, especially at a time when the very rich do not pay their fair share of the taxes, is borderline crazy.

The idea that, as Sununu says (defending Romney), “there are too many teachers” is arrant nonsense. It is on the order of Romney’s notion that small classes don’t benefit the students — which I have discussed previously. Moreover, Sununu’s notion that teaching can be done on the internet is an idea that is catching on and I have also discussed that notion. It, too, is absurd.  Real teaching and learning cannot be accomplished on the internet. The suggestion that we need to reduce the number of teachers in this country is all part of the move to eliminate public schools altogether; it would leave more of our citizens uneducated than is already the case. We not only need more teachers, we need better teachers, and smaller classes.

But as long as we remain focused on reducing taxes by eliminating critical elements within this society such as teachers, firemen, and policemen [what are these men thinking?!], then we deserve the consequences that are sure to follow. Our society will become considerably more dangerous and its citizens even more stupid than they are now — judging by the remarks by these two politicians and by the recent vote in Wisconsin. Bizarro world, indeed: black is white, up is down, and we can make our kids smarter by reducing the pittance we now spend on education and our citizens safer by reducing the number of police and firemen.

Life Lessons

I wrote a blog recently about Phil Mickelson and the admirable things he is doing with his money to help those in need. In passing, I made reference to “The First Tee,” a charity it has become fashionable for obscenely wealthy golf pros to support — in their way. To be sure, one should applaud any attempt to help others, but a charity that is designed to teach young people how to play golf seems to be nothing more nor less than an excuse to promote golf, maybe have a photo-op, and take a tax break in the process. To be sure, the “charity” also claims to teach “life lessons” and that’s when things get interesting. Consider the following description of the charity.

The First Tee curriculum focuses on teaching character education and it’s “Nine Core Values” (honesty, integrity, sportsmanship, respect, confidence, responsibility, perseverance, courtesy, and judgment). The First Tee chapters use a teaching curriculum developed by experts in the field of positive youth development, and delivered by coaches. Through this experience, participants learn to transfer the values of golf to everyday life.

I have no idea what an “expert in the field of positive youth development” is, but let that pass. The nine “core values” that are “delivered by coaches” are certainly worthy values. But one must wonder aloud why it falls to coaches to teach “character education” when that would appear to be the job of parents, if “character education” is what I think it is — the phrase is somewhat opaque.

True, during recent years the job of teaching virtue has been shunted onto teachers and coaches because apparently the kids’ parents are too busy “making a living” to spend time raising their own children. They leave that to teachers and TV — and apparently to coaches as well. I will set aside the discussion of whether or not it is even possible for anyone except those in the immediate family to teach virtue (which Socrates insisted could not be taught at all, by the way). But the notion that it is the job of sports coaches to teach “core values” and “character” is absurd. Coaches teach athletes how to perform at a high level of skill in a sport. The “life lessons” are nothing more than affirmations of lessons the kids should have learned at home. If they haven’t been learned at home, they are certainly not going to be learned on a golf course. Let’s look at an example.

One of the core values is honesty. When a player grounds his golf club in a hazard he is supposed to “fess up” and take a stroke penalty. There are cases, even at the highest levels, where golfers actually do precisely this, and it is admirable. But I would argue that any golfer who does this is an honest person and that person learned to be honest by watching the way his or her parents and/or loved ones behaved and copying that behavior. We are talking about character here, and character is molded at home at an early age — not in later years at the local Country Club. The most a sports coach can do is reinforce that behavior and applaud the child when he or she behaves in an honest way. Coaches can teach kids golf; they cannot teach “life lessons.” And this would be true for all the nine “core values.” These values must be learned at home and, at best, reinforced in school and on the golf course. This is a worthy effort, but hardly justifies the hundreds of thousands of dollars that are spent on the effort by wealthy golf professionals that might be better spent on something worthwhile — like the preservation of the earth, for example, or saving the wolves. My guess is that the golf pros like to think they are “giving back” to the game while they take a nice little tax break. That’s what made Mickelson’s charitable works so praiseworthy: they seem to be genuine and not in the least self-serving. In any event, the pros who support “The First Tee” are certainly not teaching “life lessons.”