A Straight Shot of Politics

A blog from a gentleman of the Liberal political persuasion dedicated to right reason, clear thinking, cogent argument, and the public good.

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Location: Columbus, Ohio, United States

I have returned from darkness and quiet. I used to style myself as "Joe Claus", Santa Claus’ younger brother because that is what I still look like. I wrote my heart out about liberal politics until June of 2006, when all that could be said had been said. I wrote until I could write no more and I wrote what I best liked to read when I was young and hopeful: the short familiar essays in Engish and American periodicals of 50 to 100 years ago. The archetype of them were those of G.K. Chesterton, written in newspapers and gathered into numerous small books. I am ready to write them again. I am ready to write about life as seen by the impoverished, by the mentally ill, by the thirty years and more of American Buddhist converts, and by the sharp eyed people [so few now in number] with the watcher's disease, the people who watch and watch and watch. I am all of these.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

So What Is Education For, Anyway?

This time I'll quote the starting point directly from the Anchoress:

It's a discussion that's long-overdue: What is high-school doing to prepare ALL of our kids to be wage-earners who have a share and a stake in the American Dream?

I have been getting too close to the Anchoress' personal boundaries lately, and I have let our general dialog rest for a while. But I agree this discussion is long overdue, and while I have only had direct contact with the problem from the teaching side of the desk, rather than the parenting side, I think it serious enough to speak my mind, whether I make a fool of myself from my one-sided experience or not.

I did ask the Anchoress, in the comment page of the post from which I took the above quotation, to speak more particularly as a parent to these issues, but in doing so, I again came far too close to the boundaries of her personal privacy.

My first question to anyone who is dissatisfied with how secondary or college education is operating as a public institution is this:

What do you want schools to teach to ALL children, whatever the reason?

This is what the "public" in public schools is about, the things that are in the general public interest for all citizens and taxpayers to know. If you can answer it, you might just find that those on the other side of the desk are far more willing to accommodate you than you might at first believe, despite your distrust of the NEA, and your suspicion that such teacher's unions are what keep American education from being all it can be, because it keeps teachers from being "accountable".

We are, I think, not unaware that we could always do the how of education a little better, but we do get tired of being asked by the public (or its ideological component parts) to read their minds about what we should be teaching. Public schools are still largely controlled by elected local school boards and by state school standards framed by State Legislatures.

Under these conditions, if the public takes the time to come to a common agreement on what should be taught, as well as make its wishes in the matter known, I don't think changing the content of public schooling would be that much of a problem. The public, so far, has not done done this, whatever may be their dissatisfaction with "unaccountable" teachers.

Here is the Anchoress' answer to my question:

I think high schools should teach history (real history, not PC history, thanks) and English, writing, critical thinking and exposure to Plato shouldn't be limited to AP classes.

She has more to say about what the vocational, non-college-prep, component of high school should or could be, but that is clearly not what should be done for all children as a matter of the public interest in a public school. Rather, it is alternative for some which many, like the Anchoress, find wanting in high school as it stands, and should, as such an alternative, be provided.

With reservations, I would probably agree. For this is also, I think, in the public interest, though I do not support the strong class-ridden educational channeling of the European systems.

I will almost certainly have more to say about the Anchoress's answer in a further post, particularly on the issue of history, but for the moment I want to answer my own question and explore what the public--and universal--component of public high school should be.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, one in 5 adults reads at or below the 5th grade reading level. Nearly 2 out of 5 older Americans (65 and older) and minorities read at or below the 5th grade reading level. On average, adult Americans read between the 8th and 9th grade reading levels. Their average math scores are reputed to be slightly lower.

Is this really as bad as it sounds? I'm not so sure.

Consider that routine regular high school enrollment for all children is itself a product of the early 20th century progressive response to the child labor problem. Before then, it did not exist, and it was typical for children in most walks of life to end formal schooling somewhere around the eighth grade. After quitting school, they got far more reading practice in the general culture than people do now, for the printed word was the unrivaled primary source of both entertainment and instruction, until the advent of radio and film in the early 20th century.

Perhaps we are looking at a limit in the overall capacities of the American population itself. We should at least consider it. Reading and mathematics are like anything else, they deteriorate from lack of practice.

I strongly suspect that the average reading level of those coming out of high school is somewhere around 10th or 11th grade and it regresses to its eight grade average as a result of lack of reading practice in a culture--unlike those of our 18th and 19th centuries past--where reading is only one way, and perhaps not the most popular way, of entertaining and informing oneself, and math is merely a chore, and not a way of entertaining oneself at all.

If this is the case, and high school teachers managed in some magic way to "teach better" and bring everybody in their schools up to 12th grade level, the overall gain to American life might not be all that great--merely a grade or two more in the overall average, and perhaps some contraction in the range.

If so, what is High School good for? And what should we be teaching in it?

Now if you read the typical cant and claptrap about American "educational needs" you will consistently find some overarching--but never evidentially supported--notion that the pace of technological progress in modern life somehow creates a need to "know more" than we used to.

This notion has been around a long time. I remember it clearly from my school days when popular magazine and newspaper articles were lamenting that more children weren't being taught the skills of the future, like the computer languages BASIC and COBOL, and the practical job skills of keying in computer punchcards. (How many of my readers can even recall ever seeing such cards, I wonder?)

For the life of me, I don't see why today's high school children need to know more than I did, or than my father did, and we both finished high school. Consider the typewriter keyboard and the word processing program. Nothing essential about touch typing, except the force with which you pound the keys, has changed since the days of 100lb. Bond, onion skin, and carbon papers. (And how many of my readers clearly know the difference between these three, I wonder?)

I know without a question that the most practically useful course I ever took in high school was the one in touch typing. The next most useful was Driver's Education. Many schools have now dropped this because of the liability and insurance issue. The third most useful was being on the school debating team, and this was, even then, an extracurricular activity, and not a formal class. High schools are fast losing all extracurricular activities as more time, attention, and money is poured into the "standardized proficiency test" mania in the interests of "accountability".

The fourth most useful (and it is way down on the list) was choral singing, and the least useful (since it requires the most talent and motivation) was art making. Music making and art making are also fast becoming a thing of the past in many high schools as this country continues, through deliberate public policy, to flush the ever increasing majority of its wealth and income into the reservoirs of the already rich, impoverishing strapped school district of tax revenue.

These were the only five new skills that were taught to me in high school.

The rest of the time I spent merely practicing old skills with different content. And I when I rack my brain to think of relevant new skills that I needed to know, but which were not taught to me in high school, I really can't identify any, though from the experience of a youthful career largely in the arts, I think that art making could have been taught far more effectively to me for much less capital investment.

Of course, I could have been taught keypunch. And maybe these days the only skills we really need to teach in high school are touch typing and standardized test taking. I think that, largely, that is all we do teach there.

This is the essential key to the problem of high school. What is taught there is not skills (except remedially) but content. Even higher mathematics--Algebra, Geometry, Trigonometry, Calculus, Statistics--is essentially arcane content which I have hardly ever used, though I take pride in doing as much everyday arithmetic as possible in my head, without the aid of calculators.

The arcaneness of mathematical content for most students is justified by most proponents of education in higher mathematics as a means of learning "critical thinking". I studied all of these higher mathematical branches either in high school or in college and I have yet to discern that I am a more critical thinker because of it.

In the sciences classes, if they are anything like they used to be, high school students are taught about the conclusions scientists have already come to, with, perhaps, a few entertaining hands on demonstrations (like dissecting frogs) thrown in. They do not do actual science and do not confront what is unknown in scientific disciplines, which is the most interesting part. They generally memorize what the best authorities say is known in science so they may take standardized tests about them.

Indeed, in some sciences, such as geography, the authoritative things things I was taught were as evancescent as keypunch. There was once a time when I could locate and name every European colony on the planet, as well as name the colonial power who administered it. Of course, I was very well educated, and have always done well on standardized tests.

Now I have deliberately avoided the items on the Anchoress' list so far in this discussion, because I want to make a point about what is not on that list. What is not on that list is virtually everything I have talked about in the above paragraphs. This is precisely the content problem personified.

The Anchoress is a devout, Catholic, humanist, whose profession is writing, whose cradle speech is English, and whose adult religious choice, I strongly suspect, was a reaffirmation of her childhood Catholic confirmation and infant baptism. The first things that come to her mind as the public component of education, which everyone should know in life, whoever they are and whatever vocation they may take up, are the things that serve her private outlook on life and values.

It is an immensely hard thing to step beyond this for anyone. And, in as ideologically riven a society as ours, a public consensus on what should be public in public education is quite difficult. It requires you to step out of your own skin a little.

But if I were to try to step beyond my own skin and say what should be public in public high school education I would articulate the following list of new high school skills that should be formalized as courses: touch typing, automobile driving, formal debate, drawing from models and still life, reading and writing in a second language already taught as speech in lower grades, cooking and housekeeping, and library and computer research.

I would also suggest that whatever other content we decide on as necessary should be taught in a way that I was taught one thing, English Literature and Grammar, in junior high school, by the best public school teacher I ever had, bar none.

In my youth two immensely full books of grammar and literature, respectively, were typically shoehorned into each English class--an insane amount of content for 36 weeks of school. Mr. Daughterman was a very mild and gentle, but very determined, man who carefully prodded all his students through that entire course of content of every page of both the grammar and the literature books in nine months! He did this by wasting absolutely no time whatever, and by being patiently, but immovably, insistent about it. No other English teacher I knew ever came even close to doing this.

He was very good. But then he had to be. Some parents had spread the rumor (completely untrue) that he was a Communist, and it was the gossip of all the children of the junior high school, as well as of the PTA. After that, no one else in my public school system ever had to be more "accountable" than Mr. Daughterman, for every hostile eye was on him from the first day of classes to the last. He was both good and lucky. He managed to move on to central school administration before the stress of teaching under those conditions had undermined his health.

There. The long-overdue discussion is started. What do you think, Anchoress?

7 Comments:

Blogger The Anchoress said...

You misread me, Joe. I couldn't get into the subject from my own life's perspective just because I was not able at that moment to write about it...I remember that day, it was super-busy and had me crotchety. I will make a point of linking to you and responding, hopefully tonight, as I am jumping into the car, now.

3:22 PM  
Blogger Dave Justus said...

I like a lot of what you have to say here. I linked to your post and went into some more details of my thoughts here.

6:01 PM  
Anonymous Alan said...

Yes Joseph, the things you have pointed to are very much needed. My heart weeps to see what the educational system is doing to our children. They are being robbed of their childhood, sucked dry by the pounding and memorization of concepts. Day after day having to stuff more “information”, unprocessed content. Where are the senses being nurtured? The heart forces, with reverence, respect, socialization, use of the limbs particularly the hands, in play and the use of various materials and mediums, the sense of color, the sense of touch and on it goes. What ever happened to “process”. Contraction and expansion within the context of a day in the classroom and age appropriate activities. Little children don’t think, they do, immerse themselves in play and experience. Are not these things the foundation for all that is to follow. Are not concepts to be left open for the next stage of development to be further examined, enriched and deepened? The machinery of education geared to productivity in later life. The destination so clear as to lose the wonder of the journey, gratitude, awe of nature, love of learning and service to a higher aim are being left in the dust of fear for achievement, position in life, material gain, economic security. Thank god teachers nurture despite the charge to score well. High school! My three children have just entered high school. We are lucky; it’s a good one. Many are not! Alan.

10:18 PM  
Blogger Jeannine said...

Joe, this is an interesting post. I just wonder what you mean with "the strong class-ridden educational channeling of the European systems".
As I am German and went to school mainly in Germany, I'm interested in what you do not appreciate in European systems (which are quite diverse) and what you do appreciate.
I have a lot of friends from the US (living there and quite some living here in Germany) and we talked quite a lot about schools. What in my opinion should be taught more at American highschools is foreign languages. And not just one for a year. But a teaching that students are able to really communicate in a foreign language. This also furthers understanding for different cultures. And if they ever live abroad for their or their spouses' job, learning a foreign language will not seem as threatening as it does if you never really learned one.

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