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41: Educators, O. J. Simpson, and Guilt

Main education books are listed at end

 
educators, O. j. simpson, and guilt
 
Did O.J. Simpson really stab two people to death? Fact is, we didn’t see it happen. We don’t have absolute proof. We have what the legal system calls circumstantial evidence. He was in the vicinity; he had motive; there were clues, many quite damning. Significantly, even though O.J. was acquitted, a vast majority of Americans decided that the circumstantial evidence is sufficient. O.J. is guilty.

So the fact is, we can feel sure of something that we can’t entirely prove. That formulation exactly describes my verdict on this country’s Education Establishment. Nothing is certain, but everything points in the same direction: guilty.

 
MEDIOCRITY

In the richest country on earth, which spends much more per student than any other country, we seem always to wallow in mediocrity. Why do you think that is so? Isn’t the answer obvious? Our elite educators (I never mean teachers) strive for mediocrity. At the very least, they settle for it. This is precisely what they’re guilty of. (Sort of like someone driving at 40 in the left lane of an interstate. You can be ticketed for that. You should be.)

The more I studied American education, the more I had the feeling of being at a crime scene. So much wasted talent, so many wounded (e.g., fifty million functional illiterates). What eats at you is that there is tragedy, but it is unnecessary. The people in charge of education didn’t have to go down the wrong road. They chose it.

In education, I don’t start from some idealistic notion that every kid can be a rocket scientist. I’m concerned with very simple goals: reading; writing; arithmetic; knowing the main geographical, historical and scientific facts; having enough general information to read the daily paper. But these easy goals are often not reached. It’s when you confront this failure that you are sure that our top educators are guilty of malfeasance. As guilty as O.J.
 
In fact, many prestigious commissions and authorities have reached the same conclusion. I’m particularly struck by Professor Arthur Bestor’s book “Educational Wastelands -- The Retreat From Knowledge In Our Public schools,” published more than 50 years ago. This book depicts an Education Establishment that is deliberately aiming low (inanely boasting all the while, “We don’t teach history. We teach children.”) In 1983, the “Nation at Risk” report concluded that our public schools were so bad they may as well have been designed by a hostile foreign power!

So, the failure of the schools is well established; indeed you hear top educators saying the system is broken from top to bottom, etc. And they’re talking about their own handiwork. As I say, the failure is a fact. What we need to articulate is motive and what police call “a theory of the crime.”

 
CONSPIRACY

A smart business person I know objected to my saying educators engaged in a “conspiracy.” Don’t people naturally work together to reach their common goals? But, you may object, the word “conspiracy” introduces the idea of breaking the law. In education, admittedly, there were no laws to break. There were traditions; there were the hopes and expectations that parents had; there were the promises that schools made. But no laws were on the books. The “conspiracy”--and I think the word should be used -- was that the people at the top schemed to bring about something that they didn’t dare talk about in public, and that no government body had voted on or authorized.

John Dewey, in his many books, articles and lectures, told his followers what he believed, namely, that America would become a socialist country, and that the job of the schools was to move us in that direction. I doubt he ever had a meeting with any of his friends when they were not “conspiring” to bring about his vision for this country.

Education is a subject that has bewitched smart people since the beginning of time. All the great minds had a lot of schooling, and often worked in schools. It was natural for them to think of how to set up the perfect school. For the Spartans, the perfect school was a military academy. For Rousseau, the perfect school might be a hippie academy. The point is, many intellectuals feel compelled to draw up blueprints for the perfect school; many of them spend a lifetime “conspiring” to make their ideas prevail. This is actually commonplace in education. Where we, today, would go wrong is 1) to pretend that this maneuvering wasn’t going on all the time and 2) not to hold people accountable when their ideas turn out to be whacky and destructive, as happened in this country.

In short, that Dewey and his socialists would try to use the schools to create socialist children is completely ordinary. That was the mission he preached at Teachers College. The Education Establishment has been throughout the 20th century a far-left group, always scheming, planning, plotting, conspiring, organizing--use any word you want --to make their “progressive” ideas prevail in the schools. We need to have a moment of truth about this: our public schools have been dumbed down because these collectivists believed in leveling, no matter apparently that children would be stunted and the society weakened.

As a practical matter, it takes work and planning to dumb down a school. Here is what you have to do. The first step is to whittle away at what is taught: tell parents that some topics are too difficult, irrelevant, or controversial. Then fill up the day with new, lighter fare. As for what’s left of the traditional curriculum, you undercut it by using pedagogies that are muddled and confused--Whole Word to teach reading; Reform Math to teach arithmetic; Critical Thinking, Constructivism, No Memorization et al to teach history or biology...Schools become elaborate charades, pretending to be engaged in education, but not actually accomplishing much education.

 

NOR WERE THEY INTENDED TO

About two years ago, I came up with a sweeping generalization about American education that still startles me, and yet I’m more and more sure that it’s true. No idea introduced by the Education Establishment during the 20th century actually enhanced education. Nor was it intended to! The top educators were not trying to enhance education. That’s the whole problem we have to confront. The cooperative child they wanted, the socialist society they wanted to create--none of these things needed a lot of what used to be called education.

I know that people don’t like to think badly about other people. In particular, many parents don’t want to accept the fact that the school is actually harming their children, that it may be guilty of what Samuel Blumenfeld called “institutionalized sadism.” That’s a tough thing to have to deal with. But look at all the millions of parents who take their kids out of public schools if they possibly can; millions more would if they could. Those parents understand the truth. It’s just a question of helping everybody else understand the defects in our public schools, the tragic impact of those defects, and why they are there.

My goal here is to make it easy for people to reach what I think are sensible conclusions: 1) schools could be doing a much better job so it’s reasonable to suppose they are being deliberately operated at a low level; 2) here is what we ought to do: get rid of these ideologues and their foolish ideas; 3) let’s return to basics and academics--start over to some degree; 4) but now we will be much cleverer and more creative about it because we have the Internet, computers, digital tools, video, all kinds of resources that didn’t exist 50 years ago.

Schools can be made more exciting, even as we steadily accomplish the essential job of giving kids literacy and basic competence in all areas. Now, here is where you may say I’m a dreamer but I truly believe that everything I’ve described would be easy. Falling-off-a-log easy. By aiming low for so many decades, our top educators have stunted our idea of what is possible--this is a terrible sin. Furthermore, it’s the weakest, most vulnerable students who are the biggest victims of the devotion to mediocrity. The cleverer students figure out things and outwit the intended dumbing-down. The slower students are frozen forever in the sixth or eight grade, academically speaking. We can do so much better.

 
ONE FACT EACH DAY
Let’s suppose in the first grade we set this goal: learn to read; learn to count; and learn one fact each day. Even Rousseauvians couldn’t claim that we were abusing children if we teach them one fact each day. No reasonable person could argue that. Now, look at how this will build. At the end of the year, without any sense of effort, the children would know 200 facts. At the end of second grade they would know 400 facts. And all of these facts would be the kind of foundational knowledge that we all must have in order to advance further.

The guiding philosophy would not be anything far-out and esoteric. That’s the kind of stuff our educators used to keep people below what they can be. I would suggest we need only one simple principle: we help each child go as far and as high as each one can go. Who could be against that? Sure, John Dewey and his gang. That’s precisely why we have to get rid of their influence. I mean, what normal person could be against that? I say not one.

What else do we need? Diversity and competition. The more the better! There is no need to design “the perfect school.” It would be better if we have many kinds of “perfect school” (public, private, charter, homeschooling). Let parents choose. Let children choose. The worst thing that can befall a country is that government has a monopoly on education; and then ideological extremists are allowed to seize control of the monopoly. That’s my summary of what happened in the United States. Among other sins, our educators are guilty of staging a coup. The rest of us are guilty of letting them get away with it. Can we say: no more.

 
"BEST PRACTICE"
Some reformers put a lot of emphasis on finding and supporting “best practice.” It took me a while to see the flaw in this approach. These reformers are assuming the Education Establishment is interested in copying best practice. Where is the evidence for that?

My thesis is that the educators are guilty of crafting a universe of sophistical methods whose common feature is that superior results can’t be achieved. For best practice to mean anything, the officials running the public schools would have to be interested enough to pay attention.

I believe that every city has three databases or reservoirs of best practice readily available to anyone who cares to look: private schools, parochial schools, and homeschooling parents. If you are involved with a public school as a principal, teacher, or parent, and you want to know the best way to conduct a particular class, isn’t it obvious that the first thing you should do is consult one of these groups? Or all three?

I asked the headmaster of one of the country’s best private schools, “Do the people from the public schools come to you asking for help?” He said that some liaison had been attempted, but essentially the answer was no. This confirmed my suspicion that people who are guilty of embracing mediocrity would pretend not to notice any other approach.

 

 
RELATED ARTICLES ON THIS SITE:
30: The War Against Reading
36: The Assault on Math
38: Saving Public Schools
45: The Crusade Against Knowledge
46: American Public Schools Seem To Be Designed To Fail  
 
A QUICK HISTORY OF AMERICAN EDUCATION--
AS TOLD BY BOOKS THAT TRIED TO DEFEND IT

 Savor the titles, reflect upon the dates, 
wallow in how bad things have been and for how long:


1949: And Madly Teach, by Mortimer Smith

         (the first salvo and still one of the best)

1951: Quackery in the Public Schools, by Albert Lynd

1953: Educational Wastelands -- The Retreat From Learning In Our Public Schools, by Arthur Bestor

1955:  Why Johnny Can’t Read, by Rudolf Flesch

1955: Retreat From Learning, by Joan Dunn 

1957: Bending the Twig, by Augustin Rudd

1973: The New Illiterates, by Samuel Blumenfeld

1981: Why Johnny Still Can’t Read, by Rudolf Flesch

1983: A Nation At Risk, a pessimistic assessment by the US government of its own public schools

1992: War Against the Schools' Academic Child Abuse, by Siegfried Engelmann

1995: Dumbing Down Our Kids / Why American Children Feel Good About Themselves But Can’t Read, Write, or Add, by Charles J. Sykes

1999:  The Conspiracy of Ignorance / The Failure of American Public Schools, by Martin L. Gross

2009: Not to mention my own THE EDUCATION ENIGMA -- What Happened to American Education

-------------------------------------
 
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED 

I have reviews of these and many related books on Amazon.

Here’s a quick list:

"40 Important Books About Education" 

(the blurbs are very short, so you can scan this list in a few minutes). 

© Bruce Deitrick Price 2009-11

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