The Hardening of our Hearts – What’s Amiss with American Education

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“The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.”
― Plutarch

We’re about to lose our personal freedoms and our national sovereignty for the lack of an educated citizenry. Our newspapers, which used to run the erudite editorials known today as The Federalist Papers, now print stories that rarely rise above middle school reading levels. Man-on-the-street interviews demonstrate an appalling level of ignorance (though, granted, those interviews are hardly scientific). Test scores do show an ever-declining ability to read, write, and think; we elected Barrack Hussein Obama – twice. Obviously something is wrong.

I submit that there are three basic reasons why we are failing to enlighten our young:
1.    We have attempted, because we’ve insisted on making education a governmental institution, to create educated people who are nonetheless neutral, which any thinking person knows is impossible,
2.    We have built our educational system on a factory model, which requires that we be able to test objectively, which requires that we objectify education. Oxymoron.
3.    Partly cause and partly effect, we have, as a consequence of other ill-conceived policies, destroyed our families, and with that we have demolished students’ ability to learn, and since often teachers are also members of wonky families, they often have lost their ability to teach.

Let’s start with the contradictory idea of education sans meaning. At one point in America’s history everyone was clear that part of being an educated person was knowing about God, and that part of knowing about God was knowing about science, about the history of the world, about the purity of mathematics, and about ancient languages. Education had a purpose much more important than being able to earn a living.

Now, believing, as most appear to, that we must keep God out of education, we have robbed it of any permanent purpose. If we had managed to produce intellectual, albeit, agnostic thinkers, it wouldn’t be so bad, but we have, instead, produced ignorant atheists. Twelve years of schooling where God is never mentioned, or worse, often maligned, has produced at least two generations of faithless, unguided, amoral people.

This godless approach has also robbed education of interest. If everything is just fine, if moral relativity is the only recognized truth, then nothing horrifies, nothing enrages us; indignant outrage never happens. This is one reason why there’s so little fear of the evils of Islam in this country. Islam is presented to students as the neutral “religion of peace” because we can’t take sides on this issue. But taking sides on an issue is exactly what renders it interesting. If jihad is the moral equivalent of medieval Christians going on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, then why learn about either?

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My second point is really a corollary to the first. To leave God out of learning is to make learning a materialistic enterprise, a factory of sorts, from which issues forth into society a properly trained cohort of worker-bees, ready to fill the opening slots in the job market. While education has sadly ceased to be a method of making civilized individuals, it hasn’t even succeeded in making useful employees. When de Tocqueville visited America in the early 19th century he was impressed at the knowledge level of the average citizen – and back then average citizens were mostly farmers; back then we were educating individual minds, not just training a workforce.

This travesty has rendered teachers mere factory foremen (hence the teachers’ union, which is fodder for another article) and students mere widgets on an assembly line. And how does one tell whether or not the product works? You test it and test it and test it. In our school district teachers of sophomore English must spend six weeks of teaching time to run state-level tests in reading and writing. And what happens when the testing shows a lack of skill? The administration insists on narrowing the curriculum and beating the dead horse with it. “Reading” is separated from content and narrowed to just going over and over the same techniques that failed before.  One year – I was teaching high school juniors at the time – we were required to take a course in teaching reading since so many of our juniors(!) had yet to master that skill. The materials presented were at the third grade level – the very materials that had not worked when the kids were third-graders. When I objected I was told that no new methods were available. Yep – just hit ‘em again, harder. That’ll do it.

Meanwhile curriculum calcifies into test-prep, the fine art of teaching is undermined by so-called “scientific” studies, and methodology becomes as rigid as curriculum. Now we’re watching Common Core rear its head and we know that all it will mean is that this fossilized system will soon be nationalized and no longer relegated to the inner cities. Hoorah.

But a big part of the problem is societal. Schools teach children and children are no longer raised in families where the father sticks around earning a living and playing baseball with his sons. They are not often raised in families where the mothers are available. When I started teaching in the 1970’s I could pretty much count on the last names of my students being the same as the last name of their parents. It’s not like that now.

When I retired from public school teaching in 2007 that was a rarity. Our counselors estimated that at least 60% of our student body came from noticeably dysfunctional homes. As an English teacher, I read about that dysfunction: the boy who described the night his father tried to choke him to death (he was anticipating having to testify at his dad’s trial); the girl who told of her house and how pretty it had been -- until her family moved into it; the girl who was so lonely she was thinking of killing herself. I read hundreds and hundreds of those papers. I talked to many of those parents – the woman who was more interested in discussing her own boyfriend problems than her daughter’s failure in my class; the single mom who was clearly scared to death of her son. The longer I taught the more amazed I was that my students learned anything at all.  

The problem of educating our population is not solvable at the national policy level – it may not be solvable at all at this point in time. But I’m sure that it can only be done personally, locally, school-by-school, and we must address these three issues:
1.    We must re-infuse learning with meaning – perhaps through home-schooling, private schools, charter schools, giving parents a choice about where to send their children, and giving schools a prize worth competing for – students. Taking God out of school has been akin to siphoning the gas out of a car – it doesn’t run well that way.
2.    We have to re-organize our schools so that teachers can be the professionals they should be, and so that we are inspiring, civilizing, and amazing our students, not just indoctrinating and force-feeding them test answers. We need to pay our great teachers what they are worth; we need to get them out from under the tyranny of bureaucrats.
3.    We must learn again to be good spouses, good parents, good grown-ups. A school can be no better than the society that spawns it; our children cannot be better people than we are, and the teachers we hire aren’t going to be either.

You see, educating our young is not the public’s problem. It’s our personal, individual problem. We can’t depend on someone else to do it for us; we may be able to find those who can help us, but no one can do the job for us. We must face that fact and get on with it.