Contemp. Iss. Paper for high school. removed most citations.
| Conservatives make a fine case for voucher schools. Liberals tout smaller class sizes and creative work as cures for our ails. Parents demand more individualized curricula. Everyone sees that the American School System is not working, at least not like we all want it to, and everyone has their own ideas about it. In my research for this paper, despite significant effort, I was unable to find one proponent of keeping schools as they are. I propose here that none of the current solutions are going to work any better than the current system, because it is that system, at its very core, that is flawed. State testing has shown that children are performing worse and worse on standardized tests, despite the near-irrefutable fact that these tests have gotten easier over the years. I disagree. Instead, I believe the school system has failed so utterly in its promise of intelligent mass-education that it has adversely affected the way people raise their children, that rather than being less intelligent or somehow less able to learn than their predecessors, today's young generation has simply had their natural curiosity schooled out of them, beginning even before kindergarten, where the failure of school in the past has affected the parents of this great nation.
The “purpose” of school, as anyone will tell you, is to educate. Conceivably, then, there was a certain lack of education when “school” was first proposed, but this is not the case. In the late 1800's, America was one of the most literate nations on the planet, with country-wide census figures reporting 83% literacy, 98% in Virginia specifically, and lows of 70% in undeveloped areas. This figure seems startlingly large and becomes more so when you understand the level of literacy. To be “literate” in America in 1880, a person had to read at what is now considered an “over-college” level, that is to say that a college freshman now would be considered illiterate by the standards of the time. Additionally, a certain level of familiarity with great literature was demanded and expected. Blacks were not counted. What, then, is the purpose of school? When faced with this, the common answer is “to prepare children for adult life”. That this is the parent's job foremost will not be argued here. Instead, I seek to prove how disturbingly correct that statement is, or at least was.
In the mid- to late-1800's, coal was the word of the day. Running trains, boats, machinery, and many other things, the “miracle” energy source powered the country and increased the fortunes of several men. By 1870, Carnegie, Rockefeller, and a select few other men owned a significant portion of America, and were well known. However, they were greatly disliked; the American people, intelligent and extremely well-read, did not enjoy having their freedoms toyed with in terrible, life-consuming jobs, i. e. Mining and its related efforts. Realizing their great fortunes were at stake, these men desperately searched for a way to placate America's driven, self-educated, individualist populations and make them as the European masses. Enter here Horace Mann. Returning from Prussia, he introduced a fascinating new way to “transmit skills”, as he phrased it. Prussia had taken the Hindu practices that retained the Caste system and modified it to churn out what they considered the “perfect soldier”: receptive to artificial hierarchies, willing to unquestionably follow orders, and blindly indoctrinated. Using this system, Prussia had destroyed Napoleon's otherwise far superior army at waterloo and transformed their already powerful military state into Sparta reborn. Horace Mann was particularly well-educated, and knew of the possibilities of a utopian society, and also saw the potential for creating such a construct in the Prussian system of “schooling”. He knew it would take a very long time, but he was a visionary; no length of time was too great for the promise of utopia. However, the endeavor was expensive, inordinately so, and Mann was not a man of such wealth that he could single-handedly fund a national system of education. He was, however, a man of significant stature, and word quickly reached the richest men in America that a tool of massified Prussia was being touted as the “proper” form of education. They voiced their opinions and gave incredible sums of money to this new form of schooling.
As implied, Schooling did exist prior to this period, but it was radically different than what we know today. There was no separation of classes, and the teachers were generally well-respected, well-known, and extremely well-educated members of close-knit communities. The teacher's job was simple: first, mete out punishment for misbehavior as necessary. Second, to act as a reference, someone to whom the children went to answer difficult questions, and third, to regulate times and keep the classroom neat, primarily as a good example to the children. For the most part, the students taught each other. The teacher would, over the course of a few weeks, teach the incoming students (of various ages) basic reading, writing, and mathematics skills, then allow the senior students to instruct their juniors. The process is remarkably similar to the BitTorrent digital system popular on the Internet today (you can find an example of this system in the Wikipedia article on “BitTorrent”). Students would usually remain in school until 3rd or 4th grade, at which they were expected to leave and take up an apprenticeship in a trade. They generally continued their global education on their own time by reading books and periodical literature.
When Mann brought the Prussian system before the elite in government and business, the businessmen immediately saw the potential to mold the American citizens into a mass of consumer/worker drones, the sole purpose of whom was to buy and consume while toiling their lives away and filling the pockets of the businessmen. It was the going theory at the time that humans were simply organic machines, blank slates at birth upon which anything and everything was to be written, clay to be molded into whatever shape the artist desired and unable to take any form itself. It was believed that humans had no natural mind of their own, and that only through external input was a personality, morality, and value system developed. Beyond that, it was reasoned that the centuries of allowing children to take on significant responsibility were mere uneducated folly, and an outcry appeared calling for greater emphasis on schooling, despite the fact that literacy had been growing since the first census figures. This outcry resulted in significantly increased school years and a massive build-up in schools. Soon after, the Government began forcibly introducing legislature that, among other things, made school attendance of some kind mandatory and introducing the new, Prussian-inspired school system. Riots were held immediately following the changes. In New York, 5,000 children marched through the streets, objecting to the loss of interesting fodder in their schoolwork. Thousands of parents also took to the streets proclaiming that the new curricula were “too easy” and would be detrimental to their children's education. The new curricula were indeed less strenuous: most languages were dropped, for example. Latin and German were no longer required to pass high school, nor was the reading and digesting of books by Machiavelli, Plato, and others a requirement. Physics and other beginning higher maths, too, were no longer required for graduation. History classes remained relatively untouched, though they, too, would be gutted less than half a century later. Indeed, all this took place within about twenty years, beginning roughly a decade after America's centennial anniversary and “ending”, at least as far as my description takes it, just before 1910.
War broke out in Europe in 1914. What was to become the bloodiest war ever fought plays a significant role in the history of modern schooling. During the war, the American economy kicked into high gear. Schools change their tone to reflect the times; what was needed was faith in America, and a willingness to work on assembly lines and other such menial yet highly important jobs. Thus, civic duties became the word of the day. Legislators, visionaries, and business magnates would take note of the success this had on the exiting classes following the war. Also following the war, the north-Asian political conflict subsided with the formation of the USSR, but it was not to come to significant power until after World War Two. The War left Germany tired, but in a superior political position among its geographic neighbors. During this time Adolf Hitler rose to power and his obscene genocidal social reform and militant actions catalyzed the Allies against him. Here again the American “civil Service” machine oiled its gears and lurched back into action, pushed forward by the pearl harbor and Philippines attacks by the Japanese. Again the schools began indoctrinating their students, injecting propagandized views into their subjects and becoming more like the reform facilities of today. The war, however, threatened to put an end to this machine with its own cessation, presenting a problem for the utopian-minded magnates; the machine needed a reason to exist, at least for now. They would find their answer in the Red Menace.
Communism and New Math
The USSR had officially squeezed itself into socialism in 1922 following the First World War. Its distinct non-capitalism style of government, while not exactly a threat to the United States, was nonetheless unnerving. After the Second World War, the USSR had asserted itself as a superpower, and had made a reputation for unyielding diplomacy. While not exactly the “perfect threat” those in power were looking for, the USSR would present an acceptable enemy for their means, helped in no small part by the staunch Stalinism of Nikita Khrushchev. What they were missing was someone who could move the people. Enter here Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy. McCarthy polarized the Conversation of the country. If his words were truthful, there could be Communist spies around every corner; schools were places of open fraternization, where ideas were traded freely, and this was prime breeding ground for Communistic thought. Schools were revamped, made more clean, idea-free, and indoctrinating than previously, colleges especially were intensely watched and professors of political thought investigated and occasionally arrested. By the mid fifties, schools were beginning to turn out people who felt content working jobs without immediate meaning and giving a fair amount of power to their bosses. Life was reasonable, though the decades of forced schooling were beginning to take their toll: more recent studies have concluded that at no time in American history were there more depressed people than in the fifties. Nonetheless, the situation was not nearly as bad as it would become. The government had become a powerful monster, and it took back its power from the business magnates who had foolishly given it such freedom. The Space Race gave the government an excuse to further the efforts businessmen had directed towards school. Schools were further reduced, and standardized tests and confusing curricula became commonplace. In the sixties, the government gained yet more power over the school system in that it became a topic for political debates. School was definitely not educating children as it was supposed to, and people were noticing. The generations in power were those first indoctrinated by the school system and were therefor unable to imagine a different system working. School bells were kept and New Math was the word of the day. Here was a system attempting to teach creative/logical thought and problem solving with rote memorization and analogy. Anyone in school at the time will remember the difficulty of learning mid-level base-ten math through low-level base-eight math.
This marks a definitive turning point in the decision-makers behind school. Prior to the Red Scare, Schools, as an institution were directed by businessmen, visionaries, and Utopians, the Horace Manns and Andrew Carnegies of the United States. Following the Red Scare, the government assumed full powers and continued the experiments far beyond what those previously in power had envisioned. Politics is driven by popular will, by and large. The populace, by the time the politicians gained scholastic power, were driven by their sight that something was wrong with the school system, but hindered by their blindness to alternatives. Thus here emerges a sort of point of no return, or better, perhaps, an event horizon, where things get very much worse as time goes on and it becomes difficult, if not impossible to make the situation better. And indeed it got much, much worse. School emerged from the sixties scarred from new “educational theories” having been implemented in classrooms and dropped later. Did the curriculum reformers think of children as nothing more than lab rats on which to test their newfound ideas? The late sixties also began the massive destruction of information in textbooks, and the “textbook wars” of the seventies and eighties. The Women's Liberation and Black Power movements made the textbook makers rethink the tone of their books, and for the most part this was a positive force, but driven by the powerful demands of a few extremists, they began to modify the material presented, often altering history in the process. The setup of the textbook community was especially conducive to these errors and omissions: Neither the government or anyone in the education system proofread or approved those texts, and the textbooks themselves were made by private companies who cared little for the actual material presented and much for the profit it garnered. This has not changed one bit. This situation demonstrated its extreme fallibility in the aforementioned Textbook Wars. A number of textbook companies had emerged and were vying for the most advantageous position in the market. They released issues frequently and distorted facts and reason based on whims and passing trends, twisting history, math, and science into inaccurate jumbles of fact, fiction, and false social progressiveness. The school districts, now heavily controlled by their local political groups, responded eagerly to books that fit their will, and in the late eighties, the Wars ended with two companies dominating the market, the larger catering to the Texas schools and the smaller catering to California schools, and two smaller companies squabbling over the small remainder of market share. In more recent years, the inevitably terrible textbooks that came out of this situation have been improved as the populace has sought to fix the American school system.
Propositions and Refutations
There are many ideas floating around currently about how to “fix” the American school system. The first I address is the “school voucher” idea oft-touted by the republican party. Each child would receive a “voucher” equal to a given amount of money to be spent on the child's k-12 education. Some versions of the idea disallow the use of vouchers for educational items for the purpose of homeschooling. The idea is that most parents will naturally gravitate towards higher-performing schools, generally private schools. In good capitalist fashion, the poorly performing schools will be weeded out as better schools receive the benefits from the parents, and new schools with good ideas will pop up and thrive. The most glaring problem of this proposal is precisely the same as it's one driving force: capitalism. Voucher schools would exhibit the same positives of the system, but also the negatives. Just as the economy crashes from time to time, so too would schools. The American school system would be subject to the unstable gluts and droughts from which capitalism inevitably suffers. Potential repercussions are enormous. Employers would begin hiring based on the years in which you were educated. Massive government programs would be created to bail out the floundering system during crashes, then would sit and waste money during booms. potentially we might see natural monopolies, where one company rules the education arena simply because it no longer has competitors and it is too expensive to create a start-up company, similar to the situation in microprocessors today.
The Democrats hold as their stance a significant rise in teacher pay. There is nothing inherently wrong with this idea: it is true that higher pay will attract more and more skilled teachers, who will replace the less skilled. However, this is a problem of treating a symptom rather than the disease. Better teachers will not improve the over-managing of schools, it will not get politics out of the classroom, and it will not improve textbooks. Often touted alongside teacher pay is smaller class sizes. In his book Crash Course, Chris Whittle describes how smaller class sizes, though possibly beneficial, are unnecessary for a better school system.
A third idea is charter schools. A charter school is a publicly funded school that is only accountable for its results on test scores as defined by the government. For the most part, charter schools would be autonomous. Some old problems arise immediately with this plan. First, because the schools are judged on their results alone and no cross-checking procedure is in effect, the practice of passing children who are woefully behind in order to improve test scores will become widespread. Various methods of cheating or rigging the test via the children will become pervasive. This comes from the erroneous assumption that test scores are simply a by-product of a good education and cannot be achieved any other way. I am reminded of a Texas school district that got in trouble because it was teaching the students how to score well on the test, rather than actually educating them. This brings me to another point.
Test Results Are Not Education
Because schools are not accountable at the personal level, performance testing is necessary. This is highly fallacious. In order to accept this, it must bee assumed that schools cannot be accountable at that small a level, that they are somehow unable to achieve that fine of a scope. The misapprehension is twofold: first, that schools are unable to judge at such a small scale, and second, that it is necessary at all to judge such a thing. Setting aside the semantic argument of “education” versus “schooling”, it can be said now that most education in the American school system consists of memorization of words, techniques, and factoids. Asked who was the first president, a properly educated schoolchild will answer “George Washington”, and when asked to find the distance from the top of a flagpole to the end of its shadow, the child should state “A squared plus B squared equals C squared”. When asked where the child would use this information, the properly educated child will most likely have no idea, and in truth, the example is somewhat preposterous: who is going around measuring the distance to the tops of flagpoles? The most powerful education you can give a child is one completely devoid of information: the ability to reason, and the ability to teach oneself.
Parents will recall asking their kindergärtners what they learned in school and receiving enthusiastically long-winded replies filled with exciting visions of dinosaurs or shoelaces or Abe Lincoln. A year or so into their schooling, children stop giving these responses. Is it the fault of boring subjects? I say no. It is because schools are places where curiosity is discouraged. I am by nature a curious person, and I remember far more than the playground jeers the teacher berating me for reading ahead in the textbook in fourth grade. Back then I would often finish homework assignments in class with time to spare, and strike up a conversation (I'll admit I was loud) with nearby peers. I was told to get back to work, and when I noted I was already done, I was told to sit quietly. Why was I not given next week's or tomorrow's assignment? Why was I not told to read ahead, and more importantly, why was that practice discouraged? There is an anecdote I am particularly fond of. A fool was chaining his horse to a cart, and a passing man stopped to watch. After a while he said to the fool , “sir, one of the links in your chain is of a weaker metal than the rest!” “so?” said the fool. “A chain is only as strong as its weakest link”, said the man “it is best if they are all the same strength”. A few days later the man saw the fool again chaining the horse. The fool said “see? Now they are all the same strength!” and presented to the man the chain which was now composed entirely of the weaker metal.
People Don't Bend That Way
In 1962, an NIMH-sponsored report, "The Role of Schools in Mental Health," stated unambiguously, "Education does not mean teaching people to know" (emphasis added). It later continued “[Education] means teaching them to behave as they do not behave". Everyone learns differently. The idea that we can have successful mass-education is preposterous. It requires that everyone learn at roughly the same speed and in the same ways. I personally learn best visually and physically: I learn well by watching something being done and by actually doing it. To tell me how to do something without context is to bore me, and to have a wonderful activity relating to what I am supposed to learn is to bore me further. I know friends of mine who would find my style of learning oppressive or dull, because they learn aurally, or logically, or some other way. I also do poorly in the morning, and not much better during the day. I produce my best work in great volumes in the last few hours before i retire for the night. I know others who do their best work in the morning, others who wind up in the morning and wind down at night. I have known one man who learned best while keeping reverse hours, sleeping immediately after he came home from school and waking up just before midnight. I have heard the idea that that is the purpose of homework; that by extending school into all hours of the day, children will at some point be working during their peak. This is ludicrous. Children need private lives, just like adults do. Their lack of life experience makes them no less human, no less susceptible to mortal ails. Children are not tireless Hard Drives on which information is to be stored, they are people like yourself and me, dynamic, flawed, and interesting. To lower our opinion of childhood to that of simple memory machines is to debase the essence of humanity. We have become a world of Human Resources, of no greater import than the computer terminal we sit at, of no more significance than the products society produces. We are more than this; children are more than this. No more of our and their precious time should be wasted in the pipe dream that school has become.
Less is More
We have begun to believe that the shortcomings in school can only be fixed by enlarging schooling, and this is folly. This is an effect of politics meddling in schools. Bills are enacted, and when they fail, politicians claim the problem is worsening and more funds are needed, and on and on. When the populace finally confronts the fact that money is being spent and things are only getting worse, the politician remarks that the money spent so far “should not be wasted”, and more money disappears into the hole. Ivan Illich noted in Tools for Conviviality that “it has become fashionable to say that where science and technology have created problems, it is only more scientific understanding and better technology that can carry us past them”. When we are cut, we do not heal ourselves with knives and when we are shot, we do not seal the wound with more gunshots. Why do we persist at school in such a manner? A common argument is that scaling back anything is a “cut-and-run” strategy, as if we were somehow cowardly in backing out. In gambling, men decide sometimes to cut their losses and leave, and though they are not the better players, they are the smarter. Many great men and women have stated that there is a small but distinct difference between courage and stupidity, and I give the extension here that there is a similar distinction between cowardliness and intelligence. We have spent years and years and billions of dollars on schooling. It is time to bite the bullet, swallow our losses, and bow out. We have fallen, and have dug a hole to justify the motion. We need to admit the mistake and climb back out. We need to admit that spending more money and time is, has been, and will be ineffective, and we need to see that no matter how deep we make the hole, we will never walk forward again.
Too Many Fingers, Not Enough Pie
I have previously mentioned many people have their hand in schooling. Here, taken from John Taylor Gatto's book The Underground History of American Education, is a comprehensive list of who is involved:
PLAYERS IN THE SCHOOL GAME
FIRST CATEGORY: Government Agencies
1) State legislatures, particularly those politicians known in-house to specialize in educational matters
2) Ambitious politicians with high public visibility
3) Big-city school boards controlling lucrative contracts
4) The courts
5) Big-city departments of education
6) State departments of education
7) Federal Department of Education
8) Other government agencies (National Science Foundation, National Training Laboratories, Defense Department, HUD, Labor Department, Health and Human Services, and many more)
SECOND CATEGORY: Active Special Interests
1) Key private foundations.2 About a dozen of these curious entities have been the most important shapers of national education policy in this century, particularly those of Carnegie, Ford, and Rockefeller.
2) Giant corporations, acting through a private association called the Business Roundtable (BR), latest manifestation of a series of such associations dating back to the turn of the century. Some evidence of the centrality of business in the school mix was the composition of the New American Schools Development Corporation. Its makeup of eighteen members (which the uninitiated might assume would be drawn from a representative cross-section of parties interested in the shape of American schooling) was heavily weighted as follows: CEO, RJR Nabisco; CEO, Boeing; President, Exxon; CEO, AT&T; CEO, Ashland Oil; CEO, Martin Marietta; CEO, AMEX; CEO, Eastman Kodak; CEO, WARNACO; CEO, Honeywell; CEO, Ralston; CEO, Arvin; Chairman, BF Goodrich; two ex-governors, two publishers, a TV producer.
3) The United Nations through UNESCO, the World Health Organization, UNICEF, etc.
4) Other private associations, National Association of Manufacturers, Council on Economic Development, the Advertising Council, Council on Foreign Relations, Foreign Policy Association, etc.
5) Professional unions, National Education Association, American Federation of Teachers, Council of Supervisory Associations, etc.
6) Private educational interest groups, Council on Basic Education, Progressive Education Association, etc.
7) Single-interest groups: abortion activists, pro and con; other advocates for
THIRD CATEGORY: The "Knowledge" Industry
1) Colleges and universities
2) Teacher training colleges
4) Testing organizations
5) Materials producers (other than print)
6) Text publishers
7) "Knowledge" brokers, subsystem designers
Control of the educational enterprise is distributed among at least these twenty-two players, and this does not include those with indirect links, e.g. social scientists and others wishing their theories be tested somehow.
Dropouts, No-counts, and Delinquents
Tara Lipinski won an Olympic gold medal in figure skating at the age of 15. she received average grades in school.
Tania Aebi was a seventeen-year-old New York City school dropout bicycle messenger in 1987 when she decided to become the first American woman to sail around the world alone. She succeeded.
The former president of the MacMillan Publishing company was a third grade dropout. He was, however, taught for six years in the Russian village he grew up in.
The CEO of UPS, was unremarkable in high school and got C's in college. He dropped out of his college to found UPS when a professor gave his paper on 3-day shipping a poor grade and claimed the idea was preposterous.
1 out of every 5 start-up companies lasts for at least 5 years (Parker, Never Trust a Calm Dog).
Roughly 5% of all programmers are solely self-educated, and roughly 5% more have only token formal instruction. The vast majority have learned programming languages by themselves that they use in the workplace and list on their resumes.
The two discoverers of the double helix developed the idea while playing a game in a living room. One performed adequately in college. The other was homeschooled and never went to college.
Einstein dropped out of high school.
Samuel Clemens left school at age 11 to enter the printing business, and would later write under the name Mark Twain.
Thomas Jefferson attended no school whatsoever. He read intently from his father's library roughly 8 hours a day, every day, until his early twenties.
Benjamin franklin had, by the age of 11, taught himself to write so well that when he wrote opinion pieces for a newspaper under the guise of an old woman, no one noticed.
I could not find a single instance of anyone cheating their way through a State Bar exam. Twenty or thirty men and women have, however, faked credentials and passed the test legitimately, through dint of their own studies. They have all since been disbarred.
What to Do
America has always been a country about big. Our traditions of big dinners, our legends like Paul Bunyan, even the size of the country itself is big. It strikes us, naturally, that making something smaller is wrong. But this is precisely what we need to do. In Crash Course, Chris Whittle makes his case for putting the spirit back into schools by involving the children and communities, and funding it with privatization. Ivan Illich swears by homeschooling. John Taylor Gatto imagines a nation of one-room classrooms and a future in which a diploma of any kind is unnecessary for basic jobs, as long as you can work. These are not unreasonable propositions. The key in all of them is that they stress autodidaction; self-teaching. For a student to learn well, he must be able to enjoy learning. Once that is in place, a child will absorb information at prodigious rates by modern comparison. Children are naturally curious; their joy of learning is innate, not forced at all. Years of bland schooling associates boredom and drivel with learning and crushes the spirit of learning within children. Ask a child why he doesn't read more, and you'll here the answer “because it's hard” or “because it's boring”. Ask a child who enjoys reading why she enjoys it so, and she will answer “because it's fun” or “because it's interesting”. This latter child is one who can read well. Humans are, by nature, creatures that gain enjoyment from employing skills effectively. If they cannot do this, a job becomes frustrating and pointless. Schoolchildren are suffering from this as they struggle to read and inevitably only attempt reading when necessary. 100 years ago, the majority of people not only could read, and well, but enjoyed it, and did so often. This has changed. Reading is difficult and frustrating for many, and I doubt that it is simply a matter of an inferior generation. Writing, so closely related with reading, has gone down the drain. I am told I write well, and yet I have looked at the writing exercises of those my age 125 years ago and seen that they write notably better than me. It was not a generation of incredible writers: it was good schooling. Math suffers greatly, now, too. Where math used to be something you employed in daily life and thereby learned, now it is only meaningless symbols on paper. Attempts to change this have resulted in absurd flagpole measurements and strange exchanges of fruit. History, once a guideline for the future, is now a fractured, disembodied batch of stories with little bearing. Children today have no idea why the stock market crashed on Black Tuesday, and they are equally ignorant as to how to prevent it. They know only that it happened and what followed. In order to properly educate the people, school subjects must be interconnected, and difficult and sensitive issues explained. No more fractured schooldays, no more dancing around issues, no more inactivity among students.