PRIORITY ONE. Period.

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“There’s no place out there for graft, or greed, or lies, or compromise with human liberties.  And if that’s what the grownups have done with this world that was given to them, then we better get those boys’ camps started fast and see what the kids can do.”  – Jefferson Smith, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”

Have you ever noticed that when things look darkest we always seem to look to the next generation to fix all the problems we’ve created?  If you’re one of the “next generation,” I know that you’ve noticed it.  Noticed it, internalized it, and resent it.

I can’t remember the name of my kindergarten teacher, but I do remember her saying, after a satisfying bout of finger-painting, and while holding me by my ear, “You have to learn to clean up your own messes.”  When did this generation forget that simple lesson?

The next generation – it’s a phrase that seems to hold both hope and despair.  Hope, because maybe they can do what we couldn’t; despair because it is an admission that we couldn’t… or wouldn’t.  Either way, when we start looking to the next generation to make things better in this world, it’s a clear indicator that we have begun to give up.  We’re old; we’re tired.  We’ve done what we could.  Now it’s their turn.  Let’s see what the kids can do.

We’ve prepared them all their lives for this, right?  We’ve prepared them for this grand moment since the day they were born – this moment when we pass on the mantle of responsibility, when we hand over the reins of state, when we entrust them with the fate of the world and all mankind.  They’ve had the very best money could buy.  They’ve played on the best T-ball teams and they went to the best pre-kindergarten.  They had judo lessons and flugelhorn lessons and there was that private tutor after they failed math in eighth grade.  They’ve had the newest I-phones and X-Boxes.  Hell, they’ve even been to Disney World.

And we’ve made it clear to them that we think they’re ready, right?  We’ve sent them off on walk-about to prove to themselves that they are ready and then tattooed their skin with the mark of an adult.  We moved them into the adult longhouse.  We’ve hung them from their pectorals and cut signs in their flesh to prove they survived.

We’ve done our part.  Let’s see what the kids can do.

One of my favorite ways to draw a “harrumphing” sound from my contemporary parent friends is to describe the green Martian method of rearing children.  Back in 1912 Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote “A Princess of Mars,” the first of his Martian series of books.  In it he describes the green men of Mars, ten-foot high creatures with four arms and tusks.  (They are wonderfully re-created in Disney’s too-maligned “John Carter.”)

The female of the species will lay up to thirteen eggs a year which are inspected by the elders over a period of years, hidden away in some dark, cool place where they cannot incubate.  All but the most promising 100 or so are destroyed before they are moved to an incubator in the Martian wilderness until they hatch, after which they round up the offspring who have survived and tame them.  Elegantly simple.  Completely uncivilized, of course, but elegantly simple none-the-less.  Burroughs makes the point that only one in a thousand will die of sickness or disease.

I can hear the sweet sound of harrumphing already.  The trolls are gathering for the attack.

In Burroughs’ world of Mars the young were raised to do two things: talk and make war.  To prepare them for talking, they talked to them.  To prepare them for making war they were loaded down with the weapons they would use as adults from the time they hatched.  They grew up carrying their weight and they practiced their use daily.  They never once took a flugelhorn lesson.  Completely uncivilized.

So how is it that we prepare the hope of mankind to take over the chaos of a world we have created for them?  Well, every American knows the answer to that.  We educate them.  We have come to rely on our institutionalized school system as a panacea for all our problems.  And we have the greatest educational system in the world. We know this because Bill O’Reilly has told us so.  Repeatedly.  Our educational system is second to none!  Well, except for the 16 countries rated as having better educational systems, that is.  Hell, South Korea is rated better than us.

Let’s us assume for a moment that Bill O’Reilly is right and that all those data-oriented studies are somehow wrong.  If that were the case, then we are preparing our young to take over the future of our country and the planet in the best educational system in the world.  And that seems as it should be.  We’ve done our part.  Let’s see what the kids can do.

But remember the look on Karl Rove’s face on election night when he began to realize that Nate Silver’s data-oriented studies made his opinion laughably irrelevant?  (This is a cumulative experience boys and girls.  Read last week’s post.)  The data is out there for everyone to see.  Everyone except those who refuse to see it.

So maybe we are preparing the next generation to assume the mantle of responsibility for the mess we have created for them in the 16th best educational system in the world.  It’s not even second rate; it’s 16th rate.  Would you buy the 16th most efficient brakes for your car?  How about the 16th safest wheelchair for your mother?  But that’s good enough for your children?  The hope of mankind?  The future of this country?  Really?

Barney Frank recently said that the next three months in congress may be the most important three months since the New Deal.  We have huge issues to be dealt with.  There’s the debt ceiling, the tax code, sequestration, gun laws, immigration, and so forth.  I like Barney Frank.  He usually tells it like it is.  And these are very important issues.  They are pressing issues.  But they aren’t THE issue.

These are short-range issues and we have to get on top of them.  I mean, we have to solve the short range problems so that we can move on to the long-range problems, right?  Historically, no.  Historically, we just move on to the next short-range problems.

Short-range problems tend to be symptoms.  Long-range problems tend to be causes.

And the cause of most of our short-term problems today is that we have ignored the long-term issue of preparing our “next generation” to handle either.

Dorothy Sayers wrote in 1947, ”Is not the great defect of our education today…that although we often succeed in teaching our pupils “subjects,” we fail lamentably on the whole in teaching them how to think: they learn everything, except the art of learning.”

We’ve handled a few short term issues since then, but this one still squats over us like some giant Shelob, venom dripping from its ancient fangs.

“OK, kids, we’ve done our part.  You don’t know how to think and you don’t know how to learn and you’ve been to Disney World.  Now, go out there and win one for the Gipper.   Go out there and solve this country’s most pressing problems.”

I am a great believer in the concept that all large, important issues are complicated.  They are not black and white.  This is an exception.  Either our youth is our hope for the future or there is no hope for the future.  Period.  End of discussion.

If the youth of this country are the best hope for its future then we have to treat them as the best hope for its future.  We have to prepare them, as best we possibly can, to take over.  Period.  There is nothing more important than that.

Now, we can argue over and discuss the best way to do that, but we cannot argue that this is what we have to put our largest and best effort into.   It’s off the negotiations’ table.

Current statistics show that 25 percent of freshman who enter high school will not graduate in four years.  Of those that do, 30 percent will not go on to college, at least right away.  Of those that do, 43 percent will not have graduated in 6 years.  If you do the math that means that out of every 100 freshman who start out in high school, only 30 will have graduated from college 10 years later.    That’s how we prepare the next generation in this country.  No child left behind, my ass.

We expect our young people to step up.  We want them to be informed and active participants in our government process, but Civics and government classes are required in only 23 of the 50 states.  More people can name the three stooges than can name the three branches of government.

Everyone is taking about a crisis in education.   No one seems to have an answer.  With the possible exception, of course, of a few of those data-oriented types.  And they are not saying anything anyone wants to hear.

Delving into the whole education topic is like stepping into quicksand: you can be way over your head in no time at all.  I thought I’d spend a couple of days looking into it and get enough background to write a few lines.  That was well over a year ago.

So what do we know doesn’t work, other than everything we been trying?

Apparently, throwing money at the problem rarely works.  According to a global report by the education firm, Pearson, there is no real correlation between higher teachers’ salaries, globally, and quality education.  Making changes to individual educational programs rarely does any good.  Parental input and choice is “not a panacea,” either.

What has worked, on a global scale, and most likely the reason South Korea has a higher rated educational system than ours, is developing a “culture of education.”  Yeah, I made a harrumphing sound myself when I saw that.

What the hell is a “culture of education?”  Seems like an appropriately vague catch phrase.  It took me a while to figure it out, but when I did, like most “Aha” moments, it was really quite simple.  A culture of education is one where the culture –the entire culture – has decided that if the youth of a country are the best hope for its future then they have to treat them as the best hope for its future.  They have to prepare them, as best they possibly can, to take over.  Period.

We don’t have that.

We have a culture where we argue over whether climate change exists when our scientists, researchers, and teachers tell us it does.  Up to 48% of the people in this country are unconcerned about climate change.  Hell, there are people in this country who still believe the sun orbits the earth.  That is not a culture of education.

We have a culture where, in some states, teachers have to include creation myths in science classes.  As many as 46% of the population believe in creationism.  A culture of education need not be an exclusively secular culture, but it must be one where people can separate fact and belief.  We don’t have that.

We have a culture where some people think teachers are overpaid moochers on a government payroll.

We are a country divided in all things and education is hardly the least of them.

What lesson can our youth take from all this?  How about “teachers are unimportant moochers and half the country thinks they are wrong anyway.  Why bother?”

In those countries that have developed a culture of education, teachers hold a very high status position in the culture.  They may or may not be paid the highest salaries of any profession, but they are treated as valuable professionals and highly respected.  They are not moochers.  And they are not wrong (at least not half the time).

We do not have a culture of education.  Far from it.  But until we do, little will change if we can believe the data-oriented types.  Here’s where it gets complicated.  Really, really complicated.  We can throw money at the problem and pass laws to solve the problem all we want.  Turns out, we are the problem.  We have to change.  To solve the crises in education we have to solve the deep cultural divisions that keep us from focusing on a culture of education.  Moreover, we have to realize that educational institutions are not the place to solve many of the problems we would like them to.  Like I said: really, really complicated.

No amount of fiddling here and fiddling there or vouchers or testing or any of the rest of that is going to work in any significant way.  I spent my entire life working in educational institutions from private middle schools and high schools to state run universities and I have seen all sorts of fiddling.  It’s like watching Nero prancing about outside a burning Rome (smart thingee, kids, remember?).

We might want to start by ensuring that they are not slaughtered in their classrooms.  Do you really want to claim moral superiority over the green men of Mars (harrumph, harrumph) when you can’t ensure that the best hope for our future won’t be gunned down at age 5 in their schools?

And then there are a few small steps we can take.  Making sure every student has been properly fed, not abused, and has gotten enough sleep – now that would help.  Making sure there are enough textbooks and supplies – that would help.  Letting teachers do their jobs instead of pulling them this way and that with new miracle cure programs would go a long way as well.

But until we decide, as a country, that this problem has to be solved, it won’t be.  Until we decide that we have to face the long-term issues along with the short-term ones, this problem remains.  Until we are able to dispense with the religious and political rancor that permeates this country, the future of our children and therefore the country itself are in limbo.

The good news is that other countries have done it.  It’s possible.  And it’s PRIORITY ONE.  Period.

Your Humble Servant,

The Willowbrook Curmudgeon

One thought on “PRIORITY ONE. Period.

  1. Pingback: In Heaven’s Name, Grow Up | 47/78

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