In case you missed the memo, the American educational system is in crisis and has been for years. Apparently those lazy, overpaid teachers backed by their godless, socialist unions are simply not up to the task of running our schools and people like Scott Dream-Walker, who never bothered to graduate from college himself, need to step in and make it all better in places like Wisconsin by cutting funding and abolishing tenure.
Oh, and Dan Fisher in Oklahoma. Rep. Dan (Black Robe Regiment) Fisher (R) introduced Oklahoma House Bill 1380 to defund the teaching of AP History in the state. This is necessary, according to Fisher, because the AP curriculum focuses on “what is bad about America” and fails to teach “American exceptionalism.”
And of course you already know about the Texas cow punchers (and I mean that in the best biblical sense) in the GOP who came out in their platform against the teaching of critical thinking because it “challenges students fixed beliefs” and “undermines parental authority.”
American public education has serious problems, and the reasons are legion. That’s our biggest challenge. There is no one, simple fix, and anyone who suggests that there is has no idea of what is going on. In fact, even trying to figure out what is going on turns out to be a Herculean task and takes us back to the very beginnings of public schooling in America. Every solution creates new problems without necessarily solving original ones.
Compulsory education as we know it today got its start in the early 1900s and was intended primarily to keep the immigrant children (particularly the Irish in Boston) off the streets of the cities where they were seen as “unkempt, uncared for… a threat to the future of American democracy.” They were also taking adult jobs and they needed to be kept out of the job market.1 It was seen as a way to socialize them – to make them Americans. And it worked.
It worked so well that we have constantly turned to the public school system as a way to socialize and train students to become whatever it was that we wanted them to become. Want better drivers? Teach driver’s ed. Overpopulation an issue? Teach sex Ed. Can’t cook? Home Ec. Kids with disabilities at a disadvantage? Special Ed. Racism in America? Put the black kids and the white kids together in the same schools and let them work it out. Can’t read? What the hell do you mean can’t read? Isn’t that why there are schools?
In 1957 The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics launched the world’s first satellite into orbit. Those Commies had beaten us into space! We had to do better. And, of course, the country turned to education. Science and technology became the new gods.
We elected John Kennedy, and he said we could get to the moon first, so we elevated the German rocket scientists who had rained death on London a few short years earlier to demi gods and put our space program in their hands. It was an exciting time to be in school! We would go to the moon and build colonies and then go to Mars and build colonies and then on to the stars in great big ships, and we had to get our college degrees as fast as we could or we’d be left on an earth populated by high school dropouts. At least they’d get to drive the flying cars.
We wanted to do our homework. We wanted to learn as much and as fast as we could because, well, SPUTNIK! The Moon! Mars and beyond! Education was the key to the future. It was the key to being doctors and lawyers and stuff. It was how we’d save the world. You could not deny science while watching an Atlas 5 missile carry men into space, live on TV (color freaking TV!), right in front of you.
I should mention that Kennedy had his brains blown out by an assassin in Texas (where else). I was in AP chemistry class learning how to make rocket fuel when the news came on the school PA system.
And, oh yeah, if you didn’t get into college and learn how to get us to the moon, you might just end up in a jungle in Nam smoking weed and getting your ass shot off. That was another way to save the world.
So, yeah, America had problems, but the biggest problem in education was we couldn’t get enough of it to enough students fast enough.
So, we won the space race, built and then mothballed the shuttles that hadn’t blown up, and now we hitch a ride with the former godless heathens who lost the space race to the last space station. Everyone treated the returning Viet Nam vets like shit, I still don’t live on Mars, and I still don’t have a flying car, not necessarily in that order.
But while we were winning the space race, while we were putting men on the moon and space stations in orbit and GPS satellites everywhere, while we were doing that, we inspired the world. We showed them what a concentrated effort and education could do, and they got it. They poured massive resources into their educational systems. We didn’t.
Meanwhile, the world changed. It changed in all kinds of ways, but most importantly, the body of knowledge continued to increase at exponential rates. And the technology to deal with that body of knowledge advanced in leaps.
A couple of examples will have to suffice. One day children were rote learning the multiplication tables and learning to do long division. A few grades up, in college preparatory courses, students were looking up logarithms in a book. The next day, cheap calculators were available to everyone and soon after that graphing calculators made a two hour calculus problem a 30 second project. The teaching of math could not remain the same. If you want to understand why “new math” arose, you have to look at this point in educational history where the rote learning and practice needed to handle complex math “the old way” gave way to the technology which freed up the time to actually teach why math works.
And if you change the way you teach math, you have to change the way you teach the other sciences.
Public education even then was a huge, lumbering bureaucracy. It’s hard to make changes in a big, lumbering bureaucracy. For one thing, kids learn at about three times the rate of their teachers, and the teachers had to learn the new technology before they could put it into the classroom. Think about it this way: you get a new computer and by the time you figure out that there IS no written manual – that the manual is only available ONLINE – your 6th grade son has already set the parental controls to lock you out and is surfing the web for boobies at 3 am while snickering at you out loud behind his hand.
One day a student had to stay cooped up in a library for hours just to do a three page paper for history class. The next day he could sit in his bedroom, eat pizza, and access more history in seconds than his teacher had learned in his or her entire life.
The ripples from this technology change went out in all directions. Students don’t learn well from teachers they don’t respect, and it’s hard to respect someone when you’re 14 and they can’t seem to learn to use a remote.
And it’s hard to learn when the world around you is travelling at the speed of Star Wars and you are stuck in a room with 35 other kids and someone is droning on about Moby Dick. Moby freaking Dick, for god’s sake…a whale… an albino whale… in a book written in metaphors that referenced stuff you’d never heard of! A typical exchange at dinner (if in fact a family had dinner together any more) became, “How was school?”
Learning for many children had ceased to be fun, ceased to have purpose, ceased to be a necessary step toward a better world. It was just something to be endured.
But parents needed their students to learn. Secondary education was more than ever the key that unlocked the door to higher education which unlocked the door to careers and security. Parents became more active and involved in school systems. They didn’t know anything about teaching kids because they had given that up ages ago, but they knew that they wanted better results. If a kid didn’t do well with one teacher they demanded that she be put in another class… because, well, it was the teacher’s fault that little Sally wasn’t learning and had nothing to do with the fact that the only book in their home was a torn copy of a Spiderman comic.
They started planning for college before their kid was born and putting him in a pre-preschool that promised a head start. And every time someone told them that the system was broken, they believed it and pushed for change – any change.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the valley, other forces were at work.
The first SAT tests were given in 1926. By the 1950s the sheer volume of students hitting the schools as a result of the baby boom was staggering. The old methods of evaluating students for university admissions were simply too time and labor intensive. The age of the standardized test had arrived and along with it accusations of “teaching to the test” began to grow. Writing standardized tests became big business and the scores became the outcome everyone noticed, not the students. Our bests schools tested fine, our worst schools tested miserably, the average was not good.
Responding to the cries for change and backed by the big business interests of the test and textbook publishers, the government got involved with programs like No Child Left Behind. Politicians backed charter schools and vouchers and bussing programs all of which were well-intended and missed the point – bored, hungry, illiterate children who have no prospect of being anything other than bored, hungry, illiterate adults have no reason to learn about Moby Dick or anything else. They are not going to the moon – or mars – or anywhere else. If they are lucky they’ll score some weed and escape to the back stoop for a few hours.
Meanwhile, in another part of the forest…
The “Traditional Family” movement of the fundamental Christian right added another pressure to public education. The Culture Wars were fought on the playgrounds of American schools. Prayer in schools took over the headlines and took the country’s eyes off the root problems.
In the 70s a few liberal educators began the homeschooling movement as a reaction to the “rote learning” dilemma they saw as a problem in public schools. By the 80s the home schooling movement had been invaded by evangelical fundamentalist Christians who saw public schools as “Satanic hothouses.” By the 90s the movement’s networking system and its public image had been taken over by the evangelical right and the focus became homeschooling children with “the explicit purpose of being launched into government, education, and the entertainment industries in order to transform the United States into a nation based in Christian beliefs.” 2
Most recently the home schooling movement has been taken over by the quiverfull element of the extreme fundamentalist right. These people are believers in a literal interpretation of the bible and want to “outbreed the Muslims.” The Duggar family is a member of this movement. They are featured in a reality TV show and were recently in the news because one of the members, Josh, admitted to sexually molesting some of his sisters. Josh Duggar somehow went from being a used car salesman to the position of executive director of Family Research Council Action, a multi-million dollar Washington lobbying PAC. The Southern Poverty Law Center calls the Family Research Council an anti-gay hate group.
This quiverfull movement believes women should not leave home until they are married, and then they must submit to their husband’s will and produce offspring until they die. No jobs, no careers, no equality. Love Jesus. Love your children. Love your Christ-like husband. Spread your legs. When Josh Duggar is not feeling up his sisters, he spends his time posing for pictures with about half of the Republican candidates running for president. These, by the way, are the same candidates who are trying to make headway with women voters.
One woman who left the quiverfull movement after having seven children which she didn’t have the strength to educate because she was always having children said, “We homeschooled because we wanted to protect our children from what we viewed as the total secularization of America. We listened to people like Rush Limbaugh, who told us that America was in the clutches of evil liberal feminist atheists.”
“There is an atmosphere of real terror among some evangelicals. They are horrified by the fact that Obama is president, and they see the New Atheist movement as a vocal, in-your-face threat. Plus, they are obsessed with the End Times, and believe that the Apocalypse could happen any day now…They see a demon on every corner.”3 Once again, fear is the motivating factor.
They also, even though they keep their kids out of public schools whenever they can, spend large sums of money opposing things like the Common Core curriculum.
Why? Why get involved in secular school issues when you want nothing to do with the Satanist educational system?
1. Because they would really LOVE to be involved with public schools. They would love to have public education teach what they teach. Remember that mandatory public school education was founded on the idea that we could socialize heathens through education. And from the point of view of the extreme fundamentalist right, there are lots of godless heathens that should be socialized and saved through the school system.
2. So long as there is an open debate about how bad American public education is and how the government is trying to commandeer it for its own ends, so long as schools are seen as failing, crumbling institutions the door is ajar for the fundamentalists to work a foot in further. So long as they can generate enough fear, they can keep their hopes alive.
For evangelical, fundamentalist conservatives, whether their children are inside or outside the system itself, the American educational system is the enemy. It threatens them in more ways than they can count. Critical thinking is the enemy. Teaching history in a way that asks students to think about it and to question it is the enemy! Teaching real history where the country was not founded as a Christian nation is the enemy! Evolution is the enemy! Geology is the enemy! Science is the enemy! There is a demon in every corner. You should be very, very afraid of the American educational system.
And they are joined by corporate interests in wanting an educational system where no one questions and where science is suspect. The coal and oil industries are just fine with a population that denies scientific evidence. They are fine with a population that understands an alternate view of history and accepts their candidates without question. They love to see snowballs in the senate. Education, a real, liberal arts education where we teach reasoning and thinking is anathema to these people.
Both the fundamentalists and the corporate plutocracy foster a view of educated people as elitist snobs who think they are better than the “common man.”
The American public school system has real problems that need to be solved and it needs the time to solve them. They will be best solved by educators and students, not by politicians. What it certainly does not need are the distractions to that process provided by those trying to inject fundamental Christian beliefs while denying science and turning students away from real learning.
Every time a politician brings a snowball into the Senate to disprove global warming, another student wonders why she is being forced to be in a science classroom. Every time a politician has his picture taken with the Duggar family, another student is confused by what he learns in school and what he sees on TV. Every time that confusion is expressed in the classroom and the teacher is unable to hold an open conversation about it because of rules created to keep both sides of these arguments happy, education loses; the student population loses; this country loses.
To paraphrase Andrew Shepard in “The American President”: We have serious problems to solve, and we need educated people to solve them. And whatever your particular problem is, I promise you the fundamentalist, corporate right is not the least bit interested in solving it. They are interested in two things and two things only: making you afraid of it, and telling you who’s to blame for it.
Try to keep up your end.
Your Humble Servant
The Willowbrook Curmudgeon
[This is Part 5 in the Back to Square One series]
- The Imperfect Panacea, Henry J. Perkinson, p. 66.