Posts Tagged 'education reform'

Nothing Fundamentally Wrong With Public Education

There is nothing fundamentally wrong with public education in the United States; it is not the monster right-wing millionaires and their on-a-leash politicians would have you believe. There is nothing wrong with public school teachers either; they are not incompetent free-loaders, not monsters indoctrinating children with liberal ideas. The notion that something is wrong with public schools and teachers sprang up as full blown from the forehead of Zeus when multi-millionaire entrepreneurs began seeing public education as a profit center. Rupert Murdoch, for example, once declared public education a multi-million dollar opportunity for entrepreneurs. When the idea of for-profit public education dawned on certain groups of people public education became an instant “crisis” and was thereafter bleeding in front of sharks.

Public school teachers became targetable in large measure because they are seen as bastions of political liberality by organizations such as ALEC hence its mission to privatize public education, eliminate teachers unions, and even to influence curricula and teaching at public universities compliments of the Koch boys. Now that we have a president-elect for whom money is paramount, we suddenly have a “huge” crisis. The attacks are now destined to be full-frontal with an outspoken advocate of privatization, Betsy deVos, to be installed as the Secretary of Education who, like so many other critics of public education, has no credentials as an educator. DeVos is a long-time advocate of charter schools and the schools she championed are now seen generally as failures. Apparently, nothing succeeds like failure.


Here follows the most essential piece of information concerning public education generally. No two children are born the same in any way, shape, or form. Children do not learn anything at the same rate, in truth, they learn all things at different rates. Not all children come from homes where education is valued and learning encouraged. None of this is news. We have not, on a national scale, established an approach to public schooling that respects the learning abilities of all children as individual centers of experience and ability. Given what we know about teaching and learning, about the variables in learning abilities, about the importance of home lives in the development of children why have we continued an antedeluvian pedagogical model that is anti-child?

Schools of education teach about child development but regardless of this being the curriculum for very many years, public school organization is still mired in rigid grading systems, that move kids along the same timetable, the same learning age and grade track as when I was in elementary school 74 years ago. More than any other reason school organization is political and it is seriously wrong, harmful, and dishonest. These truths are seldom if ever spoken out loud in part for political correctness, to not enrage parents, and, most importantly, to avoid stigmatizing children. Sitting on the floor singing “Kumbaya” is not authentic education either.

Age grouped grades are and have been a hoax and a cruel one that has been imposed on children for many years rewarding those for whom the learning experiences are appropriate but destructive and stigmatizing those for whom they are not. Every professional educator is aware of this, it has been the elephant in the room since public schools were organized and still no one wants to talk about it. There is no such thing on Earth as a “standard child” and by that reasoning alone standardized testing as the ultimate measure of pedagogical success is false on its face. To claim otherwise is to trivialize human nature and human experience – it is, in fact, dehumanizing. To contend that standardized testing is a fair and proper method of assessment betrays a diminished view of humanity and willful ignorance of the educational process. To use such testing to make a buck is immoral. Education is not a manufacturing process and uniformity is never the objective of authentic learning.

The greatest threats to public education today are politics and greed. In the past ten and more years public education has become increasingly politicized with devastating results and for venal motives that have nothing to do with wanting children to be educated. The teaching profession has been under political attack to such an extent that there is a looming shortage of traditionally trained classroom teachers which is certainly to the satisfaction and purposes of those attacking the profession. In New Mexico, where I live, researchers have found there are nearly 600 open teaching positions. Even substitute teachers are in short supply as for example Albuquerque is currently looking for more than 200 people to fill in until accredited full-time teachers can be hired.

The keys to authentic education have always been interest and ability and when these are absent so too is authentic learning. Needless to say authentic learning and authentic teaching go hand-in-hand, neither can function when teachers cannot devote an appropriate amount of time to each learner. Nor when teachers must teach to a test to satisfy a political agenda. Consequently, when a school system increases class sizes and the number of available classroom teachers decreases we have a prescription for failure writ large and no claims to authentic teaching and learning can be made. What it does accomplish however is expose public education to the circling politically connected  privatization vultures.

Education’s Challenge: Don’t Play It Again Sam!

First a bit of history. I wrote this essay in 1971 when I was at the time finishing my Doctorate and was the Director of the University of Wisconsin Extension Service’s Regional Arts Program. I post it because when I recently came across it I was struck by how little the issues facing public school education  have changed since then. Credit and many thanks to: REGIONAL HISTORY CENTER NORTHERN ILLINOIS UNIVERSITY and: Margret Abbott, Assistant University Archivist, Regional History Center, Founders Memorial Library, Northern Illinois University, DeKalb Illinois 60115


Education’s Challenge: “Don’t Play It Again, Sam”

At a time when the world is crying out for relief from its social and environ-mental crisis our response must come in the form of radical departures from “business as usual” in the schools. Misplaced intelligence and well intentioned ignorance have made American schools like factories 1. With production came dehumanization and its consequences insensitivity to self, others and nature. The production view of education persists because of its appeal to those who fear human nature and who have deep needs for social control as well as for proof of status. At this moment the “in” euphemism for production .is “accountability”. Industrial conglomerates faced with dwindling business become the modem counterparts of the corporate management specialists and social efficiency experts of the early 1900’s. Schools are guaranteed results specified in advance this time through the application of space age technology. A new automated production line replaces the old piece-work methodology but the essential characteristics remain, Specified behavioral objectives are the stuff these dreams arc made of. Discrete bits of sanctified knowledge, neatly packaged, conveniently presented, and, above all, easily tested for are the substance of production. That children can be specified, designed produced, and quality-controlled like ball-bearings Is both the promise and the threat or these educational schemes. The children are to become dimensionally uniform – and as humane – as the perfect ball-bearings.

It is not that behavioral objectives are in themselves objectionable. The manner in which they are used to supersede the needs and intentions of individual persons is objectionable. When the goals of a few override the goals of individuals politically, we call it totalitarianism. When the goals of teachers and administrators similarly transcend the needs and intentions of children, it is called education. The more perfectly a school controls the behavior and training of its students the more favor it finds from those who have been conditioned to believe that this is all that is possible. As this cycle continues and the more deeply entrenched the ideas become, the greater the distance between man and his humane possibilities becomes. The more production-oriented the system, the more insensitive the “product” and the more remote the individual from the intricate and delicate interactions of nature.

Outdoor education is, at this point, in an enviable position. Educators are at the door asking for new behavioral objectives. At every conference the cry is, “Tell us what to teach and we’ll teach it.” The temptation is to haul out every-thing the outdoor educator has been trying to do for the past so many years.

Enormous lists of environmental concepts are being generated, card-filed, computerized, video-taped, cassette recorded, ad absurdum. And for what purpose? To replace old behavioral objectives with new one ? Objectives which are in step with the time and which would be proof positive that the     schools are keeping up and are responding to the environmental crisis? “Just give us the new specifications and we’ll get the new model on the assembly line.” Do we want to be party to this? Do we think the “new”. product will be more humane, more sensitive, or more responsive to the environment because the new specifications have been drawn up in our comer? If the present methodology does not work with present objectives (which, incidentally, are not so different from the new lists of environ-mental concepts) it isn’t going to work any better simply because the new objectives are more to our liking. The problem isn’t in the objectives but in the processes built into our educational systems from kindergarten to the universities.

All of us have had, at one time or another, experiences which reinforce this analysis. For instance, at a curriculum workshop conducted by a State Department of Instruction, my object was to help a group to define the terms concept, generalization, process, and evaluation. As we exchanged our views over these difficult words I remarked that, as human beings, “We are all process.” From birth to death, we are a synergistic collection of many and diverse processes. I was sharply rebutted by an elementary school principal, “I’m no process and that’s that!” It was difficult to convince him of what I took to be a self-evident truth. When we broke up the group, I could see that he was quite taken with this new perspective but for myself, I was deeply disturbed. As humans, especially in industrial societies, we have been so removed from a fundamental view of ourselves, from what we are as living organisms in the world, it is small wonder that we are capable of destroying our natural environment in so many ways. I am reminded of Lewis Mumford’s statement, in which he points out that in order for man to survive the dehumanized aspects of his work and existence he has had to tum his back on his more organic interests and become himself, a subsidiary machine.2

But nature knows no machines. Everything in nature from diatoms to mountain chains, from river beds to trilliums, everything is a process, a state of becoming. Nature knows no end products, no finalities. The remains of an extinct species fertilizes the earth so that new forms grow. Man, too, is both a process in himself and a part of the total process of the biosphere. It stands to reason then that when his actions violate this precious equation, disaster is the inevitable result. While few would argue this point with regard to Lake Erie or Los Angeles smog, fewer still would acknowledge the more pervasive but no less pernicious effects of mis-education.

What then is specifically amiss in modern education? Firstly, when people do not think of themselves as being a part of something, they are unable to respond to life in appropriate ways. When a relationship is based on conquering or having dominion over, be it social or environmental, it is not predisposed to loving interaction. When men feel that they are not themselves process, much less a part of a larger process, how can they feel nature, how can they help but be in conflict with the environment? They are already in conflict with themselves as individuals and as a species.

Before we can get at the root causes of environmental problems, then, education must take new forms-forms which are themselves consonant with natural processes. We must promote reforms of the fundamental concepts of public education away from production models, social control, and behavioral conditioning. We must find forms which respond to the needs of learners, which promote self-direction and self-control, which encourage community responsibility counting the environment (and all of the people and life in it) as an inseparable part of that community. The environmental problem has to be solved in the primary environment of human experience-the self. People must come to know themselves as fully functioning beings capable of influencing the circumstances of their lives before they can be expected to act in behalf of the natural environment which includes the forests, cities, marshes, and oceans. The environment which is to be cared for is what is around them and not something “over there” that some naturalist is concerned about. The ecosystem of a city slum is as much a part of the biosphere as Hell’s Canyon in Idaho. And outdoor education has a great and obvious responsibility to the inner city child just as it does to the preservation of the Blue Heron. Preserve one and not the other and you have nothing; love the child and preserve the Heron and you have everything. Give that child a view of himself as vital and capable, and then we will perhaps save the environment.

Outdoor educators concerned with self-image should recall the words of Henry David Thoreau, a great outdoor educator, “What a man thinks of himself, that it is which determines or rather indicates his fate.”3 Man polluted the environment and man must un-pollute it. We cannot solve the problem but at its source -and the source is self. REFERENCES 1. Kliebard, Herbert M., “Bureaucracy and Curriculum Theory,” Freedom, Bureaucracy, and Schooling, 1971 Yearbook of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. 2. Mumford, Lewis, Art and Technics. Columbia University Press, 1952.            3. Thoreau, Henry David, Walden. The New American Library, 1960. from the opening essay entitled, “Economy”.


The Beginning and the End

The Beginning and the End

My first day teaching at the University of Wisconsin-Madison was an eye-opener. Following my PhD I was asked to stay and teach in the Department of Educational Policy Studies. Of course I was thrilled and, at the same time, thoroughly intimidated. On the first day I picked up the enrollment roster at the department office and, although I was half an hour early, I went to the assigned classroom, which was empty. I took a seat somewhat in the middle of the room and imagined myself at the lectern. What was I going to say? I had plenty of experience having taught for the university’s extension service for several years, but this was different. My PhD was in adult education – well, I concluded, students are adults so what’s the problem? 

Soon after taking my seat the bell rang, the corridors were filled, and students began to arrive. I remained in my seat in the middle of the room as students took their seats. I was amazed that the room was nearly filled and my anxiety level rose in proportion. Pretty soon things quieted down and the expectant group sat facing the front of the room. Eventually the 10 minute bell rang indicating that if the professor had not arrived students were free to leave. A few gathered their belongings and made for the door. “Whoa, hold it!” I said while remaining in my seat. “Where are you going?” “The Prof isn’t here, we’re leaving.” “How do you know the professor isn’t here?” The student pointed to the empty desk – “He isn’t here.” “Are you telling me your expectation is that teachers are always to be found at the front of the room?” At this point suspicions were aroused, my cover was blown, I introduced myself, and thus began my teaching career seated in the middle of the room. For me and for the students this was the beginning of the dialectic which defined our time together, which defined my teaching.

Teachers are not always at the front of the room. Teachers can be anywhere. Yes, the front of the room carries the weight of established authority but what kind of authority? Is a teacher’s authority defined by where they are standing or by what they know and by what they are capable of getting across? If a teacher’s authority is defined by anything other than what they know and are capable of communicating, what is being taught? What is being learned? Teachers must, I believe, ask themselves these questions every time they enter a classroom – I did and I reminded myself of it constantly. How could I teach what I didn’t practice, especially when my students were future teachers?

Schools are an extension of society and that alone establishes their value and importance. If this were not true, totalitarian governments would not exercise such control as they do over teachers and students. Public education is, of necessity, as much about social control as it is about subject matter. Social control at an early age is preparation for a lifetime of respect for authentic authority and responsible membership in society.

Children must be educated to be fully functioning members of society, a process that is thousands of years old. And, how does this happen when children’s noses are pressed against computer screens informing only themselves in a circumscribed and contrived personal world? Well, it won’t happen because “public” means all of us including children, working and learning as a community, not as self-enclosed, hermetic, self-absorbed centers of private experience. Public is the antithesis of self-centeredness. Public means all of us working together, learning and teaching, not grasping whatever we can at whatever cost to the community, oblivious to an inclusive  social contract. The foundational conception of public education is neither capitalism or socialism, it is not about Republicans or Democrats, not about profit, but about civility, about community, about Democracy. How can this be taught? Not from the front of the room that’s for sure. LauTzu instructed us to lead from behind.

The Importance of Public Education

“Give me a child until he is 7 and I will show you the man.” So said Aristotle and likewise a number of others such as  St. Francis Xavier to whom the quotation is sometimes attributed. Even Adolf Hitler took credit for this quotation and recently an American billionaire speaking about the importance of early childhood education. Aristotle lives as his thoughts are being cribbed more than 2000 years later. To paraphrase another famous quote – a great phrase has a thousand authors and that’s because Aristotle’s statement rings true to this day, the proof of this pudding is the eagerness to destroy and privatize public education especially as seen in billionaires from Rupert Murdoch to Bill Gates, and right-wing politicians.

  It is inarguable that to be fully functioning responsible members of any society children must be properly educated, a process that is thousands of years old because it is indisputably vital to the community interest. Consequently, in our times, we must beware of the politicization of the public discourse aimed at disparaging public schools and public school educators.  How can authentic education happen when it is reduced to ingestion, regurgitation, and controlled performance not unlike the training of seals? We must ask how can an educative process take place when children’s noses are pressed against computer screens informing only themselves in a controlled, circumscribed, and contrived personal world and not always in a classroom with other children? We must also ask: What is the purpose of this recent interest in public education by people and groups that have no training and no expertise in the field? Can it be simply that Rupert Murdoch sees K through 12 education as a “$500 billion sector in the US alone” that is his for the taking with the help of ambitious politicians? Yes, it could be about money but profit is neither a humane nor a socially constructive motive. I believe childhood education must be more than that; a civil society depends on it.

If you wanted to control any society where would you start? With the health and welfare of the general public perhaps? Or maybe civil courts where well-paid insurance company lawyers beat back attempts to hold culpable parties responsible? How about ubiquitous universal surveillance of your activities, phone calls, and internet browsing? Controlling the public narrative is especially effective and important because so many people don’t look beyond what they see and hear in the media or the circumstances of their own lives; they often don’t look beyond information that confirms their beliefs or feeds their fears.

If you are in it for the long game wouldn’t public education be the best place to start your agenda? And what would the “long game” be about? I believe the long game is about social control.  Historically, while propaganda has been one of the central tactics used to create and maintain social control so too has childhood education. An often used tactic today is funding charter schools and taking money from traditional public schools. Couple this with a continual disparagement of public school educators who work long hours with pay that falls far short of their education and dedication who are replaced in many of the new schools with cheaper to hire staff who in many cases are not trained as teachers. In some states educational management organizations (EMOs) are running 30% of all charter schools and of those 16% are for-profit operations. There are also “virtual” charter schools where instruction is provided at home over the internet further distancing children from the socializing aspects of public schools.

The foundational conception of public education is neither capitalism or socialism, it is not about Republicans or Democrats, and it has never been, before now, about profit. Public education has always been about the development of each child as an individual to the fullest extent of their abilities for the ultimate benefit of society. Public schools are about Community, about Democracy, about civility. The antithesis of self-centeredness is Community and Community means all of us working together, learning and teaching, not grasping whatever can be at whatever cost to others, oblivious to an inclusive  social contract. Public education is where children learn and practice these values.

The proper focus of authentic education is not ingestion and disgorgement of information like trained seals clapping their flippers on command but a process of development that leads to critical thinking and life-long learning skills. Information can readily be absorbed when that information is relevant to human purpose and life as it is lived. I have been writing about this question for a long time, I taught about it for several years at one of the world’s great universities and it worries me to see politicians and non-educators controlling children’s lives as a form of self-promotion, as profit centers. It is well worth repeating now: it is what Aristotle was telling us so many centuries ago.


Teachers and Free Speech

In a recent public announcement the New Mexico Public Education Department (PED) is lifting the ban on public school teachers exercising their Constitutional right of free speech to criticize standardized testing. The obvious presumptuousness, this was apparently a momentous recognition on the part of those in charge from the Governor to the PED chief and who knows whom else in between, that Americans have a right of free speech even if the government doesn’t like what is being said. Of course there was prodding from the ACLU. The gag rule was promulgated during the Richardson administration which was not itself exactly a bastion of enlightenment and was hung on to by the Martinez PED. We may now expect to hear from New Mexico’s beleaguered teachers on the current regime of testing that replaces authentic teaching and learning.

Following her election to Governor in 2010, Susana Martinez had some pay-back obligations to her sponsors, such as the Koch boys, from whom she took in at least $10,000.00 directly. Consequently she appointed an individual to head the PED who had been vetted by such right wing luminaries as Jeb Bush. It mattered not that the new PED director had no degree or experience as an educator nor were there any apologies for the appointment of an unqualified individual. In fact, Skandera could not have been hired as a teacher in New Mexico because she could not meet the minimum requirements such as: 30 to 60 semester hours in an Elementary Education program including student teaching, a minimum of 6 semester hours of credit in the teaching of reading if you entered college or university after 8/1/01, and a minimum of 24 semester hours in one teaching field such as mathematics, language arts, reading, history, and so forth. To add insult to injury, Skandera was, at that time paid $125,000.00 a year against the average New Mexico public school teacher’s $39K to $49K (all below the national average by the way).

This is about politics after all and the ultimate outcome desired by the sponsors is the privatization of public education – a holy grail, if you will, being sought in nearly every state in the US with a Republican controlled state house. As one billionaire, Rupert Murdoch, famously put it, education is a 500 billion dollar opportunity for which he an others like him are salivating. It should also be noted that Skandera was a participant in the same venue at the same time as Murdoch made this declaration.

Which takes us to the entire idea of standardized testing in elementary grades. Aside from its use as a diagnostic there is absolutely no justification for standardized testing at that level. If anything such testing is a disincentive to authentic teaching and learning. In fact, there should not be grades between kindergarten and the transition to Junior High school a transition better determined by age and appropriate evaluation. In-grade retention of children at any grade level is antediluvian and antithetical to the purposes of proper schooling. It is also cruel. It is no wonder that across the US fewer and fewer children are completing their full course of public education – mindless endless testing regimes and draconian consequences for not performing well on standardized tests are largely to blame. Have you ever met a standard kid by the way? Neither have I.

Truth is children want to learn and schools are there to help with that natural instinct. Unfortunately schools and schooling have become politicized across the country and mostly in states with right-wing reactionary government. What is being called school reform is championed by non-educators, politicians with campaign debts to entrepreneurs who wish to turn public schools into profit centers. Parents are, in many locations, pushing back against this onslaught against teachers and children in the name of profit. It is going to take a great deal of political action to remove people from office who are so anti-social and anti-child that they are willing to sacrifice one of America’s greatest achievements – universal public education. It has to be done – it must be done. Parent must take interest and be vigilant because the profit motive never sleeps.

Children And Society As Fair Game

What is with the anti-children political agenda going on across the country? What do Republicans have against children? Why do they push laws to force women to have children then pass laws to harm those children and not just at the state level but at the national level as well by cutting funds for education, food stamps, health care, and anything else of social value?

To have witnessed a revolting fist-pumping celebration by a New Mexican Republican legislator for his victory over third-graders who aren’t ready to learn to read by third grade was an eye-opener. If someone had told me adults would celebrate such a victory I wouldn’t have  believed it – but I saw it with my own eyes! At the moment, 3rd grade retention is an iconic right-wing red-meat political issue, part of a larger strategy to privatize public education nationally. Public schools in Kansas are closing early because of a $51 million funding short-fall caused by the Governor’s budget cuts and tax breaks for businesses which themselves caused a $1 billion shortfall in state revenues. Children be damned – we won! Yea Us! Remember Hitler’s little dance at the fall of Paris?

Fourth grade school children in New Hampshire recently received a lesson in how vile partisan politics has become. The kids had proposed naming the Red Tailed Hawk as the state bird and then witnessed a Republican lawmaker take the floor and use the proposal to disparage Planned Parenthood.  Here is what the politician said to the body as the children watched: “It grasps them with its talons then uses its razor sharp beak to basically tear it apart limb by limb, and I guess the shame about making this a state bird is it would serve as a much better mascot for Planned Parenthood.” The measure was defeated along party lines. The lesson the kids learned wasn’t part of the curriculum but it was an indelible lesson.

In North Carolina lawmakers recently turned down a school girl’s request to designate a state fossil because, as many were creationists fossils were an existential challenge. In Idaho naming the Giant Salamander the state amphibian as requested by school kids was killed by Republicans because they feared it would lead to environmental protections for that animal. This is like believing that having intercourse standing up leads to dancing. Sad but substantial lessons in contemporary political behavior and disregard for education in America today. And more than disregard, I believe fear of educated people is a root cause, people who can think and analyze before they vote, if they are allowed to vote, that is, and there are billionaires and their politicians working on that voting problem as well.

I’ve been thinking lately how fortunate we are that the Child Labor Laws were enacted in 1938 because I doubt they could be today. My mother worked in a Western Massachusetts mill at the age of 12. She had to carry a stool because she was too short to change bobbins without it. Her recollections of 12 hour work days and children regularly being injured were vivid into her late 90s. Remember, there was no workers comp back then and WC is now another target for the new reformers as are unemployment compensation, food stamps, and health care. In recent weeks Republicans in Congress just proposed a budget that would remove 11 million people from food stamps so Congress could provide bigger tax cuts to billionaires. Presently some Republican legislators and one born-rich presidential candidate in particular are going so far as to call for the end of 40 hour work weeks and the minimum wage. It’s starting to look like “back to the past”! Nothing surprises me anymore. What’s next? Perhaps bondage and children sold into servitude at birth? Debtors prisons have already been revived.

                                            child labor

At least for the moment children aren’t working in factories or on farms as child labor they are in school (for as long as that lasts) learning what we as a society believe they need to know to become productive fully-functioning adults. With state legislatures banning the teaching of global warming and trying to replace high achievement college placement courses with bible studies the definition of “fully-functioning” is undergoing profound distortion and re-definition. Texans for Education Reform and Republican leaders in that state’s senate are openly pursuing an ALEC sponsored agenda to privatize public education. Texas cut funding for public education by $5 billion a few years back and has offered no new money since then. School systems are floundering. What is being sought is total destruction of public schools and teachers.

But why? What is the desired outcome? What future are right-wing activists seeking? Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness cannot be the objective, they must have something else in mind. Social control perhaps? A nation of sheep? Then again the rank and file of the movement may not have anything in mind except satisfying deeply held resentments and perceptions of being left out. Or, perhaps it’s fear of an increasingly uncertain future.

People are increasingly disinclined open their hearts for the homeless or for impoverished hungry children but they did open their wallets to the tune of nearly a million dollars for a bigoted bakery owner who shut down her business in order to not serve gays. Whatever the cause, sociopathy is fast becoming the new normal and children are the latest targets joining people of color, women, and gays. Next?


Weaponizing Children

 It has been done before – weaponizing children. Of course in the US  we aren’t talking about explosive belts but about the use of children to undermine public education and further political ambition. The term “social conservative” is a case of contradiction – what is being conserved has not to do with society at large. What is being conserved and expanded is wealth for a relative few while the remainder of society is being disenfranchised and impoverished – slowly perhaps but inexorably. And the impoverishment goes beyond money as it destroys dignity and self-respect. Taking over public education is an instrument of impoverishment, a weapon directed against children with a larger and more important strategic goal down the road when they become adults – the social contract. Third grade retention is only one tactic of that strategy.

People don’t often think of the social contract per se even though it influences every aspect of their lives, much less do they link third grade retention to that contract. One can suppose this is similar to fish not being aware of the water they are immersed in. The water is there and taken for granted. We live in society, we interact with others and with social institutions to such an extent that their existence apart from us isn’t any more noticeable than the air we breathe. Who thinks about the double yellow line on the highway? You simply don’t pass cars ahead of you unless … and that “unless” is what we are concerned with here. Personal awareness becomes acute when the contract is violated as when a car passes you in a no-passing zone and is confronted by an oncoming vehicle with no place to retreat save to cut you off. The purpose of double yellow lines is made obvious and the anti-social aspect of the passing driver’s behavior immediate and personal.

A less obvious example is when politicians use pubic education to further anti-social agendas. Third grade retention as punishment for not learning to read at an arbitrary rate is a classic example. In no rational world is it writ that any child must learn to read by the time they are in third grade, by fourth grade, or for that matter, that they should be prohibited from reading in second grade. This “rule” exists for no reason other than as administrative convenience. Human beings exist as individuals  and each individual learns different skills at a rate particular to them. That is a fact and not amenable to politics. This truth may very well be inconvenient but is immutable. Some children warm to arithmetic at an early age but when older cannot learn algebra much less understand differential equations. Are we to consider someone who doesn’t understand differential equations less educated or less intelligent than someone who does? Of course not. After all, you don’t have to know or understand differential equations to be a brain surgeon. It isn’t that differential equations is as fundamental as learning to read but is illustrative of the broad variations in human intellect and understanding.

Having been educated as a mathematician and having known more than a few I do not believe mathematicians are necessarily more basically intelligent than biologists, chemists, philosophers or diesel mechanics. In fact I have known mechanics who were quite a bit more broadly intelligent than some math majors I’ve known. So what is it then with this crusade to punish kids for not being good readers by the end of third grade? In short it is politics and shameful politics at that. It is nothing but pandering and using children as weapons in the war to privatize yet another covenant of the social contract.

Educating children  is a matter of public interest, public concern, and most importantly public responsibility for the simple reason that an educated polity is of vital necessity to the survival of democracy. A society needs citizens who understand their role in governance more than it needs mathematicians. A society needs people who can think critically, ask good questions, and see their way through political rhetoric to a logical conclusion – in short a society depends on people with well developed crap detectors to survive. Corporatized education will produce, in its own best interests, non-thinkers who will also not read well in third grade but they will do what they are told and believe what they are told to believe. They will become de facto soldiers in the relentless war against democracy.

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