Category Archives: Higher education

“The Sky is Falling!”

A beloved American folktale, “Chicken Little” (Br. “Henny Penny”) relates the story of a chick that is hit on the head by a falling acorn and believes that the sky is falling. The little chick decides to tell the king and along the way meets up with other fowl, also with rhyming names like Ducky Lucky and Goosey Loosey. Eventually they meet

English: A Boston edition c.1865 of The Remark...

English: A Boston edition c.1865 of The Remarkable Story of Chicken Little first published there in 1840 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

a fox who persuades them to follow him to his lair. Then, depending on who is telling the story (conservative or liberal) the birds are either eaten or get away. The morals, respectively, would be “Don’t believe everything you are told” and “Don’t be a chicken; be brave.”

Well, it turns out that many Americans embrace their own version of Chicken Little whenever they talk about education. For years–at least back to when I started teaching–politicians, activists, and school board members have been decrying the state of American education. And this was when it was in pretty good shape, a model for the rest of the world. But it turns out that we were repeating the mantra “our schools are failing” over and over again, so much so that we began to believe it.

European education had been the golden paradigm for most of  US history. The German university system and the English public schoolsystem were what what we wanted to emulate.

USSR postage stamp depicting the communist sta...

USSR postage stamp depicting the communist state launching the first artificial satellite Sputnik 1. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But then the Russians sent up Sputnik, in 1957, the Space Age began, and the US poured millions into improving math and science education. I know, I lived through this. But 20 years later we were hearing laments about the ‘failure’ of American education. It was, indeed, the Chicken Little syndrome. People may have noticed a drop off in graduate quality and for them, the ‘sky’ fell.

Back in those years, Finland had an abysmal educational system, and they looked to the US for inspiration to change it. Today, they are invariably at the top of the list when it comes to quality of education. One Finnish educator noted that, given the sheer size of our educational system, the answers to any problems with our schools can be found within it, in the educators we have who have new ideas.

A day-old chick

A day-old chick (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But our politicians are still crying about the falling sky, failing to notice that we have the answers right here. I can only conclude this is a basic defect in the American mentality.

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Education’s Enemies

American Education is in the Dumpster

American Education is in the Dumpster (Photo credit: brewbooks)

BLAMING THE TEACHER

I started teaching junior and senior high school in 1970 and did it for 13 years. Now, you’re not going to believe this, but the same arguments about education that we’re having today were being bandied about then. One group held that teachers weren’t teaching, that their quality had dropped tremendously, and that they were just in it for the money. Their opponents argued that, if teachers had sufficient resources, they could inspire their students to do well, and poor performance was the school district’s fault because it failed to fund the schools sufficiently. In all of the hubbub and angry talk about why students weren’t succeeding, one factor was always ignored, brushed aside, or hidden away: the quality of the student’s support system.

That’s right, I’m talking about the kid’s family, nuclear or extended. For a child to do well in school, he or she has to want to succeed. And they get that desire to succeed from parents who encourage them, who hold education in high regard, and who believe that an educated child has a better chance at succeeding in life as an adult. In these families, parents read to their children in their toddler years, often at bedtime. They make sure that some of the gifts they give to their children during the year are books. They read, too, even if their literacy is poor, and even if it’s only newspapers. They read as an example. These families help their children with homework and school project, and attend the school events. They invest themselves in their children’s education.

Let me tell you a story. When I first started teaching the students in my classes were engaged and interested, not only in school activities but in the larger world. Our student body was heavily Jewish, with a large Italian population, too. The Vietnamese War was raging at the time and kids took positions on both sides. They protested, they wrote letters, they cared about what was going on. And they were challenging to teach.  Thirteen years later, families of different socioeconomic groups had moved in to the neighborhood. I remember calling a parent to express my concern about a student’s homework record and class performance. The father’s response was, “Aw, let the kid alone,” and then he hung up on me. There’s the difference I’m talking about.

Teachers can do great things with kids who want to learn. But with no support from the family it’s almost impossible to reach them.

ANTI-INTELLECTUALISM

English: An intellectual contrasted with a pri...

English: An intellectual contrasted with a prize-fighter; by Thomas Nast ca. 1875 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There has always been a vein of anti-intellectualism in this country. It’s often expressed by referring to those ‘pointy-headed’ scholars in their ‘ivory towers’ of academia. Higher education has taken the brunt of this because it is more apt to be removed from the hurly-burly of everyday life. And scholarly research is more often trashed than read. I will grant you that some–alright, much–scholarly research is so esoteric as to be meaningless to the laymen, but because of the relentless drive to learn more we have the marvels we have today in medicine, science and technology. Ask an anti-intellectual if he wants to return to a rotary dial, party-line phone. He’ll only answer yes if he’s a Luddite.

The anti-intellectuals in the United States are almost always conservatives. (See Death by Degrees, below) That puts most of them in the Republican camp, but there are some Democrats who have conservative views, too. Why do they get their bloomers in a twist over intellectualism? (By intellectualism, I give you Wikipedia’s definition:)

Intellectualism denotes the use and development of the intellect, the practice of being an intellectual, and of holding intellectual pursuits in great regard.[1][2] Moreover, in philosophy, “intellectualism” occasionally is synonymous with “rationalism”, i.e. knowledge derived mostly from reason and reasoning.

Because the results of intellectual pursuits often include conclusions that go against conservatives’ philosophy of life! For example, conservatives tend to be highly religious, so they wouldn’t immediately cotton to the theory of evolution. It’s bizarre, isn’t it? They go bananas when someone offers evidence that they are descended from the same ancestor as the modern day chimpanzee, but have no difficulty accepting a story that god created them from dirt.

Of course, the more important reason is that an uneducated populace is more apt to accept the way things are rather than make progress. No comfortable person, no one happy in their life just as it is, will develop the restlessness and drive to change things. Why would they? It is the uncomfortable person, the rebel, the person not content with the way things are, who eventually moves us forward.

So you cannot show evidence of global warming to anti-intellectual conservatives because they will willfully ignore it. To them, it’s probably a ‘conspiracy’ from those ‘pointy-headed’ nerds at a university somewhere. And because they’re so anti-intellectual pursuits, they have no trouble seeing teachers as disposable and as school programs like art and music as a waste of money.

With enemies like these, it’s a wonder teachers can educate students at all.

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