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Education reform

February 24, 2013

addendum: I should point out that it’s not just people the age of my kids and a little older who sometimes can’t write or speak effectively. I run into the same problem on other blogs. Frequently it involves people my age or older.

This is long and rambling. You have been warned.

I do not have a degree in education. I’ve never taught a single class in elementary school, middle school, or college. I’ve attended a lot of those through the years and, as a parent, I’ve sent my kids off to them, year after year. So, what follows is my view of education. Specifically, I’ll talk about what an educational system should be designed to do, what I see as current weaknesses in our system and ways to address them.

Culture is vital

One of the primary purposes of education is, or should be, to promote the national culture. To me, this means teaching

  • who we are
  • how we got here
  • both are taught, warts and all, at age appropriate levels
It most specifically does not mean imparting to our children the idea that we should feel guilty for the actions of those who preceded us. Nor does it mean we must set about to dismantle or necessarily fundamentally change the institutions and philosophies that have brought us to where we are. Our culture must be guarded jealously and passed on to each subsequent generation. That doesn’t mean we don’t change over time to meet the changing realities of the world. It does, however, mean that the basic beliefs that produced our nation must be cherished.
History needs to be taught. A person who doesn’t understand how we arrived where we are really has little understanding of our current condition, or what might be done to change things. Likewise, a good knowledge of history helps us steer a better course for the future. It allows us to know what prior generations have done, or tried to do, and gives us an idea of what we can expect from things we might consider as a nation.
Values are important. This is true for both individuals and nations. I suggest any nation that chooses to abandon the values and principles that led to greatness is very likely on the “road to ruin”. I will not suggest the United States was founded as a specifically Christian nation. History doesn’t support such a view, regardless of the insistence on the part of some that it does. What I will suggest is that some very basic principles of the Judeo-Christian ethic were a fundamental part of the beliefs of the Founding Fathers, regardless of their particular religious or philosophical beliefs…or their relative inability to always live up to them. It’s important to remember that not only is this country, in many ways, a product of the Enlightenment, it is very much a product of the Scottish Enlightenment. We could do much worse than to ensure our children are well read in the ethics, morals and philosophies that produced this nation.
Critical thinking is invaluable

Education that doesn’t go beyond what my father called “read, memorize and regurgitate” doesn’t really have much value. On the other hand, the ability to think, to reason clearly is priceless. Unfortunately, the development of this skill, and it is a learned skill, is given short shrift by most people whose writings on education reform I’ve read. It seems to be that people believe one of two things. Either we require our children to learn things by rote, year after year, and hope they’ll somehow magically learn to think clearly or we focus on critical thinking without requiring a mastery of the underlying disciplines. And I suggest that critical thinking, and the knowledge and understanding that makes it possible, is a discipline.
It amazes me that so many people think the “dead Greek guys” from thousands of years ago have nothing to teach that is of relevance today. Other than the fact that western civilization is largely founded on the thoughts and ideas of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, I guess they’re right. Logic, rhetoric, argumentation…these are so much a part of our heritage that failure to teach them to our children constitutes a failure of leadership on the part of teachers and parents. The ability to argue strongly for a position without depending on personal attacks is almost impossible without critical thinking.
Are there other sources of critical thinking? Of course. And they should be taught, also.  But it’s important, I believe, that at the very least we teach those that contributed directly to the formation of our nation and western society and culture. And that we use those as the foundation for our other teaching.
Some things kids just have to learn

Look, I did not like algebra. I really didn’t like geometry. I actively disliked trig and I despised calculus (and still do). I had to learn them anyway. It didn’t kill me, though there were times I thought it would. But, it forced me to learn to think more clearly, regardless of how happy I was without that ability. Some people don’t like history, others hate literature or composition, or music, or art, or PE…the list is endless. At some point parents and teachers need to tell kids that it’s okay to not like something…and that they have to learn it anyway.
While I’m on the subject, let’s talk about art, music and PE. They are, in my view, invaluable parts of an adequate education. They enrich our lives. They remind us that life can be more than a struggle for survival and pursuit of self-gain. Not to mention that there are studies suggesting these all contribute to better performance in the more academic classes. Which suggests we do a disservice to our children whom we allow to develop into almost one dimensional people…
Financial education
This is an area that seems to be seldom addressed when educational reform is discussed. Parent’s and teachers both fall down here. I know a man who was for years the director for a team of “hot shots”, firefighters for the National Forest Service. He was very good and his teams were considered some of the best in the world. He led the teams, planned and coordinated their activities when they were on scene, negotiated their contracts for equipment, coordinated their activities with other firefighters from other agencies, and over say their budgets. And he did not know how to write a check until he was about 50 years old.
I see kids every day who have no idea where money comes from or what to do with it other than spend it. Their parents live every day with an overwhelming load of debt, especially unsecured consumer debt, and the children are learning to live the same way. We simply must do a better job of teaching our children that money is a limited resource and, as the old economic principle puts it, “There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch” (TANSTAAFL). It’s illustrative that in 1910 the Sears catalog called buying on credit “folly”. Or that Henry Ford was so opposed to credit that Ford didn’t sell cars that way until 10 years after General Motors started. Over the years I’ve had the opportunity to talk with several millionaires and so far not one of them has called buying on credit a good thing. To the very last person, every one of them has said that if they had to choose between buying on credit or not having something, they would do without it. What’s really interesting is that each and every one of them adopted this philosophy before becoming wealthy.
I am convinced that part of the reason we are willing to accept our nation’s staggering debt is because we’ve come to believe this is an acceptable way to live, ourselves. It’s not. Not only is it not acceptable, it’s just plain foolish…stupid, if you will. We owe it to our children and all future generations, to get our financial houses in order so we can teach and model financial discipline for them.
Prussian influence

The Prussian model has had a great influence on our education system in the US. The purpose of the Prussian model, was to provide the King of Prussia with good, loyal subjects who were incapable of even thinking ill of the King or his policies. This runs counter to the critical thinking skills necessary to an enduring republic. In our efforts to pass on to each successive generation the values and philosophies of the nation, we must not allow ourselves to engage in simple indoctrination. Critical thinking and an appreciation of our history and culture can coexist.

There was a time when a college degree was a rare thing. Part of that was because college education was largely viewed as being almost exclusively for the well-to-do. It’s silly, at best, to suggest a person must come from wealth in order to be fit for college. One reason to have  more rigorous academic requirements in elementary, middle and high school is to ensure we have a greater number of students adequately prepared for college. It’s shameful that we have high school graduates accepted into college who have to take watered down courses as they start their college years because they received an inadequate education beforehand.  I’ve known college graduates who cannot write or speak as clearly and logically as high school graduates from my parents’ generation.
It is my belief that college courses should be challenging. I can remember both Freshman Math and Freshman English as “weed out” courses. Part of their purpose was to ensure that if a student remained at the  university or college, he or she belonged there. That is, he or she had demonstrated the basic skills that were likely to allow academic success.
I’ve had people tell me “everyone deserves to go to college”. Nonsense. Everyone does not “deserve” to go to college. Not everyone wants to go, nor is everyone qualified to go. I’m not suggesting we pigeonhole people. I am suggesting we abandon the nonsensical idea that the rigorous academic environment that college should be is for everyone. Not being suited for college has nothing to do with a person’s worth or value. Nor does it, necessarily, have anything to do with intelligence. 
I’ve read the studies suggesting a college degree has a significant positive impact on a person’s income. Okay. It probably does tend to make you a better employee. After all, in spite of the availability of easy courses in college, it does require some discipline to graduate. The discipline that allows a person to complete 4 or more years of college education alone will, I suspect, lead to a greater income. In spite of that, I contend it makes no sense to produce college graduates who cannot write or speak clearly or who cannot frame a sound argument for a position they hold. Besides, there are many people without degrees who earn more than some with degrees. I know a man who took 6 years to finish high school, and several people who never completed college, who are millionaires several times over, suggesting academic success are financial success are not inherently tied together.
“Oh, no. I don’t want my son or daughter to go to a junior college, or worse yet, a technical school!” Really? Why not? Suppose it allows them to learn and ultimately do the thing that really contributes to their happiness. Suppose it allows them to actually look forward to going to work. Suppose it leads them to starting a successful business. Suppose, because of the financial discipline you taught them, it allows them to do what they really enjoy. Suppose, in addition, that because of the financial discipline you taught them, they never live beyond their means and when it becomes time to retire they are able to do so and live out the next 2, 3 or even 4 decades with dignity in financial security and independence. Now, is that decision to go to a junior college or technical school such a bad idea? I’d suggest it’s not.

I’m afraid I’ve done a poor job of expressing what I think about what needs to happen in American education. I’m fifty years old and while my education was much better than that received by many, it was still lacking. There were attempts by some teachers and my parents to teach me a lot of things I talked about here, but it wasn’t done uniformly and regularly. Consequently, so much of this I’ve had to learn in the past to to fifteen years. Learning it wasn’t really all that hard. The real struggle was in unlearning the things I’d been taught instead. It frustrates me that subsequent generations are in the position of potentially learning it even later than I did and it frightens me for the future of our nation.
Please, let me know what you think.

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  1. Very good essay. I'm 54 so you and I had pretty much the same education through high school. Some subjects that we were taught either are not taught today, or have been watered down and changed so as to be unrecognizable to us. The problem as I see it, is the "socialization" of education, meaning that kids are more or less taught not to stand out…go along to get along. Private and Christian schools used to teach what's known as a classical education. That education wasn't often available to the average student.Classical education not only taught the 3 R', but also taught critical thinking and logic as well as rhetoric. World History and Philosophy were also taught as well as what we call the Romantic Languages like Greek and Latin.What's been happening the last few decades is the dumbing down of our kids and the education system in general.Parents and local school boards have no say so in what textbooks their children will be taught out of. Culture is important, as you said. But unfortunately, we are in a cultural slide. You can see this in proposals from education leaders that want to teach kids as young as 5 or 6 that's it's okay to be gay.A recent law in the state of Massachusetts was just passed allowing students to choose their own gender as pertains to which restroom they want to use. And the school can't tell the parents which gender their child identifies with. That means a 14 year old kid could identify as a boy at home, but identify as a girl at school, enabling him to "use" the girl's restroom. How sick is that?John Dewey is known as the Father of modern American education. I'll leave you with a quote by Admiral Hyman Rickover about Mr. Dewey;"America is reaping the consequences of the destruction of traditional education by the Dewey-Kilpatrick experimentalist philosophy….Dewey's ideas have led to the elimination of many academic subjects on the ground that they will not be useful in life…The student thus receives neither intellectual training nor the factual knowledge which will help him understand the world he lives in, or to make well reasoned decisions in his private life or as a responsible citizen."I rambled a bit there…sorry.

  2. Thanks for your comments. I agree completely. The impetus for this essay was my stumbling across the web site of The Highlands Latin School in Louisville, KY.As for rambling, I tend to ramble more than a little, myself.

  3. 1. A lot of schools claim to teach critical thinking. As with much else, it's just theater. In my classes, I actually do insist on the genuine article. Many of my students complain about not being required to spit back a few discrete facts, but after a while, they come around–at least enough of them to make the job worth doing.The ability to evaluate facts and form a valid conclusion, often in the face of the fallacies being thrown at us, is a fundamental skill in a democracy. We fail to teach this at our peril.2. Robots need a limited set of low-level skills. Citizens and human beings generally need a much broader life.3. Fiscal responsibility? Here's the Scotsman talking, eh? Voters and participants in our economy ought to understand how things work. We hear a lot of talk about Adam Smith, but what gets missed is Smith's view was dependent on each party in the system having full knowledge. That's how a fair price is reached. The ignorant are victims–often of their own choosing.4. I tell my students that they don't have to agree with me. They do have to build a solid case for what they argue.5. I've had the suspicion for a while now that many jobs require college degrees as a way to weed out minorities without drawing the ire of the Justice Department. For a great many jobs, I have to wonder why a degree is necessary.But given the decline in standards at our colleges, I see a day coming when larger corporations, at least, do in-house training more and more.I've been teaching for thirteen years now. Over that time, I've watched the overall quality of students drop. The expectations that we're allowed to hold have been forced to chase the students downward–we wouldn't want to offend anyone or hurt the poor soul's self-esteem, after all.Here's one example: One semester, a quarter of my literature class cheated on a major essay. (That most of the cheaters were athletes may be beside the point.) I wanted them to get Fs for the semester, but the dean called me in to insist that I show mercy. Lest anyone think that this was an isolated incident, the same is happening where I teach now.A college education should be solely about academic pursuits. Technical and trade schools can teach job skills to those who need only that–so long as primary and secondary schools have made good citizens out of their graduates.But now I'm ranting. You did a fine job of laying out a sample of the problems and the solutions. Sadly, the march downward goes on.

  4. My friend, you have not only done a very competent job of explaining the problem, you have demonstrated one of the primary reasons the self-appointed elites try so hard to force their model on the rest of us: because they do not want the masses to realize that wisdom is not acquired in school. 😉

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