This week President Obama waded into our nation’s long-running, and apparently futile, debate over how to educate “our children.” (Note that, from an Anthroconservative perspective, children belong more properly to their parents and kinsmen, not to society-at-large.) Obama made two suggestions that have received significant media attention. He advised school districts to consider lengthening the school year, and he threw his support behind the idea of merit pay for outstanding teachers. Both ideas are deeply flawed, and neither addresses the fundamental problems in our education system.
Lengthening the school year would be stupendous folly, because it would repeat the same mistake the American educational experts have made time and time again: substituting quantity for quality. There is, it true, some superficial evidence that many of the countries around the world reporting the best educational outcomes also have longer school years than we do. But a correlation does not prove causation, for, after all, most of the world’s countries which excel in educational terms also spend far less than we do per pupil. Can we conclude, therefore, that slashing education budgets is bound to raise test scores? That would be idiocy, and so is Obama’s infatuation with longer school years. Let us state here the most obvious objection to such a strategy: America’s BEST educational institutions, its elite colleges and universities, which are admired the world over, have remarkably short academic years. Indeed, as one moves up the academic food chain, school years get PROGRESSIVELY shorter. The answer, then, to fixing our broken educational system can hardly lie in inflicting it, unreformed but in greater quantities, on its hapless victims. Intelligent advocates of educational renewal will have to look elsewhere.
Obama’s support for “merit pay” for outstanding teachers is well-meaning, but ultimately misplaced, because any such scheme, to be even marginally effective nationwide, would have to arrogate to the federal government, or to the state education bureaucracies, the power to decide what constitutes pedagogical “excellence.” No doubt, governments would make this judgment in the same blinkered way that they have in the past – by mindlessly reading standardized test scores, and mindlessly assuming that the teacher was solely responsible for the results his or her students obtained. It is high time that we acknowledged that students themselves are the primary determinant of their own learning, and thus to praise or condemn teachers for the educational attainment (or lack thereof) of their students is simplistic, at best, and perverse, at worst. Indeed, “merit pay” would exacerbate an already dangerous trend whereby teachers have less and less CONTROL over what goes on in their classrooms, and bureaucrats have more and more. For these reasons, and for others, “merit pay” is unlikely to the change we need.
So, what steps would truly breathe new life into our moribund educational system? First, we need to accept the limitations of the system itself. As I mentioned already, students themselves arrive in the classroom with a set of assumptions, a suite of abilities, and an amalgam of virtues and vices, which will make any standardized, factory-line approach to granting them the benefits of formal education highly problematic. When one considers, in addition, the poisonous youth culture in modern America, which amounts to little more than smut and sensationalism peddled by corporate ad men, it becomes hard to imagine how any semblance of learning could occur. It is clear in this day and age that students, infected by our culture’s “get-rich-quickism” (thanks to Philip Wylie for that rhetorical gem), its superficiality, its sense of entitlement, and its self-absorption, are seldom much interested in the learning process, except and unless learning promises to provide them with immediate, tangible rewards. Thus we see some school districts experimenting with the asinine strategy of PAYING children to learn, or to show up at school. This is an approach which appeals to the materialistic ethos of our society, but it simultaneously feeds our over-weaning greed as well as our selfishness: indeed, it literally bribes us into assuming an affectation of studiousness, rather than infusing us with a love of learning for learning’s sake. We must accept, therefore, that no pedagogical gimmick will overcome the ingrained attitudes and, to be frank, the pathological narcissism that are characteristic of the modern mindset. To break this cycle, students – and, more pressingly perhaps, parents – would have to be broken of their bad habits, and they would have to be reminded that not only is education to be valued because it conveys upward mobility (a rather abstract concept for any youngster), but also because the opportunity to gain – gratis, thanks to one’s community – a diverse base of knowledge, and a sounder appreciation for one’s own place in society, is a signal blessing. To put it another way, until Americans are GRATEFUL for the education they receive, instead of viewing it as an onerous task that must, for money’s sake, be undertaken, little headway will be made.
Second, we must acknowledge that many aspects of the current educational system are poorly conceived, because they are arranged so as to train little urchins for the sort of factory-line drudgery which was their inevitable lot when the school system itself was first created. That is, the idea of taking energetic youngsters and packing them into a windowless room, under fluorescent lights and for hours at a time, while a government functionary explains to them the multiplication tables, is ludicrous, because it ignores human nature, and more specifically it ignores the developmental requirements of the children themselves. We need hardly wonder why students, straight-jacketedly thusly by the educational authorities, react peevishly to their plight. Schools that abolish recess in favor of more time for math and science are entirely missing the point – even if math and science are more inherently valuable to society, children are, and forever will be, children first, and public servants second (or perhaps third, thirtieth, or three-hundreth.)
When we design an educational system, therefore, we should look first and foremost to the circumstances in which children were raised and acculturated in the EEA. That is, we should be mindful of the fact that children, in ancestral times, were not shunted off for their daily dose of industrialized pedagogy, but were instead constantly in the presence of adults, especially their parents and kinsmen. These Stone Age children would have been playing, assisting with simple tasks of daily living, learning by imitation, and yes, even listening to well-meaning lectures on the traditions of their people, but they would have done all these things in moderation, according to a schedule developed organically according to the child’s own needs, and without the slightest interference by any centralized administration or government official. This is but another way of saying that perhaps the problem with our modern education system is that it is precisely that – a SYSTEM, brought into being by bureaucratic minds to achieve bureaucratic goals. The focus of modern education is therefore seldom on the child himself, who is truly but a cog in the machine. For this reason, anything that can be done to decentralize the education “system,” and to place it squarely in the hands of parents, extended family members, neighbors, teachers, and, yes, the students themselves, would be an immense step forward in the direction of an educational renaissance.
Lastly, I recommend a tactical change in the relationship between teachers and students that may seem, on the face of it, to be a violation of the advice given directly above. While the needs of students must be paramount, and while due deference should be given to the nature of the child, including his rambunctiousness, it is nevertheless imperative that order and discipline must prevail in any school – no matter how loosely conceived the structure and strictures of that “school” may be. In short, adults must rule, and children must obey, if any semblance of progress is to be made in the educational realm. Currently, that is not the case. Misbehaving students, because of weak disciplinary regimes and misconceived policies such as “social promotion,” are able to dominate the classroom, and teachers are powerless to enforce punishments that would effectively deter the disruptive behavior. Parents, meanwhile, use threats and legal leverage to prevent any stern disciplinary measures from being taken against their putatively blameless children. And yet, it is certain that, for a teacher to complete his or her appointed task, he or she must have AUTHORITY over the child, and the child must respect that authority, and he must believe that it is exercised with the full support of parents, family members, neighbors, and society-at-large. For this reason, we must accept that, in the course of enforcing discipline in the schools, some students, who are temperamentally incapable of self-discipline, will not receive an education of the same standard that normal children can expect as a matter of course. Some students, in fact, if they are consistently disruptive, have no right to expect that the community will waste any of its resources providing them with even a rudimentary educational experience. Furthermore, since many of the worst disciplinary problems in our schools have arisen in recent decades, and have done so in the wake of the abolition of corporal punishment with respect to schoolchildren, we should be prepared to entertain the possibility that discipline in the schools REQUIRES, as part of its repertoire of sanctions, the ability to enforce physical punishments against misbehaving students. Indeed, any reasonable perusal of the evidence from present-day hunter-gatherer societies, which are the closest to creating an “educational experience” true to human nature, would suggest that our Western squeamishness about the use of physical punishments against children and adults is ridiculous and “over-civilized,” to say the least. This does not mean that every school should be ruled by force primarily, but it does mean that whatever measures are NECESSARY to enforce a minimal standard of discipline ought to be undertaken. To refuse to undertake them is, as a matter of fact, a betrayal of the students themselves, whose interests are in no sense well-served by a system that coddles bullies and malcontents.
I realize that some of my suggestions may prove shocking, or at least disagreeable, and I therefore welcome rebuttals to the prescription for educational reform that I have laid out here. Whatever may be our approach to “fixing” America’s schools, though, let us always keep uppermost in our minds the fact that, ultimately, the fate of “our children” lies with those of us who, unlike me, happen to be parents. It is above all parents who understand and appreciate the steps that need to be taken to allow their children to prosper, even in an age so contemptuous of the true interests of children. Parents are, therefore, the most critical element determining the success or failure of the education system itself.