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Dentist, more education thoughts - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
Dentist, more education thoughts
I had to get a filling this morning. I like my new dentist. He told me what he was doing, double-checked my novacaine (a big relief after the last time, when someone just checked her watch and said, "Well, it should have kicked in by now" and started drilling), and made a pest of himself about making follow-up appointments. So even though he's going to make me have a deep, under-gum cleaning (it sounds painful even to think about), I'm definitely sticking with this guy. Good thing, too. I need to get a lot of things done because I ignored my teeth for a really long time. I don't recommend ignoring one's teeth.

Anyway, I've been reading a book by Diane Ravitch called Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms, which I've been finding interesting. It's actually less biased than I was expecting--it's clearly a conservative book, but she's fair about pointing out that, within its milieu and with a staff of incredibly talented teachers, Dewey's lab school worked just splendidly. She points out that the same crusaders who wanted to make the schools into Marxist indoctrination centers (literally; the subject of whether or not indoctrination was all right was actually hotly debated in the 1930s) also came out publicly after the purges in the late '30s and repudiated their own thoughts on the subject... and that was before McCarthyism and so on. When you've got a public persona invested in something, it's not easy to say, "This was a mistake."

It's amusing to note that we're always trying to recapture the "good schools" we used to have, and any era we look at was looking at some other era. The truth is that school reform has been around since schooling became common, and all of the pitched battles tend to be about different ideas of what society should ultimately be.

As might be expected, it all kind of annoys me. I mean, on the one hand, I'm all for idealism. I moved back to Boston because I'd rather hang out with idealists I disagree with than the sort of apathetic, who-cares types I was constantly around in Albuquerque. For idealism, if occasionally totally loopy idealism, Boston's the town.

On the other hand, I don't think idealism can operate properly if kids are treated as experiments to be conducted by their teachers. The best way for a student to grow up to make a difference (or preserve the status quo, for that matter) is to ground that student with a solid knowledge base about the cumulative knowledge and achievements of mankind, and teach him to get some critical distance so he can evaluate the things he'll run into. The place where I wanted to smash my head against the wall with the progressivists was their profoundly anti-intellectual stance against teaching things that are abstract and not immediately useful. I mean... isn't that mostly what school is for? Life teaches the useful stuff. (Caveat: Says the girl who has thanked heaven that her mother forced her to take typing and keyboarding in school.)

I think there are two fundamentally opposed ideas about education in a democracy, and neither side can even comprehend the other. The position of the progressivists seems to be that the traditional curriculum, because geared toward college and taken advantage of by the elites, is inherently elitist, and should be overthrown to make room for more proleteriat subject matter, which allows all students to learn equally. The position of the traditionalist (in a democracy) is that the traditional subjects were once relegated to the elites, and democracy means making them available to everyone, so that everyone can benefit as the elites did. This struck me when I read a quote from... eek, now I'm blanking on his name. Anyway, this gentleman said that teachers owed nothing to the economic system except to lead their students to believe in a better one, and nothing to the children of privilege except to "strip those privileges away."

This attitude baffles me. It angers me as well, because it's a deliberately destructive act against things I value, but its advocation as a democratizing force just... confuses me. Honestly. With the economic issue, while I have moral qualms with the Marxist ideal of redistribution, if one accepts the notion of scarcity of goods, then a logical case could be made for redistributing them. But there is no such thing as a scarcity of ideas or knowledge. If a dozen rich kids learn Latin, they lose nothing if a hundred poor kids do. (Well, it may, in effect "strip them of their privilege," but not by taking away the subject. They still get the knowledge, and it becomes their choice of how to use it or not use it.) If children of PhDs study history, their knowledge is not less if children of their housekeepers study the same history. If a chemist's daughter learns algebra, does she suddenly lose that knowledge if her father tutors an English teacher's son? That's just... stupid, not to put too fine a point on it. If the arguments against teaching academic subjects to poor kids, minority kids, and immigrant kids were coming from the so-called privileged with the stated intention of keeping them "lower class" and preserving the advantages that their own kids had, it would be hateful and horrible, but logically comprehensible. That it's coming from people claiming to be the champions of the poor and downtrodden makes my brain explode.

Now, it's true that not every student is going to be able to hack it in advanced Latin. Lord knows, I lost track of higher math somewhere around tenth grade. Kids are different from one another and learn differently. There's no way to get around that. The point isn't that every student needs to be forced through AP Biology, but that the class should be equally available to any student who is able to do the work.

And this is where I start to fight with the "Back to the Basics" crowd on the conservative side of the line (as well as the social engineering crowd, who seem to want everything but academic subjects in school). The absolute essence of democratic schooling is to let every child and teenager find out just what he can do, what she loves to do, what subject calls to him. This isn't going to happen if these things aren't made available by the schools, specifically because they aren't part of everyday life. In fact, an argument could be made that it's more important to teach art history and appreciation in a poor rural school district than in a wealthy urban one, since the latter will have immediate access to museums and public art from which they can learn (though of course, I advocate teaching it in both places). A student who is never exposed to art will never have the chance to know if she is fascinated by it. The same is true of higher math, science, music, history, and so on. Childhood is the time to do that, and school is the appropriate place because it's a school. I mean, that's what school is best at, what it's most naturally suited to as an institution: exposing students to fields of knowledge. To say, "Nah, we don't feel like doing that," is a profoundly anti-democratic and anti-scholastic position, not to mention a position in the worst possible interest of children.

10 comments or Leave a comment
thewhiteowl From: thewhiteowl Date: May 11th, 2005 09:03 pm (UTC) (Link)
hughroe From: hughroe Date: May 12th, 2005 12:28 am (UTC) (Link)
Hmmm, sounds like the Duke City's gone downhill since I left back in '75.

"Idealists" covers a lot of ground, from the Navy Corpsman who throws himself on a live grenade to save the lives of the Marines under his care to the fellow walking the line of new arrivals deciding which ones will go to the work parties, and which to the "showers".

And I think that a lot of the 'Back to Basics' is exactly for that, a person should, after 12 years, be able to read, write, and at least do basic math. History and Civics are also important.

I agree that Art and music are important as well, the only question is who decides? And what shall be presented?
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: May 12th, 2005 12:46 am (UTC) (Link)
Basic reading, writing, and 'rithmetic--even with history and science added, as of course they should be--shouldn't take twelve years. There's a lot of time wasted on social engineering that could be used for studying subject matter, which wouldn't interfere with the basics at all.

And yes, of course, the basics should be there. I just kind of... take it for granted.
hughroe From: hughroe Date: May 12th, 2005 04:31 pm (UTC) (Link)
Social engineering and social promotion.

Notr sure if what I read once is accurate, but it was to the tune of 25% of high school graduates were functionally illiterate
story645 From: story645 Date: May 12th, 2005 01:17 am (UTC) (Link)
To an extent, I agree with the back to basics, but only because I run into so many kids who just aren't fimiliar with a lot of basics. I was never taught any grammar more advanced than parts of speech in elementary school, and know others who never learned algebra. It seems like the schools are pushing a curriculum too advanced for some kids, and instead of stepping back, they step into the challenege lacking some of the fundementals. I know a lot of kids like that, in various subjects.

I agree with you about art and music classes in poor schools being more important, but I'm wondering how do you feel about the skyrocketing costs of museums? What's the point of teaching it if the person can't afford to go out and learn more? (And most poeple either don't know the musuems are theoretically free, or would never not pay.)
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: May 12th, 2005 02:25 am (UTC) (Link)
What's the point of teaching it if the person can't afford to go out and learn more?

I'd almost say that it's more important in that case, because it would be the only exposure they'd have a chance to get. If it turned out to be what the student's interest was, then there are scholarships to art schools, and a teacher who noticed the interest could work with the museums for deals (the MFA here has a teenage docent program, plus general free entrance for high school students after school hours) and so on. But if it's not taught, there's no opportunity for anyone to find out and help. But even if they never learn about it again, learning about it once is still important. I'm not big on "relevance" in schools; I'm big on passing on the culture and knowledge.
sonetka From: sonetka Date: May 13th, 2005 02:38 am (UTC) (Link)
Plus, every museum I've ever been to has a free day; granted, it usually falls during the weekday, but that's what summer break is for - or, more realistically, a school field trip :).
(Deleted comment)
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: May 12th, 2005 02:17 pm (UTC) (Link)
Yes, but kids won't self-educate without pretty good guidance on the subject. To quote that great educational philosopher, Chris Chambers, "Kids lose everything unless there's someone there to look out for them."

As to moving, there's not always a choice. We moved to Perry because my mother needed to get a better job in order to raise me, and she couldn't get financial aid for nursing school in the city... hence, the move to the sticks. Other people may just not be able to move (moving is expensive, after all) or may have other compelling interests in staying where they are. Schools, after all, aren't everything--there may be family history in a place, or a sick grandparent, or a family farm, or any number of things that have non-scholastic value. Schools should be universally good so that people can live where they want to live for other reasons.
From: (Anonymous) Date: May 13th, 2005 02:14 am (UTC) (Link)
I keep thinking I should have something significant to add but I don't know if I've found it yet. I'm learning disabled. I don't think there's been a school system in the world where I wouldn't have been a square peg trying to fit into a round hole. I always had a burning desire to learn but I don't know if it would have been enough without some of the help I had along the way. But I also struggled with things other people took for granted and breezed through things other people took for granted. I drove teachers and my fellow students insane.

So, when I read about problems with schools, it sometimes seems to me like they're trying to make EVERYONE have the same, less than cheerful learning experience I did. If you want to see steam coming out my ears, that's a good way to start. Hello, people! A sane learning environment where students can see connections between what they're taught, what their tested on, and what academic rewards they get go a long way. Punishing them for being square pegs when you wanted round ones doesn't work.
From: (Anonymous) Date: May 13th, 2005 02:18 am (UTC) (Link)
"breezed through things other people STRUGGLED with" I mean.

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