An Elegiac Look at Education

For the most part, there're only two times when you hear about education in the United States. One is when the national media picks up the latest press release decrying the latest study that shows the U.S. has dropped another notch in the worldwide educational hiarchy. Quick, name an industrialized nation that ISN'T ahead of the U.S. in math, science, or even English (occasionally touted as our own national language!). Sometimes, this news is bitter or ridiculous enough to spawn related programming: NBC News specials on our nation's schools, or the like.

The other time you hear about education in this country is when someone is seeking public office. Sandwiched between the right to carry assault weapons, what to do with Medicare, and how we should balance the budget, the issue of education usually makes an appearance in candidates' rhetoric about the "better America" their successful candidacy will produce. They refer to the latest studies, mentioned above, and claim something needs to be done. Rarely indeed do these candidates suggest just what SHOULD be done, although lately a popular conservative solution has been to shitcan the whole thing.

Yes, the cry has now gone out to abandon the public school system entirely. Or it may be better to say that the cry to abandon the public school system is now being heard, loud and clear, as it's probably been with us, out on the fringes of warped conservative thinking, all along.

The arguments against public schools are somewhat based in truth. Education in this country does seem to be on the decline, despite the idealistic best efforts of the America 2000 project. There are studies which indicate private school graduates are more on the proverbial ball. And everybody knows that privatization leads to more productivity and less waste, right?

The problem with these arguments is they all turn a blind eye to some very important points.

The first point has to do with causality. If you're going to attempt a cure, it's important to ask WHY education in the United States is declining. Is it really because the school systems are getting worse? The teachers? The curriculum? Textbooks? Of course not. Thanks to stricter standards and a growing effort to professionalize their profession, today's teachers are more thoroughly prepared than those of our idealized past. The curriculum cannot possibly have gotten worse--in fact, we've been improving and fine tuning it all these decades. The textbooks are bigger, glossier, and by all measurable means better than they ever were, thanks in part to an already existing privatization that has turned the textbook business into what I'm sure is a multi-billion dollar industry. So what part of the school system has declined? There is only one: the students, in terms of their performance and behavior.

So the causality point is that there's no sense in changing the school system if the school system isn't to blame, which how can schools be at fault if they have only gotten better?

What's so different about students these days, then, that would cause their performance to drop and their behavior to worsen? Have they somehow de-evolved? Again, of course not. In fact, students today are savvier, more sophisticated than ever. They understand technology that would leave people two generations removed slack-jawed with amazement. They don't have less cranial capacity or poorer mylenation than those students of the past who WEREN'T lagging behind the rest of the industrialized world. The only thing about the students these days? They just don't seem to come to school ready to learn. Or, perhaps more accurately, while they're there, it just doesn't seem like teachers can get them to learn. Get them to learn the things we want them to learn, that is.

But is that even true?

In my experience, and forgive me if this is too obvious, but there are two kinds of students. Those that thrive in school, and those who struggle. The thrivers and the strugglers are not necessarily divided by intelligence, although by the time they both arrive at the twelfth grade, the latter have lost so much educational ground that their intelligence isn't readily apparent. The thing to realize here is that there ARE plenty of thrivers in today's public schools. Today's brightest students are just as bright as they used to be, perhaps more so. I wouldn't be surprised if, in terms of percentages, there are more thrivers per school than there used to be. But there are also more strugglers, and boy are they ever struggling. They're struggling in ways that make headlines, with guns and drugs and behavior in the classroom that disrupts everyone's learning, and a collective performance so dismal that it blows the national average straight out of contention. Why, one might ask, are there so many strugglers, struggling to such a degree, when there are a comparable number of students who are thriving?

The answer, I believe, is that many students simply aren't going to thrive, good schooling or not. The kids I refer to haven't developed responsibility, dedication, even in some cases compassion. Without the ingredients that make a person a functioning member of civilized society, these kids are hardly at a place where we can expect to teach them nouns and verbs. The lessons they really need to learn are ones they should have been taught in the first few years of life, by their parents. How can we now expect our embattered teachers to re-program them at this late stage?

The problem with the significant number of strugglers in our nation's school system, then, is that they've become the victims of poor parenting. It's a society-wide problem! Far too many people are having kids when they aren't ready to commit the time and effort it takes to raise them right. Far too many people are just downright selfish, too willing to pursue their own interests and happiness instead of giving their kids a fighting chance in the world. This includes people who get divorced while their kids are still young, people who let their kids grow up in daycare, people who don't take the time to get involved with their childrens' education, people who don't make sure they teach their kids right and wrong, people who don't instill discipline in their kids, people who just flat out don't show their kids their love and acceptance.

By the way, if you fall into one of the catagories mentioned above, and you find yourself getting defensive, like who am I to be laying the blame for the downfall of education in this country on your shoulders, then my response is this: You made decisions in your life. For whatever reason, good or bad, you made them. It doesn't matter if your reasons were good or bad, because the results are still going to be the same. Maybe you had to divorce your spouse. Maybe your spouse was abusive and your kids are better off with the divorce. But that doesn't mean that your kids aren't going to suffer from the consequences of divorce just like every other child of divorced parents does. And it does call into question your decision to marry and have children with an abusive person. So go ahead and get mad at me for saying so, but then I hope you'll eventually be strong enough to take responsibility for your own actions.

The ironic thing is, various studies suggest that if we do a proper job of parenting in the first two to five years of a child's life, they'll probably be able to overcome anything from there on out. It's those formative years that lay the foundation, and if the foundation isn't laid properly, the house is never going to be structurely sound, no matter how much you try to fix it cosmetically. I'm not suggesting it should end there, but you loser parents could at least make the effort for two to five years!

It all comes down to taking responsibility. If you aren't ready to make sacrifices in your own life, even to the point of putting your career on hold or staying with a spouse for whom you no longer feel a burning love, then don't have kids. Just don't do it.

All of which brings me to my second point, which is this: No wonder kids who go to private schools do better than those who go to public schools. It has little to do with the quality of education they receive. It has to do with their parents. If parents care enough about their children's education to pull them out of the public schools and spend money to send them to private schools, then this alone makes a significant difference. But why not manifest that concern in making sure their kids get the best education possible at the public school?

(There are, by the way, plenty of other reasons why private schools can boast of better performing students. For one, they have the luxury of picking who can attend! I worked in the admissions office of a private school once, and the biggest deciding factor for allowing kids into the nursery school was the parent interview. That's right! They knew that parents are the main reason kids succeed or don't.)

It's absolutely crucial that all of us do invest ourselves in public education. This is my final point, and one upon which the rest of the argument hinges.

I believe that all of us, as Americans, have a responsibility to our country and our society to invest in the public school system. This is one area where privatization isn't the best solution. In this case, privatization undermines the basic tenets of democracy. It is the place where our unlikely marriage of capitalism and democracy in this country finally breaks down. Quite frankly, capitalism creates haves and have-nots. It's a necessary evil, or at least an inevitable one. In any form of a meritocracy, some people are going to merit more than others. Some people will be smarter, or work harder, or be luckier. Since this is also true in real life, capitalism provides a useful counterpart to the democratic side of our nation's ideology: the part that says "All men are created equal." Meaning, all men (and women) deserve an equal shot at making it in this country. All men and women have the right to an informed say in what goes on in this country.

Unfortunately, all men aren't born equal. It's up to us, if we're going to stay true to that vision of democracy described in our constitution, to make sure they are "created" equal. This is where education comes in. Education is our only shot at creating haves out of have-nots. It's our best shot at raising the overall quality of life in this country.

Sadly, we spend more money on almost everything else. Pick an item of government spending, and we probably spend more on it than we do education. Military, highways, agricultural subsidies, etc.

I don't know the exact numbers, but I'm betting that on the national average teachers make less money than any other educated, certificated, salaried professionals. We've come a long way towards respecting our teachers in the last few years, say in terms of movies like Stand and Deliver, Dangerous Minds, et al, but the fact is that teaching is still regarded by many as a sub-standard profession. Witness the derogatory tone taken by Rush Limbaugh and Bob Dole when referring to the NEA.

If you think about it, it's little wonder that teachers and public schools don't get much respect in America. This a capitalist society, which means the highest standard of achievement is the amount of money one has. Teachers, of course, are bottom-feeders when it comes to salaries. This is also a democratic republic, sworn enemies of the socialists and the communists. Public education, admittedly, is a form of socialism (as is the post office, social security, and in some ways even the armed forces!).

So we're already in trouble in this country, because we've got a growing number of selfish, ineffective parents, we hardly spend anything on education, and we don't respect our teachers and our schools. Now, we're starting to make the problem worse by siphoning off more and more money and potential "thrivers" to private schools, thereby making it likely that the only students who'll eventually be left in the public school system will be strugglers. And the public school system will be even less equipped to deal with them. And the number of strugglers will continue to grow, because doggonit, those people also breed like crazy! Those people being ones who haven't been brought up to be responsible, self-disciplined, dedicated citizens. Those people who are likely to do the same crappy job of raising their own kids that was done on them.

The public school system isn't perfect. Right now, though, it's the best thing we've got going in the real fight against crime and drugs and low test scores in this country. And we don't invest anywhere NEAR what we should in it. Given more money and respect, there's no telling how much the public schools could accomplish. A hell of a lot more than more policemen on the streets could accomplish, I assure you. Because teachers, despite the odds they face, have the potential to re-build some of those shoddy foundations through love, discipline, and patient instruction. Think of what they could do if we reduced the odds against them.

Now is a critical time in America for people to realize where their priorities should lie. Quit mindlessly singing "the children are our future" and start LIVING it. Don't allow the public school system to be gutted at just the time when we should be gorging it. Don't allow conservative politicians to divert even a drop of funding to private schools. Question their motives. Are they members of the religious right, seeking to do away with the public schools so they can indoctrinate children with their own beliefs (church and state alert!)? Are they members of the wealthy, ruling elite, that don't give a damn about the havenots in this country and only want more of the pie for themselves? Are they conservative zealots that are afraid of what they perceive as the liberalness (ie: freedom) taking place in the public schools, what with all this reading of books that should be banned and acceptance of people that should be shunned and exploration of topics that should be suppressed and dissemination of ideas that should be ignored and dispersal of condoms that shouldn't be worn? Find out what their motives are, and then fight them, for the sake of our country and our future.

Lastly, it should be said that while I'm sure I know what the real problem with education is in this country, being poor parenting, I'm not at all sure why it's happening or what the best solution might be. I'm pretty sure it'd be a good idea to put more money and effort into equipping our public schools to cut down on the next generation's damaged youth, but that might not be the only answer. I believe we need a fundamental shift of thinking in this country. An all-out prioritization. A total focus on children and child-rearing. Forget the war on drugs. Make it a war on poor parenting. Or better yet, a war FOR good parenting. Better yet, don't call it a war. Call it a struggle, or a quest. Let's quit focusing on the negatives, and let's quit putting all of our resources and energy into dealing with symptoms. That's what drug use and crime and poor test scores are: symptoms of poor parenting.

Last month, my co-editor, Chris, asked Eclectica readers to take an active role in the world around them by getting informed and speaking out. I'd like to continue that call then, by urging anybody who's read this to speak out about education and our nation's children. Even if you don't agree with me, speak out. Anything to get people's attention focused on this most crucial of all topics.

Tom Dooley
Eclectica Magazine
December, 1996
Tucson, Arizona


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