Conceptual Problems in Discussing Education

Here is brief overview of a few of the key issues and problems I’ve encountered over the last 35 years in talking about education:

1) An almost complete ignorance of education history

You can talk to people, even (perhaps especially) people with degrees in education, and discover an almost complete ignorance of the history of education. The way the story is told – I should say, assumed, because, if you ask, people will generally look at you as if  you’re some sort of space alien for not just KNOWING – is that right-thinking progressive-minded children of the Enlightenment, out of the sheer goodness of their hearts, fought the execrable ignorance of the masses and managed, via the heroic efforts of near-saints such as Horace Mann and John Dewey, to finally bring about EDUCATION in the form of mandatory public schooling, thereby ushering in an age of, well, enlightenment hitherto unknown among the races of men. It is only through continuing their efforts by implementing ever more schooling that we can hope to march successfully into the future.

Isn’t that about right? Isn’t that, with the hyperbole toned down a little, how you understand it to have happened?

To say that story is inaccurate should win some sort of Dry British Understatement Medal.

2) Given 1 above, the only thing left to fight about is the details – how you go about implementing ever more schooling. Only a idiot or hopeless contrarian would challenge the idea that MORE school is needed.

And so, that’s the shape of the discussion – we bicker over what kind of before and after school programs to provide, about what kind of schooling to provide to 3 year olds, about how to make the 50% of kids who drop out of high school stick with it, how to get poor kids to take math, and so on.

Nobody will take you seriously if you question the basic story, and ask, instead, what is it, again, we want our kids to learn? Is school as presently constituted a good or even possible place for them to learn it? Or, just getting crazy, how was it that the Founding Fathers and pre-revolutionary Americans in general were so much *better* educated than people nowadays, with almost no formal education? Apart from slaves, who were kept ignorant by design, literacy was as nearly universal in 1760 as it is today, a century before compulsory schooling, and you could talk Locke and Hume with people down at the local pub or town hall (have you read the Federalist Papers, or George Washington’s speeches? The Last of the Mohicans? These were popular works.)  – how, exactly, did that happen?

Nope, the ONLY permitted discussion is around exactly what kind of more schooling we want.

3) The general population’s near complete ignorance of science includes total ignorance of how one would go about measuring the success of schools.

You know, the proposition that mandatory public schooling works, however ‘works’ is defined, is a testable hypothesis. Take the basics – reading, writing, and a little math. Well? How do people learn these things? How do they learn them best? It’s not just that these questions have not been answered in the affirmative for schooling (in other words, studies have NOT shown that 12 years – or even a single year – in a desk in a classroom is an effective way to learn these things), it’s that people in general don’t even understand the shape such studies would have to have to carry any weight.

It’s not that studies of smaller or bigger classes, better or worse funded schools, richer or poorer kids, and so on, don’t conclusively provide answers – they don’t even ask the question. By now, literally millions of kids have learned to read, write and do basic math without ever stepping into a classroom – home schooled, unschooled, Sudbury schooled – and, their parents have reached one unversal conclusion: in the vast majority of cases, it doesn’t take very long, certainly not years, for their kids to learn the basics. Note, this is anecdotal, not a scientifically valid study. Yet, if one were to do a scientifically valid study, one would be required to account for the existence of millions of children who read, write and do basic math without the benefit of classroom education. One would be required to explain why, for example, kids who easily and thoroughly learn the basics in a matter of weeks or months are somehow so different from the millions who fail to learn the same subject matter despite YEARS of professional intervention in a classroom.

But such studies, if they exist (and I’ve seen very few) are not the ones under public discussion. Nope, we’re talking about how, if we’d only spend billions more and require 12 hours of school per day year around, things would be so much better!

4) This one is a little more subjective: people’s self-images are so thoroughly tied to their school experiences that they perceive any challenge to schooling as a personal attack. This makes rational discussion difficult, to say the least.

Think about it – if you were good at school, you got patted on the back, told what a good kid you were, put in advanced classes, channeled in college prep, got into college (or, if you are really special, a *good* college!) and, eventually were awarded a degree or degrees which, effectively, immunized you against ever having to think about anything again (I’ve got very respectable undergrad and grad degrees, so this isn’t sour grapes – it’s naked reality).

On the other hand, if you were bad at school, you (and society, and your family and friends) have  been provided with a handy catch-all excuse for any and all shortcomings. If only you had finished college, or high school! If only you’d placed higher on your SATs! Everything would be different!

Either way, this makes acknowledging even fairly mundane and non-controversial points very difficult, once the hearer realizes that such points threaten the sacred assumption that their success or failure at school made them who they are today. To return to the example above, when the near-universal literacy of free Americans prior to the revolution is pointed out, I’ve had people counter that ‘literacy’ then just meant that people could sign their names (where they got this idea has never been revealed). When I counter that, on the contrary, judging by the number of copies of difficult reads like Washington’s speeches and Thomas Payne’s tracts in circulation at that time, lots of people were doing a lot more than signing their names, the subject generally gets changed.

What the argument boils down to is this: sure, the Founding Fathers were geniuses, but they were geniuses totally divorced from their culture – the typical American of that time was an illiterate ignoramus. Sure, Jefferson and Adams and Hancock and Franklin talked and wrote familiarly about Roman and Greek history, continental philosophy, and argued in print about these things in papers with circulations that, adjusted for population size, would dwarf anything published since – but they did this as singular exceptions to the general ignorance of the population in general.

Really? How likely does that seem to you?

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

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