While We’re Talking Education…

This essay by Theodore Dalrymple, brought to my attention via a comment here by Mary, on this post at Sarah Hoyt’s blog (phew!) contained the following:

Education has always been a minority interest in England. The English have generally preferred to keep the bloom of their ignorance intact and on the whole have succeeded remarkably well, despite a century and a quarter of compulsory schooling of their offspring.

Dalrymple is a master of that English art of bitter cynicism with a light touch. Somewhere, I once read that the genesis of compulsory schooling in England had to do with Labor demanding shorter working hours (full-time work was running 60-72/hrs/wk at the time) in order that workers would have time to educate themselves, among other things. The thought that poor people should get to choose what they studied and be provided with time to study it so terrified the leaders of the day that compulsory schooling was instituted instead. Dodged a bullet there!

Dalrymple goes on:

In the past their ignorance was purely passive: the mere absence of knowledge. Of late, however, it has taken on a more positive and malign quality: a profound aversion to anything that smacks of intelligence, education, or culture. Not long ago, there was a popular song whose first lines successfully captured this widespread mood of hostility: We don’t need no education,/We don’t need no thought control. And a couple of months ago, I noticed some wall posters advertising a new song: “Poor, White, and Stupid.”

Hey, I kind of like that Pink Floyd song! (As much as I like anything by them – I think you need drugs to truly appreciate Pink Floyd.) I always read it as anti-schooling (‘though control’) not anti learning. Evidently, based on the rest of the essay, I was wrong. Oh, well.

And this sounds a lot like America:

Clearly, something very strange is happening in our schools. Our educational practices are now so bizarre that they would defy the pen of a Jonathan Swift to satirize them. In the very large metropolitan area in which I work, for example, the teachers have received instructions that they are not to impart the traditional disciplines of spelling and grammar. Pettifogging attention to details of syntax and orthography is said to inhibit children’s creativity and powers of self expression. Moreover, to assert that there is a correct way of speaking or writing is to indulge in a kind of bourgeois cultural imperialism; and to tell children that they have got something wrong is necessarily to saddle them with a debilitating sense of inferiority from which they will never recover. I have met a few teachers who disobey these instructions in an atmosphere of clandestinity, in fear for their jobs, rather reminiscent of the atmosphere which surrounded those who secretly tried to propagate truth behind the late Iron Curtain.

Now now, we wouldn’t fall for that – we have Common Core, through which our kids learn to regurgitate correctly on command. Good thing we broke off from England, when was that? 1940s?

Not a single one of my young patients has known the dates of the Second World War, let alone of the First; some have never heard of these wars, though recently one young patient who had heard of the Second World War thought it took place in the eighteenth century. In the prevailing circumstances of total ignorance, I was impressed that he had heard of the eighteenth century. The name Stalin means nothing to these young people and does not even evoke the faint ringing of a bell, as the name Shakespeare (sometimes) does. To them, 1066 is more likely to mean a price than a date.

Right now, I’m half way through Mike Flynn’s excellent Firestar, in which the protagonist, in order to reignite space exploration, takes as a necessary step the (partial) take over of the schools. She knows that, as long as kids have no vision, let alone no competence, mankind cannot explore space – you need fired-up, skilled people for that, and plenty of ’em.

If the state of education was the result of mere incompetence, we’d have fixed it already; if it was a result of bureaucratic inertia (and Pournelle’s Iron Law) we might still make progress. But what if it is working exactly as designed? What if the incompetence and inertia are means to an end? Not unavoidable problems, but rather the tools chosen for the task? How do you change that?

When we say that whatever can’t go on forever will eventually end, that doesn’t mean it will end well. Chesterton once said that juries exist because some things are just too important to leave up to the experts. The education of our children is one such thing.

Author: Joseph Moore

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

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