A number of thoughtful American readers have asked what might be done about the problems I’ve described as disturbing the planet. This is a daunting request, because the problems are part of the warp and woof of a gigantic, complex society.
But there are three areas where patient work must certainly yield a more humane and democratic society, one that regards its responsibilities in the world thoughtfully. These areas are education, campaign-finance reform, and Constitutional change.
I start with education, which is, after all, the start of society for each individual.
Everyone intuitively appreciates in a democracy the value of an educated electorate. It provides some assurance of soundness to what Winston Churchill called "the worst form of government, except for all the others." In America’s special case, this assurance necessarily spills over into the affairs of the globe.
Education has always had economic as well as political importance since a good education has real market value. Globalization raises the economic stakes. Simply put, globalization is the gradual emergence of a single world market for many goods and services, including human skills. It is actually the latest stage or phase in a fairly continuous process that has been going on over the last six hundred years or so since the Renaissance, a period which includes such other notable stages as the Enclosures and the Industrial Revolution.
Finally, there is the importance of critical education in evaluating the innumerable, questionable, and even false, claims made daily in a society driven, even in its politics, by advertising and marketing.
Perhaps the greatest structural problem in American public education is the concept of local schools. "Local schools" is an emotionally appealing phrase but an outdated, nineteenth-century concept. Quite apart from many other problems with the concept, in a globalizing world there is truly only one standard for education in any subject, and that is a world standard. What local town officials think is an appropriate curriculum grows more irrelevant every day.
Why should birth in certain parts of the country automatically condemn a child to a poor education? That is and always has been the result of local schools. Economic differences between areas, even in the same city, are immense. A long walk across a single, large American city offers a tour of many of the varieties of human settlement one might see on a tour of the planet, from hovels to palaces. And the differences in the quality of public schools closely parallel these other differences. Schools are the first thing American real estate agents discuss with their middle-class clients.
The problems associated with gross inequalities in education are not new to America. I experienced them firsthand living in different neighborhoods as a child on the south side of Chicago at a time when the concept of neighborhood schools was treated with absolute reverence. If you moved even two doors away, two doors that happened to cross one of the many school-district boundaries, the kindly folks at the Chicago Board of Education immediately sent you packing to a different school. Ties of friends, teachers, and neighborhood made no difference whatsoever.
In one school I attended, windows were broken every day. They didn’t even try to replace the shattered panes, they just put new glass on the inside and swept up the mess. The result was a cracked and shattered view that represented accurately the general quality of the school and most certainly influenced the outlook of students. The bull-like principal kept a baseball bat within reach in her office. When my working mother could finally afford a tiny apartment in a better neighborhood, I thought I had died and gone to heaven to discover school without fear and teachers actually dedicated to teaching.
As a nation, America does not seem to have learned much from such clear experience. Exactly the same phenomenon continues today. It’s just mapped out on a different scale. Instead of tiny urban school districts, a series of communities sprawling out from the decayed center of a city defines the boundaries. So affluent communities with richly-equipped schools exist just outside the boundaries of communities without the resources to patch leaking roofs or repair the ancient gas lines that should feed the Bunsen burners in useless laboratories.
Some states recognize the problem and are attempting to find remedies to the degree a highly divided and contentious political environment permits, but the problem remains a vast and pervasive one. In a number of cases, even financing at the state level cannot be adequate to compensate for the disparities because the states themselves are too small or too poor. There are federal programs – and this kind of national balancing of resources between regions for a vital public service is an entirely appropriate role for a national government – but existing programs are totally inadequate to the size and persistence of the problem.
The situation provides a genuine measure of America’s commitment to the ideal of every citizen receiving a good, competitive education. And right now the conclusion is inescapable that no such commitment exists.
Another basic problem is that teachers in America today have no authority. They are subject to the whims of both parents and school administrators, and they receive little support or protection from school administrators. Indeed, school administrators stand out as one of the most ineffectual and politically correct groups in the country. Listening to some of their words is to be reminded forcefully of just how pliable the English language can be.
To compensate for working in a treacherous environment, teachers depend on their unions more than they ever did forty or fifty years ago. Unionism has been a declining phenomenon in American business, but in education it remains robust. This fact alone tells us something. Strong unions generally provide prima facie evidence of a history of poor management, management which in the past neither anticipated genuine problems nor successfully handled them as they arose. Nowhere is this truer than in education. Indeed, many of the remedies proposed for the schools over the last ten or twenty years, from privatizing them to using vouchers, are in part simply back-door efforts to reduce or eliminate the influence of teachers’ unions.
I do not blame the unions for this situation; they truly do work in a treacherous environment, although they clearly also do little to help repair it. A glance at the statistics in any state showing the tiny number of teachers dismissed for incompetence in a year should warn anyone of the sincerity of words about getting rid of bad teachers. In this respect, American public education acts very much like the Roman Catholic church does with priests who are discovered to be pedophiles; it simply moves them around, hoping a new situation will present less opportunity for problems, or perhaps just less complaints.
The feeling of drift is a common one to experience in public schools. There is often no clear sense of anyone running anything. Principals cannot fire poor teachers. They cannot even fire poor clerks. No parent, no matter how irresponsible in his or her demands, is ever considered to be in error. And teachers have little genuine authority over students.
Everyone in the educational establishment voices platitudes about parental involvement, but the plain truth is there are a great many poor parents in the country. Not just irresponsible parents, but angry parents, ignorant parents, superstitious parents, mentally-ill parents, and generally poorly qualified parents. That’s why America, according to a fairly recent study, has about half a million cases of serious child abuse each year. Most of it done in the family.
Upholding the unqualified notion of parental involvement is a barrier to progress. It also reflects a regrettable, stubborn insistence on illusion being fact. We have everything from parents who abuse teachers for not recognizing the unrevealed excellence of their children to parents who come to help in a classroom and end up fawning over their child to the detriment of the class’s sense of fairness and a proper learning environment. Teachers need real authority to protect both themselves and the atmosphere of the classroom against predatory parents.
Many corrupt practices in education, from social promotion and inflated grades to undemanding and unfocused curricula, owe their existence to a generation of parents whose devotion to political correctness and hazy, television and advertising centered thinking does not accept the legitimate needs and demands of education. A recent news item about a public school in the northeastern United States, and this in an affluent town, revealed that 71% of the students were on the honor roll. All sense of recognition for hard work or exceptional talent is effaced by such practices, as is the ability of higher institutions to distinguish the graduates worthy of acceptance. The phrase "honor roll" becomes a warm, fuzzy slogan.
Classrooms where excellence means more than a slogan are the exception in my experience, although I have never taught in an affluent community. Children are praised for doing very little. I have handed back papers where a grade of 75% was given to work reflecting no effort and no thought and was the lowest grade the teacher used. It hardly needs to be said that three-quarters right should mean something. In school systems outside the United States, 75% is a respectable grade that reflects achievement.
Slogans are, of course, very popular today in American education. Slogans and posters are displayed in many public schools, huge banners sometimes in the hallways, all marketed by school-supply outfits and all reflecting education-facultythink. The least harmful resemble the chirpy participle phrases used to announce public-radio sponsors. The worst resemble the anti-intellectual, political claptrap you’d expect to find in places like Pol Pot’s Cambodia. In all cases, you just have to wonder why they’re there in place of the times tables and the parts of speech or reminders of the rules of good school-citizenship or Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights.
Getting back to the role of parents, if we may make an analogy, doctors appreciate the support of good parents, but were parents to interfere to the degree some do in education, the medical results would be dangerous. The case would parallel Christian Scientists who do not let a dying child receive a blood transfusion. Parental support is good, parental interference is just destructive. The elective nature of local school boards makes it particularly difficult for them to deal effectively with inappropriate parental pressures in an era where "my rights" always come with no sense of "my responsibilities."
And, of course, the insanely litigious nature of American society in which irresponsible people sue others over their own irresponsible or anti-social acts, and sometimes win in court, contributes mightily to teachers and administrators avoiding effective control of anything in which there is either controversy or the need for a clear decision.
I recall a particularly touching example of what parents can do to a child intellectually and emotionally and how little freedom a teacher has in helping. A young student came to me after class and asked in dreadful tones what I thought about "the mark of the beast," a reference to dark, delusional stuff in the Book of Revelations popular with Christian fundamentalists expecting the end of the world momentarily. She was looking for help and reassurance for a mind filled with the most disturbing fears.
But I knew I could say nothing directly bearing on her concerns, or I would have immediately faced angry, idiotic parents shouting to a politically correct principal about my interference in their religious beliefs. I said something generalized to ease her fear, but I always felt I failed her when she genuinely needed help. What a teacher should be able to say is not that what her parents have told her is wrong, but that there is more than one view on the subject and not everyone agrees that there is a beast or a mark or anything to fear. But this is impossible in America, at least in any school I have experienced.
The authority of teachers is a difficult subject. No one wants teachers rapping students on the knuckles with rulers as they once did. But just as in the home, real authority does not come from corporal punishment. Teachers need a freer hand in deciding the consequences of inappropriate behavior. They need the ready facility to have truly disruptive children moved from regular classrooms, and they need greater support from administrators in their battles with destructive parental interference. Teachers, in turn, need to be responsible for failure to use authority effectively and appropriately.
This runs counter to the sugar-frosted silliness coming out of many American education faculties about the anathema of "teacher-centered" classrooms. Like all political slogans, this phrase is subject to innumerable interpretations and essentially says nothing. The fact is, in any relationship between someone who knows a thing and someone seeking to learn it – whether in medicine, law, or plumbing – there is necessarily at times a relationship of listener and speaker. A sensible individual does not jump from that statement of fact to the conclusion that someone is advocating a dictatorial model for the classroom. The best teachers have always known there must be balance in their approach, including lots of questions and many other forms of student involvement. Indeed, teachers who have established some sense of intellectual and moral authority with children are far more able to step back often and take on a successful role as observer.
A large part of what made many old one-room schoolhouses successful, despite a lack of resources, was the fact that something of consequence was always going on. Human psychology has not changed in just one hundred years. Good teachers know that even the discipline of a classroom depends on children’s perception of a steady flow of meaningful work for which they will be held accountable. Yet, that is exactly what is missing in many of today’s American classrooms.
A tremendous problem is the fact that teacher training has sunk in many cases to being not just poor, but bordering on anti-intellectual and anti-scientific. People with nothing to teach, with no understanding beyond being able to read text-book crib notes, have little to give young minds. And no one is more aware of this than the students condemned to listen to such a teacher.
In many faculties of education, unproven and questionable concepts are presented as intellectual content. Some of these honestly border on being superstitious beliefs, as for example the notion of "multiple intelligences." Better the subject of intelligence were ignored than this kind of unproven, Aristotelian stuff taught. But it is taught and put up proudly on posters all over America, just one of many such totally unscientific notions.
All the social sciences suffer from some tentativeness and lack of exactness. Yet the tentative notions, interesting as they may be, of psychologists and sociologists are often taken by education faculties as keys to understanding. And what’s even more, the summaries of these social scientists’ work, done by "professional educators" for the use of teaching faculties, often distort the sophisticated and subtle anecdotal insights they do offer.
One can get some idea of this last point by thinking about the work of Freud, not that he is a resource for many faculties in teachers’ education. Much of what Freud wrote is being displaced by new, hard scientific findings, as for example his theory of dreams. Yet Freud was one of the great original minds of the last century and is still well worth reading for many insights and some inspiration. One can just imagine, however, were his huge body of ideas and observations part of teacher training, how it might be summarized for quick consumption in a teacher’s college by students who’ve never read a serious book. It would be very fortunate to escape being reduced to parody.
But the social sciences are also replete with many intellectual "Elmer Gantrys," not just people who prove eventually to have been wrong in their theories, but people who are dishonest or full of pretensions. The best example I can think of is Bruno Bettelheim whose reputation was shattered not long ago by horrifying revelations concerning the ways he conducted his studies. Yet his views and writings flowed as a veritable fountain of wisdom on the subject of child psychology for decades.
America’s love affair with political correctness and avoiding the truth plays a role, too, in building an intellectually-questionable body of knowledge in education. Concepts like "self-worth" and "teamwork," rather than being the natural outcomes of fair and rigorous education, as when students talk to and help each other outside class about a demanding project, are themselves given almost the status of academic subjects. There are posters and banners galore on this subject. This kind of stuff is like a very decadent architecture in which form no longer has any relationship to function.
The huge, almost impossibly desperate, need to place people, any people, in the worst public schools has helped create education faculties where platoons of young people, with neither good academic credentials nor genuine academic interest but who seek secure jobs, are run through academically-marginal programs to fill positions. There are "universities" in the United States where half the students are enrolled in education. Such programs have become major revenue- producing business enterprises for the institutions concerned. Their graduates might well be called bare-foot teachers, resembling as they uncannily do, the bare-foot doctors of Mao’s China.
Any solution to the need for bare-foot teachers is very difficult to see. Would any change make it so that reasonably talented teachers who might obtain work in other jurisdictions instead choose the violent, poor, and difficult environment of the great urban reservations or rural backwaters? It appears that some of the needed changes in American education can only come through even more fundamental changes in American society.
Again peeking at the past, the one-room schoolhouse was a success partly just because the teachers knew their stuff. They didn’t have degrees, but they had a sound grasp of the limited curriculum required, especially English and basic math. And if they never taught much more than these, at least students were equipped to read and analyze to some degree for themselves after leaving school. This simple result would be totally unacceptable in today’s demanding and complex economic environment.
Yet this result is more than can be claimed for significant numbers of public-school graduates in America. It is entirely possible after years of public school in America to leave being functionally illiterate. And in great part this is because many elementary-grade teachers know little themselves, even though they have "degrees." Their students just keep passing until they reach a point, say in high school, where there is no hope of correcting the weak foundations laid earlier, and they are passed on out of the system to become someone else’s problem.
The one-room schoolhouse was also a success because many children were highly motivated. The alternative to going to school was immediate and apparent in their lives, endless, drudging labor. The nineteenth century farm was not the cozy, sentimental place portrayed on television and in Walt Disney films. The farms were small, undercapitalized industrial enterprises that depended for their success on unpaid family labor, and lots of it. Child labor was not an exception, it was the rule. Many children could not be spared for school. Those who were didn’t have to be told they were receiving something precious. School represented one of the only routes to some choice in life. And hard work at school did not seem strange to children who carried water, slopped hogs, and harvested hay.
This, of course, is not to advocate a return to child labor as a stimulus to education, but we should recognize that the expectation of hard work in school is a vital part of education. This deceptively simple fact is often forgotten. Just the number of days out of the year that students attend class, less than half in many parts of America, is indicative of this.
In every study of schools in advanced nations and in every set of international tests over recent years, American students exhibit mediocre performance. Perhaps one shouldn’t be quite so ashamed of finishing behind nations like Singapore or Japan where people have an unusually severe work ethic. But the fact that a poor little country like Cuba is rated by observers as producing an elementary education superior to that prevailing in many parts of the United States should be a source of national shame for Americans.
Moreover, SAT scores in America over recent decades pretty much show a flat line despite immense, busy work at turning the latest educational fads into trendy programs.
It is one of the nation’s great shames that so many young people are allowed to reach school-leaving age with a complete lack of skills. These young people are virtually doomed to desperate lives on the dark margins of society. Yet America continues to produce millions of them, just as though it were 1961, and lots of well paid, unskilled industrial jobs were just waiting to be filled.
Great educators since Elizabethan times have stressed the importance of the best teachers in the early years. But the American system does just the opposite. Generally, in high schools, teachers are required to have specific knowledge of their subject, but in elementary schools, where the foundations for all further learning are laid, we often have people teaching subjects they know nothing about.
One gains some insight here just by paging through some of the teachers’ editions of textbooks in use. They are heavily padded with primer materials, in effect preparing teachers to present lessons they don’t know much about. Quite apart from the frequent incorrect teaching that occurs around such subjects, children know when someone doesn’t understand and their respect for teachers is automatically reduced, further complicating problems of discipline in class.
Mainstreaming and special education have been unproductive concepts in American education. These concepts represent claims to rights by particular individuals or classes of individuals, backed by the fear of lawsuits, working against the interests of just about everyone else in the community. One appreciates the good intentions here, but the realities can be nightmares. Public schools now have many students who do not belong there, and who contribute disproportionately to the destruction of an academically satisfactory environment for others.
Some schools have children so mentally disturbed, truly psychotic sometimes, that an adult minder is assigned (frequently an unfortunate substitute) to accompany the child through the day. I have seen special- education rooms that amount to holding facilities for angry, disturbed, or psychotic children. All of these children would do better if they went to specialized facilities staffed with properly trained people, but even more importantly, the school environment would gain immensely by the departure of those incapable of normal responsibilities and control of their behaviors.
Health care is another important, often overlooked, complication in American schools. As a nation, there is no rational means of financing health care with the result that many children have serious health problems that go unattended. So basic a measure to health care as proper immunization is often not attended to, one quarter of the young children of the United States not having received the proper immunizations. The United States still has the highest infant mortality of any advanced country, despite some progress made in recent years through special programs. And with so many children having serious mental and emotional problems, plus the plague of conditions like asthma, how can they expect to receive the serious help they require when such basics as immunizations are not even looked after?
These structural problems are so profound in their implications that no simple fix can put them right. Testing has been much touted as a cure for public education, but already the cracks in the foundation of testing are obvious. Teachers in some poor schools, perhaps just to save their jobs, have been caught giving answers to students. In better- off jurisdictions, cram-for-the-test consultants are already hard at work for large fees, rendering any comparison between these students and those without such services questionable. And then there is the well-known phenomenon of teaching to the test: "Oh, never mind that point, Martha, they never ask that on the test!" This occurs in any jurisdiction where a test is extremely important, and it has nothing to do with education and even less to do with curiosity and imagination.
There are many less-than-dramatic ways to improve the system were it possible to implement them in the face of so many institutional and cultural barriers. A superior way to train new teachers might be to accept only those with good academic credentials, including some specialization in an academic subject, plus strong personal motivation and have them perform as substitutes for two years. Along the way, they would be coached and evaluated by the most experienced teachers.
This would be a high-grade apprentice system, which has always been the best system for learning crafts and trades. It would solve schools’ serious problem in obtaining substitutes while giving candidates extensive, real-world exposure and training. It would permit educated people at different stages of their lives to easily enter education. And it would assure us that every teacher was grounded in either math, science, language, history, art, or music.
It is a great mistake to believe there is any one or group of good teaching methods, but there are many little tricks and helps that are best learned while doing. Each good teacher comes into his or her own method over time, just as writers do. Teaching is far more an art or craft than a profession, because there simply is no specific body of hard knowledge comparable to the law or human anatomy that must be learned. But the contents of what is taught are largely factual matters that require real knowledge.
Even in the best public schools what I like to call critical education is often haphazard, and often it is missing. And it is so understandable in view of the risk a teacher takes in going down this path without being strongly supported by administration. Some parent, oblivious to the educationally-destructive role he or she is assuming, is sure to cause trouble for a teacher who selects the claims of a certain product or political candidate to dissect and analyze in class.
Critical education is essential to nurturing better-informed, more- involved citizens. It is important for citizens to be a little practiced at recognizing and analyzing the often-false claims of marketing and politics. Actually, it is one of the most regrettable aspects of American society that these two concepts, marketing and politics, are beginning to merge seamlessly. One does not even hear the title, "citizen," used much anymore, connoting as it does responsibilities and obligations. Even politicians talk about "consumers," as though it were a nation of open mouths waiting to be convinced to buy this or that brand.
There is another aspect to this line of thinking. The tendency to turn everything into a business transaction in America leaves very little room for idealism or inspiration. But doesn’t a vital, exciting political system necessarily encourage idealism? And isn’t a young person’s working through the strengths and weaknesses of various idealistic positions an important learning experience, an education of both mind and sentiments?
The educational establishment is contaminated with this reduction-to- market thinking. One can find it in the questions of the national teachers’ examination, an examination purporting to measure several types of knowledge applicable to teaching and required for teaching in some jurisdictions. My favorite concerned Shakespeare, and the right answer centered on the idea that he was a good businessman. Well, it’s true enough that Shakespeare was something of a businessman, but is that the reason his words live after four hundred years? If you were going to ask a single question about Shakespeare, would that be a good one?
I recalled at the time of reading that question, the simple, penetrating fact that it is readily possible to get a degree in English in the United States without ever having read Shakespeare.
Despite the international reputation of America’s best universities, evidence indicates that the quality of many of its colleges and universities is actually quite poor. Graduates of many American post- secondary institutions do not compare in academic achievement to high- school graduates in a number of countries. Hundreds of colleges in America teach freshmen how to write sentences or do basic mathematics.
Part of the problem is the popular American expectation that everyone should get a degree in something. Every American parent wants to be able to say his or her kid is "in college." There is in this much wishful thinking concerning America’s being a classless society. One result is the existence of "degrees" in subjects such as recreational supervision or popular culture or even circus. Athletes who show no particular interest or aptitude in academics are expected to compete for college scholarships instead of money. We end up with degrees granted essentially for sports performance and with degrees awarded in subjects that would be taught in non-degree-granting polytechnic schools or community colleges in most other places. All of this creates immense downward pressure on the meaning of academic education in America.
Institutionally, American education is afraid now of doing anything that might in any way be viewed as categorizing people. This extends even to grades and graduation, quite apart from more fundamental notions that some might do splendidly in polytechnical education rather than poorly in academic. So the entire system bends and shifts and swells and is debased to accommodate this decision-avoidance. This has less to do with a democratic or liberal spirit than it has to do with a culture of cringing political correctness and the fear of complications from the exercise of authority and the making of tough decisions. Yet a ruthless categorizing is, of course, exactly what the same students will be subjected to the moment they enter the American workforce. They will on the whole be judged unsentimentally for what they can do, and the companies doing the judging will ask why the schools cannot send them people equipped with needed skills.
The difficulties to genuine and meaningful change must not be underestimated. For the future, in an America which insists that it is classless, the children of above-average-income families will continue to receive mainly good education, as they do now, although that precious component that creates a citizen with strong critical faculties may continue, as so often is the case now, to be missing.
For the others, the residents of the vast American educational gulag, only serious changes in how public education is organized, financed, and staffed can succeed in redirecting lives from the margins of society. Without change, their situation will only deteriorate as the forces of globalization divide society inexorably into a class competing with knowledge in the world and a class competing with unskilled labor for declining real wages, a process already well underway. And the promise of full participation in making America a more vital democracy will continue to ring hollow.