Comments: What I Read This Morning - 1

I have to say, though I agree with so much of what you say, I do find something empty and tired about the line "We need more education." Not that education is bad. But the line is on par with "We should make murder illegal."

The thing is, "education" can mean a lot of things to a lot of people. Without being more specific, it's an empty phrase. Should we spend more on abstinence-based sex ed? Should we spend more teaching the Biblical roots of the Constitution? Should we spend more teaching the greatness of the white men who built this country? Should we spend more teaching what a big liar Darwin was?

My examples are, of course, ridiculous, but you get my point. I've run into plenty of right-wingers who argue that the Democrats would never win another election if only we had a better educational system.

Even among intelligent people who might agree on most things, serious disagreements can arise over education. Suppose we had the money to raise spending on education by 5% next year. Should we give it all to K-12 education? Or should we give it all to college education? Or should we split the difference? Where would increased spending make the greatest difference? Perhaps we should spend it all on elementary school, ensuring every child gets down a strong base in reading, writing and arithmetic?

I might add, some friends of mine on the far left, people I respect, have some quite bitter criticism of the "Let's spend more on education" line. Some of them argue that education has been used as a pressure-release valve on the class struggle in America. To workers who would form a union the corporate bosses can say, "You'd be paid more if only you got more education." The idea that any one particular individual can do better if only they get more education plays into the rugged individualism that has held back union-formation in America, relative to Europe. Andrew Carnegie, who faced quite a bit of labor unrest at his factories, said that all the labor unrest in America could be solved by "education, education, education."

I've also some friends who call themselves anarchists, and they say all public education in America is basically pro-corporate. The goal of public education in America, they say, is to create drones who can better help to maximize the profits of large corporations. When they (my anarchists friends) hear the words "Let's spend more on education" they translate that as "Let's spend more on brainwashing the young."

Mind you, I really do agree with you that we should spend more on education. But I think without some clarification, it's a bit of an empty cliche.

Posted by Lawrence Krubner at November 8, 2005 01:10 PM

By now I'm assuming you understand that when it takes me three days to answer your comments, it's because I'm thinking about it. :) And I think it has to be said up front that sweeping generalizations are pretty much what I'm all about when I'm ranting.

Still, I say "education" frequently and you're correct, what I'm talking about needs to be clarified.

First, I'm a big believer in "higher" education. I think universities are an amazing invention. You show up, and someone teaches you things. If I had the money, I'd rush to the nearest university, plunk down my registration fee, and stay there forever.

And maybe it's true that in today's high-pressure world, higher education is needed to "get ahead." Certainly it should be possible to make "vocational schools" and "junior" colleges more accessible. There are two-year programs that, added to a decent k-12 education, prepare you more than adequately to enter the job market and become a self-sufficient member of society.

Mind you, I'm not sure about the actual value of "higher education" in the job market. Yes, my degree opens a lot of employment doors for me, but my degree is in Liberal Arts. English Lit, to be precise. It didn't actually prepare me to be a rousing success in today's corporate world. (A Liberal Arts degree does teach you to think...a skill that's valuable in the job market, but I've never been certain if potential employers see it that way or if "college degree" is just something to check off on their list.)

But. When I make sweeping generalizations about "education" on this blog, 99% of the time, I'm talking about K-12 education.

When I talk about putting more money into education, I'm talking about facilities, teacher salaries, and curriculums.

I'm talking about a standardized national system for picking textbooks, so that Texas can't demand books that glorify the state's personal and bloody history or other Southern states can't force the publication of books that justify or excuse slavery. And books that don't whitewash the complicity of many Northerners and Northern states in both slavery and the decades of racial bigotry that followed. History should be taught in New England the same way it's taught in New Mexico and in New Orleans...assuming we can reclaim the city for the residents.

I'm talking about paying teachers enough so they don't have to work second jobs to make ends meet. And a less-irrational system of hiring and firing that can replace a substantial portion of a school's teacher population from year to year. How can we give our children a decent education when teachers live in constant fear of being fired for "rocking the boat"?

I'm talking about social studies. The foundations of our democracy, the obligations of citizenship, and the place of the individual in the system. Would we be facing this mess of corruption, fraud, lies, and bodybags if we had all been taught these things? Instead, we get patriotic jingoism. Salutes to the flag and dronings of a national anthem where the reference to "rockets" is assumed by many children to mean fireworks. We get Americentric "history" classes where the assumption that we're the pinnacle of human endeavor, a finished product never to be questioned or challenged, prevents students from considering that we could, and should, do better. Prevents any of them from becoming the next generation's true leaders, with new ideas for who we might become. If we're already perfect, why waste your time trying to think of how we might improve? (And then, of course, a few years later these children learn that we're far from perfect...and they become disillusioned with the country and the "system" that misled them. But that's a different rant....)

I'm talking about, yes, reading, writing, and 'rithmetic. How stupid is it that today's high school graduates can't make change for a dollar bill and a seventy-eight cent purchase without the help of a cash register? If I hand the kid at the drugstore a dollar and three pennies, they just stare at the money blankly.

I'm talking about the arts. Schools shouldn't have to eliminate music, painting, and dance classes to save money. They should be able to teach poetry and drama. (But not opera, because I don't like it and it should go away.)

School is not just about preparing to be a corporate drone.

As far as that goes, it shouldn't be about preparing to be a corporate drone at all. Yes, companies need employees and yes, we need jobs in these companies, but if each person approached their job from a stronger perspective, as an individual with skills and talents and responsibilities, would we see so much corporate fraud and cookie-cutter, white-collar indifference to the consequences of corporate behavior?

School should give kids the tools they need to approach independent life. K-12 can't teach you everything you need to know to rise to become the CEO of Ameribank and it should be expected to. But it's the basic education we should offer every child in this country. We should teach them to read, to write, and to count. And we should teach them critical thinking, a skill that can takes you a long, long way. Some USofA history, real history, not fables about Paul Revere and Betsy Ross. Some world history, something not grossly slanted to favor the Western perspective.

Okay, yes. K-12 should be a solid survey of a Liberal Arts education. Why not? Use those critical, formative years to teach children to think.

Ahem.

Also? About "sports" programs putting pressure on teachers to graduate illiterate students who happen to be good at catching a ball? Yes, I can see how sports can be important, but they have a stature that's completely out of proportion to their actual relevance in teaching a child what they need to know to function in society.

People always say, "well, what about the minority students for whom a sports scholarship is the only ticket to a university?" Or, "what about the minority student for whom pro ball is the only ticket out of a ghetto?"

And I get so angry, because the implicit assumption is that these kids are too stupid to get to college, or get a decent job, any other way.

We didn't give them the schools or the tools, and then we assume they're stupid because they didn't learn?

But that's a different rant, and this has already gotten ridiculously long. I'm not in an editing kind of mood today, so if you made it this far, let me apologize for going on and on.

Posted by Anne at November 9, 2005 12:53 PM

Thank you for clarifying your thoughts on this matter. Your comments are often illustrative. I agree with you on the value of teaching thinking skills. The nation would be better off if every child had a solid grounding in the basic principles of our liberal political order.

I admit I'm a bit terrified of a national system for selecting text books. I know that at some point during my life the radical right will have control over the national government, as it does now. The idea that Tom Delay should have the power to choose what textbooks children study is scary. A national system of textbook selection would only make sense to me if there was some way to ban the Republican party and ensure a permanent Democratic majority for the next 100 years. But that wouldn't be a democracy, if we actually banned the Republicans. Assuming they'll be running the show roughly 50% of the time, I don't think I'd want to trust them with the power to pick all textbooks nation wide. The advantage of the current system, where Texas and Kansas can glorify slavery and ban Darwin, is that liberal states such as California or Massachucetts are free to continue to teach the truth. Consolidate all textbook decisions at the national level and suddenly California and Massachucetts are only free to teach the truth during the 50% of the time that the Republicans aren't running the show.

Posted by Lawrence Krubner at November 11, 2005 03:05 PM

Well, yes. When I'm ranting about my best of all possible worlds, I do ignore the fact that the lunatics will someday again be in charge of the asylum. I have a tendency to pretend that better education and more public debate on all issues of importance would tend against that kind of thing.

Posted by Anne at November 12, 2005 11:20 AM