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Murray et al

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Dear Diane,

Happy New Year!

I spent last Saturday going through years of “stuff” I’ve collected—letters, essays, reports, notes, etc. that will be going to the Lilly Library at the University of Indiana. Eighty percent of it is school stuff. Several colleagues came over to help put together boxes and sort. It was hard going because we kept calling out—“oh, listen to this!”.

I recall how confident I felt in the late 70s and 80s that we could “prove” a point: all kids could grapple with important abstract ideas—and love it. We succeeded. We made a dent: several hundred schools have since opened based on at least some of the ideas we “invented.” But we mostly influenced the language, not the reality. Block scheduling, standards, advisories, small schools, portfolios, family conferences entered schooling jargon. Meanwhile, "Reform"—the well-funded form—got confused with the latest American business model. No more factories now, but financial institutions based on mathematicalized data. We skipped once again the idea of schools as communities. Why? I was told over and over: self-governing communities are too hard to replicate or control.

Along came an article by Charles Murray of "The Bell Curve" infamy. He proclaims that the failure of current reforms is proof that he’s right—serious intellectual work is not appropriate for most kids, and certainly not most poor kids of color. It’s genetic! So let’s get off the kick about all kids going to college, he argues. To my surprise, his solution rang a bell—as it did for you, Diane. It set us both thinking!

Can one separate his blatant racism from the idea itself? Furious letters followed reminding us that putting it into practice would have decidedly racist results and sink the poor into permanent poverty. He’s also dead wrong, as some noted, about the potential of “those” kids. But…given that we have in effect created a system of colleges that helps precious few to climb up the ladder and meanwhile impoverishes many families, isn’t it worth questioning our frenzy about college-going? (Full disclosure: It so happens I’m currently in close contact with two college-age grandsons. It biases me.)

I’d guess that less than 10 percent of college students attend because they are eager to learn the disciplines of the Academy. In fact, fewer academic courses are now required for this reason. The only goal is the piece of paper. Murray calls it a Wizard of Oz certification system.

Murray’s idea? That we separate getting a B.A. from any financial gain, now a requirement for 95 percent of all employment. Let students go their own way after high school, with vocational training or apprenticeships in whatever field interests them—from scholar to chef.

Daring to think about this radical idea leads me to reimagine the whole kit and caboodle. Suppose we could redesign it all? Would we “incarcerate” 11- to 14-year-olds in 400 square-foot rooms, and demand they sit still for 45 minutes followed by 45 minutes, followed by…and expect much of what happens within those classes to “stick”? Or try to frighten them into remembering, coax them with external rewards, shame them, and/or honor them. Or narrow our sights to a few high-stakes tests? (Or add more tests with stiffer penalties and rewards—and decide to start at age 3 and add hours to the school day?)

What is it we think young people entering the polling booth or the job market are actually missing? What might we design to prepare them for such roles? Not to mention the roles of friend or family member? And is 17 years of schooling/schooling/schooling an answer to these rarely asked questions? My old friend John Gatto—enemy of all required schooling—looks wiser and wiser.

CPE and CPESS were attempts to answer these questions under the constraints of NYC’s public school system of 1974 and 1985 (when each was founded). They were efforts at reconceptualizing what had grown willy-nilly over the past hundred years. From home schooling and apprenticeships for the masses in 1800 alongside elite academies and private tutors for the elite to the modern K-17 system for all. Headlines cried “crisis!” as far back as the late 19th Century, and the criticisms have been remarkably consistent.

So every so often we call in the experts. CEOs, Wall Street experts, and governors. They say, "add more penalties and rewards (or privatize). And bonuses!" Wall Street swears by them. But at least their catastrophic manipulation of short-term data was exercised by folks who knew the business they were in. Similar efforts to create mathematical formulas useful for school decision-making, by non-educators this time, have not done better—except the damage is “just” a matter of the continued poor education of kids, and generally not the ones at the top of the social heap.

Enough already, let’s have the courage to rethink what we have wrought instead of just turning the screws tighter on an indefensible system we happened upon.

So, thank you Charles Murray. It suggests that we can learn even from people whose work we often despise. It’s a luxury—this capacity to learn from people whose biases we do not like—that may be easier to exercise if one starts off with a sense of entitlement. It’s the luxury that lies at the heart of playfulness, the capacity “to imagine otherwise” that is the birthright of every infant—regardless of race, class, creed. It’s what a truly “good education” should nurture, not crush.

The first task of a good school is to be sure that no individual in it has reason to be afraid of interesting ideas or people from 8:30-3. To be unafraid, as my friend Michael Walzer says, is at the heart of democracy’s promise. It’s what comes through over and over in the archival stuff I’m going through—how intellectually exciting it was to be unafraid—"us" being both the kids and the adults.

Deborah

8 Comments

My understanding is that about 25% of American adults (i.e. people over 25 years old) have a college degree. Among younger cohorts, graduation rates are perhaps 30%. In other words, most employed Americans do not have a college education, and presumably do fine in the labor force. Obviously, most job descriptions do not require a college diploma, despite what is often asserted in high schools.

Nevertheless, it is also apparent that many employers are willing to pay higher salaries for people with a Bachelor’s degree in the job market. Presumably this is because the employers think that the Bachelor’s degree is a good proxy for the type of skills they need in their employees. Some of these skills are technical, i.e. the capacity to write well, familiarity with a particular literature, operate particular types of software, use numbers in a particular fashion, etc. But it seems to me that many of them are the less tangible skills which are demonstrated by the pursuit of a Bachelor’s degree that are not demonstrated by a high school diploma.

Among the skills implicit to a Bachelor’s level education are ability to identify a long-term goal, organize your own schedule (weekly, semesterly, yearly), self-motivation, capacity to navigate a complex bureaucracy, etc. You also get really good at evaluating what supervisors (i.e. professors) want from you, often with only unspecific and vague instructions. All of these qualities lead to a someone who works more independently than a student who has only been through high school where days are precisely structured, seat-time routinely tracked, and assignments are often agonizingly specific.

Oh, and incidentally, a person educated at the Bachelor’s level often has more complex judgment when evaluating the demands that are put on them as democratic citizens because of their greater exposure to disciplined reading and writing.

As for what percentage of the population is capable of undertaking college, I am not sure. At the beginning of the twentieth century, some writers asserted that a classical liberal education was appropriate only the “talented tenth.” This was wrong—obviously the number is too low. I agree that college is not for every eighteen year-old, but it is a good thing for a substantial minority. And I suspect that it is an even better thing for those a bit older—say in their early twenties.

Deborah,

I was moved by your story of going through years of correspondence, articles, and other things in order to donate them to the Lilly Library. I thought about what that might be like. I gather it was a joyous experience and also sad at times—to see how your ideas took off but at the price of misinterpretation, of translation into jargon.

I wonder if that might be the main difficulty in replicating an idea. Those entrusted with the task often lack the understanding and the fire. One must burn with certain ideas and grasp their core in order to put them into practice well. That sort of fire is difficult to spread. Enthusiasm can spread, yes. But that is not the same. Enthusiasm is like a hand-me-down. How many enthusiastic followers of Dewey misinterpreted his ideas and took the wrong principles to extremes? How many good ideas have been driven to banality in this way?

I may disagree with you on certain points of education, but I believe that you had wonderful schools. And I see that you question yourself all along the way, never settling into a lifeless “model.” I admire the way you treat disagreements as gifts and a way to a better understanding.

How does one spread understanding and inspiration?

Diana Senechal

Charles Murray angers me in the same way that Obama appointee Cass Sunstein does. Both label themselves libertarian and thereby gut the word of any solid meaning.

Murray, with his advocacy of $10,000 lump sum government handouts to individuals forfeits his claim. Sunstein, advocate of "libertarian paternalism", should get the Orwell Award for Best Oxymoron. A belief in social engineering via government disqualifies one from being a libertarian.

Unfortunately, the word "libertarian", which ought to mean liberty, property, non-aggression and laissez-faire economy, gets hijacked a lot these days. The same goes for "free market". It is a shame that the free market gets associated with economic problems when it is government intervention destroying the economy.

Since public schools have, on balance, taught damaging myths like 1) capitalism is bad, 2) Hoover was a capitalist, 3) FDR saved us from ruin, and 4) WWII got us out of the Depression, the mass of people generally accept the current poisonous moves by our so-called leaders. This failure to expose the truth is not a failure when seen through the eyes of government. The mythology supports government power.

What does this say about the real value of college, especially when adding the fact that government has the most influence over higher ed?

Well, what value is in official indoctrination and a herd mentality?

ps. Gatto is great.

I just finished Gatto's new book WEAPONS OF MASS INSTRUCTION.

I highly recommend the book for those seeking a completely different perspective. Even if you don't agree, I promise Gatto's thinking will cause you to refine your own.

On the subject of Gatto, I also highly recommend his first book DUMBING US DOWN.

Gatto fans also know:

A DIFFERENT KIND OF TEACHER

UNDERGROUND HISTORY OF EDUCATION

With all its problems, compulsory education still protects children and gives them hope. Where will they go if not in school? In many cases, they will serve the family. Children have often told me about their household and babysitting duties. Some have complained that they had to babysit over vacation and couldn't wait to come back to school.

If they're not taking care of others or doing chores, they're amusing themselves with TV and video games. They don't get to catch beetles in the forest. They will not go to the library on their own unless they know how to read. Given the constraints on their lives, it is often dreary to be out of school.

Those children who find interesting things to do on their own are also inclined to come to school, from what I have seen. They want teachers. They want books to read. They want the structure of assignments. They want the challenge and the inspiration. There might be a few exceptions, but there will always be.

Children's desires aside, "choice" has no meaning unless it actually exists. There is no choice without education. There is no guarantee that children who opt out of school will be educated in some other way.

Once I asked my middle school students to write about compulsory education. The vast majority were in favor of it. They believed it should extend past the age of 18.

Diana Senechal

With all its problems, compulsory education still protects children and gives them hope. Where will they go if not in school? In many cases, they will serve the family. Children have often told me about their household and babysitting duties. Some have complained that they had to babysit over vacation and couldn't wait to come back to school.

If they're not taking care of others or doing chores, they're amusing themselves with TV and video games. They don't get to catch beetles in the forest. They will not go to the library on their own unless they know how to read. Given the constraints on their lives, it is often dreary to be out of school.

Those children who find interesting things to do on their own are also inclined to come to school, from what I have seen. They want teachers. They want books to read. They want the structure of assignments. They want the challenge and inspiration. There might be a few exceptions, but there will always be.

Children's desires aside, "choice" has no meaning unless it actually exists. There is no choice without education. There is no guarantee that children who opt out of school will be educated in some other way.

Once I asked my middle school students (all English language learners) to write about compulsory education. The vast majority were in favor of it. They believed it should extend past the age of 18.

Diana Senechal

Diana,

Compulsory education is a mislabelling of what really happens. Compulsory schooling is more apt. This term implies that some are on the compelling side of the equation and presupposes legal privilege. Economic discoveries over the milennium tell us that this kind of power differential- this loss of rights for the compelled, parents in this case, always ends-up with the governing side abusing their power. At the very least, monopoly schooling tends to result in less quality for higher costs. No matter what high rhetoric is used, like "It's for the children..." or "We need to teach democratic values..." etc., such a system is rightly called a protection racket.

It is high time that we learn that government opportunity comes at a cost that is always greater than the benefits. Just review modern warfare as a parallel. War socialism provides full employment- especially to the armaments and body bag manufacturers. What are the full costs of socialized schooling?

The history of compulsory schooling is mostly about one group trying thwart another anyway (i.e. Protestant establishment vs. Catholic immigrants).

It is a given that the vast majority of parents want the best for their children and that education is highly desired in this regard. Yet education is not the same as schooling and certainly not government schooling. In the absence of government control, a combination of for-profit and charitable organizations could meet these parents' demand in a way that is socially accountable, efficient and responsive.

i offer a blog to help those who need help with math. the equations are standard and i hope they are useful.
http://encyclopedia-magazine.blogspot.com

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