Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Classroom Privileges

with 4 comments

Well,  I could start this off by arguing with  John about what we need to know–if “reading” is one of those things every student needs, then the great classics of the tradition and understanding how to recognize and decode literary forms are also “need to know” items, for the simple reason that people who cannot do those things cannot really read.  Oh, they’ll decipher the instructions on their TV dinners well enough, but they’ll run into brick walls of misunderstanding every time they try to read a newspaper or understand a political commentator on television, never mind trying to read a mystery novel in third personal multiple viewpoint and being able to figure out the difference between what the character believes and what the writer advocates.

And, trust me, if you don’t think that this kind of inability to read is a big problem  you’ve yet to meet the average American college student.

But that’s a topic for a different time.  The topic this time  is the therapeutic culture and the centrality of schools.

I didn’t say I wanted to abolish schools.  As far as I’m concerned, the present system of schooling both public and private can go chugging on merrily as it has done–BUT.

And it’s a big  BUT.

Here’s how the system works now:

Happy  College requires all of its entering freshmen to have received three years instruction in a foreign language, two years in history, one year in a laboratory science, four years in English, and up through Algebra I in math.

Presumably, it requires those things because it wants entering freshmen to have a certain basic level of knowledge before they start college work.

Student A has been homeschooled, so in order to satisfy Happy College, she must take AP tests,  SAT-II tests, provide portfolios of her work, etc, so that HC can verify that she knows what she is supposed to know.

Student B has gone to Merry  Valley Senior High  School, “taken” all the proper “courses,” and received a  B or better in each one.  Happy College therefore assumes Student B knows what it wants him to know, and requires no further proof of it than the basic SATs, which are supposed to measure aptitude.

Why, exactly, do classroom “courses” enjoy this kind of privilege?  It would be one thing if the people who “took” such courses and got “good” grades in them actually showed up on their college campuses knowing what the “courses” were supposed to teach–but even the colleges don’t expect that these days.  Even the high level first tier ones offer lots of remedial options in math and English–the very basic stuff the  SAT-I is supposed to take care of–because so many of even their suburban good-suburb admits are completely clueless when it comes to high school level work.

A significant blow to the centrality of schools could be leveled just by ridding the system of the prejudice in their favor.  Let the schools go on doing what they do, but their grades would not be grounds for admission to any college or vocational course and their students would be required, as homeschooled students are now, to demonstrate their knowledge and ability on third party, open to all tests or in processes like portfolios or presentations.

 This was, after all, pretty much the system across the Western world prior to  WWI–whether you prepped or not, you got into Yale or  Columbia by taking the college’s admission test and passing it. 

These days, schools no longer certify even that their students have managed to sit still and hand in work more or less on time for four years, which is what their subsidiary “credentialing” purpose is supposed to be.  In some inner city schools, it takes full-scale long-term absence to get a grade below a C in anything.  Any college teacher who teaches students from schools like these knows that they think–because it’s what they’ve been taught–that they have the right to “make up” anything, including final exams, at any time, for any reason, that they do not believe theyshould be held responsible for work if it was assigned when they weren’t in class, even if they weren’t in class because they were getting high and even if the work itself is on the syllabus or up on Blackboard.

Privileging classroom study in the way we do does not help anybody, and it may even hurt our attempts to make sure that students actually learn things.  The privilege was instituted originally to make it possible for high level private universities and the flagship campuses of state universities to admit students from rural districts where the preparation was poor, on the assumption that talented students from schools such as these could catch up once they got to campus.  

The privilege is no longer needed for that purpose.  It would make more sense to ensure that libraries across the country were equipped with enough really good computer equipment and really fast Internet connections to make it possible for kids to find out what would be required on college entrance tests and to access material that would help make sure they learned it–and if their local schools were providing real instruction in those areas, good, and if not, not. 

Once schools were no longer central to college entrance, students and parents who didn’t like the ethos of a school–all therapy all the time! that kid is a pain in the ass, let’s diagnose him with something!–could pick all knds of alternatives to get them where they wanted to go.

After that, maybe we could start taking psychologists seriously that what they’re doing is “science,” and making them meet the same kind of accountability standards that real sciences do.

Because it’s all well and good to say that psychology is “a science and an art,” but right now it’s an art that can get people locked up indefinitely, brand kids with “disorders” that will follow them throughout their lives and ruin any chances they have of significant success in dozens of fields, and split up families who won’t acquiesce in the “diagnosis.”

If these people want that kind of power, then we’ve got the right to demand that they prove it. 

During the series of  day-care-sex-abuse scandals in the 1980s, one of the “tools” used to “prove” that the children had been sexually abused was to present them with anatomincally correct dolls and see what they did with them.  If the children pulled at the genatalia, this was considered “proof” that sexual abuse had occurred, even if the child denied it and no physical evidence of it existed.

The problem was–no studies had ever been done to see how children who HADN’T been sexually abused responded to these dolls.  Those studies were done eventually, after a dozen people had been sent to jail at least partially on the “science” claimed for them–and it turned out that three to five year olds pull at a doll’s genatalia pretty much universally.

In other words, no double blind studies had been done to establish this tool scientifically, the people using it had no idea what it actually meant when the children pulled at the genatalia, and people went to jail because–well, there MUST have been sexual abuse, the kid pulled at the doll’s penis, and it’s science!

Most of the people who were wrongfully convicted of these crimes that never existed are out of jail now, but their lives are ruined, their families have been destroyed, and in at least two cases the state continues to to brand them as “sex offenders.”

And last I checked, Gerald Amirault is still in jail in Massachusetts.  He’s been offered a free pass out of jail if he’ll just “confess” to the “crimes” he’s supposed to have committed, but he seems disinclined to confess to things he did not do.

If we’re going to let the therapeautic culture have power like this–power that cirumvents the Constitution on a number of issues–then I think it’s time we made these people prove that they know what they’re doing.

Written by janeh

March 16th, 2009 at 10:04 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Classroom Privileges'

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  1. I think you’re confusing psychology in general with the tendency of humans to run amok every so often and chase after satanists abusing children, communists, witches, etc. I expect some psychologists have studied this behaviour, and I wish I could think that average members of the public over, say, 50, would have seen so many of these things come and go that they’d treat the latest permutation with some skepticism instead of trying to rally a mob.

    The experts can pronounce, and they can be challenged and they can be discredited. It takes time and people suffer in the meanwhile. That’s life.

    That sounds depressing. I’m listening to a tribute program for the people killed in a helicopter accident here, and I think it’s affecting me.

    Anyway, about external standards. Some Canadian provinces still have public examinations at the end of certain high school courses. They don’t ‘count’ for as much as they used to back in my day (100% of the grade in every course from Grade 9-11), but they produce interesting data and contribute to the final grade in at least the final courses in each ‘sequence’. The local university and college know damn well which schools are likely to produce internal results wildly off the exam ones, and the boards get the data and can act on them. I haven’t checked to see how much the plan to release aggregate data to anyone who cares to check a website has progressed.

    So there are educational options if the political will exists to implement them. US K-12 education is very local, IIRC, which means the battle would have to be fought district by district. If Happy College is annoyed enough about the quality of the students they get, they should pressure the districts or institute their own entrance exams.


    16 Mar 09 at 12:14 pm

  2. Well, the big problem with education in these United States is the Lake Woebegon effect.

    “In 1900 only 10 percent of American adolescents aged 14 to 17 were enrolled in high schools. Most of these students were from affluent families.”

    Now states are having a hissy fit because not 100% of all 17 or so year olds graduate from high school — and we’re having a collective national hissy fit because, no surprise to anyone who understands a bell curve of distribution, not all kids seem to be equally capable of “high school level work”, however that is defined.

    No less important is the correlation-causation fallacy that at some point in the past came from noting that, hey, college graduates on average earn more than people with just a high school education.

    Therefore —- let’s try and shove as many people through a ‘college’ and anoint them with a degree as possible. They’ll make more money!

    Alas, standing in front a group of children and talking at them does not make them smarter.

    Indeed, as I recall training exacerbates differences. The lest capable learn little to nothing, the most capable learn the most and the most quickly

    But we run everyone through almost exactly the same lock step program. Ah, except for the AP classes — where AP seems to stand for “Astounding Paperwork”, mostly homework required of students. I don’t know how much they learn, but they certainly seem to have a great deal of paper to generate. My younger son was assigned to AP classes when he got to his high school, he flat refused to do that much homework. He didn’t get along with high school at all. He ended up taking the proficiency test California allows so he could get out of high school.

    It’s been quite a journey with both of my sons.



    16 Mar 09 at 8:08 pm

  3. I want to elaborate on what Michael posted.

    I thought I was good at math until I took a class in what is called Nathematical Analyisis. It comes after calculus and is often the first pure math (math for the sake of Math) course that people took. It turned out that was good at applied math but I had no talent for proving theorems. I could follow proofs but couldn’t invent them.

    Much the same happens in Physics. We started with 40 freshman physics najors. 8 graduated with BS degreess and only 4 of them went on to grad school.

    The drop outs could do calculus and could understand the physics when they were shown how to solve a problem. But the couldn’t learn to apply math and physics laws to a new problem.

    You can teach math and physics. You can not teach people to think like mathematicians or physicists.

    Jane wrote:

    “about what we need to know–if “reading” is one of those things every student needs, then the great classics of the tradition and understanding how to recognize and decode literary forms are also “need to know” items, for the simple reason that people who cannot do those things cannot really read. Oh, they’ll decipher the instructions on their TV dinners well enough, but they’ll run into brick walls of misunderstanding every time they try to read a newspaper or understand a political commentator on television, never mind trying to read a mystery novel in third personal multiple viewpoint and being able to figure out the difference between what the character believes and what the writer advocates.”

    I see her point but I don’t think critical analysis can be taught. You can teach people to read “The Cat sat on the mat,” I very much doubt that you can teach people to enjoy sonnets or to analyze a political commentator,

    Reading is a tool necessary for successful thinking in our society. But I have strong doubts that thinking can be taught.


    16 Mar 09 at 9:47 pm

  4. Thinking may not be teachable, but it certainly can be demonstrated to those with the capability and *practiced.* And practice is necessary to clarify and organize thinking, just as practice is necessary to elegant, powerful writing.

    Talent for thought may be inborn, but there are tons of people out there with dormant talents in all areas. Until you’re exposed to a skill, taught to use it, and exercise it regularly, you’re just latent talent. As with all talents, we all have it in varying amounts.

    Those who can think and do so without the exposure to the concept, training and practice are the geniuses among us. This may in fact be their defining characteristic. Talent to expertise, without the intervening work.


    16 Mar 09 at 10:11 pm

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