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Levellers, Spelled The Old Way

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I have gotten to that point in Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life that’s good for me to read because it reminds me that nothing is new, especially in American education policy.

And looked at this way, as part of a continuous history rather than a phenomenon of the last few decades, it occurs to me that it’s really a fundamental question about equality in the larger sense–and what is and what should be the goal of a free public education in a democratic society.

Okay, that sounds more convoluted than it actually is.

Let me back up a little.

First, I think most of us would agree that the common school was one of the best ideas New England ever had, and that the project of providing at least a basic education for everyone, without direct charge, is a good thing.

This is a simple idea in theory, but a nearly impossible one in practice.

I think we could manage nearly universal agreement that all children should learn to read, write and figure, and that all American children should learn how American institutions work (how to vote, how Congress passes bills) and how American history unfolded.

We often have different ideas about what these things should mean (is American history a glorious story of a march to freedom or a shabby tale of oppression?), but whether we actually accept that these things should be taught or not, we almost all pay lip service to them.

And that’s fine, as far as it goes.

All children who are not mentally handicapped–and I mean that in the sense it was used 50 years ago, not today’s “everything is autism” regime–can be taught to do these things, to read at least well enough to understand a newspaper, to do accurate addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, to comprehend that the country started in 1776 with the Declaration of Independence and that Congressmen are elected every two years.

My guess is that almost all children could understand a lot more, but that doesn’t matter for the moment.

What does matter is this:

Sooner or later, we will inevitably reach a point where not all children will be able to understand what needs to be taught to go on with a particular subject.

This is inevitably for a variety of reasons–not all children are born with the intellectual talent to understand all subjects at a high level, and some are born not able to understand any subjects at a high level; not all children are motivated; not all children come from families that will allow them to understand any subject at a high level.

If you’re confused about that last one, you need to look into the cases of parents in Appalachia who deliberately prevent their children from learning to read because if the children learn to read they will no longer be classified as “learning disabled” and the family will lose the extra money the federal government provides for learning disabled children.

At any rate, there are reasons, and the reasons will never entirely disappear.

This is not something we can fix, although we pretend we can. 

For better or for worse, intellectual talent is like every other kind of talent.  The highest levels of it will be present in only a very small percentage of the population.

It’s at this point that we run into trouble. 

This would be a problem even if there wasn’t a history of distrust of “fancy education” in this country–and there is such a history.

No matter what any of us think of a rigorous education–calculus, Kant, Shakespeare, John Locke, the intricacies of the history of the American Civil War, foreign languages both ancient and modern, laboratory science–there is no way to create a world in which everybody can “succeed” in “getting it.”

The usual estimate for enough ability to reach the most rigorous levels of this kind of thing is 10% of the population.  The usual estimate for “acceptable” levels is about 25%.  And there are other students–maybe the most numerous–who can reach the highest rigor in one or two subjects and only an acceptable level in the rest.

That’s a very small proportion of the population.  The population at large will get little direct benefit from a rigorous academic curriculum, although their long term secondary benefit may be large.

I am one of those people who thinks that the secondary benefit can be very large. 

Susie Cheerleader may not be intellectually capable of doing advanced mathematics or wrapping her head around the structure of the adrenal system, but the person who does is more likely than she is to figure out how to cure the cancer that pops up in her life when she’s 42.

Even so, there is an argument to be made that in a system of free public education in a democratic society, the emphasis should be on teaching those things that everybody needs and almost everybody can learn.

One of the things rereading the Hofstadter has done for me is to remind me how pervasive such an attitude has been throughout our history and how many times the educational system of one place or another, or the nation as a whole, has tried to install such a product.

When I see this kind of thing happening today, I tend to ascribe it to racial skittishness–given the state of public education in minority-heavy inner cities, installing an intellectually rigorous system would cause racial disparities in outcomes that most of the country would find politically unacceptable.

But many earlier attempts at dumbing down the public school curriculum occured long before racial integretation was even a serious issue.  You can find schemes for this kind of thing going back to 1910, at least. 

Proposals for dumbing down were one of the first public papers produced by the NEA. 

Such proposals weren’t called “dumbing down,” of course.  They had names like “education for democracy.”   And the were usually written in such truly awful pseudo-intellectual jargon that they were nearly impossible to understand.

And, of course, its most famous exponent was John Dewey.

But no matter what it called it self, it came down to this:  not everybody can understand differential equations and the molecular structure of lead and Romeo and Juliet, and since not everybody can understand them, we shouldn’t teach them.

What we should teach instead is what students will find meaningful in their daily lives, which means…

Well, it’s meant a lot of things.  It turns out “relevance” wasn’t invented by the Left in the Sixties.  It’s been around for a hundred and fifty years, if not more.

The version of it Hofstadter was dealing with was called the “life adjustment” movement, where students were processed through a thin line of very attentuated study in academic subjects and otherwise urged to pursue things like home economics and “preparation for marriage.”

I have the Russians to thank for the fact that I missed this lovely little trend.  Sputnik went up and people began to think they ought to get serious about students, you know, actually k nowing some things.

But I remember my parents talking about it–or rather, my father ranting and railing about it.

He wasn’t a fan.

These days we get “critical thinking” and “becoming a lifetime learner,” which sound really great–the educational theorists who come up with this stuff have learned to make it sound better–but it all comes down to the same thing: not everybody can learn the high level stuff, so we shouldn’t be teaching it.

We shouldn’t even acknowledge its existence.

By now, it should be obvious that I’m not a fan of this sort of thing either,  but the question remains, and it isn’t a stupid one.

What is a free public education in a democratic society supposed to do?

Should it be aimed at teaching the basic knowledge everybody needs to know and almost everybody is able to learn?

Or should it be structured to provide high level academics for that very small minority capable of  students capable of taking advantage of them?

Resourses are limited.  No matter how much we want to think we can do both, we probably can’t, both because we lack the money and the high-level teachers to do it with, and because we will constantly run into that wall that says there’s something wrong about spending the community’s resources on something the community cannot use.

Which is a little garbled, there.

But there it is.

And I have things I need to do.

 

Written by janeh

July 7th, 2014 at 10:23 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Levellers, Spelled The Old Way'

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  1. No community can do anything but benefit from giving the 10% (or even the 1% of true geniuses) the tools they need to create and innovate. By depriving every child of the chance to learn, and to reveal, what their own capacity is, they deprive all of us of possibility, and hope. In my book, that’s a crime.

    Sure, the vast majority will not benefit from anything beyond the basics. But we all gain when the geniuses are discovered, and nurtured. How short-sighted is it not to perceive that?

    Lymaree

    7 Jul 14 at 11:47 am

  2. You teach the basics, on the grounds that they will give the children the tools they need to learn more.

    Of course, in my rural high school, although we didn’t get anything like the level of education Jane is recommnending for the minority here, it did mean all the requirements for admission to a post-secondary institution at the time – English language and literature and algebra and geometry (up to that level), two ‘lab sciences’ (ie physics and chemistry, not ‘general science’), a second language and world history. And they did it all by the end of Grade 11. They didn’t offer the ‘basic’ courses at all, although most schools of that size probably did. You know, arithmetic, under the guise of ‘general math’ etc.

    Not that I enjoyed school, actually, but I got a decent basic education.

    And, of course, they kept a lot of students in Grade 8 until they either passed or dropped out and went to work in the mines. Grade 8 was an interesting year. We had a wide age range in the classroom, and at least once one of the bigger boys got in a fight in the classroom with a male teacher.

    Nowadays, of course, you couldn’t get a job as a laborer in a mine with a grade 8 education.

    Cheryl

    7 Jul 14 at 12:18 pm

  3. I think you can have it both ways. You just can’t have it every way.
    Personal experience. Medium-size Midwestern city, peak of the Baby Boom. We had new or reconditioned schools as needed and new textbooks every five years without breaking the bank. Of course, teachers–backed up by a principal with a paddle–were expected to handle about 30 students in a classroom, and the school system employed almost no administrators. And there were limits on the largesse. Somewhere around 1960 another larger Midwestern city started a really intense program for the most gifted students–and gave it up in two years when they ran out of money.
    Pretty much everyone was in the same classroom K-6. Along about 7th Grade, Science, Mathematics, “Social Studies” and English divided into “lanes.” X-lane students were presumed college-bound, Y-lane were expected to get high school diplomas and a job and Z-lanes were expected to (eventually) learn to read. But it was done subject by subject, so Math lanes weren’t necessarily English lanes.
    In English, this was mostly a matter of ramping up the level of difficulty–more books and more complex books for the X-lane. In other subjects, often the course was lane specific. That would be lab sciences, for example, the higher-level math classes, and as I recall government and economics in “social studies” while other students were taught budgeting and sociology. I sometimes felt in later years that I hadn’t studied hard enough in high school, but not that the learning hadn’t been there for me to take advantage of. So I think you can do both, at least K-12. And if you do a good job K-12, the number of people who could use education beyond that shouldn’t be overwhelming.

    But having it all is different.
    Take money, for instance. Drop the classroom size to 20, put a salaried “teacher’s aide” in each classroom, and hire an administrator for each teacher, better paid than the teacher in the bargain–and, well, there’s a reason we’ve managed to double per-pupil spending without improving learning.
    Now, toss in educational faddism–not dumbing down, but something which is more fun for Teacher then the dull old methods which work consistently. Math and English seem especially prone to these. You can expect one every ten years or so, and EVERY ONE leaves debris in the form of students who never quite made up for lost years in those subjects. I suspect especially our poorest students (in both senses) are the victims, and it’s about time that as a matter of policy any major overhaul of teaching methods in core subjects be approached like the introduction of new drugs–with fear and trembling, and much testing.
    And third we come again to the old Navy saying that for a ship without a destination, no wind is favorable. If parents, teachers and school boards agreed on what should be taught, and were a long time between changes of mind, much might be accomplished. But if parents are shooting for basic math, administrators checking boxes on Common Core and teachers trying to raise political consciousness, none of them are likely to see much success.
    Amazing things can be done with a clear goal and persistence. Not much without.
    But I think we can accommodate both Shakespeare and shop class.

    robert_piepenbrink

    7 Jul 14 at 5:49 pm

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