Recent stories concerning the sorry state of American education have focused on problems with the new “Common Core” public school curriculum and retention of clearly incompetent teachers. As a parent who long ago rejected our public school system, these seem to me to be mere symptoms of a much deeper and more critical (one might say “fatal”) issue with our national program of education. I say “national program” to reflect the fact that, while there are many different school districts, and most school administration takes place within these districts and, above them, the states, for decades we as a nation have allowed ourselves to be dominated by an ideology of education that is national in its scope and disastrous in its consequences. And these consequences likely will get worse so long as we focus our attention on finding new ways to make teachers “accountable” to national standards. Why? Because the fundamental problem is not accountability; it is scale. Indeed, attempts to establish this accountability feed into the bureaucratic machinery and mindset that constitute the real problem with our schools.
So long as we allow our children to be shipped off to massive complexes for their education, they will be warehoused and force-fed “facts” (some true, some not) and “rubrics” (sets of rules intended to hardwire their thinking) under the guidance of petty bureaucrats. Even the best teachers generally must fail, under such circumstance, to teach. Even the best students must fail to learn what they need to become educated, morally sensible adults.
It is common among conservatives to blame the problems in our education system on the teachers’ unions. And there is much to be said for this argument. Anecdotes abound about teachers who are functionally illiterate, who are lazy, uncaring, and even abusive, yet who, through union rules and muscle, are kept on the payroll and often even in the classroom. Yet, awful as this situation is, we need to look beyond it to its underlying causes. The unions clearly are far too powerful in our schools, but why? Because our schools are no longer educational institutions; they are warehouses or, at best, factories for learning (to take a phrase from Mark Twain). Children are not widgets or cars; they cannot be “put together” into educated adults on an assembly line, but a huge, bureaucratized school by its very nature will treat them as mere cars-in-the-making, to the impoverishment of our society.
For some decades, now, we have sent our children to be taught in schools the size of small towns. We were sold these white elephants on the grounds that they would provide “greater opportunities” in the forms of better football fields, more course offerings, and nicer facilities. In exchange, our children become troublesome objects to be warehoused. In many high schools teachers habitually “teach” hundreds of different students each term. Even the best teachers (and there are many struggling to live their vocations under nearly impossible conditions) cannot teach except at the margins under such circumstances.
Teachers cannot keep track of, let alone give proper attention to, hundreds of students each term. But our system tries to make education “happen” by dumping on the teacher a plethora of “assessment” requirements that not only take time away from classroom preparation, but also bore and demoralize teachers striving to keep their enthusiasm for a job—teaching children—that is intrinsically difficult. Assessment standards focus everyone on meeting “measurable goals” and fitting their work into pre-set “rubrics.” This social science gobbled-gook has infested education throughout our country, even as it is infesting our healthcare system and every other large bureaucracy, beginning with government. It employs and empowers administrators even as it severs the essential links between the person of the teacher and the persons of the students. The goal is to make teachers accountable. The effect is to turn educators into accountants.
It is not merely that the textbooks feature politically correct misconceptions and outright ideological drivel at the cost of food for the moral imagination. It is not even that the instrumentalist ideology of “learning how to learn” overlooks the critical faculty of memory and the importance of narrative to cognitive development. Our children are being degraded by the sheer scale of our educational structure and the bureaucratic procedures necessary to “assess” how well they and their teachers are performing. Human interaction has been replaced by slogans about “self-esteem,” and this sloganeering itself is undermining students’ innate sense of how to judge their own worth; a sense which itself is increasingly atrophied as they lose any genuine human interaction with adults among the crowds and rules of factory warehousing.
Sadly, our society has been corrupted sufficiently by the cult of standardized (supposedly “fair”) testing that few parents have any sympathy for teachers’ objections to “teaching to the test.” We have come to trust “objective” standards resting on multiple choice questions to separate the capable from the incapable and the accomplished from the unaccomplished. I will not bother with the many arguments against this view of education and the power it puts in the hands of educrats with no interest in teaching young people to become stable, well-read, morally literate adults, but one this it accomplishes is the promotion of yet more bureaucratic structures and methods.
By accepting the idea that shiny warehouses can function as schools, we have empowered a national class of uneducated elites—our educrats—motivated by and imposing a national ideology. That ideology focuses on the power of educational systems to reshape children into autonomous selves who will examine problems and find solutions using a set of techniques with no grounding in history, tradition, or religion. The “objective” instrumentalism these children’s teachers are to inculcate into them are to be buttressed by “self-esteem” training, resulting in adults functionally equal in their abilities, unearned self-confidence, and ignorance of moral standards that might interfere with “rational” self-interested decision making.
That such a vision sees each of us as something less than fully human and strives to make us empty vessels for desires and ideologies of the moment should be obvious to readers here at The Imaginative Conservative. Indeed, the majority of Americans, even today, would recognize the laughable human nature assumptions and more seriously disordered goals of such an educational ideology, were they to engage in any serious examination of it. But, sadly, that is beside the point. So long as we allow our children to be warehoused, they will be warehoused by educrats. The reason is simple: no large-scale education system can be run on non-instrumentalist principles. Only in relatively small schools can there exist the kind of interpersonal relations necessary for genuine education to take place. I refer, here, not only to the student-teacher relationship, important as that is. I also refer to the relationships among teachers, parents, and administrators. There always must be some administration of schools, some means of assessing performance and maintaining accountability. If those means are not rooted in personal knowledge—something only possible at a relatively small scale—they will be rooted in bureaucratic forms, procedures, and mechanisms. And those mechanisms, in order to be administered, will have to be impersonal and homogenizing. We will be back at the standardized test and the instrumental method.
A large scale requires a developed bureaucratic structure. That bureaucratic structure in short order will reconfigure education to meet its own needs and goals. And those needs and goals fit well, indeed originally gave rise to, instrumentalist education. They fit not at all with the humane education necessary to teach our children their letters, their patrimony, and the relationship between duty and their humanity.
All the course choices and stadiums in the world cannot compensate for the loss our children have suffered. It is time to send our children back to school in our neighborhoods, to be taught by people they know, under the eyes of parents and a small number of administrators who themselves are part of a community of norms, beliefs, and learning. Let the children walk to school and, from there, take a bus to the stadium or the auditorium, and not the other way around. There will, of course, be some local schools that fail and that is something the parents, teachers, and administrators in that area must work to improve, while those of us able to help do help, as we can while respecting local self-governance. The results will be imperfect, as are all products of we flawed persons. But right now, in the name of national standards, national goals, and a national ideology, essentially all of our schools are failing. And that is a tragedy we can and must address.
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