Via Instapundit I found this article on the website of the Hoover Institution, perhaps the number one libertarian think tank and home to luminaries such as Thomas Sowell, Milton Friedman and Victor Davis Hanson. It predicts teachers’ unions will be dissolved and this will usher in a golden age of education.
If you read this site you’ve likely been exposed to the idea that the mainstream conservatism of the US since around the 1950s is really just another form of liberalism. It is to an extent true conservatism that must disguise itself, but this article illustrates this idea as well as anything I can remember seeing.
Attitudes about education in the US can be broken down into two general camps. Liberals think that the educational system is fine, but needs more money. Conservatives think the product delivered is poor, largely due to teachers’ unions that prevent incompetent teachers from being fired.
As with almost anything, the unstated assumptions contain the entire problem. If you get anything from me from reading this blog, it is look for the unstated assumptions. If you think you know the unstated assumptions, look again. The unstated assumptions are that-
1) each child has a large potential to learn
2) each child thus has the right to learn, and this right must be respected
3) education should be child-centered, oriented around helping the child’s natural potential and desire to learn and grow and respecting his personhood.
These ideas are not “liberal” in terms of the kind of social thought that came to be common and popular in the 60’s. Excessive belief in human neurological uniformity is often credited to perennial mainstream conservative villain Jean Jacques Rousseau, but can also be traced to perennial mainstream conservative hero John Locke. Its most prominent American proponent was John Dewey, but it was a common attitude among the Victorians. Victorian Christians were dedicated to the idea of education not merely as a way of imparting knowledge, but molding and indoctrinating the masses into proper ways of being.
Ok, so we know that this thing that the American New Deal state is doing has a long pedigree and that underneath it all everybody who is a respectable member of society- mainstream conservatives qualify, if just barely- is trying to achieve the same goal. This isn’t just something on the “to do” list. It is treated as a legal right, something the government is obligated to provide. This is expressed with different degrees of directness, the Americans with Disabilities Act explicitly stating that every handicapped child has a right to an “appropriate” education. There is vast amounts of case law on this, which boils down to much the same thing.
This presents obvious practical problems, particularly with severely retarded or autistic children, who may as a practical matter be incapable of learning anything meaningful. Nonetheless such a child may have his own teacher and aide, and the parents will scream bloody murder if they aren’t getting full attention all day.
Leaving aside those cases, though- can’t we really educate all or most children, given the proper resources, meaning money?
The answer is not yes. The answer is mostly no, sometimes maybe. Realistically, this is the truth-
1) Children have a wide range of abilities, some can be educated a great deal, some not at all. In terms of the academic education we are talking about, probably only the top third are really suited for it.
2) Children are not usually lovers of learning, particularly academic learning. This would describe a fifth or less of the population, actually of the white population, much less of the NAM population. Most children don’t like school, don’t like sitting still, don’t want to listen to a nice lady talk about stuff that is meaningless to them.
3) Children, like all people, can be made to do things they don’t want to do. As long as this is not done maliciously or cruelly, it does not damage the child but instead is healthy socialization for living in a society where people are expected to conform rigidly and do things they don’t want to do all day.
4) This requires strong discipline, of a sort which just barely acceptable in the family, and not at all in the public schools.
Blaming teachers for the quality of education is stupid. But in a democracy, it’s easy. In a classroom of thirty children, there is one teacher. The teacher is a client of the state, and a very important one. Ten of the children are bright and well-behaved and will work with the teacher in the learning process. Ten are marginal, but may learn something on a good day. Ten will get little from the experience and only conform because they have to, although this ten contains one to three who will disrupt the environment any chance they get. I’m talking about white kids here- the situation with NAMs would be worse.
The middle ten, and their parents, are the ones the conservative politicians are interested in as clients. The bottom ten and their parents don’t give a crap. The middle ten represent a part of society that wants “good schools” but is not really willing to take any responsibility for the learning process. If you tell them it’s the teacher’s fault, they may buy it.
Americans love education, but hate learning. Education in this sense is a passive process much like entertainment, where the student more or less just receives knowledge, wisdom, and love from the teacher and becomes a better person for it. Learning is an active work process, like physical training, in which the instructor can guide, sometimes motivate and harass but the results of which rest entirely on the trainee’s effort. Americans love coaches; but any coach who is not a fool concerns himself first with getting players with the most ability and natural potential. He isn’t such a fool as to believe he can take anyone and make them a winner.
Classroom education up to the second year of college is based on the lecture method. A teacher presents a lesson to a group, who listen and learn. Depending on the class size and quality of the students some questions will be allowed that may produce additional learning for students other than the questioner. At more advanced or higher quality school, reading will be expected, and the lecture may simply be a supplement or a chance to ask questions about the reading.
This type of instruction is good for imparting information to a large number of people at a relatively low cost. It’s regimented and impersonal though, and doesn’t provide much more for the motivated student than just reading. For an unmotivated student who is willing to pay attention, he will learn something, but it is unlikely to expect this type of instruction will lead to great things for him or great benefits for society.
In exceptional cases- the exceptional must be emphasized- more might be achieved. A good teacher knows how to break down the information and lead students through it. Since everyone learns at a different pace, though, he can only help some portion of the class- for others he will go too fast or too slow. A few teachers are unusually entertaining or charismatic, and these are what a consumer-oriented society thinks of as “good” teachers. The inherently dull environment of the classroom is livened up and students look forward to seeing him. The students may have fond memories of him years later, and think that only if all the teachers had been like him, they would have learned so much more.
It is this kind of foolish thinking that leads to the myth of the superteacher- a highly skilled instructor who is able to make students learn well almost in spite of themselves. In this view, the teacher is not a person of high status and respect, as you might think, but on the contrary a servant who is responsible to meet the needs of a passive, privileged master.
Indeed, historically teachers have been of lower status than their students. Only rich people received education, and teaching was not a high-status profession. In classical times teachers were often slaves. An excellent example of a superteacher, and an example of where this kind of thinking comes from, is the character of Mr. Chips, from the novel “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” and the movie made from it. Chips is no natural superteacher, by personality or intelligence. He starts out as a shy, stiff man was an average student, but meets and marries a warm woman who teaches him to connect with his students.
The story contains many of the elements of liberal humanism so deeply embedded in Anglophone society- the redemption of a man through the love of a good woman, hatred of war, the ability to connect with and change others through empathy, and of course the power of education and inspiring educators.
Political leftism is based on gross, ugly lies. Social and cultural leftism is based on prettier ones. “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” is a nice story, but not a realistic one. We live in a democratic society, but there is little less democratic than learning.