Monday, September 13, 2004
After many years in graduate school, I have more than a passing acquaintance with the quality of contemporary college students. The depth of ignorance in freshmen is truly shocking. Professors have to start from ground zero- it's like high school never even happened. To those of you who are parents: do you want to know what your children are learning in school? The answer is nothing. Zilch. Oh, there is a good school here and there, and good students will find a way to learn something no matter where they are. But I remember a lot of kids just as smart as I was who are working at book stores today. They just got bored one day and checked out. Let's not even talk about the kids who struggled.
People have been bemoaning the state of public education in this country for years, ever since A Nation at Risk was published in the 1980's. International students laught at how poorly educated Americans are. This situation has profound effects on our long-term economic position: we are becoming a nation of Wal-mart employees because that is all we are qualified for.
It's not that the talent isn't there, or the willingness to work. It just seems to be that there is no public commitment to the value of education. We talk a good game, we just never do anything. I have a friend who is a teacher. His first year he flunked a bunch of his students, and the result was that the parents and the administration jumped down his throat. People act like the schools are failing the students, but parents are failing both. It is far too easy for the child to play his teacher and his parent off against one another.
Yes, I am ranting a little, but I have a broader point. I just want to remind my readers what the original purpose of public education was. Not to create good workers, or virtuous people, or provide free baby-sitting. It was to create citizens- people who were capable of participating in public life, who can think critically, know their history, and can separate the wheat from the chaff (proverbially speaking).
Anyone who has read this blog should know that I am deeply concerned about the health of our democracy. Well, this is one major source of the problem- our public schools are not doing their job. Students graduate without the slightest ability to understand abstract ideas or dissect a problem. They have no idea how the country got here or why, and they could care less.
This is not a situation without consequences. Citizens are not born, they are made. And if we don't bother to cultivate the capacity for self-governance in our children, then they'll be that much more vulnerable to the appeals of demagogues.
So what can we do? Testing is a panacea- it tells you where you are but not how to improve, and there are significant distortions introduced into the educational process by a focus on testing. No, serious policy analysts know how to address the problem: reduce the student-teacher ratio to about 15 to 1, get rid of summer vacation, keep kids in school until 5 or 6 PM, give teachers real control of their classroom, emphasize teamwork and critical thinking over lecture and rote memorization, and make the academic curriculum a whole lot tougher (come on, do you think Americans are just dummer than Asians and Europeans?).
Why haven't we done all of this long ago? Because it would take money and will, and we have been sadly lacking in either. Remember- you get what you pay for. And so do your kids.