An American Editor

September 8, 2010

We Can Do Better! We Must Do Better!

My earlier articles on literacy (Education, Teachers, Literacy, & the Future and Changing Educational Norms to Address Literacy) provoked some comments and the following guest article by Levi Montgomery. Levi wrote an earlier guest article (Books and Buggy Whips: Publishing in the New World). He is a novelist and blogger. His books are available at multiple places, including via his website.

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We Can Do Better!
We Must Do Better!

by Levi Montgomery

Compulsory Education is Undermining the Acquisition of Knowledge

The concept of compulsory education, intended to benefit society by ensuring an educated public, is failing because it has perverted the meaning of the word education. To educate someone should mean only to give them a certain body of knowledge and to take what steps are needed to ensure they have learned what was taught. Instead, education has become a social rubber stamp.

Every student shall go to school, the laws say, until that student has passed a certain grade or age. In addition, we have the social expectation that a student will be in a new grade each year, and that the student will have that magic piece of paper in hand when he or she goes stumping for a job. A student can’t fail; the student’s life is over if he or she does.

The solution, masterfully executed by the American educational system in the past thirty years, is to remove all actual dissemination of knowledge from the system.

Kids can’t get the hang of diagramming sentences? Toss it. They won’t read Moby-Dick? Give them graphic novels. They have trouble with the difference between nouns and verbs? Stop talking about nouns and verbs. Tell them that grammar doesn’t matter. Tell them that spelling “correctly” is a figment of the imagination of a bunch of dead white guys, that “getting your ideas down on paper” is more important than “hypertechnical adherence to outmoded rules.”

Because otherwise they might fail. The herd might break up as it progresses through the years of school. Some of the little sheep might not even get out the other end, if we allow failure.

Here’s an Idea:
Teach the Student, not the Herd

Every student can excel at something. Every student has some secret passion that he or she wants to learn more and more and even more about. Find that passion, and feed it.

Before my oldest son was two, he learned how to take his crib apart and get out. He couldn’t climb the rails, but he could unscrew the back and get out. When he was eight, he was repairing alarm clocks. But in school, his spelling, punctuation, and grammar were atrocious. Rather than do anything about it, the teachers told me that his way of writing and spelling was as valid as any other, and I should just leave him alone on it. They refused to try to teach him the basics that he would need to communicate in the world he inhabited.

In a perfect world, in elementary school he would have been given hand tools and alarm clocks and small mechanisms of various sorts. He would have been encouraged to explore that passion he had. Then they would have wanted written reports of what he’d found, and they’d require the correct spelling and punctuation and grammar, and when he needed to know the difference between nouns and verbs, they would have taught him. If he got it wrong, they would have been free to say “No, that’s wrong,” because they wouldn’t need to feed his “self-esteem.” Pursuing his passion, excelling at that, would be all the fuel his pride would need, and if he was bad at spelling or grammar, so what? He’d learn what he needed to know, in order to talk about his passion. To speak on the fine points of gear trains, he’d need math. To explore the history of clocks or typewriters or cotton gins, well, that’s history, right? And poof — he’s learning!

Compulsory Education is No Education at All

By saying “These things must be learned by all,” we ensure that the list of “these things” cannot include anything that cannot be learned by the least educable among us. If everyone has to graduate from high school, but not everyone can master calculus, then calculus can’t be required in high school. It’s still there, as an elective, but if you need time in your schedule to fit in the required course in “Consumer Economics” (how to balance a checkbook, which you’d know if you’d passed fourth-grade arithmetic), guess which one gets tossed? If not everyone can master the difference between the parts of speech, but everyone has to pass, then you can’t teach the different parts of speech.

Make education free, but optional. Or, better yet, free and compulsory, but only until you stop learning and start to fail the tests — the “standardized” tests. Give every student extensive testing on aptitudes and desires, and mold each education to the student. Because we learn best when we teach, give every first-grade student a third-grade tutor, and every second-grade student a fourth-grade tutor, and so forth. From third grade on, you would have a tutee two grades behind you. A teacher, then, is simply someone who is so valuable to the school that he or she stays on and keeps teaching. And keeps learning.

Because we need math and science skills for almost anything, and because no matter what your passion is, math and science are (or should be) part of it, we’d all learn math and science, and there would be no whining about “Why do I need to learn this? I’ll never use it!” You’re using it every day, because you need it now. We all want to talk about our passions, and in this world every student would be a blogger and a writer, and would need the skills of language.

If your passion is engines, why do you need the history of the Civil War? You’ll know everything you need to know about cannons and caissons, and the rest you google. Let someone else learn that part. It’s there when you need it, because they’re talking about it.

There would be no need for compulsion. The first time I outlined this to a friend of mine, I asked him “What would you have said, in third grade, if the teacher had brought in an alarm clock, and said ‘Let’s take this apart.’?” His face lit up, and he related the story of how, when he was nine, he had carefully broken all the glass off of a light bulb without disturbing the element, screwed it into a lamp, and turned on the lamp. Just to see what would happen. He spent the first twenty-two years of his life getting a chemical engineering degree he never uses. The system failed him. The system never saw that gleam in his eyes when the element flared out in one brilliant flash. The system never saw his passion.

We can do better! We must do better!

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One problem I see if education is not compulsory, is that it will be parents making the decision whether a child should get an education rather than the child. And we would likely see a resurgence of the attitude that “what was good enough for me (the parent) is good enough for him/her (the student).” In the parent-child relationship, it is the parent who wields the power, especially over the very young.

Another problem is that noncompulsory education would do away with one of the better things about America, the blurring of the classes. This is not to say that we are a classless society, but that there is greater mobility between classes in America than probably in any other society. It is this mobility, brought about by education, that has been the foundation of American greatness. Education is the great leveler in America.

A final thought: The one great strength, I think, of American education has been the recognition that there is a core set of knowledge that every student should master. In recent decades, education has drifted away from that concept, which has resulted in America’s academic decline. Perhaps we should work to strengthen that core knowledge while teaching to the student.

Do you agree or disagree? Do you have a different solution to or perspective of the problem? Or do you think there is no problem at all? Let us know.

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