An American Editor

January 15, 2014

American Education and the Future of American Editors

Public education and its cost are on the agenda of nearly every state government in the United States. Americans spend a lot of money on education and the return is not as good as it should be. There are myriad reasons for this, not least of which has been the politicization of the teaching profession and the war on government by Republicans.

Every state constitution includes a public education clause. These clauses were included to ensure that America could grow and compete. It was also a recognition that an educated populace could keep America from falling into a dictatorship.

In today’s global economy, the most successful competitors are those who have emphasized educating their populations. Companies also are looking for better-educated new hires, especially as increases in profit are so strongly connected to a better-educated workforce.

In the United States, individual states compete to lure new or existing businesses to their state. This is done, among other ways, by offering tax incentives and by reducing the tax burden. The problem is that a significant portion of a state’s budget is tied up in funding education and other social welfare programs, and because state budgets must be balanced, funding of these programs has to decline to offset the tax “relief” being given to companies.

Kansas is leading the way. It has slashed public education funding to 16.5% below the level it was at in 2008 in order to pay for a $1.1 billion tax break that primarily benefited the wealthy. California slashed school aid because of budget imbalance. New York slashed aid and increased mandates.

The companies and wealthy individuals who benefit from the tax incentives and breaks fail to see beyond the short-term. What happens to these companies in 5 years when they can no longer hire new high school and college graduates who have the basic skills needed by the companies to grow and expand? For years, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and its members have complained about how poorly prepared high school graduates are to work. They want the education system to do better. Yet they never come forward and insist that a government increase education funding; instead, they want taxes reduced without looking at what benefits they would also be reducing.

When I went to college many decades ago, there was no such thing as a “remedial” course. To get admitted, you had to already be at a certain skill and knowledge level and have the necessary skills to succeed. Then college began to morph into a competitive business, which meant increasing the number of attendees. Consequently, the need for “remedial” courses grew. Today, remedial instruction is considered part of the “college experience.”

This all bodes ill for the future of American editors. Editing requires mastery of certain language-related and business-related skills. Most editors in the past were taught the language-related skills and were expected to be well-enough educated to learn the business-related skills on their own. But that began to change in the late 1990s and continues today.

Increasingly, I see editors who have not been taught the basic language-related skills that are fundamental to a successful editing career. And when I see the tests and resumes submitted by recent college graduates who are looking to be hired as editors, I see people without those basic skills. Neither the language-related nor the business-related skills are taught today. It is hard to focus on those skills when remedial education is the starting point.

The war on education funding creates its own never-ending circle of degradation. As people move from the education system into the editing profession without mastery of basic language-related skills, they apply their limited skills to the material that will become the teaching material of the next group of students. That next group of students will receive an education that is no better than, and likely worse than, that of the author and editor who has already come to the task with a decreased skill level.

The never-ending circle ensures that with each new class entry into the world of authors and editors, the skills that are passed on are less than the skills of the previous group.

Much of it boils down to funding. In Kansas, class sizes have increased greatly, which means that students cannot be given individual attention. To make oversized classrooms work, there comes a push toward the least rather than a pull toward the most. The slowest learners cannot be left behind so the fastest learners have to be throttled. It does not take long before the skills of the fastest learners begin to match those of the slowest learners, rather than vice versa.

Of course, there is also the problem of the teachers who have graduated from such a system and thus perpetuate the problem. A teacher who hasn’t been taught the difference between a noun and a verb cannot be expected to teach children the difference.

The education of future editors is important because of the role that editors play in the dissemination of knowledge. Editors are an integral and very important part of maintaining language standards. As an editor’s education diminishes, so does the editor’s ability to help facilitate communication — it is hard to facilitate the understanding of something you yourself do not understand.

At some point, if education funding keeps declining and with it learning continues to decline, there will be no need for editors as no one will know what contributions an editor can make to communication because editors won’t be able to make that contribution. It is difficult to edit a book at a high language level when your language skills revolve around twit feeds.

The saddest part of the education funding fiasco is that the Republicans who are pushing it see it as a way to lure businesses to their low-tax state. What they lose sight of is that at best such moves are temporary because even more important than tax savings to a business is finding workers with the education and skills to do the jobs that are required for the business to continue in existence and to grow.

When education and skills were fairly uniform across the United States, low taxes were alluring. But as those manufacturers who offshored in the 1990s and who now are onshoring learned, low wages and taxes can only carry a company just so far — the prime mover for company profitability and growth is a properly educated and trained work force.

Editing as a skilled profession and viable career path is reliant on a good education system. The demise of a good education system as a deliberate policy decision is not only a threat to the future of editing, but also to the future of the country. I’m not sure what can be done to halt the tide, but I’ve made it a point to let the politicians who claim to represent me know that defunding education is not the answer to a bright future; instead, it is the path to a very bleak future.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

December 9, 2013

The Miseducation of the Next Generation

Filed under: Editorial Matters,On Language — americaneditor @ 4:00 am
Tags: , , , ,

When I was in elementary school in the 1950s, as part of the language learning experience we read the New York Times. I still remember the very first lesson, which was devoted to teaching us how to fold the Times so that it was both holdable and readable. Every school day time was devoted to reading something in the Times.

The teacher assigned one article that everyone had to read and then we were free to pick another article that interested us. The reading was followed by a discussion, not only of the content of the article we all had to read, but of the grammar. We also had to mark words that were unfamiliar, look them up in the dictionary, rewrite the dictionary definition in our own words, and then write five sentences that used the word. The teacher collected those words and found ways to incorporate them into our other classwork.

The Times was a teaching tool. It taught grammar and spelling; it made us aware of the world around us; it taught us to read something other than the dime novels that were surreptitiously passed around for their “eroticism” (which were, by today’s standards, not even worthy of the label “erotic” but were great treasures to us). The Times was admired by teachers for its “literary” quality.

Just as generations change, so did teaching change and so did the Times change. By the time my children were in elementary school, the practice of daily reading of a newspaper had disappeared. Teaching had changed as a profession, but more importantly, newspapers had changed. Copyediting of articles was in the decline; where once there were very few grammar and spelling errors in a newspaper, now they were plentiful, with some newspapers much worse than others.

In addition, the 1960s brought about a philosophical shift. If a newspaper was going to be used in the classroom, it was more likely to be the New York Post or the New York Daily News (or similar paper) than it was the New York Times or the Herald Tribune. Schools became more politically nuanced.

The decline in newspaper reading mirrored a decline in time and effort spent learning the fundamentals of good written and verbal communication. In my school days, we had two languages: the more formal, proper, “good” English that was to be used in the classroom, when talking with adults, and when writing, and the informal street language that was used to communicate with peers. Schools enforced the separation and focused on teaching us to master the former; the latter was strictly for use off school grounds and among peers. Even parents insisted on the more formal language usage at home. But this changed with the next generation.

When my children were in school the two heretofore separate languages became one. As my children rose in grades and the teachers became younger, I noted that even the teachers didn’t separate the languages. We had moved to the era of a single language. Trying to enforce the separation at home was impossible because the children had little exposure to the more formal language. And with this change, came the demise of what had been the method of teaching language in my school days.

Part of this change is a result of changes newspapers instituted in order to better meet shareholder and Wall Street demands. Editing has always been invisible and doesn’t become visible in its worst forms until after the product is bought. There are no recalls for poor spelling or grammar; there are no refunds. Consequently, editorial staff reductions could be made with impunity, unlike writing staff reductions.

Where once newspapers could be held up as the everyman’s grammar, spelling, and usage guide, they no longer can. Newspapers were once inexpensive, current, daily relevant language guides for young students; today they cannot be held up as examples of good language. Consider this quote from a recent op-ed piece in my local newspaper:

Some folks balk at public financing of campaigns, but if we think that taxpayer dollars are not already being expended and public funds grossly wasted in our current pay-to-play system, we are fooling themselves.

In the issue that this quote ran, I found a dozen similar errors. If newspapers “speak” like this, is it any wonder that people speak and write like this? Websites are no better.

In the beginning, websites were written with care. Then came the need to get a website up quickly and worry about errors later. Websites were followed by short messages (think Twitter) that require compressing as much as possible into as little as possible.

In all of these instances, language skills changed and the messenger services lost the mantle being language teachers. And this is where the next generation is being miseducated: There no longer is an inexpensive, ubiquitous, broadly recognized teacher of language. In my elementary school days, every school district had access to, and most took advantage of, very inexpensive school subscriptions to the Times, which was accompanied by teaching guides. (I remember paying 25¢ a week for the Times and taking it home with me for my parents to read.) The Times was recognized for its language quality and thus was a teaching tool.

Today’s students and tomorrow’s students are not being similarly exposed to correct grammar and usage because there is no broadly recognized language teacher. I see the effects of this change in the manuscripts I edit, in the job applications I receive, in the tests job applicants submit and I review. Our profession’s future may be less than glorious as our ranks fill with editors who need remedial language education themselves. That there may not be anyone capable of providing that remedial education is also a concern.

What, you may be asking, has brought about this doom and gloom view. The answer, I am sorry to report, is an application I received from a veteran (9 years) English teacher who was looking to supplement her income by doing some freelance editing. She misused, as examples, “your” and “there.” When I pointed this out, her reply was, “You understood me, didn’t you? That should be the criteria.” (I didn’t point out that it is criterion, not criteria.)

Perhaps she has it right. What difference does it make if it is “there” or “their” as long as the message is understood? No, she is wrong, because knowing the difference between the two words is part of understanding the message. If I didn’t know what the correct word was, I might not recognize the message’s meaning.

I see the demise of proper language in newspapers as a reflection of the demise of understanding grammar and spelling in the halls of academia. Do you see it that way, too?

August 28, 2013

What is Editing?

Have you ever wondered what editing really is? Or about what course of study is best for preparing for an editing career?

The practical answer to the latter is that it doesn’t matter what you study because education is valuable and broadening; experience matters more. But when backed to the wall, my answer, unlike that of many of my colleagues, is that the best courses of study are philosophy and law.

The reason is because of what editing is. Editing is the art of language compromise, not the art of strict structure application. I suppose a little context would be helpful.

The matter arose in a discussion on LinkedIn in which I suggested philosophy as the best course of study and another member suggested linguistics. Linguistics is a wonderful field and certainly of great interest to editors, but it is a structural field. True, it wonders about word origins as well as how words are used, but its focus is the structure and lineage of language.

Philosophy and law, on the other hand, focus not on structure but on how to think. Both are “argumentative” fields — Does a god exist? If I don’t see you, do you really exist? What is my place in society? — What role should/does X play in social affairs? — that require thinking about all sides of a question. The difference, I think, between the philosophy-trained thinker and the linguistics-trained thinker is the difference between the average chess player and the chess champion. We all can learn to play chess and even to play it well; few of us, however, can master the advance thinking techniques required to be a grandmaster.

(Before I stray too far afield, let me reiterate that all education is good and all education can prepare a person for the intellectual challenges of editing. What we are discussing is the hierarchy.)

Much of editing is structure-oriented, such as grammar and spelling, and coding manuscript. Structure is mechanical and can be self-taught or picked up in a couple of courses on, for example, grammar. I grant that it is the rare person who develops that same depth and breadth of knowledge about the structural issues via self-learning or a couple of entry-level courses as would be obtained from the rigors of a university major in linguistics, but how much is really needed for editing, especially as editing is the art of language compromise, not the art of strict structure application.

Over my 30 years as an editor, what I have most realized about some of my editor colleagues is that they are very capable of applying the “rules” of language. Where they are weak, and what I think often distinguishes the good, competent editor from the great editor, is that they are unable to “think” about what they are editing. They are unable to grasp a broader picture by, for example, putting themselves in the shoes of a variety of readers or by analyzing a text from multiple angles. To use another metaphor, most editors are like professional baseball players in that they are the better, more professional, more able players from the pool of would-be professional players, but are not the superstars who are an even more finite group. Baseball fans recall Willie Mays, for example, but how many of his teammates on the 1954 World Series team do we remember?

It is this “thinking” ability that I believe philosophy and law teach but that linguistics and other study disciplines do not. Linguistics will teach us how to ascertain the origins of all the variations of “god,” but not to think about what “god” means in the context of the manuscript and as being conveyed to the variety of hoped-for readers of the published manuscript. Linguistics doesn’t really teach the art of communication as much as it teaches the science of communication, but editing is (or should be, I think) more concerned with the art than the science.

I am not suggesting that the science of editing is unimportant. Knowing what punctuation to use where and when is very important in making sure that the author’s meaning is correctly understood (using Lynne Truss’s famous example, is it “eats shoots and leaves” or “eats, shoots, and leaves”?). Knowing whether the right word is being used to convey the intended meaning is equally important, as is choosing among the homophones (does the author mean to, too, or two?). And good editors do these tasks well and correctly. For the most part, I suspect, this is the job for which most editors are hired. And this is the job for which most education prepares us.

Yet there can be more to editing than just those tasks. And, for many of us, when we suggest rewriting a sentence or a paragraph or reordering paragraphs or chapters, we are embarking on that additional path. As we gain experience, we begin to think differently about language and its use. I know that the editing I did 30 years ago is not as good as the editing I do today; those intervening years have taught me many things and exposed me to many new ways of looking at language. The more I read and learn, the better editor I become.

But even 30 years ago I had the advantage of having been trained to think analytically. That is the legacy of a philosophy and law education: It is not what to think, but how to think. What I think about is of little importance to philosophy; the methodology of thinking about it is important.

Editing is a combination of structure and philosophy; it is not one without the other. The more accomplished one is as an editor, the more skilled one is at both prongs. Most of us begin our editing careers strong in one prong but not the other, and we build strength in both prongs as we gain experience. But if asked what is the best course of study for a wannabe editor, my answer is philosophy or law because it is learning how to think that is hardest to master.

Once we have mastered how to think about language, we learn that editing is more the art of language compromise and less the science of applying rules.

July 3, 2013

What Makes an Editor a Professional?

The world is filled with editors and wanna-be editors. I suspect not a day goes by when, on some forum on the Internet, someone declares their passion for books and how much (and how long) they desire to be an editor. They then go on to ask how to become an editor.

Nearly any college graduate can be an editor — or claim to be one. Editing (setting aside the business aspects of the profession) is more of a knack skill than a taught skill. Yet even with that ease of entry into the world of editing, there is a difference between a professional editor and an editor.

Consider this: Would you consider an editor to be professional who did not own a dictionary? I wouldn’t, because I think one of the differences between a professional editor and an editor is that the professional invests in the tools of her trade. How much more fundamental to editing can something be than a dictionary?

Does the editor have to own the hardcopy version of the dictionary? No, but she should then have a subscription to the unabridged online version of the dictionary. There are lots of dictionaries available, but in my experience, there are only a couple that are generally recognized as being authoritative and not one of them is called The Free Dictionary.

Would you consider a person who asks what the differences are between the unabridged and the free versions of a standard dictionary, other than that the unabridged has more words (which one would expect if it is unabridged), to be a professional editor? I wouldn’t, and I would wonder what other necessary things they skip or resources they lack. What shortcuts will they take with my manuscript?

The standard response is that anything can be found on the Internet. That’s true as far as it goes. Anything can be found, but nothing assures that what is found is correct or accurate. Consider the cheap, heavily discounted medicines that you can buy over the Internet. Sometimes you get lucky and the medicine is exactly what it is supposed to be; more often, you have been scammed. The same is true with information resources. Anyone can set up a dictionary on the Internet — it doesn’t mean either the spelling or the definition of a word is correct. Editing has “standardized” on certain resources because, over many years, those resources have earned a reputation for reliability and accuracy.

The professional editor recognizes that a resource’s reputation is important and that using such resources is also a reflection of the type and level of work a client can expect from the editor. How does that fit with the idea of using the free version of an accepted reference?

What does the editor do if what she is looking for doesn’t appear in the free version? After all, we know that it costs money to create and maintain accurate resources; even Wikipedia has to raise millions of dollars annually (have we forgotten so quickly when Wikipedia was on the verge of having to shut down for lack of money?). So we know that the free version of a standard resource is not as complete as the paid-for version. Thus, we know that the editor who relies solely on free versions is not making full use of available resources.

What about someone who won’t use the unabridged version of that dictionary because there is a small fee? If an editor skimps on basic, standard resources, what else do/will that editor skimp on to the client’s detriment?

The professional editor takes pride not only in her skills but in the quality of her work. Quality is affected by the kinds and extent of resources of which the editor makes use. It is one thing to claim to be an editor, which many people can and do claim, but it is quite another thing to be a professional editor with full access to the basic resources needed to give a quality edit.

When I hire an editor, one of the things I ask for is a list of the resources on which they rely and whether they are using the free or premium version. I want to know because it helps me to “rate” the applicant’s professionalism. For example, much of my work is in medical editing. I would expect a medical editor to be a subscriber to medical spell-checking software. I think a medical editor should have, and be using, the two leading medical dictionaries.

I learned to ask these questions the hard way. A client once asked me how it was that the editor of a chapter didn’t correct misspellings of a several important medical terms. When I asked the editor, I discovered that the editor didn’t own a medical dictionary and didn’t use spell-checking — either medical or nonmedical. He thought his background as a medical transcriptionist was sufficient and that spell-checking software was distracting. That was a costly lesson to me.

Ultimately, the point is that the professional editor will invest in her business and will have access to the premium versions — whether in print or online — of the basic, standard tools used in the type of editing she performs. The nonprofessional editor will rely on free versions and alternates-to-the-standard resources that are free. The nonprofessional does not run his business as a business; he does not invest in his business; cost governs everything.

To be a professional editor, one must act as a professional and conduct one’s business in a professional manner. To be compensated as a professional one must be — and behave as — a professional. Cheapskating on basic resources is not professional.

December 14, 2012

Worth Noting: Landfill Harmonic

I find that having grown up in a rich nation like the United States, I do not always appreciate the extent of the poverty that is found in the world. More importantly, I find that I have neither an appreciation nor understanding of how less-fortunate people deal with poverty. Although I clearly know better now, it wasn’t until I was in my teen years that I knew there were people who did not have indoor plumbing and children who did not eat three healthy meals a day. I thought everyone lived as I lived.

I had my wake-up call when I traveled through America’s Mississippi Delta region in the early 1960s. It was as if I had left America and entered a new, strange, foreign land.

Because I think we all need reminders that there are people, including children, who are not as fortunate as ourselves yet who do amazing things to improve their lives and to become productive citizens of their countries that I try to promote videos such as the following. I find it amazing how these children and their teacher have overcome at least one obstacle in their education. I hope you find their story as inspirational as I do.

October 29, 2012

Fact or Fiction? School Textbooks

Filed under: Breaking News,Miscellaneous Opinion,Politics — americaneditor @ 4:00 am
Tags: , ,

In past articles, I have worried about the future of the editing profession. I have looked at the state of American education and worried that future editors will be unable to distinguish a noun from a verb. I have looked at the tests submitted by editorial job applicants and worried about what they think is quality editing. I have conversed with younger colleagues about various aspects of the business of editing and worried about their knowledge of and approach to that business. I have reviewed fee expectations of job applicants and worried if I share the same universe.

Then along comes an article in The Economist and I am confronted with what I never quite thought about in regards to education: separating fact from fiction in school textbooks. Usually I would just post a short Article Worth Reading note about this particular article, but I think The Economist article, “It Ain’t Necessarily So”, is must-reading for everyone.

I am aware of the textbook controversies here in the United States. Texas fundamentalists want Darwin and Jefferson purged; bigots want the Civil Rights movement’s history turned into a footnote; and the list goes on, including book banning and hiding one’s head in the sand when it comes to sex education. (I am fascinated by America’s puritanical streak when it comes to sex but not to violence. Having a nude scene in a movie — or even an allusion to sex — warrants a R rating, whereas graphically displayed mass murder gets a PG-13 rating. Blood and gore is OK, killing is OK, but not nudity or sex.) And because I am aware of the controversies in America, I just assumed that the same happens around the globe. A bad assumption as it turns out.

America has its faults, but growing up I was exposed to a multiplicity of ideas. Sometimes the exposure was in school, but more often it was a result of my weekly trips to the public library and my reading of newspapers and magazines, each coming from a different perspective. I wasn’t exposed to just one idea on a subject but to many ideas. In the Internet Age, I assumed such exposure was even greater for the young of today, but that clearly is not true.

The Economist article notes, for example, that in Egypt, 80% of the population read or have read only the Koran and school textbooks — not any other book (or so few other books in their lifetimes that it is tantamount to none). What that means is that unless school textbooks give a balanced and factual view of the world and history, students will be unable to separate fact from fiction. Belief in a bible is just that — belief. Bibles are neither fact nor fiction, as their role is (or should be) moral guidance. Yet many countries and many population subsets around the globe want to turn bibles into fact. How much more narrow and limited a perspective of the world and universe can one get than the biblical perspective? The importance of well-written, factually accurate school textbooks increases manyfold when most of a population is not exposed to other thought influencers.

Think about who writes and who edits school textbooks in Egypt. What is their background? How can they question whether something is fact or fiction when their own educational background was limited? What effect does this educational limitation have on university education in Egypt? And how do/can/will Egyptian students compete in what is increasingly a worldwide marketplace for jobs?

The article further discusses the role governments play in the creation of textbooks and how some governments view the role of education as a way of shoring up the present political system, not as a way of expanding knowledge. Whether something is fact or fiction matters not as long as it shores up the current political system.

With that perspective and with the influence that textbooks have on the education of a county’s populace, it becomes worrisome what the future will hold for authors and editors. Will, for example, holocaust denial become fact and the holocaust fiction? Will Joseph Stalin and Pol Pot suddenly become Nobel Peace Prize winners? Will authors write revisionist histories and will editors not know whether statements of “fact” are really queriable statements of “fiction”? Will “the world is flat” become “fact”?

Editors should be the barricade that prevents authorial flights of fiction being imposed on readers as fact. Editors are supposed to be educated well enough to question authorial “facts” that are contrary to the commonly held understanding of what is a fact. But if editors are taught that the world is flat and never exposed to the idea that the world is “round” and that the round view is the dominant view, how will the editor know to question the author? How will a reader know that the author’s statement of flatness is contrary to accepted knowledge? Isn’t this the underlying debate in the United States as regards the replacing of evolution with antievolution theories in school textbooks?

Imagine a world built solely on the bible as its history, a world created in six 24-hour days and that is only 8,000 years old. How would that world differ from the world we live in? Would our ability to separate fact from fiction be so impaired that our lifestyle would be more similar to that of ancient Rome than of modern New York? What types of books would we be reading, or able to read? Or would there even be books as opposed to just bibles?

It has been said that the key to economic and social growth is quality education. What is not discussed is what constitutes “quality education.” It is clear that some people believe that the education of 3,000 years ago is sufficient, whereas others believe that as broad a knowledge experience as possible is what education should be.

After reading “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” I worry that in our current world of outsourcing and offshoring, future generations will suffer a loss of knowledge because those hired to be the barricade between the author and the reader, to query fact and fiction, will be unable to fulfill that function as a result of narrowed education and limited access to those things that broaden knowledge. When someone tells me that “all I need to know is in the bible,” I shudder. Such a view, when translated to the school-education children receive, threatens world progress because it means that children will not have a sufficiently broad knowledge base to question whether something is fact or fiction.

The time has come to discuss just what the role of textbooks in education should be, as well as what constitutes quality education. Our future depends on it.

[The following was added on November 2, 2012.]

The following movie trailer for a documentary, The Revisionaries, about textbooks in America illustrates the problem discussed in the above article:

This video is a more in-depth view about the leader of the Texas movement to the back. Unfortunately, I could not find a version that didn’t have the video uploader’s sarcastic comments included. I suggest ignoring the editorial commentary and just watching the news:

February 29, 2012

Shuddering in Fear: What if Santorum Becomes President?

Filed under: Politics — americaneditor @ 4:00 am
Tags: , , , , ,

I thought it couldn’t get worse, but American presidential politics continues to prove that worse is coming tomorrow. Now I’m shuddering in fear that Rick Santorum, or someone with his beliefs, might be elected president.

There are lots of reasons why he troubles me, but his views on public education worry me to no end, especially as they draw rousing cheers. For those unfamiliar with his views, they can be summarized as follows: eliminate public schools and return to the pre-twentieth century methods of home schooling or one-room school houses.

I admit there is a lot wrong with public education. I also admit that I believe a lot of public education’s failures can be laid at the feet of teachers and teacher unions. But as bad as I think public education has become, I firmly believe that forcing everyone to home-school would be a Titanic disaster for America.

Yes, there are some parents who are quite capable of home schooling; but most parents are not. Most parents are neither capable nor interested. As well-educated as I am, I, for example, would have a great deal of difficulty teaching my children math or a foreign language. I was not particularly astute in those subjects during my school days and I am now 45 years removed from those classrooms.

In addition, much of the American economy is based on a two-person income household. So who would do the teaching? Which parent would give up his or her job? Perhaps the idea is to indirectly force women to become stay-at-home moms, which would fit with Santorum’s other beliefs.

Home schooling is also another way to impose resegregation of America. Even the separate-but-equal classrooms that were finally found to be separate-but-unequal in 1954 would be better for minorities and less-educated and low-socioeconomic families than being required to home-school their children. Do we not have enough problems getting a well-educated workforce in the current system without compounding the problem?

Santorum and believers also want to do away with all federal and state regulation of education, believing that parents can do a better job without government interference. I think they are correct if we are talking about the successful handful of home-schooling that occurs, but are quite wrong when expanded to the population at large.

A program like that proposed by Santorum and friends will turn America from a first-world country into something less than a third-world country faster than any other program that conservatives could invoke. Education is the root of America’s success. The institution of a free public education for all children is what changed America from a follower to a leader, regardless of how we may feel about how well it has fulfilled its leadership role.

But Santorum lays down a challenge that American educators need to pick up. Whether they will before it is too late is doubtful. I haven’t read of any teacher union beginning to fight back; local teachers I know aren’t even aware of Santorum’s ideas about education — they ignore Santorum in the belief that neither he nor his ideas could possibly succeed. They are blind-siding themselves.

American education is really declining. Consider the recent posing in Afghanistan of U.S. Marines with a flag that bore the Nazi SS lightning bolts. The Marines thought the double “s” meant “sniper scouts” and admitted they were unaware that the stylized lightning bolts symbolized the Nazi SS, nor did they know about the Nazi SS atrocities. How can anyone graduate from an American high school and not have at least rudimentary knowledge of Nazi Germany?

The answer is really simple. It is the same answer that I give when asked why so many of the younger generation have such poor language skills. Teachers cannot teach what they themselves do not know and American education underemphasizes fundamental learning skills. Have a discussion with an 18-year-old about almost anything and try to follow their reasoning/logic.

Talk with a teacher about what constitutes a sentence in English (as opposed to a fragment). You would be amazed at the answer you get; the younger and closer to college graduation the teacher, the more incorrect the answer.

Yet, with all the problems of American education, it is still better than the chancy proposition of home schooling, especially among the socioeconomic strata that most desperately needs a good education to break the cycle of poverty.

Santorum and believers worry me greatly. It is not that in the broadest possible sense the idea of home schooling isn’t appealing; rather, it is that few people are equipped to provide the education needed to economically compete and survive in the twenty-first century. How many of these home-schooled children, if there were no state or federal regulations to which they had to adhere, would learn anything outside the corners of the Bible? How well-equipped would a person entering today’s workforce be to compete and survive if the extent of their knowledge is to quote the Bible? How likely is it that such a person would find the cure to cancer, design the rocket engine that will carry humans to Mars, or competently edit a book?

To say that ideas like Santorum’s will go nowhere is to bury one’s head in the sand. Sadly, too many American voters do bury their heads.

November 30, 2010

When Will We Ever Learn?

As has been made clear in recent months, distance learning and learning at for-profit institutions are on the rise. In and of themselves, neither bothers me much; I’m a firm believer that being a Harvard graduate only means you are a Harvard graduate, not that you learned or know anything or even that you are particularly well educated. We make assumptions that are not necessarily true when spread over the whole.

Yet what does dismay me is what I read in a recent article in The Economist regarding student tutoring. Apparently, tutoring in mathematics of elementary and secondary school students is now being outsourced and offshored, just like editorial work and manufacturing work. Again, India appears to be the winner.

Students in Britain and the United States aren’t doing well in math (along with any number of other academic subjects). This doesn’t say much for either our educators or our educational systems. To combat this struggle with math, which many community activists think is one root or many that causes an increase in social disorder, tutoring is being tried — and with apparently great success.

The tutoring is done long distance – very long distance, in fact — via the Internet with the students in Britain and the United States and the tutor being in India. The tutoring is one-on-one and the tutors are college professors from Indian universities who are paid $19 an hour for the tutoring services. Can you imagine a professor/instructor at an American university being willing to work for that price!

It wasn’t so long ago that Britain and the United States had a learn-to-get-ahead ethic that compelled students, especially middle class students, to work hard at their academics. But that ethic has changed and moved; that is now the ethic we find in developing countries rather than in developed countries. I often think that this attitudinal change was a by-product of the cultural revolution of the 1960s as I noted the decline beginning then.

Of course, the outsourcing and offshoring of our education shouldn’t be much of a surprise. We see declining standards and abilities in our educators who are responsible for imparting skills and knowledge to upcoming generations on a regular basis. The question really is, When will we learn that reversing this trend of declining work ethic is necessary to ensuring our societal survival? And, once we have recognized the need to reverse the trend, What will we do to accomplish that reversal?

As tough as times are now, they will only get worse if we do not address declining education.

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.


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!


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.

September 1, 2010

Changing Educational Norms to Address Literacy

I know that readers of this blog probably assign me to the doomsayer caste when it comes to literacy based on my previous posts, but I am concerned about the state of our educational system and our decline from the world’s educational leader to a pack follower whose standing keeps receding. Today, I want to consider one possible solution to the problem I see. I want to suggest a change in how education works in America.

Everything good or bad about education boils down to the classroom. A good teacher can inspire and can educate; a poor teacher simply takes up space. The key is to make better use of good teachers and if you can’t rid the school of poor teachers, improve them. We need to remember that students spend more awake time in school, under the care of educators, and doing school activities and homework than with any other care provider or doing non-school-related activities/work.

This puzzle has perplexed greater minds than mine and perhaps I have a simplistic perspective, but I toss out these ideas as discussion starting points.

My first suggestion is to do away with “education” degrees and require every teacher to obtain advanced degrees (notice the multiple) in their specialty subject area. It is not that these advanced degrees shouldn’t include the “how to teach” aspects, it is that the emphasis should be on subject matter and not on administrative matter.

Schools should provide incentives for this, including the basic incentive of keeping one’s job. And, because time is limited, school schedules should be devised to free teachers for part of the day to pursue these degrees, not force them to do it only after school hours and on weekends. Schools also should be responsible for up to 75% of the cost of getting these advanced degrees, but under no circumstance 100%. Just as in the private sector, teachers should have some responsibility for doing what is necessary to keep and maintain their job — as long as they know about the requirement before accepting the employment.

Second, there must be a core group of literacy-related courses that every student must take and do well in as part of graduation requirements. Even students who prefer to take a vocational path rather than a college preparatory path. There is no reason why every person, regardless of his or her ultimate career choice, should not be equally literate, certainly at least through the middle school years, if not through the whole primary and secondary education career.

Third, I suggest a change to the current process where students have teacher A for kindergarten, B for first grade, C for second grade, and so on. Instead, we should divide the curriculum into broad fields — say Language Arts, History, Science, and Foreign Language — and we should create teaching teams of educators who have advanced degrees in these specialty areas. In this case, a team of 4 teachers, and this team will be responsible for student education from kindergarten through fifth/sixth grade. After fifth/sixth grade a new team would take over for the middle school years, and perhaps a third team for the high school years of tenth through twelfth grades, although we could consider returning to the current rotation system for these last years.

Teacher pay, bonuses, and performance evaluations would be team based. This would give each team member an incentive to help poorer-skilled members improve or move them out of the system. It would also enable scheduling to occur that frees a team member to pursue advanced degrees in his/her specialty. And it would encourage — if not require – team members to better integrate subject matter teaching among the various disciplines.

Consider a class on Latin American history. The Language Arts teacher could encourage students to read Simon Bolivar’s biography and discuss how his circumstances shaped his views; the Foreign Language teacher could introduce Bolivar’s writings and the writing of his contemporaries, including local newspaper accounts of daily life, in Spanish, and have the student’s read them to understand what it was like to have lived in those times; the History teacher could discuss the surrounding events and Bolivar’s place in them, the history of his campaigns as well as the history of the places where he fought and the people he inspired; and the Science teacher could discuss how technological events of the day helped or hindered Bolivar, what effect they may have had on his strategies — or the strategies of any similarly situated person, as well as on those of Bolivar’s opponents.

Or how about the Lunar Society of the 18th century. How many students (or teachers, for that matter) are familiar with either the Society or the effects it had on our knowledge. Members included, among others, Joseph Priestly, Benjamin Franklin, Erasmus Darwin, and Josiah Wedgewood; and it was multinational, not limited to the England. For Language Arts and History, students could read and discuss The Lunar Men: Five Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World by Jennifer Uglow; for Science, students could discuss how Priestly “discovered” oxygen and the scientific method of the time, as well as how the group influenced Erasmus Darwin and whether that subsequently filtered down to Charles Darwin; Foreign Language could discuss the biological classification system devised by Carolus Linnaeus and its influence on the group.

If the teachers were very creative, they could each portray a character from a different era of history from their particular specialties and have a roundtable discussion of how they viewed a seismic historical event, such as the French Revolution: What effect did it have on language? Science? History? The arts?

OK, perhaps my examples are not a great ones, but you get the idea. Students would be taught more than isolated events because there would need to be coordination among the specialties. Students would learn that disciplines are interconnected and interrelated — they do not stand in isolation. Students would learn that there are many paths to understanding a problem and to solving it. Such understanding should lead to better comprehension and, hopefully, inspire curiosity. And the better the students do, the better the team does in its evaluation.

This team approach, because it doesn’t rely on compartmentalization of subject matter, will bring a connectedness to the process of education that is sorely lacking today. I believe that as students see the interconnectedness of the various disciplines, they will strive to become more literate — they will learn the necessary analytical skills that form the core of literacy and comprehension.

Subjects, like teachers, are, today, too compartmentalized. And it is too difficult to coordinate lessons especially as classrooms shift hourly. By making teachers work as teams with a set group of students for whom they are responsible not just for an hour, a day, a week but for multiple years, schools will bring a sense of stability to student and teacher lives. Students won’t have to deal with the anxieties of changing teachers and classrooms and trying to shift mental gears as the subject matter changes. Teachers will learn about their students and will be able to focus on what is necessary to improve their comprehension skills, as well as provide any necessary individual aid.

These ideas may not be panaceas for all that ails education, and perhaps these ideas won’t work at all, but unless fundamental changes are made to what and how we teach our students and how they learn, the declining trend in comprehension and literacy will only be extended, not reversed.

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