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  • Simon Blackburn: An Unbeautiful Mind
    Polkinghorne holds the belief that unless some things last forever, everything is futile, a "meaningless empire of accident." This would wipe the smile off the face of many scientists. For science is not good about "forever." It paints a different picture of the world in which we find ourselves. Science teaches that the cosmos is some fifteen billion years old, almost unimaginably huge, and governed by natural laws that will compel its extinction in some billions more years, although long before that the Earth and the solar system will have been destroyed by the heat death of the sun. Human beings occupy an infinitesimally small fraction of space and time, on the edge of one galaxy among a hundred thousand million or so galaxies. We evolved only because of a number of cosmic accidents, including the extinction of the dinosaurs some sixty-five million years ago. Nature shows us no particular favors: we get parasites and diseases and we die, and we are not all that nice to each other. True, we are moderately clever, but our efforts to use our intelligence to make things better for ourselves quite often backfire, and they may do so spectacularly in the near future, from some combination of manmade military, environmental, or genetic disasters.
  • Roger Scruton: The West and the Rest
    "It is thanks to Western prosperity, Western legal systems, Western forms of banking, and Western communications that human initiatives now reach so easily across frontiers to affect the lives and aspirations of people all over the globe. However, Western civilization depends on an idea of citizenship that is not global at all, but rooted in territorial jurisdiction and national loyalty. By contrast, Islam, which has been until recently remote from the Western world and without the ability to project its message, is founded on an ideal of godliness which is entirely global in its significance, and which regards territorial jurisdiction and national loyalty as compromises with no intrinsic legitimacy of their own. Although there have been attempts to manufacture nationalisms both appropriate to the Islamic temperament and conducive to a legitimate political order, they have fragmented under the impact of sectarian or tribal allegiances, usually giving way to military dictatorship or one-man, one-family, or one-party tyranny. Islam itself remains, in the hearts of those who live under these tyrannies, a permanent call to a higher life, and a reminder that power and corruption will rule in this world until the reign established by the Prophet is restored."
  • Adam Smith: Wealth of Nations 1776
    The difference of natural talents in different men is, in reality, much less than we are aware of; and the very different genius which appears to distinguish men of different professions, when grown up to maturity, is not upon many occasions so much the cause as the effect of the division of labour. The difference between the most dissimilar characters, between a philosopher and a common street porter, for example, seems to arise not so much from nature as from habit, custom, and education. When they came into the world, and for the first six or eight years of their existence, they were perhaps very much alike, and neither their parents nor playfellows could perceive any remarkable difference. About that age, or soon after, they come to be employed in very different occupations. The difference of talents comes then to be taken notice of, and widens by degrees, till at last the vanity of the philosopher is willing to acknowledge scarce any resemblance. But without the disposition to truck, barter, and exchange, every man must have procured to himself every necessary and conveniency of life which he wanted. All must have had the same duties to perform, and the same work to do, and there could have been no such difference of employment as could alone give occasion to any great difference of talents.
  • Kishore Mahbubani: Freedom
    But freedom does not only solve problems; it can also cause them. The United States has undertaken a massive social experiment, tearing down social institution after social institution that restrained the individual. The results have been disastrous. Since 1960 the U.S. population has increased 41 percent while violent crime has risen by 560 percent, single-mother births by 419 percent, divorce rates by 300 percent and the percentage of children living in single-parent homes by 300 percent. This is massive social decay. Many a society shudders at the prospects of this happening on its shores. But instead of traveling overseas with humility, Americans confidently preach the virtues of unfettered individual freedom, blithely ignoring the visible social consequences.
  • Harold Pinter: Nobel Lecture
    There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false.
  • Charles Darwin: The Descent of Man
    As man advances in civilization, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all the members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races.
  • Earnest Becker: The Denial of Death
    We have to go the way of the grasshopper even though it takes longer.
  • Johnson, Samuel: Rambler # 121 May 14, 1751
    "To learn is the proper business of youth; and whether we increase our knowledge by books or by conversation, we are equally indebted to foreign assistance."
  • Murray Rothbard: Education Free and Compulsory
    It is evident that the common enthusiasm for equality is, in the fundamental sense, anti-human. It tends to repress the flowering of individual personality and diversity, and civilization itself; it is a drive toward savage uniformity. Since abilities and interests are naturally diverse, a drive toward making people equal in all or most respects is necessarily a leveling downward. It is a drive against development of talent, genius, variety, and reasoning power. Since it negates the very principles of human life and human growth, the creed of equality and uniformity is a creed of death and destruction.
  • J. M. Cameron: Review of Becker's Denial of Death
    Life, for Becker, is a desperate business, in which a steady heroism before the terrors of existence is in general the only thing to be commended.
  • Mark Lilla: The Politics of God
    In the end, though, what happens on the opposite shore will not be up to us. We have little reason to expect societies in the grip of a powerful political theology to follow our unusual path, which was opened up by a unique crisis within Christian civilization. This does not mean that those societies necessarily lack the wherewithal to create a decent and workable political order; it does mean that they will have to find the theological resources within their own traditions to make it happen. "Our challenge is different. We have made a choice that is at once simpler and harder: we have chosen to limit our politics to protecting individuals from the worst harms they can inflict on one another, to securing fundamental liberties and providing for their basic welfare, while leaving their spiritual destinies in their own hands. We have wagered that it is wiser to beware the forces unleashed by the Bible’s messianic promise than to try exploiting them for the public good. We have chosen to keep our politics unilluminated by divine revelation. All we have is our own lucidity, which we must train on a world where faith still inflames the minds of men. NYTimes Magaziine, 8/19/2007
  • Richard Fields: The Land of Opportunity
    Immigration to the United States is not a problem. It is a phenomenon. The only way the United States can stop this phenomenon is by destroying the capitalist economy that draws immigrants here. We need to move in the direction of more open immigration, not in the direction of militarized borders fit only for a police state. Though it's been obscured by layers of cynical campaign rhetoric, the issue of immigration comes down to whether we want to restrict individual liberty to native-born Americans or offer it to everyone. If freedom works for us — and it does — what possible moral reason do we have to offer it to those born in San Diego, and deny it to those born inches away in Tijuana?
  • Edward O. Wilson: Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, 1998
    On the surface it would seem, and was so reported by the media, that the Rwandan catastrophe was ethnic rivalry run amok. That is true only in part. There was a deeper cause, rooted in environment and demography. Between 1950 and 1994 the population of Rwanda, favored by better health care and temporarily improved food supply, more than tripled, from 2.5 million to 8.5 million. In 1992 the country had the highest growth rate in the world, an average of 8 children per woman. Parturition began early, and generation times were short. But although total food production increased dramatically during this period, it was soon overbalanced by population growth. The average farm size dwindled as plots were divided from one generation to the next. Per capita grain production fell by half from 1960 to the early 1990s. Water was so overdrawn that hydrologists declared Rwanda one of the world's twenty-seven water-scarce countries. The teenage soldiers of the Hutu and Tutsi then set out to solve the population problem in the most direct possible way. Rwanda is a microcosm of the world. War and civil strife have many causes, most not related directly to environmental stress. But in general, overpopulation and the consequent dwindling of available resources are tinder that people pile up around themselves. The mounting anxiety and hardship are translated into enmity, and enmity into moral aggression. Scapegoats are identified, sometimes other political or ethic groups, sometimes neighboring tribes. The tinder continues to grow, awaiting the odd assassination, territorial incursion, atrocity, or other provocative incident to set it off. Rwanda is the most populated country in Africa. Burundi, its war torn neighbor, is second. Haiti and El Salvador, two of the chronically most troubled nations of the Western Hemisphere, are also among the most densely populated, exceeded only by five tiny island countries of the Caribbean. They are also arguable the most environmentally degraded.
  • Murray Rothbard: Rights of Animals
    There is, in fact, rough justice in the common quip that "we will recognize the rights of animals whenever they petition for them." The fact that animals can obviously not petition for their "rights" is part of their nature, and part of the reason why they are clearly not equivalent to, and do not possess the rights of, human beings. And if it be protested that babies can't petition either, the reply of course is that babies are future human adults, whereas animals obviously are not.
  • Dr. Kenneth R. Miller:
    When asked, “What do you say as a scientist about the soul?” Dr. Miller's answer is always the same: “As a scientist, I have nothing to say about the soul. It’s not a scientific idea.” Dr. Mller, a Roman Catholic and biologist at Brown University is the author of, “Finding Darwin’s God” (Harper, 1999)
  • Richard Rorty:
    "...if we can work together, we can make ourselves into whatever we are clever and courageous enough to imagine ourselves becoming.”
  • Richard J. Herrnstein:
    "It is easy to lie with statistics, but it's a lot easier to lie without them."
  • Michael Slackman: Quiet Revolution in Algeria
    In Algiers there is a whole class of young men referred to as hittistes — the word is a combination of French and Arabic for people who hold up walls.
  • Albert Einstein:
    Common sense is nothing more than a deposit of prejudices laid down by the mind before you reach age 18.
  • Neil Postman:
    "Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see."


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March 2007

March 30, 2007

Teacher Attitudes

How helpful is it to obtain the views that teachers and administrators have of their students?  Let me give you selected results of a survey made by the National School Boards Association’s Council of Urban Boards of Education (or CUBE). This survey, Where We Teach, follows directly last year’s survey, Where We Learn. The latter surveyed 32,000 students in 15 school districts in 13 states attempting to show how students felt about their school environment.

Where We Teach summararizes teacher and administrator perceptions about eight major themes – safety, professional development, expectations, bullying, professional climate, parental involvement, influence of race, and trust, respect, and ethos of caring.

In this study there were 13 school districts representing 10 states—Alabama, Arizona, California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Nebraska, New York, Ohio, and Texas. Approximately 4,700 surveys were received from teachers in 127 schools, including 45 elementary schools, 33 middle schools, 20 high schools, 12 K-8 schools.

Here are some of the more interesting findigs of the Survey: (see Greg Toppo, in USA Today)

Nearly one in four teachers in urban schools say that most children “would not be successful at a community college or university.”

Nearly one in three teachers say that most children are not motivated to learn. And when they speak of Latino students in particular they feel that well over half of them are not motivated to learn.

Over one in three teachers are convinced that students in their schools will have difficulty with core academic instruction regardless of strength of instruction.

When you ask them about their own teaching lives the teachers are much more upbeat. Nearly 9 in 10 feel they are preparing students to become productive citizens. The same number say they are currently following in-service opportunities to improve their teaching. 8 in 10 say they look forward to coming to work most days.

In general the responses of the administrators are much more positive and upbeat in regard to the students’ ability and motivation, that which you would expect. Saying otherwise would not reflect well on them. This is of course the major problem with surveys of this nature. Who’s going to tell the truth when the truth might threaten one’s job?

At the end of Greg’s article in USA Today he cites John Mitchell, director of educational issues for the American Federation of Teachers, who says that the survey findings could be largely the result of events that happened in the day or so before the survey. "You go through a lot in a day, and you have days when you feel optimistic and days when you don't."

What is one to make of these surveys? If John Mitchell is right we shouldn’t even do them. I’m sure they’re costly, and why spend the money if what we learn is valid only for a brief moment in time?

For me the single most important variable in the equation representing the education of our children is the child’s/student’s motivation. If as many as one in four teachers admit publicly that this key element is lacking in their students you know that the real number must be much higher.

How many parents want to admit that their children are not motivated in school? And it’s even more true with teachers. To say that most of your students are not motivated is to condemn your own effectiveness as a teacher. Therefore when you ask the teacher the unmotivated ones will always be minority in the classroom.

Just as no one likes to believe that most people don’t vote, no one wants to believe that most of the children in our schools are not motivated to learn.

What if a real, substantial, scientific survey was in fact done (assuming it could be done, which I admit is a big assumption) in order to determine motivation levels of students in our schools? And by that I mean motivation to learn math, language, history, science, not motivation to be in school, play basketball etc., and just hang out with one’s friends.

Does anyone doubt that with the results of that survey we would be forced to rethink and restructure the way we educate our children? Would even the teachers’ unions want to go on defending the status quo if it was clear that most students were not motivated, and that most students were only pretending to learn, just as their teachers were only pretending to teach?

March 28, 2007

What We Can Do

In a recent Op-Ed piece in the New York Times Rory Stewart says that, “We must acknowledge the limits of our power and knowledge in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere and concentrate on what is achievable. The question is not “What ought we to do?” but “What can we do?”

Shouldn’t we say the very same thing, ask the same question, in regard to our system of education? Shouldn’t we no less acknowledge the “limits of our power and knowledge” to significantly improve our schools and our children’s education? Shouldn’t we begin to address what we can do and no longer be stymied by what we ought to do but can’t?

When I ask educators if all children can go to college they reply that we have to give all children that opportunity, that we have a moral obligation to do so. By emphasizing moral necessity educators can justify almost any reform program including most recently the No Child Left Behind law. For don’t we have to change all children’s lives for the better. Aren’t we required to do so?

But what in fact is happening in regard to our efforts to reform the schools and make all our school children  proficient in reading, writing, and figuring? We are not being successful, as is evident to  everyone.

We are learning, painfully, that many, if not most, of our problems and difficulties in raising the achievement levels of all our children are deeply embedded in things over which we have no control, in family histories, experiences, and the circumstances of the lives that children bring with them to school. For teachers, even the best of them, positive role models that they are, rarely diminish, let alone replace, the negative role models that children bring with them to school, and that are much more a part of them than are their teachers.

The teachers, being as they are on the front lines of the struggle to educate children, are aware more than anyone of just how little they can accomplish with the children in their classrooms. Furthermore, many of them come to their teaching jobs with little or no experience with the particular needs and situations of the minority and impoverished inner city children who fill their classrooms. Even the very best of them need in support of their classroom work all kinds of other services that for the most part are not readily, if at all, available.

In short there is a gulf that separates teachers from their children, perhaps no less daunting than the gulf separating the Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan from the native populations they would help.

We were warned by the authors of A Nation At Risk, in April of 1983, that “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves. … We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.”

Now, nearly 25 years later, nothing has changed. The warning was heard and repeated endlessly in the national media, but nothing came of it in regard to the outcomes for our children in our schools. Now only the educators seem to have held onto the great objectives of the members of the Nation At Risk Commission. For educators (probably not teachers) like Commission members go on looking for a single reform effort, such as national standards, merit pay for teachers, school choice, No Child Left Behind, etc. that will transform all schools into successful educational establishments. But of course this won’t happen.

The American people, of whom I am one, are probably beginning to feel that the great educational objectives (for example, everyone going to college, and graduating in a reasonable time frame) are unachievable, and although not yet “lapsing into a widespread cynicism and opposition,” comparable to their attitude vs. the war in Iraq, they may soon do so.

Instead of constantly looking for the magic bullet that is going to solve our problems we ought instead to acknowledge our great limitations in respect to the powers we have to educate all our children. We don’t have such powers. For children, especially those whose lives outside of school are singularly deprived of adequate housing, health care and two parent families, we can do very little of what we would like to do. Why not start by owning up to our own inadequacy in this regard?

The mission of the inner city school (such as the Jeremiah E. Burke High School in Boston) may very well be, “to turn out students who are competent, skilled, and informed citizens, capable of critical thinking and problem solving, appreciative of the arts, and able to function effectively within an increasingly pluralistic and technologically advanced society.” But given the present  circumstances of the lives of its children there is absolutely nothing that the school can do to realize its mission. It doesn’t have the power.

There are, however, things we can do in regard to improving our schools and the education of our children. We are not powerless, no more than the United States army in Afghanistan. While we’re not going to have all kids graduate from high school and go on to college (unless we make the standards ridiculously low) we could make sure that while they are with us in school the kids are doing things that make sense to them and to us.

That’s not the case now, and if you don’t believe me attend classes for a day or two in a large inner city middle or high school. And after doing so ask yourself if the activities you witnessed were making “competent, skilled, and informed citizens, capable of critical thinking and problem solving…” out of the kids. Then ask the kids themselves what sense it all made to them “what was it all about.”

To know what we can do we ought to begin with what is working. For in every school there are probably pockets of learning that are going on. During the six hour long school day there are probably some activities that have successfully engaged the kids. For example, I taught in a high school where for many students that only thing that brought them to school was a beloved theater program.

Then there are other activities, such as sports, band, a rock music group, a few clubs etc. that clearly engage the kids. The gifted kids are often engaged intellectually by good math, science, history and language teachers. But most kids, probably even in the average suburban schools, will rarely if ever be engaged, fully engrossed by their learning, during the school day.

Each year the teachers ought together decide what they might do differently to involve a few more kids in one or more learning activities. Save the kids one by one, no longer en masse, that should be our Mantra. Modest efforts are needed. The big ones, such as racial integration and No Child Left Behind, have not and will not work.

Stewart concludes his Op Ed piece with these words, “I believe we can do a great deal… [But] we have no moral obligation to do what we cannot do.”

What about us who care about the schools? What can we do? In Kabul, Afghanistan, one can help a single baker to open a business. (See Nicholas Kristof's op ed piece in the NYTimes of March 27)

In the inner city middle school we can help a single teacher to reach a few more of her kids with meaningful learning activities, not open a bakery on the ruined streets of Kabul, but perhaps read a book and engage in meaningful conversation about the book with teacher and classmates.

March 24, 2007

The Teaching and Learning Dyad

What is wrong with our educational system. Many things, but high up on the list are people, in particular educators, who write such as what follows below about education. It is the tortured intellectual formulations of these people who would explain what learning is all about, rather than, say, an intimate knowledge of the real world of children, that drives, alas, too many educational reform efforts.

What happened to the belief that learning must be fun if it would take hold of the child and lead him into the world? Where is the fun in acquiring the “intellectual competence” of which the writer speaks?

Edmund Gordon on Intellectual Competence:

“The ability to use knowledge to engage and solve problems, not just acquire knowledge, is increasingly the currency of advanced societies. The goal should be to develop such abilities in a broader range of young people….

“I am more and more persuaded that the purpose of learning – and the teaching by which it is enabled – is to acquire knowledge and technique in the service of the development of adaptive human intellect. I see these as being at the core of intellective competence.

“What is intellective competence? I have come to use the term to refer to a characteristic way of adapting, appreciating, knowing, and understanding the phenomena of human experience. I also use the construct to reference the quality with which these mental processes are applied in one's engagement with common, novel, and specialized problems. Intellective competence reflects one's habits of mind, but it also reflects the quality or goodness of the products of mental functioning….

“Like social competence, which I feel is one manifestation of intellective competence, it reflects "goodness of fit," or the effectiveness of the application of one's affective, cognitive, and situative processes to solving the problems of living….

“The deliberative or affirmative development of academic ability should include more equitable access to such educational interventions as:

    * Early, continuous, and progressively more rigorous exposure to joyful pre-academic and academic teaching and learning transactions.

     * Rich opportunities to learn through pedagogical practices traditionally thought to be of excellent quality.

    * Diagnostic, customized, and targeted assessment; instructional and remedial interventions.

    * Academic acceleration and content enhancement.

    * The use of relational data systems to inform educational policy and practice decisions.

•    Explicit socialization of intellect to multiple cultural contexts.
•    ….

“Important as these educational interventions are, the matter of personal agency may be even more so. It is possible that the attention we give to improving the quality of teaching and to broadening access to good teachers, while being necessary to the achievement of academic proficiency, may not be sufficient. Increased attention may need to be given to the learning domain of the "teaching and learning" dyad. Good teaching is necessary, but it may take appropriate student learning behaviors to achieve proficiency. In my thinking about learning behavior on the part of the student, I tend to privilege:

    * Time on tasks related to what has to be learned.

    * Deliberate deployment of energy and effort to those tasks.

    * Seeking and utilizing necessary human and material resources.

•    Personal efficacy – the belief that the learning goals and related tasks are worth the effort.”

The excerpts above were all taken from Edmund Gordon’s article, Intellectual Competence, appearing in VUE, no. 14, Winter, 2007. Edmund W. Gordon is the Richard March Hoe Emeritus Professor of Psychology and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, and the John M. Musser Professor of Psychology Emeritus at Yale University.

Did you noticed his way of saying that we should pay more attention to the student, “Increased attention may need to be given to the learning domain of the ‘teaching and learning’ dyad.”

Teaching and learning dyad! Is this the way one writes when one is no longer teaching, no longer in the classroom with kids who are probably perfectly intellectually competent when they first arrive in school, but who “learn” that they are not competent and will remain that way, incompetent forever, unless they listen to their teacher.

When our leading educational figures write like this (in this instance he’s writing about the meaning of “proficiency for all”) we realize just how little chance there is of our kids in school ever becoming “proficient.”

But then, how “proficient” is the reader, such as myself, for whom Edmund Gordon’s words remain utterly opaque, mostly well beyond his/my comprehension.

March 14, 2007

Talking About Education Never Stops

Talking about education never stops. Why is that? Because there is no general agreement as to what education is, let alone should be.

There are probably as many meanings to the word as there are people alive on the earth. When looked at closely each individual’s life represents a unique educational path. One’s learning is the result of a unique, continually evolving set of environmental and hereditary factors giving form and substance to one's experiences throughout one's lifetime.

Then there is school. Probably that which, helas, most people mean by education. A monumental irony lies in the fact that school is no less apt to inhibit one’s education, that is, restrain and narrow it, as promote and further it.

Now much of the talk about education is really about educational or rather school reforms. Today, as always, schools are clearly not successful with all of their students. The talk of change, of reforming the schools, is the result.

It used to be that all school talk, including talk of reform, was local. This was so because in our land the local authorities were to begin with the ultimate arbiters of how schools should be built and structured as well as of what should be taught within them. The Feds were, to begin with anyway, out of the picture. (And some, from both the left and the right, would like to return to that time.)

During the past century the situation changed radically. Why was this? Why did the Federal government become a principal player in our schools? Well isn’t it always the case that when the locals fail to properly handle their responsibilities to those in their charge the Feds are brought in? And this is what happened and is still happening, with no end in sight. Many see a national curriculum as being the next big Federal intrusion into our local schools.

Would we have had the Federal efforts to integrate our schools if the locals had not so easily accepted separate as equal? And would we have had the Federal disability legislation of the 1970s, including the Education of All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, if the local authorities had shown proper concern for the needs of the handicapped? And would we have had the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 if the local school districts had not allowed the achievement gaps between whites and racial minorities to continue unchecked?

So the case has been powerfully made for the still expanding role of the Federal bureaucracy in the local school districts. As in so many other instances of our national life certain corrective actions were clearly called for and the local school authorities were unwilling to take those actions unless compelled to do so.

Now one might ask if the pendulum of primary responsibility for what goes on in the schools has swung too far to the side of central control? I would say it has. Certainly this is so in respect to the three examples mentioned above. The imposed busing solution to segregation in the schools is clearly not working and our schools, many of them, are more segregated now than ever. The disability entitlements, enacted into Federal law, have placed unacceptable and mostly unmet financial burdens on state and local governments. And finally the rigid standardized testing program of No Child Left Behind has not resulted, after some five years, in any of the children “left behind” catching up.

Educators ought to talk less about schools and more about education. For a proper understanding of the nature of education could then bring us to a more effective and compelling Rx for the schools. Of all the things we could say about education here are two that I would put at the very top of my list.

For one, education is constantly going on as we experience our world. It may or not take place in school. It's not a part of life, but rather it is our life. Education is the brain’s breathing, and over that we may have some control in respect to our own, but not in respect to that of anyone else. Parents take note! Your children will be what they are, not what you would make them.

We have more power to change the direction of a mighty river, to channel the light of the sun into new sources of energy, than we have to shape an individual’s growth and development, that is, his education. For each person’s education is on its own trajectory, the course of which is mainly determined by each person's own efforts. There’s no way we can completely control anyone's learning aside from our own, no way we can direct the countless encounters that everyone will make during a lifetime, and most of which do not even take place in school.
This thought of our powerlessness before a life not our own ought to humble the educators among us, keep us from constantly going on about all that we intend to do for the kids in our charge. For how much of what we would do can we do? Not all that much. Do you know, for example, a school or school program that ever turned one or more of its students into good citizens? And yet don't we talk all the time about our doing just this?

For two, isn't it true that education results most of all from what people do for themselves? The tragedy is that kids don't know this and attend school thinking that by their attendance, by some kind of osmosis, by just being there, they will be educated. The schools, of course, go along with this conceit, for that's their livelihood. But that's exactly why kids can spend so much time in schools and learn so little. Probably not a few, perhaps most, only learn to learn when the school years are over and they have no choice but to rely on their on efforts.

Hasn't most everything you now are, everything you now know, come about primarily through your own efforts? All the talk about schools and education really ought to be talk bout how we might best help people to want to learn for themselves. For if they don't, if they have no learning goal of their own, whatever we might do for them will be of little or no avail.

March 10, 2007

More Idle Thoughts in Paris

Imagine a society where the men were hunters and trappers, and the women were home and child care givers. What would school be like in that society? Would there be a school? Probably not. Boys would learn by doing (a method that John Dewey reinvented in 1900). The boys would learn directly from their fathers and from the other men of the village, the girls from their mothers.

Some children would learn faster than others, perhaps creating achievement gaps, but they all would learn enough to very early on take on useful roles in the life of the village. As the adults retired from hunting, trapping, gathering, and cooking there would be no lack of well taught youngsters to replace them. 

In this society teachers would teach what they know. And there would be no attempt as now to continually reinvent the curriculum. For the curriculum would be what the adults did, would be what their lives were all about. Only if the adults took on new roles, only if they did something else, such as wage war, would they need to expand the curriculum to include the now necessary new skills.

What has happened that our young people, in spite of spending 12 or more years in school, are not ready to assume useful roles in society? Why is it that it seems to be so hard to give our children the knowledge and skills they will ultimately need? Is it that adult occupations are now too many and too complex, no longer easily transferable to the young? Or is it that real learning cannot go on in school, separated as school is from the activities and occupations that embody that learning?

It’s not surprising that professional schools are all closely allied with the institutions that house the activities of the profession, medicine with hospitals, law with courts, music with concert halls, athletics with playing fields. Probably there is nothing that is best learned from a book. Certainly not languages, nor history, nor science. Yet that’s what our schools are mostly about, book learning. For the teachers are not for the most part native speakers of the language taught, historians, mathematicians, or scientists. And their knowledge of all these subjects is mostly secondhand or book knowledge.

Teach a man to hunt without being a hunter yourself. It’s possible, but not very likely that it will happen. So what might we do to take ourselves back to an earlier time when young people learned by doing, and best of all by being apprenticed to those who knew how?

I see only one way out of what I call our present school impasse, when too many children, especially minority and poor children in our inner cities, attend school for many years and do not learn and therefore do not reach a springboard onto something else and something better, but too often find themselves at a deadend with something worse. I say take school away from the school people and close them down as presently structured.

Open them again, but this time allow anyone to teach, and anything to be taught. And allow parents and their children freedom to choose from what’s offered their kind of school and how and what they want to learn. And if it’s not offered stay home until it is.

In this way once again those who knew something would be the teachers, and those going to school would be going there to get  what that person knew. No longer how to trap a bear or catch a fish, but now such things as how to program a computer, write a musical composition, speak Mandarin Chinese, or write an essay.

March 07, 2007

Idle Thoughts, Paris, March 2007

World wide the haters of our country are enjoying double digit growth rates. Given the war in Iraq, and given the Israeli Palestinian stalemate it is no surprise that the American haters are multiplying in Arab and other Moslem lands.

Furthermore, highly critical voices, if not the voices of hate, are being heard more and more even, among our “friends” in Europe elsewhere.

What a dismal time it is for the land of the free and the brave. How we have squandered what could have been a fine opportunity, given our great wealth, for making the world a better place.

Instead of our citizens as ambassadors of good will throughout the world we have our young men and women in combat gear fighting seemingly endless wars against Islamic foes among whom are tens of thousands of young people ready to blow themselves rather than submit to what they see as our degenerate way of live.

In Iraq the war goes on and on and there seems to be nothing, as in Vietnam earlier, but the complete withdrawal of our forces from the country, that has any chance of stopping it.

But then even our leaving may not bring the killing to an end. For there are those who say, not without reason, repeating the words of the like minded in Vietnam nearly 40 years earlier, that our leaving will result in an even bigger bloodbath, not only in Iraq but throughout the Middle East.

Who is to blame? One would first blame the president, but he seems like such a little man to have made such a big mess. How could little George Bush have brought our country so low? And the answer, he had big Dick Cheney behind him, is not much better.

The situation is more like an accident of the road. One small mistake by the driver leading to multiple deaths as the resulting chain of car crashes plays itself out. Bush's small mistake was to send our first soldier into Iraq.