THE BETRAYAL OF THE EDUCATED CLASS
by Jon Rappoport
April 14, 2012
“That a third of the nation’s eighth graders can write with proficiency may not sound like much, but it is the best performance by eighth-grade students in any subject tested in the national assessment in the last three years…”
“‘I’m happy to report, paraphrasing Mark Twain, that the death of writing has been greatly exaggerated,’ said Amanda P. Avallone, an eighth-grade teacher who is vice chairwoman of the board that oversees the testing program…”
(New York Times, April 4, 2008, “US Students Achieve Mixed Results on Writing Test”)
Really? Who’s exaggerating? Who’s trying to cover over an ongoing disaster with a thick slice of baloney?
This story begins (in the 1980s) with a tale of two cousins. One was a stockbroker and the other was an engineer in the space program. They had graduated from prestigious colleges and pursued successful careers.
There was only one problem. After years in the trenches, they’d discovered something was going very wrong with America. It had to do with financial chicanery, theft at a high level, on Wall Street, and a derailment of NASA in its efforts to extend a real program of space exploration.
In both cases, the cousins observed a tremendous sense of demoralization around them at work. Demoralization and cynicism. High enthusiastic spirits had been brought down to Earth. One cousin told me, “I woke up one day and had the distinct feeling I was working for a criminal organization.”
These two men were naïve enough to be appalled. They wanted to take action, and the best answer they could come up with was a book, a book that would blow people away, because the cousins could present, chapter and verse, what it was like to see the buoyant optimism of a generation turning sour and bleeding out in the street.
They wanted to write that book. They really did. They wanted to show how the first principles of the Republic had been betrayed, how government and crony corporations had grown into a choking octopus.
Most of all, they wanted to communicate with other men and women who shared their background, who had grown up in similar circumstances, who had gone to right schools, who had blithely assumed America was still the home of the free. They absolutely knew they could pull off this book in a way that would help awaken people like them, people who were opinion leaders, people who had connections.
But lo and behold, when it came down to it, the cousins remembered a shattering truth:
THEY COULDN’T WRITE.
That stark fact stared them in the face.
They had been through the best schools in America, and they couldn’t string sentences together, they couldn’t turn their feelings into words. They spoke well, but speaking wasn’t writing. It didn’t have the power they were hoping to summon up and pour out on to the page.
They had always known, of course, that they couldn’t write, but at the crucial moment, when they needed to be able to…the defeat was crushing for them. Their “educational lives” flashed in front of their eyes. The whole parade and charade. The con games. The phony grades. The undeserved accolades.
We had several discussions about ghostwriting the book, but their hearts weren’t in it. I didn’t blame them. They wanted the book to be their voices.
Here’s another outrageous illustration:
Amherst College is a small Ivy League school in Massachusetts. For decades, it has been judged one of the top colleges in America. It enrolls only the best of the best, and a scant few of those. (There are 461 students in the class of 2015.)
From 1956 to 1999, William Kennick taught philosophy there. An amiable man with a very keen mind, Kennick handled the survey course in the history of Western philosophy and the one-semester aesthetics course. Later on, he taught metaphysics and Wittgenstein.
Somewhere during his long tenure, he became aware of a troubling fact. Many of his students couldn’t write. Their papers, which were supposed to cover philosophical issues, were, in many respects, unreadable.
Finally, Kennick put his foot down. He wrote a four-page single-spaced tutorial, “Some Rules for Writing Presentable English,” which, from then on, he would pass out to his classes. He backed this up with significant penalties for poorly written essays.
According to eyewitness accounts, Kennick’s approach didn’t sit well with some of his students.
And yet, they were the best and brightest. Otherwise, how could they have gained admittance to the College?
Which raises the question: how badly do the not-quite-brightest write? And what about the merely good?
I’m describing a symptom here. The full reality is much worse. A person needs to be able to write to express his thoughts, but suppose his thoughts are soggy oatmeal to begin with? Suppose he can’t follow an argument? Suppose he can’t read an article or a book and trace the progress of a line of reasoning?
And if he can track the reasoning to a degree, what if he can’t figure out whether the logic is valid?
When you dig deeper into the educational system, when you go back earlier into secondary and elementary classes, you discover the whole foundation has cracked. The basics, if they are taught, are being absorbed in a halfhearted fashion.
The students are, nevertheless, pushed on from grade to grade, and this is the nightmare any earnest teacher faces: every September, he inherits a group of children who possess wildly varying levels of ability in the basics.
There he is, the teacher, standing up in the classroom, and he has to find a way to deal with this chaos. He can’t teach from a single textbook, because at least half the class can’t decipher it. He can’t rove from desk to desk and tutor each student, starting from material that should have been learned three or four or six grades ago. He can’t wave a wand and make up for lost time. He can’t suddenly transform the apathy that has set in for those students who moved like zombies from grade to grade in a haze of non-comprehension.
So what does he do?
There is a solution, and in fact it has been slyly promoted by some of the best bureaucratic minds in the education system.
It’s “participatory learning.”
Instead of reading, take the class on a field trip to a library, where they’ll see books on shelves, up close and personal. They’ll learn how to check out a book. They’ll be taught how to use a computer to look up a book. They’ll wander the aisles.
Instead of reading a novel, sit in class and talk about the issues in the novel. Express opinions. Use those opinions to launch a discussion about values.
Particularly when it comes to logic and reasoning, participatory learning plugs right into the holes in the students’ minds. Have a student read a passage and then ask for discussion. What do you think of this? What’s your opinion? Terrific. What about you? How did you react? Yes, guys, this is an important issue. Have you read or watched any news that seems relevant to what we’re talking about here? Join in. We’re all in this together. There are events happening in our world we have to be aware of. Let’s focus our minds.
Is this an after-school discussion club? Is it an extracurricular project? No, it’s a classroom, and the teacher is winging it, because he doesn’t know what else to do, and he likes the feeling of sitting there and drawing out the students. No one is right or wrong, it’s “group communication.”
More importantly, it’s operant conditioning. The students are being trained to share and care ahead of learning.
As “the group thing” and “we’re all in this together” catches on more and more, the students begin to grasp a whole new approach to learning and life: the important experiences happen only inside a group. That’s where a consensus forms, and that is reality. For the moment. Soon, another moment will come, and a new reality will be built. By the group. It’s all good. It doesn’t really matter what the temporary reality consists of. It only matters that it proceeded from, and fed back into, THE GROUP.
Let me zero in on a subject the educated classes should be quite interested in: political science. If their education amounted to anything, they would take it and use it to debate and stake out positions on political science—which, of course, isn’t a science. It should be called political philosophy.
It covers, for example, a little thing like how the government should be run.
But where do we find intelligent discussions and debates about this? Certainly not in Washington. Too little time, too many payoffs.
Do liberals ever elucidate their First Principles and their philosophy? Do conservatives?
If so, do we find these positions spelled out or debated at length in newspapers and magazines? On television? Logically?
When I say debates, I’m not talking about trading sound bites. I’m talking about long and extensive conversations, which unfortunately require attention spans and the capacity to reason .
Oh? The education system didn’t prepare us for that?
I see. So education consists of everything except that which could render us capable of, and willing to, debate the foundations of the one institution that is responsible for adjudicating items like freedom, equal protection under the law, taxation, limits on the power of corporations, national security, war, and the issuing of money.
Interesting that the one presidential candidate who at least speaks clearly and succinctly on these issues, from a philosophical perspective, appears to be drawing the largest crowds at his speeches: Ron Paul.
Is it possible that Dr. Paul’s popularity rests, in part, on the fact that many citizens truly want to address these issues in a deeper way?
If you were to visit a college or university and try to find the debates I’m suggesting, I believe you’d be sorely disappointed. You’d discover the politicizing of everything except basic political philosophy, which has already been settled in favor of some version of THE GROUP IS ALL, THE INDIVIDUAL IS NOTHING.
If you’re alive, some years into the future, when your children and grandchildren are living in hive-like apartment buildings in a vastly overcrowded city, while the land around the city is preserved (protected and chained off) for a bird you’ve never heard of, by order of city officials (group), who are in turn working for a sub-department (group) of a national planning association (group) you’ve also never heard of, which in turn is part of a United Nations NGO (group), you might be ready to re-think the effects of a cracked, broken, shattered education system that laid the groundwork for that new world.
And if you’re part of the educated class, you might assess this as a betrayal. You wouldn’t be alone.
As a coda, here is a piece I don’t believe I’ve ever published. It approaches education from a slightly different angle.
THE TECTONIC SHIFT IN EDUCATION
It suddenly occurs to me younger people might not understand my use of the word “drill.”
I learned about it, first-hand, when I was eight years old. In school. In 1946. Our teacher gave us arithmetic drills every day. For instance, we had to work at our desks converting 15 or 20 fractions into percentages. Then we took home 20 more fractions to convert. Of course, we had no calculators or computers.
In drills, you take a procedure and use it over and over. Eventually, with practice, it’s like cutting warm butter with a sharp knife. It used to be called elementary education…
Back in the 1970s, I was working as a tutor at Santa Monica College. One day, I walked by a store front a few blocks from the ocean and noticed the business inside was an educational company.
I walked in and spoke with the boss. He told me they were just getting off the ground, and prospects were bright. They were on the cutting edge of programmed tutorial pamphlets.
Each pamphlet, he showed me, covered a different subject, and the learning was done in small chunks. After a short lesson, there was a quiz (multiple choice), and if the student entered a wrong answer, he would be guided to a “branch-page,” where he would receive a brief injection of the material he’d just fumbled…and then there would be a new quiz of four or five questions. If he passed, he’d jump back on the mainline train.
I said I could write a pamphlet like that in my sleep, and the boss proceeded to lay out the attractive $$ possibilities for me. A nice slice of royalties on each item sold, in perpetuity, and new work available on into the future.
He gave me a trial run. I went home with an assignment to create ten pages of a pamphlet on something; I think it was decimals and fractions. I returned the next day with the pages, and he sat back and read my work. He nodded yes, yes, yes, and then he stopped.
“What are all these drills?” he said.
“Well,” I said, “after I introduce a new concept, I make sure the student gets it by giving him twenty or thirty examples, and he has to come up with the right answers.”
He shook his head.
“No,” he said. “That’s not what we want.”
“It’s not in the modern style,” he said.
I said, “It’s not an issue of style. The student has to get the material. He has to drill on it. A lot.”
“No,” he said. “That won’t work.”
So an argument started. After a few minutes, it got pretty heated. I walked out. No deal. We were poles apart.
He was right, of course. The new wave-front of education was all about finessing material…making it seem as if the student was understanding what he was learning. Making it SEEM.
In other words, it was all nonsense.
Gloss, not substance.
In the ensuing years, I watched this trend expand to grotesque proportions. The old-fashioned way was disappearing like vapor in the wind.
Back in the day, I had learned in school through drills. That was the heart and the proof of the process. The teacher would explain a new concept, demonstrate it on the blackboard, give us examples to chew on and solve, go over them, then assign 20 or 30 more examples to work on for homework. The next day, we would bring the homework in and the class would go through it, step by step. Then there would be a quiz. Then we would move on to the next new concept. Drills. More drills.
In order for this kind of education to work, though, you need a certain stability of environment. You need the notion of ACHIEVEMENT. At home and in school. It has to be a given.
No coddling, no explaining things away, no excuses, no laying on of the lard of self-esteem. With the right backdrop, the old style of education can work. Without it, you’re pushing a two-ton rock up a cliff face. You may as well give up before you start. The students won’t sit still for drill, drill, drill. They’ll do anything to worm out of it.
During the 1960s, the whole society caved in and gave up the ghost. The education system, such as it was, crashed. I was there, as a teacher, part of that time, and I saw it happen. It foundered on just this point. Repetition. It was as if minds had gone soft and couldn’t perform.
Broadly speaking, the basics of arithmetic went out the window. So did spelling, grammar, and the ability to write coherent sentences. Poof. The amount of scut work it took to build a basic education became unacceptable.
When I read tracts about the intentional undermining of the American educational system, I sense truth in them, but to me the real crash was all about what I’m discussing here.
You can bring up drugs, horrible junk food, the influence of TV and the Internet, large classes, and so on. You can say they all make education a tougher job. But the rubber meets the road in those drills. The grind. You can either do it or you can’t.
I saw early signs of the collapse in 1961, when I landed a part-time job teaching kids math in a posh private school in the Northeast. I had nine boys in each class. They were all at least two grades behind where they were supposed to be. I tried drilling them on remedial topics, and they couldn’t take it. They weren’t just floundering. They wanted to fight for their right to be ignorant.
The principal and I had a chat. I told him what was happening and he said, “Education, we’ve always known, is repetition and drill, until they get their legs under them. Your kids can’t do it. They’re bailing out at age twelve and thirteen. We don’t have the environment to back up what you want to do. Ease off. Skate through the year. Otherwise, you’ll go nuts.”
Some people think repetition and drilling are brainwashing. Well, if the lessons are about saving the world or learning how to put on a condom or being nice to everyone, then yes. In that case, someone’s opinions are being pushed into kids’ brains. But if you’re talking about arithmetic, spelling, and reading, then no. If you’re going to teach those subjects, there is no other way. You can’t wave a magic wand and make spelling come true under a floating rainbow. No amount of praise and encouragement is going to stand in for the grind.
I knew that the first day I walked into a classroom as a teacher, in 1961. I knew it because I had learned that way in the 1940s.
When people tell me kids can’t learn without computers on every desk, I make them wish they hadn’t said that. It’s a preposterous lie. It’s driven by a vague (usually politicized) notion of what education is all about, a notion that “puts the children first.” The children aren’t first in school. That’s a twisted version of kindness. More than that, it’s a surrender of authority to young people who don’t have authority. I’m not saying a teacher has to be nasty or machine-like. But a teacher has to instruct. In schools, learning comes before the personalities of children, and anyone who says different is lying. Is a fool.
Of course, if schools are about something other than learning, then yes, there are all sorts of things you can do to make the kids feel good and enthusiastic. You can take them out for ice cream. You can have them collect garbage and sort through the cans and pull out the glass and plastic. You can have them plant a garden and spend three hours every day tending the flowers.
But straight-down-the-line academic learning? I don’t think America has much fire left in its belly for that. It’s not the lack of public money. It’s not the missing programs. It’s a generalized fatigue that came after the big surrender, when teachers and administrators and parents decided that the pressure of repetition in the classroom was intrusive and invasive, a social misstep. Kids needed to be protected from strain. They were precious. They were natural wonderful works of art that needed to be adorned.
(The Logic & & Analysis course I’ve put together for homeschoolers uses the drill method. It’s straight-down-the-line academic learning of subject that is, sadly, no longer taught in public schools.)
After that moment of surrender, all sorts of stories were made up to explain what was going wrong with education of the young. The stories were all off the main point, because very few people were willing to face the truth.
The NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress), an ongoing project under the auspices of the US Dept. of Education, tested 8th graders in 1992 and 2009, for reading skills. In both years, the “advanced level” was reached by 3% of the kids.
That’s a disaster. But if you go to the NAEP site and read about the test results, you won’t discover any sense of alarm. You’ll read palliative statements suggesting there are areas of improvement.
Naturally. Because otherwise, what are they going to say? They’re the pros, the experts, and they’ve been presiding over an intellectual decimation. They’re walking around the edge of an abyss, and they’re singing little ditties.
The author of an explosive new collection, THE MATRIX REVEALED, Jon was a candidate for a US Congressional seat in the 29th District of California. Nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, he has worked as an investigative reporter for 30 years, writing articles on politics, medicine, and health for CBS Healthwatch, LA Weekly, Spin Magazine, Stern, and other newspapers and magazines in the US and Europe. Jon has delivered lectures and seminars on global politics, health, logic, and creativity to audiences around the world.