Failing Schools a Sign of Failing National Character

by RALPH PETERS November 8, 2011
During a workout last weekend, I watched and listened as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan bemoaned our “crumbling schools.” Sorry, but it’s not our schools that are crumbling, Mr. Secretary: It’s our values. The wildly uneven, too-often-inadequate state of our Kindergarten-through-high-school system is a symptom of cultural cancer: We have become a slothful, self-indulgent, self-pitying nation of whining excuse-makers. We all want A’s for no effort. Our teachers and their students reflect our general culture of indiscipline and self-congratulation. Nor is it only the mopey-dopey left that has infected our public schools with a culture of mediocrity, when not outright failure. We all share in the blame (of which more below).
But we can’t even discuss the problem honestly and have to trim the conversation to keep it within politically correct patterns. Well, when yet another survey trumpets that the U.S. has fallen to sixth place in teaching math or science, or that we’re fifteenth in education overall, my reaction is “Okay, break those scores out by specific school locations.” Generally, our suburban and many small-town schools still deliver competitive (if less than optimal) educations. Our statistics skew sharply downward because of the appalling conditions in the inner-city and barrio holding pens and teacher’s-union bunkers we pretend are real schools.
Even within our generally slovenly culture, some sub-cultures—encouraged to wallow in cults of victimhood--do far worse than others. But we aren’t allowed to say it. We have to pretend that our national standing really is national. Yet, if it weren’t for the disgraceful conditions (and we can blame the left for these) that narcotizing “social” programs have created among minority populations, we would still be at or near the top in education. Most well-to-do children, whatever their race, still have access to solid (if uninspiring) educations. But the left, for political advantage, has written off poor blacks and browns educationally—confining them in schools that are now about the unionized teachers, not the students.
And let’s be honest: Conservatives have made no serious attempts to reform those schools, either. All the left has to do is cry “Racism!” and we gladly turn our backs on our fellow Americans, pleased to have an excuse to do nothing about a national disgrace. (Teachers may hate “No Child Left Behind,” but that program was a sincere attempt to do something in an environment in which doing nothing had become acceptable.) For different reasons, everyone (including the minorities themselves) has written off any serious efforts to give our underclass the elementary skills required to enter and survive in a 21st-century workforce. This human wastage, for which we all share some degree of blame, is unspeakably shameful and detrimental to our country’s future. We have to drag along those who could be pulling their own weight or even excelling. To borrow the title of a 1960s novel, Everybody Knows and Nobody Cares.
And there’s another, even-broader problem related to teachers’ unions and why they’ve become so dysfunctional: The doleful mediocrity of so many who pursue careers as teachers nowadays. In political terms, the right bears a great deal of blame simply because, on this count, too, we’ve abandoned the education system to the left. Just as I always told leftists who whined about our military’s supposed baby-killing culture, “Well, join up and change it,” I’d have to tell conservatives that, if they want real education reform, “Become teachers.” We’ve abandoned an entire, vital profession to the left, allowing it to become a career refuge for those frightened of competitive environments, for those who just want job security and regular hours, while few dynamic go-getters even consider teaching for a living.
Happier times: a classroom in the 1940s.
Let me be clear: I do not want politicized instruction, right or left. I don’t want activist teachers of any stripe. But if conservatives allow leftists to self-segregate in the teaching profession, we share the blame for the low quality of instruction. If there’s no one on a faculty to challenge leftist group-think, that group-think will prevail by default.
The broader problem is rooted in recent history: Two simultaneous developments have reduced the quality of teachers over the past two to three generations. First, equality of opportunity for women drained the talent pool. Without question, the transition of women from second-class to fully equal participants in society and our economy has been overwhelmingly beneficial: It has made our nation richer, more just and humane, and more fun. I can identify only a single downside: The often-brilliant women who taught me during my 1950s elementary-school years in small-town Pennsylvania became teachers because it was the best option (of very few) available to them. Those magnificent teachers were prisoners of a social system that denied them other opportunities. Their counterparts today are governors, senators, Navy pilots, CEOs, investment bankers, corporate managers…
Even for men, there were fewer opportunities in the middle of the last century. The explosion of wealth and the expansion of work we experienced over the last half-dozen decades also provided more choices for males, too. Thus, the pair of life-shaping English teachers I had in high school back in the 1960s—who survived on miserly pay—would be unlikely to be in the same jobs today. (Neither would survive in a contemporary high school, anyway, since their reading lists not only were demanding—from translations of Euripides and Sophocles, to James Joyce and D.H. Lawrence—but would outrage conservative parents who believe that “children” should not be exposed to great literature or reality).
The sad quality of so much instruction today has been brought home to me over the past dozen years. In honor of one of those English teachers, a man who died tragically young, I’ve given a small annual prize to the graduating senior in my old high school who wrote the best short story, essay or article. When the “best” efforts arrived in the mail for me to select the winner, none was ever of sufficient quality to have gotten an A from Mr. Boyer. Worse, the scrawled cover notes sent me by the English teachers themselves often were ungrammatical. My good intentions had become a travesty: Those “top” students not only weren’t required to write, but did not even appear to read much of worth.
We now have a system in which young people of lower intelligence and less ambition gravitate into the teaching profession, and in which unethical and irresponsible unions protect the worst of them. And the kids aren’t all right: Instead of getting a rigorous education, they get inflated grades to help them get into college (isn’t it remarkable that “responsible” parents are more apt to complain about a low grade than low standards?). “Every child gets a prize” is a formula for failure later on. Our system just delays sentencing until the kid hits the job market.
Beyond the lower quality of those who enter the teaching profession (with many individual exceptions, of course) we face the lack of serious content in the undergraduate programs that, theoretically, prepare them for the classroom. Teaching techniques and philosophies have replaced the fierce acquisition of knowledge, and this is inevitably reflected in the K-12 classroom. As a result, we have English teachers who don’t read seriously themselves; history teachers who have no meaningful grasp of history; and math teachers who don’t think it’s necessary for children to memorize multiplication tables.
In conversations with K-12 teachers over the years, I’ve consistently found them to be sincere and well-intentioned. I’ve also found most to be dumb as rocks. If an English teacher reads nothing but pop novels (when he or she reads at all), and if a history teacher thinks Livy is one of the Kardashian sisters and Parkman a video game, well, young Nathan and Emma aren’t going to be memorizing much Shakespeare or doing term papers on the Federalists. And this matters: A command of one’s language is an incredibly powerful career tool, while the citizen who receives no grounding in fact-based history lacks frames of reference to interpret the world around himself or herself—to say nothing of dissecting the mad claims of political demagogues. (My favorite current example of our historical illiteracy is the oft-heard claim that “Our country has never been so divided!” That does seem to ignore our Civil War, which killed over 620,000 Americans, or the Jacksonian era, or William Jennings Bryan and Populism, or the Depression, or the violent fissures of the late 1960s and early 1970s…) 
And no aspect of education has gotten such an unfair rap as memorization. If there is one thing I regret about my own school years (apart from my pigheadedness), it’s that I wasn’t required to memorize a great deal more--and I had to memorize far more than today’s kids do. Memorization develops the “mind muscles” and provides us with an on-board data base for which the internet is not an adequate substitute. I’m always envious of graduates of exclusive English schools who can quote furlongs of verse and summon the right quote from the classics (admittedly, even those schools aren’t what they once were). Minds, like bodies, thrive on rigorous exercise, and “creativity” isn’t where you start. Creativity is the destination. You start with learning, with the acquisition of a large volume of hard knowledge. Until the mind has acquired extensive resources on which to draw, you’re trying to create in a vacuum. What we term “creativity” is finger-painting by the blind.
School doesn’t have to be “fun.” It has to be effective. And a school has to be a self-contained meritocracy. Its priority cannot be to manufacture phony self-esteem. True self-esteem arises from achievement, not from being told that you’re brilliant for updating the bulletin board. Anyone who has encountered—and had to hire—young job-seekers fresh from university these days faces identical applicants (right down to the flip-flops worn to the interview) bursting with self-confidence to the point where it almost stains the rug, but who, once hired, often have no work ethic, no frames of reference, and inadequate preparation for basic tasks. For one example about which I can speak first-hand, masters programs from “top” universities turn out aspiring journalists who cannot spell, punctuate or construct a topic sentence, and who cannot analyze problems dispassionately, but who have wildly inflated expectations as to what they are owed in the workplace and by society.
As for high-school graduates…well, the opportunities for them are disappearing every day. Nonetheless, we must find ways to reduce the drop-out rate. A young person who lacks even a high-school diploma is doomed to be a burden on society throughout his or her life. At present, though, there are few short-term disincentives to dropping out—and young people think short-term. Were it up to me, I’d also make a high-school diploma a requirement to receive a driver’s license or to receive any government benefits.
Unfair?  Absolutely not. All rights beyond the most elementary human rights must be predicated on the individual’s reciprocal responsibility to society and the state. Bluntly put, all young Americans who are not severely disabled owe it to our country to graduate from high school.
Still, it all goes back to the ineffective teachers, not to poor Secretary Duncan’s “crumbling schools.” A great teacher will do wonders in a ramshackle school, but a poor teacher doesn’t teach any better in a state-of-the-art facility. New computers in classrooms are great, but the quality of the teacher at the front of the room is vastly more important.
Unless a young person discovers the joy—and it is a joy—of reading great literature or simply good books on his or her own, the student is unlikely to acquire a passion for reading in our education system. Ditto for a love of math or science. We’ve lowered expectations not just of students, but of their teachers. Students aren’t expected to do real work (and no, the “socialization” from extracurricular activities is not a substitute for a mastery of geometry). Let me go back to those high-school English teachers of mine: They loved literature, and even if they could not make all of us love it as they did, they were damned sure going to make sure we were exposed to it. By the time I graduated from high-school (despite being a disappointing student by day and a rock musician by night), I had read Aristotle, Lucretius, the Greek dramatists, Shakespeare (not just bits of “Romeo and Juliet,” but “Hamlet,” “Othello” and “Macbeth”), Thomas Kyd, Dickens, Conrad, Lawrence, Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Shaw, Sean O’Casey, Joyce, Henry James, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Hemingway, Ibsen, Strindberg, Beckett, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, the major English poets and others. How many college graduates teaching today have read half of the authors on that list? I won’t let conservatives off the hook, either: Imagine how a handful of “outraged” parents would howl about the ludicrously tame sexual content of those books. Their kids see and hear far worse on television—or their smart phones--but schools have to be cleansed of serious literature in the name of Virtue. Just as education today isn’t about the students, but about the teachers, so, too, is such benighted activism about the parents, rather than the students. If you want to “protect” your child from immorality, take away the kid’s smart-phone, computer, television, iPod and radio, all of which give access to far viler matters than anything of which Faulkner or Steinbeck dreamed.
While I’m giving conservatives a few lashes: The most-disgraceful movement on the education front from our ranks has been the insistence that “Creationism” be taught in Science class as a viable alternative to Evolution. Creationism belongs in Sunday school. We don’t need to turn our already-ailing schools into Christian madrassahs. There just isn’t time in limited classroom hours for pretending that Adam and Eve had pet dinosaurs. Fossils aren’t “theories,” as one Republican presidential hopeful would have it. Just as left-wing nonsense should be purged from curriculums, so should religion be left out of science class: Of all the disciplines in which we’ve begun to lag, science leads to the greatest vulnerability. Let’s get serious, folks. (And to my fellow Christians: I’m not convinced that God wears a Timex. One of His “days” might be billions of our years. Our Savior spoke in parables so that we might understand. Is it too much of a stretch to believe that the eternal and boundless glory of God also has to be communicated to mortal minds in parables? I can think of no greater sin of pride than to assume that any one of us can know the fullness of God. Leave such blasphemies to Islamist extremists.)
All that said, there can be no question but that the greatest share of the blame for the intellectual impoverishment of K-12 education lies on the political left, which has made poverty a viable lifestyle choice; politicized curriculums; lowered standards disastrously; defended unions that elevate the welfare of teachers above the success of students; made self-esteem a more important goal than learning; and fought to keep minorities “down, dumb and Democratic.” But intellectually serious conservatives too often have turned away, relinquishing the field of education to leftist mush-minds. And when we do engage, it’s to sanitize learning or insist on imposing our religious views in the classroom. Education must be fact-based, demanding and politically neutral. The only agenda should be turning out effective, successful citizens who can sustain our country’s power and greatness.
In the Year of our Lord 2011, the United States spends far more money per capita on education than any other major country—and gets less in return. Beyond all the politics and webs of self-interest, the reason is as simple as two plus two equals four: We’ve taken learning out of education.
Family Security Matters Contributing Editor Ralph Peters is a retired Army officer who had to learn just about everything the hard way—despite having had a number of terrific teachers. He is the author of 28 books, including the forthcoming historical novel, Cain at Gettysburg. Had he not had such fine, patient and knowledge-loving teachers, he would have had few, if any, of the successes he has enjoyed in life.

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