The Conspiracy Of Ignorance: The Failure Of American Public Schools

by Martin L. Gross
290 pages,
ISBN: 0060194588

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Gambling With Our Kids
by Nathan Greenfield

Parents with kids in school and others familiar with our school systems will likely find that reading Martin L. Gross’ The Conspiracy of Ignorance: The Failure of American Public Schools leads to hitherto unknown desires to play poker. The Dominion Institute will match Gross’ report that only one in fourteen knows anything about the Spirit of ‘76, that seventy per cent are ignorant of the Monroe Doctrine and sixty per cent of the Civil War, and raise it with its own report that two-thirds of our kids didn’t know what year the Dominion was founded or what happened on D-Day. Jack Granatstein will up the ante Gross put on the table when he writes that, “in affluent Fairfield County, Connecticut, students can get to Grade 8 without ever hearing the story of the nation’s founding”, with chips that show that high-school students in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland are unburdened by a single course in Canadian History. And otherwise mild-mannered Professors of Mathematics, like Mark Solomonovich of the University of Alberta, will refuse to fold after reading about Constructivist Math, which raises guessing the answer to the same level as finding it, because he’s holding Alberta’s new math program, which not only misuses the name, Applied Math (giving it to what formerly would have been called General Math), but also ditches geometry. This cross-border game is made possible by the fact that, even as our twelve school systems have found it close to impossible to coordinate course sequences or reading tests, they have had no trouble incorporating whatever educational fad sweeps out of Southern California. It’s true that students in our educational faculties no longer read about the “Organization of the Virginia State Government”, as they did in 1953, when Hilda Neetby penned So Little for the Mind. However, though absent from his index, our teachers, their unions, our educational faculties, and the Education Ministries are as much a part of what Gross calls the Education Establishment as are the Departments of Education from Connecticut to California. Our educrats seem to buy the anti-intellectual, child-centred philosophy of education associated with John Dewey, which Gross correctly identifies as the cause of much of the rot in America’s education system. Long before California turned itself into a laboratory to test whether Whole Language Reading could teach kids how to read without knowledge of phonics (it can’t), Ontario and Alberta adopted this supposedly fun way to literacy. When David Cooke (NDP) was Ontario’s Minister of Education, the province went further down this road than did any other jurisdiction in the world. His minions all but banned the teaching of grammar. (If the testimony of my college students is in any way indicative, few English teachers were insurgents, for every year the vast majority say, “I’ve never learned what a preposition or participle or verb or noun is.”) Gross’ claim that teachers “are not smart enough” because they are self-selected from the bottom third of their high-school classes will enrage many on both sides of the border. South of Pelee Island, the retort will be that the Scholastic Aptitude Tests (used by American universities as an entrance test) and Graduate Record Exams (used by Graduate schools for the same thing) are not legitimate ways to judge “smarts” because they are biased toward white, middle-class kids. So why, Gross asks, do future teachers score an average fifty-six points lower than does the general student body, and two hunderd points lower than those intending to study math or science on the SATs that were recentred in 1997 in an effort to erase this bias? Canadian teachers, of course, will respond by noting that Gross’ point is irrelevant here because we don’t have such tests. While true, this argument is not as telling as it at first appears. Evidence abounds that many of our teachers are not as talented as we might hope. More than one of my children’s teachers have sent home notes that are grammatically challenged. An acquaintance’s administrator once told me of his own staff, “You know, these are the people who used to get Cs and Ds.” Students who attended McGill in the early ‘80s will remember the campus scandal that followed the McGill Daily’s report that some fifty per cent of the students in the Education Faculty bombed a general knowledge test aced by some ninety per cent of Arts students. Given the way E.D. Hirsch’s The Schools We Need (1997) was vilified by our professional journals, I have no doubt that Gross’ even more pointed attack on the education faculties that publish such journals as the Canadian Journal of Education will elicit either a hail of criticism or its strategic equivalent, silence. But everything he says about the anti-intellectual nature of the training that B.Ed. and M.Ed. students undergo and the vacuity of the Doctor of Education applies here, too. Following the lead of their American cousins, our education faculties, teachers unions, and provincial bureaucrats have made the B.Ed. and the M.Ed. the keys that open the door to “certification”—the teaching license. Despite the rhetoric that issues forth from the Establishment about how these degrees ensure professionalism, Gross shows that they are less than rigorous. Today, those who would be high-school English teachers in America or in British Columbia take courses entitled History and Philosophy of Education, Educational Psychology, and Curriculum Development, rather than cutting their teeth on such hearty fare as Chaucer, Milton, the Eliots, Austen, and Melville. Where once those who would teach English were expected to have memorized many of Shakespeare’s sonnets and to have a burning desire to explain his plays—in short, to believe that their task was to impart to their charges what they have digested of Western Civilization—today’s products of education faculties are run through a series of courses in educational psychology designed to teach them (the irony here is rarely noticed) that the teacher’s role is to be a “facilitator” or “guide on the side” who helps kids discover what they need from literature. Gross captures this attitude perfectly when he quotes a Professor of Education in Connecticut saying, “Passing on the accumulated knowledge of society from one generation to the next is not the goal of education. It may have been at one time, but society is changing and education with it.” Readers familiar with the debates about the deleterious effects postmodernism has had on North American universities (cultural relativism, political correctness, and all that) will be surprised to find that Gross doesn’t blame Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault or even Friedrich Nietzsche for the odd beliefs of Professors of Education. Rather, he points to Sigmund Freud or, to be more precise, his North American legacy and John Dewey. As a quick check of Dewey’s works shows, his debt to Freud was close to nil. In fact, through his praise of his Columbia University colleague, William Heard Kilpatrick, Dewey actually aligned himself with E.L. Thorndike because Kilpatrick argued that Thorndike’s proto-Skinnarian views were the foundation for the “learn-by-doing” technique that Dewey and Kilpatrick popularized (in 1929, the latter lectured in Ottawa). But in a larger sense, Dewey and his followers, as Gross notes, partook of Freud’s most important North American effect: the psychologicalization of everyday life. Neither his American followers surveyed by Gross nor such Canadians as E.T. Sleman, who headed the Ottawa Normal School through the 1920s, and Adelaide Hoodless, who, in the same years, was fighting for home education in Toronto’s schools, spoke of the Oedipus Complex or Dreamwork. But together, these educrats created a philosophy of education that could legitimately be called the pleasure principle. Doctors of Education believe and teach teachers to believe, and educrats on both sides of the border write policy documents that stress, that learning has nothing to do with memorization (which is held to stifle individual development) and everything to do with students’ feelings of “happiness” and “self-esteem”. These are fostered, prospective teachers learn, by learning activities that are “fun” and “exploratory”. Thus the logic of creative spelling and, Gross notes, the redefinition of reading from decoding a text using specific strategies like phonics to a “psycholinguistic guessing game” which does not have many, if any, wrong answers. Thus the logic of grade inflation, which, Gross notes, is rampant in the education faculties themselves, where the average grade is A- compared to the B- recorded by science students. Gross missed some fine Canuck examples to buttress his claim that educrats believe that they should be “following the social work/psychology model rather than that of the time-tested instructor, which is [better, was] the university paradigm.” Five years after Mike Harris became Ontario’s Premier, the province’s schools in Ottawa have self-esteem corners and signs over washroom mirrors that say, “You are now looking at the most important person in the history of the world”; the province’s schools are still mandated to make students “feel that their culture and identity are affirmed by the educational system.” The teachers who were grading the 1998 British Columbia province-wide writing test of nine-, thirteen-, and fifteen-year-olds were on the lookout for tell-tale signs of abuse that might show up in answers to the question, “What does home mean to you?” Some forty-six papers were turned over to provincial authorities. Teachers‚ associations, and faculties of education across the nation have argued vociferously against the return to report cards with grades that rank children’s performance, often saying that such ranking can damage children’s self-esteem because it makes them think they did not do well. The most original part of Gross’ book comes in a chapter entitled “Middle School and High School”. Most readers would agree that the high-school English teacher who ordered Gross to rip up his freshman-class‚ first writing assignments with the words, “You used to be boys, but now you’re men”, and then told him and his classmates to get their butts down to New York’s main research library and read professional journals for three weeks so that they could learn to write a publishable paper, was more than a bit crazed. But Gross’ point is serious, if anathema to educrats: as presently structured, high schools all but guarantee widespread “intellectual underdevelopment”. Grades 9, 10, 11, and 12 should not simply follow grade 8, for “prior to puberty children can absorb information. But the independent concept of the intellect—intelligence stored up, then arranged in equational form—begins at puberty. From thirteen on, intently for perhaps five years more, the mind is extra active more so then at any other time before or after, developing methods of taking in, processing and organizing information.” High schools fail kids by offering them cafeteria-style courses that do little but pander to teenagers’ innate laziness. Rather, cognizant of this biology, high schools should be redesigned. Medieval universities enrolled students at thirteen. Intellectual fires cannot be lit by a curriculum that boasts of its eclecticism, that grants credits for such courses as “Bachelor Living”, that, as begins this year in Ontario, grants credits for mandatory volunteerism. Will she who stuffs the most envelopes get both high-school credits and the Golden Staples Award? Intellectual fires can be lit, Gross says, by a rigorous curriculum presented by teachers who believe that their area of expertise is rather more important than their students’ subjective sense of how happy they are. Gross’ program would require further expenditures, but not for hardware, software or (love that neologism) learnware. No, he calls for schools to invest more in that most vilified of educational technologies, the textbook. Which means, of course, that he believes that that most hated of activities—homework—has real value. Both fly in the face of the Establishment’s beliefs that, 1) students must discover the world for themselves, and 2) work should be done in groups. Textbooks, even the legions of badly written ones, are hierarchical, but not arbitrarily so. They testify to the belief that the raison d’être of public education is to impart, as Matthew Arnold put it, “the best which has been thought and said in the world” to each and every student, whether or not he or she finds it particularly relevant on a Tuesday afternoon. The iconography of the student pouring over a textbook offends the neo-Deweyite belief that learning is a social process tout court. The lone math student struggling over a theorem is not coming to grips with math as a “personal and social experience”; her peers matter not a wit. If there is one part of Gross’ argument that I hope Canadians will not embrace, it is his wearied acceptance of vouchers and charter schools—and not just because in 1999 mismanagement and financial irregularities forced Alberta’s Minister of Education to take control of several of the province’s pioneer charter schools. As Gross shows, we know what’s wrong and more or less what needs to be done to fix it. We lack the same thing the Americans lack: political will. We lack the politicians who will ignore the nostrums of the educrats and direct their departments to create rigorous curricula. We lack Ministers of Education who are willing to direct their schools to get out of the social work business and tend their own gardens. We lack both the political and parental will to support teachers who issue report cards that detail failure. It’s easy to see why Gross might feel that it’s “time to fold ‘em”; but to do so means admitting that those we have entrusted with educating out kids have successfully gambled away our system. • Dr. Nathan M. Greenfield is the Canadian Correspondent for the Times Education Supplement and the Pop Culture Historian for CBC Radio One’s Definitely Not the Opera.

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