Tuesday, February 17, 2009

On Education

(This is the first in a series of essays prepared for a couple of beginning college freshman – one at American University and the other at the University of Southern California. The assumption that proceeds all of these is that true education comes after class.)

If you are looking for an education, you probably will not find it at the schoolhouse. For too many Americans, the mandatory 12 years and the optional four years of schooling is a deferment from life. A high school diploma does not guarantee you can read. A college degree will not guarantee you can write. And no number of advanced degrees can certify that you will ever be able to think for your self. Education can not be forced. Universal “education” (aka the public school system) is predicated on two flawed assumptions: all people can learn and all people want to learn.

So before you squander part of your lives and all of your youth, we should make a few distinctions.

School is not a synonym for education. In the last 60 years, the object of schooling has morphed from learning to credentials. Thus, diplomas and degrees are not necessarily accomplishments. Today, there are institutions where a well matriculated hamster could get a diploma or baccalaureate. You already know the mantra. High school graduates make more money than dropouts; college graduates make more than high school grads. There may be a link between learning and earning but it has nothing to do with schooling as we know it.

Learning has been subverted by credentials. Grades, promotions, diplomas and degrees are often a function of social concerns and misguided notions of affirmative action. An illiterate professional footballer recently enrolled in the adult literacy program at the Lab School in Washington, DC. He was a graduate of primary, secondary, and college programs in the State of Texas. Academic credentials often represent social ransom not achievement. Feeling good is the new being good. And you seldom hear about the home scholars and drop outs that change the world or become billionaires. If urban public schools could be sued for malpractice, the system would collapse in a year.

Public schools at the primary and secondary levels are government monopolies, a kind of municipal day care. They are also a civic tautology; mandatory taxes for mandatory schools. They exist because the law says they must. And because attendance is compulsory, their fist mandate is custody – learning is optional. Armed guards and metal detectors are standard features of the urban school. The public community college and university is an extension of primary and secondary school logic. If twelve years in public custody are good, sixteen must be better. Education is possible in a public school; it is likely almost anywhere else.

The so-called “education system” is the largest single private and public employer in the country. If your parents send you to private school, they pay twice. First for the public school you don’t attend and then for the private school you do attend. Such a hustle is bound to attract grifters: school systems are magnets for fraud and mediocrity.

An old adage says that those who can, do; and those who can’t, teach. There is much more than a grain of truth in this folk wisdom. A brief survey of public school teachers and text books tells the tale.

An Education degree or “certificate” is the necessary credential for primary and secondary school instructors. Indeed, most administrators and principals possess advanced Education degrees. Thus at every level, the “how” of teaching is emphasized at the expense of the “what”: method trumps substance throughout. The substance vacuum is compounded by the devalued currency of Education degrees. Consistent research finds that Education majors test well below the bottom of the academic pile. The dregs of academia are thus preordained to become primary, middle and high school teachers, and principals – the untutored leading the uneducated.

Conditions are not much better at the college and university level – for different reasons.

We now have a very large class of instructors who have no life experience but every academic credential. Indeed they spend their entire life at the academy. And substantive superstars in the cloisters do not teach; they spend as little time in the classroom as possible. Such savants are expected to research or write. Most of the research is derivative and most of the writing is drivel - resume fodder or text books.

The text book racket is notorious. Over-priced books, most of which have no use beyond the class room, are the mandatory expenses for a captive audience. Assistants on the make and tenured professors regularly commend each other’s texts to the various departments. Every few years, Professor Avarice changes ‘happy to glad’ and a new edition and another revenue stream is created. Never mind that definitive classics already exist for most subjects. Never mind that these might be available on line or in any library. Need we mention that the campus book store is a revenue stream for the school. Text books are the perfect cash cow - or circle jerk – depending on whether you’re buying or selling.

Nonetheless, the most pernicious influences on schools are tenure and unions. At all levels, tenure is a euphemism for permanent employment devoid of merit. Two examples are definitive. In Manhattan there is a high rise in New York City where teachers who have been removed from the classroom, for cause, are warehoused at taxpayer expense. Some are child molesters. They have been removed from class but not from the payroll. They are protected by contract, union mandates and tradition. Children, unfortunately, have no similar protection.

Tenure is no less of a problem for higher education. In the nation’s capital, a school president was recently removed from office for making obscene phone calls to a day care center. After several months of “rehabilitation”, he was returned to the classroom at full salary with all the perks of academic tenure. Ironically, the school in question calls itself American University. Such is the way of American tenure.

This quality deficit is compounded by toxic politics. Almost every text used at the primary and secondary level is tainted by political revisionism. At higher levels the American academy has been hijacked by the totalitarian left. The recent fiasco at Harvard is instructive. The president, a male, was fired because he had made some innocuous remarks about differences between males and female. The only politically correct vision of women in the academy is that they are men without giblets. They only correct view of men is that they are not women - and therefore clueless brutes or gay.

Ironically, academic feminists are captive to a kind of self-serving sexual hypocrisy. When coeds fall under the spell of some male lecturer with a good rap, the next thing they are likely to hear is the sound of a zipper going south. Male academics have traditionally seen female students as one of their academic perks. Indeed, a Georgetown scholar once observed: “The advantage of teaching, over other professions, is that, unlike your wife, the girls never get any older”. It’s not just that women tolerate this kind of exploitation; they now seem to participate with gusto. If we can believe what we read in the Press, the distaff pedant has few boundaries – including sex with minors.

Beyond the politics of sex, many campuses have become permanent refuges for all manner of neo-Marxist ideologues. These are not just the Chomskys (University of Chicago) who rave against democracy and capitalism – the very things that make his brand of political nihilism possible. Worse still, many universities actually seek out former criminals, terrorists, ‘community activivists’ and assorted bomb throwers and give them tenure in the name of diversity. The line between professor and propagandist has been obliterated. Many a campus has become the employer of last resort for the social flotsam and political bong resin of the last century.

So what’s a girl to do? Can you swim in this sludge? Is it possible to learn and get an education? Ironically, even in a swamp, the good bits float to the top. Today, any student with a modest triple digit IQ has a leg up when you consider the caliber of peer and pedagogue you are likely to encounter.

Nonetheless, forewarned is forearmed. In another time, there was a clear consensus on faculty qualifications and student study requirements. Until the turn of the last century a genuine scholar might speak the vernacular and Latin - and have a working knowledge of Greek and Hebrew in addition to some specialty expertise in the natural sciences. Don’t look for any of these guys in your faculty lounge.

A serious student would be required to master ethics and rhetoric before dabbling in the natural sciences. Back in the day, rhetoric would include logic, reading, writing and public speaking. The natural sciences are all those ‘ics’ and ‘ologies’ parsed by Aristotle and refined during the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. A classical education would also include the great books – the canon of “dead white men.”

Given the circus of political correctness and assorted distractions on today’s campus, you could do worse than model your personal academic goals on the classic model.

If you have no sense of ethics or morals, you will be rudderless before you leave port. Ethics is simply an understanding of the historical consensus about right and wrong; indeed, the basis of all law and civil behavior. In the old school, ethics was first among equals; should do was always superior to can do. You might have to transfer to Hillsdale College to find an ethics course.

Rhetoric was the anchor for all specialized learning. Thinking logically, reading critically, writing coherently and speaking persuasively are the real prerequisites for any field of study or profession. Master these rhetorical skills and the world, academic or professional, is your oyster.

If you are ever to be truly learned, you must also get up to your ear lobes in the dead man’s (or women’s) canon. Classics on any subject are classics for a reason. Two illustrations follow.

If you were to explore the subject of atheism, you could do no better than to read Graham Greene or Dostoyevsky. Their life’s work is an exposition of the subject. The value added with dead authors is that they are always more entertaining than live professors.

And so it is with subjects like poetry, prose and stage craft. You can do no better than to read Shakespeare. (He never went to college.) And the value added here is not just entertainment, but a slow epiphany that will allow you to see that the bard is a lot like your mother and father; as you get older, they get smarter.

One more dead white guy until our next conversation. Hemingway believed that the secret of good prose was knowing what to throw out. In the next four years or more you will encounter a blizzard of bravo sierra and a host of charming charlatans. Please, know what and who to throw out of you lives. Good luck ladies!


G Murphy

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