A Rose is a Nose is a Hose

Education by any other name…

If we cut through the bullshit, education is about a quality of life being prepared for. It is about forming the conditions that allow for personal choices. It is about those informed personal choices aggregating into sound social choices. And it is about the summary social choices forming the basis of a sustainable and biologically complete relationship with the ecology in which we live. Education that does not meet fully all of these primary human requirements is something else no matter what we call it: a cactus called a cushion is still a cactus.

Much of what is done in the name of “education” today militates against the above assertions. As a demographic in the USA, young humans do not learn to read with proficiency. They do not learn to do numbers with proficiency. They do not learn to think and problem solve with reason and logic. They don’t internalize feelings of success and accomplishment with the process of learning new things. A selected (both societally selected and self-selected) group do acquire these skills and behaviors, but not enough for the comfort of the nation or the safety of the species.The CIA World Fact Book reports 99% literacy for the US, but that is a measure of the lowest possible level of literacy. Other compilations of data suggest 80% literacy as a more illuminating measure and that many more people are limited in their life choices by not being able to accurately decode and use information from reading and numbers. It is very likely that half of adults are materially impacted. I have yet to find a data based speculation on the percentages that we should accept as reasonable.

A few great and orderly minds, and thousands of confused ones, have bent their efforts to this system of wheels. And rather than discovering solutions, the confusions and inefficiencies have increased. This is a data point.

The young people – almost every one – both accept as vital for their future the need of schooling and reject, at varying levels, the doing of schooling. We, the society, have come to see this abominable consequence as natural: kids will be kids will be lids. This is a data point.

The herding together of great numbers of children, organizing them into adult led groups of 20 to 30 and variously entertaining and alarming them for 5 to 7 hours most weekdays in the non-summer months has become one of the largest businesses in the world. The primary activity consumes nearly half of state budgets and some small percentage of the federal budget. There are, in the USA, a little over 50 million children in public school and nearly 10 million in private school. At about $11,000 per child that is a yearly cost of almost 700 billion dollars (2007 numbers). And this does not consider all suppliers of educational services or other related activities from personal school supplies, band instruments to cheerleader movies. This is a data point.

It is universally accepted that young humans need to be skilled in a variety of arts to get along successfully in the world. It is also generally agreed that the complexities of day’s behaviors and employments require specialists to hold on to, advance and impart to others these skills. This is a data point.

No one knows for sure what people actually need to know now or will need to know as the world changes more and more rapidly, other than that people will need to make better and better informed decisions and be able to learn new things quickly as the slack in our world is taken up by our numbers, the environmental damage we have caused and the dramatic changes that are going to be forced on how we do economies. At a time when we, collectively, need to be more and more biophysically correct in our actions, our capacity to communicate those needs seem more and more limited by the acquired skills of the people. This is a data point.

There are two decisions that we, as a society, must make immediately: 1) Is the economy and politics in the service of the people or are the people in service of the economy (and subservient to a tiny minority of economically and politically powerful humans)? And, 2) are young humans to learn to be fully effective human beings or are they to be animate tools of production and consumption? I am not offering these questions rhetorically. There are great forces gathered and prepared to fight for their answers. There are other questions, but they are largely created arguments designed to hide agendas, for example, the religion vs. science flap is cover for the dumbing down of the multitude as well as a pretext for cutting funding.

If we imagine these forces pulling on the daily practice of education like the center marker on the tug-of-war rope over what has become a mud pit, you get a bit of the feel of what is like to be a teacher. Those who teach have almost uniformly agreed on several of the above issues (young humans as individually valuable; the usefulness of high levels of language, mathematical and historical literacy; the value of rational logical problem solving skills and the goal of personal power and independence of thought). It is these very agreements that put much of the education community at odds with other powerful societal forces that, while they seldom are so blunt, see the multitude as economic fodder and a waste of money to educate beyond a certain level of mechanical functionality; even see general education as a danger to their privilege.

It is this tug-of-war that is a major source of education’s troubles – along with other issues. How to do education to meet teacher’s goals is reasonably clear in the research, and has been since the beginning of public schools: small classes in small schools staffed with enthusiastic knowledgeable teachers who have genuine respect for life and caring for the young of our species. This pretty much describes the situation in the best private schools. There is no tug-of-war here. Everyone values the students and respects their need for all forms of literacy and capacity growth.

The money side of public education could be solved with another 100 billion dollars. That amount of money could add about a million teachers (about a 20% increase) and increase the salaries of most of the rest to levels that would attract people who would like to teach but simply cannot afford to (and certainly there should be serious restructuring to make education less of a cash cow for the unscrupulous). The new teachers would reduce class size and increase variety. The educational environment would be immediately better and could begin incremental improvement toward meeting the teacher’s goals.

When I was in business, and I suspect this is true for every CATO Institute libertarian who would shut down public education, if offered the choice between a tool that cost 7 thousand dollars that only half meet my needs and one that cost 8 thousand dollars that met my needs, I bought the more expensive tool. I was never wrong in such a choice and several times wrong when I made the other.

We cannot do America as originally envisioned and as a continuing experiment in popular democracy without an educated population. Private education for all, like private health care, is a sophistry from an economic minority that has become insane in their privilege and whose vision of America is as a fascist oligarchy. They would seemingly deny the very thing that has allowed them to become wealthy in the first place – the capacity of the multitude to act responsibly and economically in the world.

If the class war that is being waged against education were to end, then education could and would have to clean its own house. Pinned down and sniped at from many directions, teachers, as do others in this situation, tend to turn on each other. A thousand plans, projects, paradigms and plagues compete with the attacks of right wingers and left wingers and non-wingers for the educator’s time, attention and courage. I will give but one example that occurred a few days ago.2) Since retiring from business I returned to teaching in a small public high school. For over half the students, English is a second language. I have seldom been in the company of such bright and charming human beings or ones so thoroughly confused as to their prospects and needs for the future.

A well-meaning “professional development” person took our beyond valuable time to train us on how “star” teachers teach. This a doubly maddening and demeaning for professionals who are working 60 or more hours a week with lesson plans, lesson research, classroom maintenance, grading, individual student consultation, grading some more, reporting grades in various required formats, contacting parents – and classroom contact time – and who have only 3 hours a week in which to meet together as a group to plan, support, commiserate and attempt to create a functioning school community.

Leaping off the page of “my reading” were these words embedded in a soup of educationese: “They think in words of ordinary language.” They being “star” teachers! I wondered aloud: why, if it is ordinary language that we are to use, is it that we don’t simply and ordinarily refer to ‘good’ teachers. But this has become a world where the word ‘problem’ is replaced with a ‘delta’ (used in science expressions to indicate change) and the word ‘should’ shouldn’t be used. The rest of the readings were of the rhetorical sort: this is bad, don’t do it; this is good, do it. (We were supposed to make a drawing to illustrate our reading.) But even there a self-protective ideological purity was foisted off as didactic perfection. Behavioral psychology bad; Vygotsky good. This sort of wisdom followed by an anti-intellectualism that was supposed to pass for knowledge of psychological processes.

Teachers should be more than casually informed of the best understandings of psychological research and they should use that understanding in their work, but not in isolation. We have become so afraid of criticism that we can’t even criticize ourselves and have to hide our discomfort in silly games called professional development. I would never have tried these kinds of things with employees. The expectations were that the work was done and the truth was told. If I messed up I needed to know right then. There were clients and there were deadlines; there were working machines and broken machines; there were no deltas.

That is the part of business (not big business, but every small struggling business) that I would bring to teaching: telling everyone the truth before it gets any age on it. Working together and trusting the other person. Creating a sense of ownership of both the product and the institution. The things that every truly successful small business person knows how to do. I could hire someone to keep the books and keep the calendar, but it was an important part of my job to make an honest image of the possible a real and worthwhile thing to the people who worked with me.

Bring on Vygotsky and bring on Skinner and learn from them both. Say the things you mean and don’t mince words. Education in America needs to be a socialist institution supported by everyone to the extent necessary to produce powerful, independent minded people who know a lot and can use that knowledge (and it is self-serving bull shit to say that public education can’t do that). If we are spending 700 billion now and it is not enough, then spending less is simple madness. If a thousand billion is the right amount, then spend it. This is one place where the return is always significantly greater than the investment. But the investment is for everyone by everyone, and cannot easily be secreted away as the spoils of “royal privilege.”

What we do with and for our young is the true measure of our beliefs, and will be the true cause of our success or failure as a nation and as a species. There are those who claim that the USA is the most advanced nation on the earth; if that is so, then we should be treating all of our young humans better than any other nation by preparing them for a human and sustaining future as a clear demonstration of our superior values.

James Keye is the nom de plume of a biologist and psychologist who after discovering a mismatch between academe and himself went into private business for many years. His whole post-pubescent life has been focused on understanding at both the intellectual and personal levels what it is to be of the human species; he claims some success. Email him at: jkeye1632@gmail.com. Read other articles by James, or visit James's website.