Thursday, April 02, 2009

Something’s Wrong

Something’s wrong. Terribly wrong.  It’s not our political environment. It’s not our economy. It’s not our foreign policy. All of which are wrong but not terribly wrong. 

What’s terribly wrong is our thinking – or lack of it. I don’t mean those currently in power are progressives that feel their way through a problem and not think it through resulting in dreams of appeasing those who would do us harm in the name of pursuing utopia. 

Nor do I mean the conservative/capitalist leadership that also has thrown out rationale thinking in the pursuit of money and influence. 

No, neither one of those are  what’s terribly wrong

Because you see, what’s terribly wrong is that the world is being run by C students. 

It occurred to me that something was amiss. Something very basic, primitive – even feral that is the result of our leadership in all levels of society with the inability to THINK

I refer you to an article and speech by Donald Simanek entitled The Decline of Education. 

There is a dark underbelly to education over the last 40 years. One that has produced our C level leaders. 

First is motivation of the students themselves. 

Try as we might to maintain grading standards in the sciences, we are under great pressure to adapt to the grade inflation that has caused some departments on campus to give nothing but A and B grades, even to students who never 'crack a book.' In some 'disciplines' the only way to get a C or below is to annoy the instructor, or fail to attend class! It does seem that the disciplines that have shown the greatest grade inflation are those where the course 'content' is mostly 'hot air.' 

I've even had students ask, with some indignation, "Why must we work so hard in a physics course to get a measly C when we can get A's in non-science courses without ever studying?" I respond, "Why should there be any course on campus you can get an A in without studying? 

I once taught a course where one student scored nearly 100% on every one of my exams, while no one else could score above 50%. Several students got up courage to confront me and complain that I was making the course "too hard for anyone." I pointed out that it was obviously not too hard for the student doing nearly perfect work. They responded, 'That's not fair--he studies all the time!" They were not at all happy when I suggested they try copying his method for success. 

Next are the qualities of teachers. 

But teachers as a group, compared to other academics, fare poorly in many measures of academic competence, and there's widespread concern that we are not attracting the best people into elementary and secondary teaching. This fact is not new. Way back in the 50s, those dark ages when I was in high school and college, a recurrent concern among educators was "Can the schools produce enough talented and educated persons for the country's future manpower needs." Leaf through journals of the 50s and early 60s and you will see many papers addressing this problem. 

Those teachers choosing physics and mathematics have higher average academic ability than teachers in other fields. Those at the top of the distribution are quite capable in their discipline. Some of your colleagues back home, however, are probably a bit lower down, about at the average for jocks. And those at the very bottom of the curve have probably already become administrators. Many of those were once jocks. Those are the folk who tell you how you should teach and manage your classrooms! 

Then, the ‘academic’ courses themselves. 

And then my files are stuffed with a dreary morass of newspaper clippings about college credit being offered for courses in frisbee, mountain biking, gourmet cooking, spiritualism, new-age philosophy, etc. etc. ad nauseum. And then came the clamor, still going on, to give equal time to so-called 'scientific creationism' if evolution is taught. Then there's pressure to ban books from the library that aren't 'politically correct.' Many schools have capitulated to such political and religious pressures, and to the clamor for a smorgasbord menu of courses. Have the schools lost all sense of their mission? Have educators no shame? 

You folks teaching in high schools have the toughest job. If you teach in a large metropolitan school, you probably have many students with an aggressive indifference to anything academic, and hostile reluctance to doing any hard academic work. Some students are better armed than you are. Many have inadequate parental support. Most are more influenced by peer pressures than by academic pressures. You, as teachers, are expected to deal with all of society's problems, drug abuse, teenage sex practices, broken homes, etc. Society's social problems are dumped on the schools. There's precious little time left for academic concerns. You must accomplish the impossible, while dealing with administrators who are often your intellectual inferiors, and school boards worse still. 

If you went to school in 50s, you should remember how education was back then. 

When I was in high school in the early 50s, our small-town rural school provided only academic instruction. It offered no sex education, no drug education, no aids education, no driver education. The only concession to non-academic areas was shop (for the boys), home economics (for the girls) and sports (for the entertainment of parents and community). But these non- academic intrusions were but a small fraction of the total. Our entire school (K through 12) was managed by just one person (the superintendent) who didn't even have a secretary and who also taught one course each term. And in every classroom, from kindergarten to the senior level, all the desks were bolted to the floor! Today some educators think you can't have true education unless the seats are mobile and can be pulled into a circle. Golly, our education must have really been inferior, with seats bolted down. How things have changed in fewer than 40 years! 

If you teach at a suburban or rural school today, social problems may be less noticeable, but you still must deal with administrators and school boards who don't understand, nor care about, academic excellence in the same sense that we understand it. And in all school systems, large or small, you must cope with local political pressures. 

Some of you must teach from textbooks chosen by a selection committee that includes people who are physics and math illiterate. High school science textbooks are written by hacks who don't understand science very well themselves

Why do teachers put up with it? For the money? That's a laugh. Ten or 15 years ago some of the best teachers left the profession for jobs in industry, easily doubling their salaries when they made the switch. Economic opportunities in alternate occupations are not so prevalent now, but we are still losing some of our best teachers because they are unwilling to put up with the B. S. they must endure in our schools. 

Teachers today must also put up with a monumental lack of respect. Lack of respect from students goes with the territory. Now, more than ever, parents and other taxpayers harbor the notion that teachers have 'cushy' jobs, with light loads, and summer vacations, that they are virtually guaranteed employment (through tenure) and are getting rich on their pay, medical coverage, fringe benefits and lavish retirement plans. 

He sites an example how those that know are overridden by those who see education as politics. 

A high school physics teacher in rural Pennsylvania told me this story: A lackluster student mentioned to him that he was going to a nearby university to major in engineering. The teacher said things along these lines: "How do you expect to do that? Your grades are really poor in math and science, you've shown complete indifference in my physics course, and you haven't taken any of the other 'college prep' courses. Engineering is a demanding field. You'll be competing with others much better prepared. You really ought to talk this over with our guidance counselor who could steer you toward a career more suited to your ability and preparation." 

The student went to the guidance counselor, who considered the matter, and the student's record, and said pretty much the same thing. The student's parents threatened to sue the guidance counselor, for 'discouraging the student.' You can guess the rest. The school principal reprimanded the guidance counselor, and the threat of a suit was dropped. The student applied to that college, in engineering, and in spite of his dismal academic record, was accepted. That college may be the one where I teach. 

In 1994 (Feb 27, 1994) ABC news reported on schools in Kansas City, Missouri. There an ailing and underfunded school system was given a jump start with a huge infusion of money for new and lavish school buildings with lots of computers, athletic facilities, drama facilities, higher pay for teachers, a limit of 24 on class size, and a magnet school concept to encourage better integration. Students loved these new schools, which are neat, clean and graffiti-free. Where's the story? The math and English scores of students in these marvelous schools have shown no improvement. Many students still sleep through classes, and do little or no homework. 

I've said it before, and it needs to be engraved in needlepoint and hung over the desks of every teacher and administrator: 

      IN EDUCATION, NOTHING WORKS IF THE STUDENTS DON'T. 

What does he see as the central purpose of education? 

There is only one purpose, the development of powers of the mind. All other functions of education should serve that one purpose

Without the development of powers of the mind, we end up with C level leaders. We end up with political, financial, economic and foreign policy crises the resist the attempts at real solutions because they are being dealt with by C level leadership – across the entire spectrum of our society.

I'll leave it to you to think about individual examples of our Grade C level leadership.

4 Comments:

  • I hold the line on the standard for the courses I teach. Some parents, however, resent my doing so and withdraw their children because their self-esteem has been threatened.

    We have a generation which is, in some ways, illiterate, rearing the next generation.

    And, yes, the ultimate result is inadequate political, financial, economic and foreign policy leadership.

    The cycle is self-perpetuating and depressing. Minds are become undesirable, and feelings and self-esteem are desirable.

    How do we break this cycle? I don't believe that my little dent is making much difference, particularly when the students I teach move on to the university level, where they are dumbed down.

    By Blogger Always On Watch, at 11:04 AM  

  • Hi, WC...Am linking to this..
    Always directed me here...great way to start a weekend (heh heh)

    You know, I'm beginning to think it's ALL about education: History education so nobody'd dream of doing what's happening now because it's so against the dreams of our founding fathers...economics education because nobody'd dream of doing what's happening now knowing we're putting our grandkids into great debt they'll never come out from under...ethics education because nobody'd ever have dreamt we'd elect a man with even NEARLY the baggage Obama has in the way of friends and family history. Oh, man.

    Great post, WC...have a good weekend...maybe a martini will help!?

    By Blogger Z, at 11:15 AM  

  • I am having flashbacks as I read this post to students of mine who sit in class and "process oxygen" as I say. They do nothing but breathe.

    I have a student who causes no trouble at all in class. If he starts to talk to a student who is working I give him a dirty look and he stops. I spoke to other teachers and his mother. There seems to be nothing to do with this kid. I don't have a problem with him in class and neither does any other teacher.

    I asked why he came to school and he said to see his friends and girlfriend. Interesting. Oxygen processor.

    By Blogger Law and Order Teacher, at 12:45 PM  

  • In an article decrying the lack of education in this country, perhaps you should check your spelling: it is "cites", not "sites". Sheesh!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:25 AM  

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