Sunday, October 20, 2013

What do we want from our schools?

Follow the link to The Anchoress’ page, and read as people bemoan the ignorance displayed by American College Students as Rhonda Fink-Whitman, author of the historical novel 94 Maidens, pounces on them with questions about World War II, the Holocaust, and genocide today. Not only do they moan, they also point fingers, search for causes, and wonder whether a legally mandated curriculum is an appropriate remedy.

One comment, from “Patrick”, didn’t attract attention from anyone but me:

Yeah, well; I aced the advanced placement European history test and was first place in the geography bee, and got the highest grade possible in Advanced American history ... And I can’t say that I’ve led a good life and certainly not a happy one ... So, you know — it doesn’t matter a tinker’s dam to me that I can tell you, in detail, about the Boer War or something.

I’m not surprised no one engaged this bit of educational heresy. Them What Has Bin Eddicated take it for granted that Knowledge is Power®, that those who do well in school generally do better in other areas of life, that to have letters after your name like M.Sc. or Ph.D. will open more doors for you and make you a better person than will a mere G.E.D. If you can’t leverage your education into a good, happy life — oh, well; sucks to be you.

All of which is true in general terms; yet I can’t mock Patrick for expecting knowledge of the Boer War, the Treaty of Westphalia or the bimetallism question to lead him to Elysian fields. Why? Because then he would be well within his rights to ask me, “If it’s not guaranteed to make me a better, happier person, then what’s it good for? Why bother with it?”

How do we answer?

Let me rephrase the question: “To what end are we educating our students?” Here is the great vagueness of final cause which plagues education policy (and discussion thereof).

Say what you will about Common Core — and many people say many things about it, some of which are true — the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers had an answer to this question. Of all the criticism I’ve read from both the left and the right, aimlessness hasn’t figured as a charge against the standards they’ve developed. Au contraire, part of the left’s beef with CC is that it’s presumably meant to develop students into the kind of employee Big Business wants to hire, which is why there’s supposedly more emphasis on scientific and technical writing than on literary works — though, according to CCSS’ published standards and suggestions for texts, literature qua literature isn’t ignored or given that short a shrift.

Now, why schools producing graduates businesses would want to hire is wrong I leave to your imaginations to answer. My point here is simply that they had an idea of what a graduate’s knowledge base and skill set would include to make her a desired hire. They want our schools to produce something more specific than just “a citizen of the world” — one of the most gaseous, meaningless buzzphrases ever foisted on the ears of the world.

To take another case, we can look at St. Jerome Academy in Hyattsville, Md. As you read through the school’s education plan, you realize that the planners had a clear, sharp idea, a firm grasp of what they wanted kids to learn and why … such a clear idea that a child who masters the course of study they lay out will probably not be sufficiently challenged by the courses of the local high schools. The school plan is everything Dorothy L. Sayers could have desired when she called for the reintroduction of the classical education plan in 1947, and yet has flexibility sufficient to embrace elements of multiculturalism without subordinating educational or moral standards to it in the name of “tolerance”. Might someone have substantive objections to it? I’m quite sure. But again, the point is that the planners knew what they wanted out of the education process — at least up to the eighth-grade level — and the plan shows it.

Whether you’re talking about Common Core or the modernized classical education, one thing that objectors generally have in common is that they don’t have a better idea mapped out. They’ll have a principle or two — government shouldn’t be involved; Big Business shouldn’t be involved; sex shouldn’t be taught; kids should get free pills and condoms — and they’ll be convinced that Our Kids Need to Be Taught; but what they should be taught, to what end, and how they should be taught all get scant attention. Some even try to convince us that there’s no real problem to solve, usually by misinterpreting the most recent Trends in International Mathematics and Science Survey (TIMSS); but if parents, employers and former students aren’t satisfied with the current end product, then arguing that we’re not really doing all that bad is irrelevant.

So what kind of person do we want our schools to turn out? Do we want all our schools to be college prep, American equivalents of the German Gymnasiums? Or do we want to keep a track open for a more general education, one that looks to targeted certification courses for vocational development? Do we want to structure our schools to comply with the International Baccalaureate program? Or do we want to use the Cambridge International Exams as a prerequisite to graduation?

As Catholics, there are other ugly truths we must face: CCD programs were never as effective as Catholic schools are/were at forming children in the faith. Moreover, when public schools “socialize” children, it doesn’t just mean that children are taught how to behave in social situations; rather, it also means that the teachers use group and institutional behavior to influence the students’ values, attitudes and beliefs — in some areas, to influence them in directions which run directly counter to the Catholic faith. I fully believe that Common Core will not stop, let alone reverse, the subversion of public schools into progressive indoctrination camps hostile to religion in general, Christianity in proximate, and Catholicism in specific.

Therefore, we face the challenge of resurrecting the parochial school, with the additional challenge of doing it without any government funding, essentially creating a parallel school system while our taxes still support public schools — for the State will never let us opt out of that. And whatever standards we adopt for those schools will have to meet if not surpass those of Common Core (or whatever other set of standards eventually replaces it), so the non-Catholics can’t reasonably complain that we under-educate our own.

But as long as we’re still citizens and still paying into the system, we ought to have a voice in the kind of graduate public schools turn out. So it behooves us to not just gainsay Common Core or the way it’s being implemented but to offer something better. We know we don’t want college students who are ignorant of comparatively recent history. But it’s not enough to know what we don’t want. When we can say clearly and thoughtfully what we do want, we might have a chance of getting it.