Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Revolutionary Education

I love books and I even enjoy studying, but I hated school. I had been trying to get out of the sordid ordeal since I was three and was wholly unsuccessful. My eighteen-year-long education was a good one by any current standard and I came out of it quite alright, but my own experiences and observations have led me to the conclusion that our educational system is quite broken. This is an observation even the politicians and talking heads on the television share and as another president has come to office more educational "reform" is upon us. Unfortunately this plan is the same as the last: throwing money at the problem. This may be a satisfactory solution for someone who measures his success with opinion polls and newspaper column inches, but anyone concerned with the financial, economic, intellectual, and cultural well-being of the nation is bound to be disappointed.

Yet President Obama’s educational reforms share another trait with those of his predecessor, and this one is a philosophical trait: egalitarianism.  President Bush’s “No Child Left Behind Act,” told us that if we just test our children over and over again. . . well actually I cannot make any more sense of the law than that. President Obama’s program would make sure everyone could go to college and that. . . again, I am at a bit of a loss. Clearly, simply having standards and spending money cannot help a child learn, and simply paying for kids to go to college will not get them through. Yet we are told every child can, and must.

Let us tackle that first notion: that everyone can learn a given piece of knowledge. The theory that every child has some ability, some intelligence which can be tapped is the notion of Harvard Professor Howard Gardiner and which is known in academia as “The Theory of Multiple Intelligences.” This is, as you may guess, in contrast to the notion of a single intelligence element, often referred to as “g” (little “g.”) In an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Christopher Ferguson cuts to the point: there is little evidence to support “multiple intelligences” and much to support a unified one. The theory persists, though, because it is politically correct. Every parent likes to think that his or her child can succeed and the multiple intelligences theory, essentially an egalitarian philosophy and not an empirically proven observation, allows them to indulge that pleasant potential. When the student does poorly, it is not the child’s fault for being dim, it the system’s fault for failing him or the teacher’s fault for being unable to tap into his hidden genius. Often also off the table are external factors like the environment of the home and the priorities of the family.  The child is to be dropped off at school and picked up smarter, sort of an educational Martinizing.

I do not know from whence it came or when this notion took root in our educational system but its effects are apparent.  I can say, though, that two of our most educated and illustrious Founding Fathers, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, opposed the notion while still being passionate advocates for education. Indeed both men saw it as a bulwark of democratic society and culture. Adams summed its necessity best, writing in his diary at age 25, “I must judge for myself, but how can I judge, how can any man judge, unless his mind has been opened and enlarged by reading?” (McCullough, 223)  This belief ran so deep that both men saw education as an institution that must be coded into the law. Author of the Massachusetts Constitution, Adams wrote the following into Section II of Chapter 6 of the document:
Wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people being necessary or the preservation of their rights and liberties; and as these depend on spreading the opportunities and advantages of education in various parts of the country, and among the different orders of the people. . . (McCullough, 222)
It is also important to recognize that in the draft of the Massachusetts Constitution he penned, he described men as, “born equally free and independent” and it was the state legislature that changed it to “born free and equal.” (McCullough, 224) Men were equal under the law and equal in God’s eyes, but not equal in ability. Whatever the legislature the thought, they preferred Jefferson’s turn of phrase. But what did Jefferson mean?  I concur with Malone, that “The natural equality he talked about was not that of intellectual endowment, but as Lincoln so clearly perceived, he proclaimed for all time the dignity of human nature.” (Malone, 228)

Jefferson still of course believed in the value and necessity of an educated public, so much that he made proposals for a system for his own state of Virgina. It was to consist of a low-level education provided free for all [white] children, to which parents could continue to send their children beyond the norm, but for a fee, and a higher-level school funded mostly by the parents. “Only the youths of great native ability raked from the rubbish annually," and subjected thereafter to a specified process of elimination, were to be supported by the State. A final survivor of the competition was to be sent annually to the College of William and Mary, at the charge of the Commonwealth.” (Malone, 282) In “Notes on Virginia” Jefferson summarized his ideas:
. . . The ultimate result of the whole scheme of education would be the teaching all the children of the State reading, writing, and common arithmetic; turning out ten annually of superior genius, well taught in Greek, Latin, geography, and the higher branches of arithmetic; turning out ten others annually, of still superior parts, who, to those branches of learning, shall have added such of the sciences as their genius shall have led them to; the furnishing to the wealthier part of the people convenient schools at which their children may be educated at their own expense. (Malone, 283)
Jefferson believed, as did Adams, that ability to some extent varies.  It is not absent from or endemic to any particular economic or social group, it simply varies from individual to individual. Those individuals with intelligence, the intellectual aristocracy, had to be charged with the tasks of society only they could fill. So great was Jefferson’s belief that some men be found who were able to guard “the sacred deposit of the rights and liberties of their fellow citizens” that he sought to “make higher schooling available without charge to selected youths of marked native ability who would emerge from the unprivileged groups,” that society may not “leave the public welfare dependent on the accidental circumstances of wealth or birth.” (Malone, 282) Today, Jefferson would be skewered by every progressive activist and special interest group for using the word “rubbish” and suggesting there exists some innate aristocracy. Yet Jefferson has not a cold heart toward the intellectually unsophisticated, they are to be educated in the rudiments.

The simplicity of the Jeffersonian model hides its author's perceptiveness. To the chagrin and consternation of small-government advocates and laissez-fair capitalists (myself included), he does advocate publicly-funded education. Yet it is not because it is a natural right, but because an educated people is a prerequisite for any democracy (direct or indirect.) “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization,” he wrote, “it expects what never was and never will be.” Perhaps most importantly these ideas on education do not extend government beyond its intended role: securing individual rights. We cannot expect a people ignorant of their own history and system of government, and of its virtues and requirements, long to remain free. For example, it is important for people to understand the concepts of natural rights and republicanism, that they not themselves attempt, or be mislead by others, to increase or misuse government power. An uneducated individual is a threat to everyone's rights. However opponents of public education might disagree, Adams Jefferson’s thoughts offer instructive advice about any educational program and from their words I quote or infer several guidelines:
  1. If possible, parents must pay for their children’s education. 
  2. Some material is appropriate for curricula, others not.  
  3. The most resources should be devoted to the best students.
  4. Education is not a right: thus it can be denied if your child is disruptive, et cetera.
  5. We must acknowledge that some children will be below others in competence.
Jefferson sought both to broaden the general knowledge of the people and to raise up the gifted that they may do the most good. Today, these simple rules would sink the career of any political candidate who dared voice them.  Today, I see none of these principles in practice, rather I see their opposites.
  1. Some parents do not pay directly for the public schools they send their children to while parents who scrimp and save to send their children to private or parochial schools pay taxes toward a public educational system they do not use.
  2. Federal funds are doled out indiscriminately to universities, either completely blindly or by the pressures of special interest groups, funding who-knows-what programs.
  3. Teachers spend their time trying to find something low students can do while the more capable students languish, and millions of dollars are spent on personal aids for the still-lower students.
  4. Education is frequently identified as a right, effectively destroying classroom order since students cannot be reprimanded or expelled for behavior or rejected for advancement due to inability to advanced beyond a particular level, since they are “entitled” to the education.
  5. We expect the same results for all students, mistaking equal opportunity for equal outcome.
These ideas from Adams and Jefferson are practical steps toward stabilizing an educational system that is spiraling out of control in every way. These ideas are compatible with our system of government and the precepts of our society. They know no prejudice or discrimination. They give every child the most education he is receptive to. The security of our liberties and the vibrancy of our culture are at stake and we need a change in a rational direction. Perhaps the biggest step forward would be achieved by first glancing backward.

[1] Ferguson, Christopher J. Not Every Child Is Secretly a Genius. Article in The Chronicle of Higher Education. accessed 06/14/2009 (subscription required)
[2] Jefferson, Thomas. Jeffersonian Cyclopedia, The. Accessed 8/29/09
[3] Malone, Dumas. Jefferson the Virginian. Little, Brown and Company. Boston. 1948.
[4] McCullough, David. John Adams. Simon and Schuster Paperbacks. New York. 2001.

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