I published a very revised version of this post in The Water Tower.
This country provides its citizens with some amazing opportunities: the right to free speech; the right to fair trial; social welfare; free access to information; and the best hospitals, universities, and guns in the world, if you can afford them. And we’re all lucky to live in a nation that turns its young people into students, not laborers, or worse, soldiers. But even if you attended a top-rank high school, public or private, it should be no news to you that across the country, our students are lagging, our schools are crumbling, and it’s become much less taboo to seek options outside of public education and disastrously devalue the diploma.
This isn’t an issue of test scores. This isn’t even an issue of graduation rates, because they’re actually the highest they’ve been since 1974 at 78%, which should be a reason to celebrate. This is an issue of engagement: Americans, both students and parents, regularly assume that school is boring, if not cruel, and that it serves no purpose greater than keeping our kids off the streets. Even the media paints a picture of high school where it’s hard to excel or stand out in any way without being isolated, bullied, or thrown in detention. I know I entered high school thinking this was the norm, and I was shocked to discover than not all smart kids are nerdy, and not all nerds fit inside lockers. If that was how it used to be, then so be it; but we’re trying to move past that, so please don’t model your high school jock after John Travolta from Grease, and don’t give him a cell phone.
That aside, what we’ve witnessed is a cultural shift. Now that education is more readily available than it’s ever been, we’ve devalued it, and some people have even begun to take pride in their reaction against what should be our greatest privilege. We’ve heard the heroes of “Real America” label college as elitist and unnecessary, from fashionable bulldog Sarah Palin to badly-disguised-elitist Mitt Romney. More radical Tea Partyers have waged an all-out assault on public education as a whole, whether for its failure to teach intelligent design or the “awful lot of made up criticism about the founders intruding on the Indians or having slaves or being hypocrites in one way or another,” as TP spokesman Hal Rounds puts it. That’s one of the reasons why there are 2.5 million American students being homeschooled – the most in the world – compared to 49 million in public schools and 6 million in private.
And on the other side of the spectrum, young Black people now view college as reserved for white people, a serious reaction against the entire Civil Rights movement and the fight for desegregation and affirmative action. One survey asked Black students at a St. Louis charter school for careers in construction, “What does it mean to ‘act white’?”, garnering responses like “Doing good in school and is in class on time,” “Smart and well behaved,” and “to be uppity about everything, geeky and always into stuff.” The same question for acting black got answers like “might not graduate from high school,” “to be ghetto and having a nasty attitude and disrespect people,” and “listen to hip hop, saggy pants, by making B’s and C’s even though we try our hardest, drop out of high school to have a baby and work at a fast food restaurant.” Yes, this is a limited and perhaps biased survey, but these students reflect judgments that Americans of all races make. White kids are the ones raising their hands in class and going to college; black kids are naturally disadvantaged.
Now, this violates everything that Americans claim to stand for. Statistics and direct accounts show that success in our public schools is racially and economically polarizing. We are past the age where we can accept inherent, biological disadvantage as an explanation. I’ll accept a lack of food, books, free time, and parental motivation as part on the explanation; but though these are all urgent problems, there is little that the schools can do to remedy them. What they can do is reform curriculums, because right now, most schools’ teaching strategies do little to foster intellectual curiosity, and without that, everything becomes much harder to teach.
As far as what our schools should be doing and how we ought to amend our methods of teaching, it’s kind of a free-for-all. Bruce Price of Improve-Education.org presents a Five Point Plan to reform our national curriculums, heavily inspired by Thomas Gradgrind. Point #4 is my favorite: “REAL HISTORY, GEOGRAPHY, GOVERNMENT. No more Social Studies. No more propaganda, indoctrination, and political correctness. No more multiculturalism for its own sake. History is taught by people who majored in History. You learn names, dates, places and events. You understand why things happened the way they did. Everybody loves a good story. History is a million good stories.” Yeah, maybe if you’re a white supremacist.
The opposite camp stresses the importance of critical thinking, creativity, and interdisciplinary studies in the classroom. The intersection of religion and literature; science and politics; art and technology. This is what’s going to get students critically thinking, this is going to appeal to a broader base than just a cut-and-dry subject, this will show kids how to see connections in the hyper-connected world. Separate disciplines are limiting and build an understanding of the world that hasn’t been relevant for a while. They’ve realized it at Harvard, where they now offer a class titled “Social Issues in Biology.” But if Harvard were an accurate cross-section of the nation as a whole, I would have little to blog about except maritime law.
But another great idea (also out of Harvard) comes from Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr., the country’s foremost African-American Studies scholar, sadly best known for getting arrested trying to enter his own home in 2009. The University of Vermont invited him as keynote speaker for its week-long MLK Day celebration, so Dr. Gates – a funny man voted “Best Teacher” by Harvard students – described a new curriculum he’s been constructing and implementing, based on his well-known PBS series, Finding Your Roots. Thanks to innovations in modern genetics, students will test their DNA and discover where their family originated from, be it a region of Ireland or an African tribe. Then, by interviewing family members and consulting public records, they will build family trees, using their own histories as introductions to American history. “Let kids study what they’re most interested in,” stressed Dr. Gates, “themselves.”
No Child Left Behind isn’t going to turn our education system around. Creative curriculums will. There are ways to move from telling kids what they should know to letting kids discover what they want to know, and preserve the intensity and integrity of the classroom. But it’s going to take some imagination; hopefully we’ve still got some of that left.
An appeal for awareness from someone who is all too aware of the problems. Credit: March4Education.org