Thursday, February 03, 2005


So no wonder kids learn so little

To this day, I believe those Dick and Jane readers are mostly what did me in. I did not like to read back then, and I think it was because of them. They were not only boring, they were excruciatingly boring, and so was nearly everything else throughout my years in school. Not liking to read is a little odd, because I started to teach myself to read when I was four.

Fortunately, when I was 11 years old, I found a tattered, falling-apart ACE 1963 copy of Edgar Rice Burroughs' A Fighting Man of Mars ("Hidden Menace on the Red Planet"), and boom!, just like that, I understood the importance of imagination, and how the purpose of school is to, however unwittingly, destroy it. Whoa, I thought, what is this book? Gigantic Martian-eating apes, with six arms?! Cackling Mad Scientists? Huge spiders, with fangs? Heroes, villains, damsels in distress? Sword fights, disintegrator rays, invisibility cloaks? Battles galore, in warships floating in the sky? Wow! I was in a tizzy. I had never experienced anything like this. I was in awe, a condition I describe as a combination of love and wonder and fear. And I liked it. Why, I wondered, wasn't I given stuff like this to read when I was six, instead of Dick and Jane? I don't care if they went on adventures with Spot and found a toad in the bushes, that was nothing compared to Tan Hadron of Hastor using his sword to defend the woman he loved from the insane cannibals of U-Gor!

Years later, when I started reading fairy tales, I was surprised to find the ones that aren't bowdlerized (which are the ones most people are familiar with) are blood-thirsty horror stories. In the unexpurgated "Cinderella," for example, her sisters cut off parts of their feet to try to make them fit into the slipper (which points out what greedy people will do for money and power and fame). You'll never see that in a Walt Disney film--and Walt admitted he knew he was altering the original tales. Cinderella was, of all things, a very feisty girl, one who would never give up. How's that for some "Grrl Power"?

I was puzzled about these old children's stories; I really was. These are what adults in the past read to kids? And I got Dick and Jane and their boring white-bread lives in the suburbs, with their parents dressed like Ward and June Cleaver in a suit and tie, and pearls? But weren't kids supposed to be kept innocent as long as possible? Weren't they supposed to not know about awful things like violence and battles and swords and guns and death and destruction and romance and even--yuck--kissing? Wouldn't these terrible stories give them nightmares and permanently damage their tender six-year-old psyches? Well, it seems to me that Dick and Jane and all the rest of those innocent boring stories are what damaged me. Those blood-thirsty stories with the swordfights and all the killings not only didn't damage me, they introduced me to a world of wonder I didn't know existed, one so amazing I actually felt grateful about my luck. And if there is one (actually two) thing(s) I am absolutely convinced is an inherent component of happiness, it's gratitude, and a humility that comes from that gratitude.

What's worse--being bored all the time as a kid in school, or having an occasional nightmare, if that nightmare is the price of being introduced to wonder and amazement and awe? Personally, I'll take the nightmare. I'm an adult, and I still have nightmares. Only now, the only regular one I have is about being stuck in high school on the last day and not being allowed to graduate. They're so bad they wake me up. I've never woken up from the Mad Scientist Phor Tak chasing me with a disintegrator pistol, or a huge spider gnashing its fangs and chasing me down a valley. Not yet, at least.

If stories for kids are boring, kids certainly aren't going to want to read. And if they don't read, then they can't take much advantage of all the knowledge available in literature. That's saying bye-bye to all the accumulated wisdom of the human race. So, in order for children's stories to be interesting and exciting, they have to contain all that "awful" stuff. On top of that, kids like the stuff.

As an experiment, read some dumbed-down stories to young children, and then read some of the real fairy tales, and watch how they react. I've done this many times. They quickly get bored with the first, but always remain fascinated by the second. And they want more, even if they don't fully understand everything.

I remember the first time I read "The Little Match Girl" to some kids who were less than five. I've never seen such looks on their faces before. They learned about pity and mercy and horror from that story, about how lucky they were to have parents and a home and warmth and enough to eat, unlike the little match girl. And such things are why those stories are so important, because kids learn to deal with all sides of life in the safety of their imaginations.

Bruno Bettelheim, in The Uses of Enchantment, claimed fairy tales and similar stories were necessary for children because they allowed them to work through various feelings they all had. I won't go so far as to agree with his Freudian intrepretation, but I understand his point. I am reminded of that modern-day mythic movie, A Christmas Story, in which Raphie has to deal with bullies, boring school, a nutcase for a little brother, a harried mother, a goodhearted but somewhat dense father, and the various problems all kids have to deal with. Eric Rabkin agrees with Bettelheim, commenting upon the importance of the storytelling function in his book, The Fantastic in Literature. He explains that the cruelty in fairy tales indeed can be beneficial to children because "they can see danger handled safely and symbolically and thus, their own fears can be mastered."

We are never going to see truly interesting and educating stories for kids in the schools. If kids came home and told their parents about about those great stories they were being told--the old fairy tales--some of them would throw fits and call the schools right then. To which I say: bah. You have no idea what you're doing.

I see no solution to any of these problems except to get rid of the government schools. Unfortunately, private schools aren't going to be any better if they imitate the government schools. But at least they'll stand a chance, something that's never going to happen in schools run by the government. It has now become a truism that every time the government gets involved in something, it doesn't make it better; it makes things worse. These days, nearly everyone complains about the schools, and what all these schools have in common is that they are "public"--read "government run"--schools. Most of these schools seem to have become masters at making kids hate them. Most kids see their time in them as a prison sentence to be served. What they learn is to dislike school, and, quite often, reading and learning.

More here


School reformers are attempting to shore up an existing educational system which is, by its very nature, destined to fail. Misguided policy solutions for American education attempt to salvage a system that is unsalvageable--a system that is intellectually, socially, and economically backward. Reformers refuse to admit or to understand that the American system of compulsory public education has foundered precisely because it is public--that is, government-controlled. The only solution to the serious education problems in America is to proclaim the separation of school and state, and allow education to be bought and sold through the free and unhampered market process.

Public schools--like all public agencies--are inherently unable to evaluate their own performance accurately in terms of the satisfactions derived by their constituents, i.e., students and their parents. The absence of proper evaluation lies in the inability of the educational bureaucracy (or any government agency) to calculate profits or losses in terms of numerical assignments to monetary units. In other words, public bureaucracies cannot perform economic calculation.1

Economic calculation is the process of comparing and contrasting opportunity costs (prices) among a variety of choices facing an individual actor or group of actors regarding the means to achieve a desired end. For a private firm operating within the parameters of a market economy, economic calculation consists in comparing and contrasting the outputs (expenses) and inputs (revenues) in order to arrive at the most efficient use of scarce resources in the satisfaction of the consumers' most urgent wants.

In the market sector, outputs and inputs (expenses and revenues) are linked through the determination of profit or loss. A profit indicates that the private firm succeeded in providing a commodity or service that consumers valued more than the costs expended in bringing it about. A loss indicates that the private firm failed to provide a commodity or service for which consumers were willing to pay more than the costs expended in its creation. Profits are an implicit declaration by consumers that the scarce resources used for the creation of a given commodity were prudently applied. Losses are an implicit declaration by consumers that scarce resources were squandered and should have been employed in a manner more conducive to their satisfactions. Regardless the profit or loss outcome, however, all private firms, operating within the confines of an unhampered market economy, are offered the ability to positively or negatively evaluate their own performance for the immediate accounting period precisely because they have the use of economic calculation.

Government bureaucracies have no such ability. The essence of bureaucracy is that it cannot evaluate performance in terms of consumer satisfaction because of the absence of economically calculable profits or losses. This is why bureaucracies are encumbered with regulated structural procedures. By their very nature, government educational agencies cannot link outputs (expenditures) to inputs (tax revenues). There is no relationship between the taxpayer who is coerced into financing all educational expenditures, and the student who is the consumer of what such expenditures have created.

Because the educational bureaucracy exists within a sea of capitalist economic calculation, bureaucrats can calculate and budget expenses. But, because government agencies do not operate on a profit-and-loss basis, these administrators have no way of relating expenses to tax revenues to determine if the expenses were prudently applied. They do not know whether the resources taken from taxpayers were employed according to the most urgent demands of consumers. Government agencies are deprived of profit-and-loss accountancy methods, precisely what is necessary to economically evaluate past performance and make changes based upon the information provided.

From an economic point of view, then, the government education system in America is like a ship lost at sea with neither a compass nor a lighthouse to guide it. Absence of evaluative information in the form of profits or losses makes rational navigation impossible......

Market-based schools would have the incentive to provide a top quality educational experience to students at a competitive price. If a school did not enforce rigorous programs and a thorough curriculum, their graduates would be ill prepared to compete in their respective fields. The school would earn a poor reputation as its graduates would be unable to command respectable incomes, thus discouraging prospective students, causing financial loss, and forcing the school to re-evaluate its performance. Conversely, those schools providing the best education to their students would earn profits, thus reflecting their proper employment of scarce resources. In either case, economic calculation in terms of profits or losses would enable schools to accurately evaluate their performance in terms of the demands of education consumers.

Competition among educational entrepreneurs would tend to weed false prophets and educational quacks from the market. The general nonsense which now pervades most government school systems would not long survive the market-driven search for truth and excellence. Students would no longer be captive to the ideological or political biases of teachers and administrators. Rather, teachers and administrators would be required to provide a valuable educational experience to their students in a peaceful learning environment or find themselves unemployed.

Americans must begin to realize that the separation of education and state is equally as important as the separation of church and state. Only then will American students begin to experience academic diversity, intellectual growth, and a crime-free learning environment. Only then will we be liberated from the bureaucratization of the mind.

More (much more) here


For greatest efficiency, lowest cost and maximum choice, ALL schools should be privately owned and run -- with government-paid vouchers for the poor and minimal regulation.

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