Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The 'Education' Mantra

Thomas Sowell

One of the sad and dangerous signs of our times is how many people are enthralled by words, without bothering to look at the realities behind those words. One of those words that many people seldom look behind is "education." But education can cover anything from courses on nuclear physics to courses on baton twirling.

Unfortunately, an increasing proportion of American education, whether in the schools or in the colleges and universities, is closer to the baton twirling end of the spectrum than toward the nuclear physics end. Even reputable colleges are increasingly teaching things that students should have learned in high school.

We don't have a backlog of serious students trying to take serious courses. If you look at the fields in which American students specialize in colleges and universities, those fields are heavily weighted toward the soft end of the spectrum.

When it comes to postgraduate study in tough fields like math and science, you often find foreign students at American universities receiving more of such degrees than do Americans.

A recent headline in the Chronicle of Higher Education said: "Master's in English: Will Mow Lawns." It featured a man with that degree who has gone into the landscaping business because there is no great demand for people with Master's degrees in English.

Too many of the people coming out of even our most prestigious academic institutions graduate with neither the skills to be economically productive nor the intellectual development to make them discerning citizens and voters.

Students can graduate from some of the most prestigious institutions in the country, without ever learning anything about science, mathematics, economics or anything else that would make them either a productive contributor to the economy or an informed voter who can see through political rhetoric.

On the contrary, people with such "education" are often more susceptible to demagoguery than the population at large. Nor is this a situation peculiar to America. In countries around the world, people with degrees in soft subjects have been sources of political unrest, instability and even mass violence.

Nor is this a new phenomenon. A scholarly history of 19th century Prague referred to "the well-educated but underemployed" Czech young men who promoted ethnic polarization there-- a polarization that not only continued, but escalated, in the 20th century to produce bitter tragedies for both Czechs and Germans.

In other central European countries, between the two World Wars a rising class of newly educated young people bitterly resented having to compete with better qualified Jews in the universities and with Jews already established in business and the professions. Anti-Semitic policies and violence were the result.

It was much the same story in Asia, where successful minorities like the Chinese in Malaysia were resented by newly educated Malays without either the educational or business skills to compete with them. These Malaysians demanded-- and got-- heavily discriminatory laws and policies against the Chinese.

Similar situations developed at various times in Nigeria, Romania, Sri Lanka, Hungary and India, among other places.

Many Third World countries have turned out so many people with diplomas, but without meaningful skills, that "the educated unemployed" became a cliche among people who study such countries. This has not only become a personal problem for those individuals who have been educated, or half-educated, without acquiring any ability to fulfill their rising expectations, it has become a major economic and political problem for these countries.

Such people have proven to be ideal targets for demagogues promoting polarization and strife. We in the United States are still in the early stages of that process. But you need only visit campuses where whole departments feature soft courses preaching a sense of victimhood and resentment, and see the consequences in racial and ethnic polarization on campus.

There are too many other soft courses that allow students to spend years in college without becoming educated in any real sense.

We don't need more government "investment" to produce more of such "education." Lofty words like "investment" should not blind us to the ugly reality of political porkbarrel spending.


No National Curriculum, Thanks

The good old American inclination to wave a magic wand and say to an urgent problem, "Begone!" is on display in the fast-emerging movement for a national K-12 curriculum.

Ah, you didn't know there was such a movement, far less that it was emerging. Here's the lowdown. Various analysts representing mostly the education establishment are pressing for a so-called "common curriculum" -- one that would supposedly engage the minds of all American students, aligning their performance with the latest thinking as to what's needed.

All but six states (including Texas) have fallen into bed with an effort -- supported by the U.S. Education Department and led by the National Governors Association and state educational officials -- to shape a core curriculum "robust and relevant to the real world." A couple of weeks ago, the Pearson Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation said they were developing a complete online curriculum for math and English/language arts courses.

The Albert Shanker Institute, named for the late, widely respected head of the American Federation of Teachers, wants a "coherent, sequential set of guidelines in the core academic disciplines, specifying the knowledge and skills" expected of all students.

Every new movement worth its salt, if that's not the wrong gastronomic image for our health-obsessed century, in due course faces organized dissent. Which honor the common curriculum movement received this week in the form of a manifesto, "Closing the Door on Innovation: Why One National Curriculum is Bad for America" that is signed by numerous notables of a generally rightward bent.

The debate can commence and not a moment too soon. The idea of a "common curriculum" is one of those notions we fall into occasionally, supposing that what sounds good and feels good must somehow or other be really, really good. We identify "good," we decree it and that should be it.

There's much good, obviously, in urging high educational standards. The setting of standards, nonetheless, is generally best left to the people closest to "the people" -- who know what can be done and what "done" actually looks like in practice. A nation of 300 million-plus is more diverse than the nation that engaged the old blue-backed spellers and assigned aspiring pupils to declaim, "Sail on! Sail on and on!" What's right for New York (whatever New York may think!) isn't necessarily right for Rockwall, Texas.

Moreover, the idea of a national curriculum implies no higher duty than to develop and promulgate it. All students shall read and do math up to X-standard of performance? You could put it that way. The No Child Left Behind Act certainly decrees as much, and, lo, it ain't happening. Facts and circumstances have a logic that planners never seem to anticipate.

The facts and circumstances chiefly on display in education don't relate to money. Some of our worst school systems (e.g. Washington, D.C.'s) spend the most money per pupil. Money doesn't heal the social dysfunctions that are at the heart of America's educational slump.

The United States has the kind of educational systems that modern Americans seem most to desire: not the worst possible but not the best possible, either. Sort of in-between: The logical product of a culture so attuned to the demands of absolute equality as to shrink from sorting out sheep from goats, academically speaking. Modern America doesn't want you to fail. If you do, you can start over. If that doesn't work, we'll lower the standards. Anything for success -- real or fake!

American schools will become good the minute American culture finally decides it wants good schools, which isn't the same as deciding to commission a national curriculum. Instead, it's the same as forming a commitment at home and in the community and at the office and in the shop: first to expect and then to enforce a high level of student achievement. Overseers of the public good who think the job gets done by simply commanding high performance are: well, let's be nice. These folk need the summer off.


No Food for You! Kids Denied Breakfast for Wearing Wrong Shoes to Grade School‏

Rule-defying black kids are undoubtedly a problem but giving a written warning first would have been much wiser

Chicago Public Schools is apologizing to a Chicago mother and her two young sons, ages 5 and 6, after they were denied breakfast because they came to schools wearing the wrong kind of shoes.
CBS 2’s Dorothy Tucker reports.

The Nicholson brothers only grab a quick snack before heading to class because they qualify for a full free breakfast at Adam Powell Grade School. It’s something they look forward to every day, and it hurt when they were recently turned away.

They were wearing black athletic shoes. The boys told their mom that the assistant principal, Angela Peagler wouldn’t let them eat because their shoes didn’t fit the school uniform, which calls for a regular black dress shoe.

“I felt sad. We’re always supposed to have breakfast,” first-grader Noah Nicholson says. Noah and his brother Niko, who is in kindergarten, went to class hungry and didn’t eat until lunch.

“It hasn’t been a problem all this time and all of a sudden they can’t have breakfast because of their shoes,” Kahlia Edwards, the boys’ mother, says. Edwards says the boys have been wearing the shoes all year and administrators never complained. She’s confused.

The boy’s great aunt is livid. “I don’t care if they had on orange shoes, they were in line to eat,” Robin Price says. “I’m not going to feed you because you have the wrong shoes? Shoes? No, no.”

CBS 2 tried to ask both the assistant principal and Principal Derek Jordan to explain what happened. They wouldn’t. However, a manager at the CPS regional office spoke with reporter Tucker.

Area 17 Management Support Director Darryl Earl says Peagler told him she thought the boys had returned to the breakfast but he acknowledged she was wrong. “Regardless of what shoes they were wearing, obviously the children should have been allowed the opportunity to merge into breakfast,” he says.

Monday afternoon, the principal and the assistant principal apologized to the boys and their mother. They went on to explain that they were reacting to an increase in students violating the school dress code. The principal even offered to buy the boys new black shoes.

But here’s the kicker: The school’s dress code does not say the shoes have to be black dress shoes. The boys’ mother says the principal obviously needs to make the rules clearer


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