Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Government schools as an engine of conformity

Green and Leftist notions are openly preached and normative there and questioning is frowned upon. And the heights of culture are now barely mentioned. Over 50 years ago in a small Australian country grade-school, I learnt about Homer and read the poetry of Wordsworth and Byron. Does that happen in any American grade-school today?

Shantanu Sinha contends that “America must break the machine of industrial-era education.” Reiterating what has become a truism, that “public education in America is failing,” Sinha notes the inflexible framework of government schools, “treating students like cogs in a factory.”

The specific complaints outlined by Sinha are hardly to be disputed, and they seldom are. Still, America’s schools remain unresponsive and ailing in the face of the widespread understanding that the problem lies at the very foundation of our system. The problem is not teachers themselves, but the cage they and the education system generally are trapped within.

That cage is forged and locked by the state, designed to promote obedience, and repellent to anything like real education. If students are victims of the rigor mortis that the state has set into American education, then so too are the teachers.

For the state, the family and community, as other, competing sources of values and worldviews, are necessarily dangerous, challenging its role as the ultimate authority on ethical questions central to human life. The family unit further rivals state power in its natural function as an unforced and unplanned safety net, one that inevitably engenders independence from the state-corporate economy and institutions.

In the United States, the Progressive Era’s new notion of citizenship, which underpinned the establishment of (for example) the modern government school system, was quite overtly aimed at undermining the family. Immigrant traditions, particularly as embodied in Catholic schools, were regarded as a threat to the civic culture of the desired homogeneous America, at the center of which would be the total state.

The goal of ensuring schooling for the poor or those incapable of paying was never at the forefront of the movement for state-owned and -operated schools. Instead it was a xenophobic animus against the customs of working-class newcomers and a desire to aggrandize the federal government that motivated the “public school” phenomenon.

We shouldn’t shrink at the specter invoked by the ruling class, that, in the absence of government schools, the needy would go without education, unable to afford tuition. This is, of course, a claim only true in an economic environment like the one we drudge under today, in which the overall cost of living is ratcheted up by an oligopoly market — and in which contemporary “private schools” are made artificially expensive.

Today, the vast majority of Americans are burdened under the strain of taxes and rents to rich elites that are created by barriers to entry and the systematic destruction of self-sufficiency. Absent these government-constructed hurdles to mutually beneficial exchange and cooperation, the necessity of the state in providing education evaporates.

Unless we believe that the state has a magical ability to create valuable resources from nothing — and it seems many do — we shouldn’t give credence to the myth that only coercion is capable of providing education for everyone. True free markets made up of everything from charity, to trade, to complex systems of mutual aid are quite equipped, if allowed, to furnish education — the kind society is asking for rather than the kind foisted on America’s children today.


Without history, we have only ignorance

The failure of British schools to teach history has helped create a wider crisis of identity

History is the most inescapable of subjects: we inherit it, we make it, and we are fated to become part of it. In our education system, however, its study is increasingly neglected: indeed, in a large number of British schools, the end of history is already a reality.

Last year, a total of 159 secondary schools did not put a single pupil forward for history GCSE. In state comprehensives, the number of pupils taking the subject has fallen to 29.9 per cent; in private schools, it has dipped to 47.7 per cent. The only sector where numbers are rising is state grammars, where it is taken by 54.8 per cent.

What the statistics suggest is that the least well-off pupils are also fated to be the most ignorant both of their personal cultural history, and that of the country in which they live. This is, in part, because history is perceived as a “hard” subject. Eager to shine in the league tables, schools with an academically problematic intake shepherd pupils towards “softer” subjects, in which higher marks can more easily be guaranteed. I cannot think of a more depressing illustration of the gulf between “performance” and education.

The pitiful irony is that it is children from poorer, and often more dysfunctional backgrounds that have the greatest need – and thirst – for history. For history, whether of family or nation, is the story of identity, the construction of which is the most primitive, deep-seated urge there is. If you cannot articulate where you came from or what you believe in, and are given few intellectual or emotional tools with which to do so, you are fated to become the most unstable, combustible human material of all.

For an example, one need only look to the recent riots, and that memorable moment in Hackney when a furious 45-year-old grandmother and jazz singer, Pauline Pearce, confronted young rioters against a background of blazing cars. “Get real, black people,” she admonished them, “We’re not all gathering together and fighting for a cause, we’re running down Foot Locker and stealing shoes.”

The difference between Miss Pearce and the rioters – beyond their immediate activities – was that she had a strong conception of history from which she drew evident pride. She spoke of “black people” fighting for a “cause”, words undoubtedly informed by her consciousness of the US civil rights movement and the teachings of Martin Luther King.

In her eyes, the rioters were not simply demeaning themselves as individuals, but shaming a political history that demanded greater dignity. The frenzied youths around her, in contrast, were purely creatures of the moment, and the moment demanded that they seize a pair of looted trainers.

That scene points to a bigger argument: in poorer black communities in both the US and Britain, the hope-filled language of civil rights, rooted in communal experience and holding out the promise of a better future, has too often been displaced in popular culture by the glorification of gangs, drugs, sex and easy money, with little philosophy beyond the buzz of the now. The destructive results of this abandonment of history apply equally to the white working class.

What surprised me, when I became a parent for the first time, is the open craving of small children for family stories. They frequently revisit them, asking for repetitions and expansions, gathering the information in a way that suggests it is almost as necessary to their growth as food.

Now imagine that your own history is something from which you can derive only pain: a story of neglect from the adults around you, of violence, crime or addiction. How then do you describe or construct your identity? For those who are given a strong understanding of national, local, or political history, it can – if taught with imagination – provide an alternative blueprint not only for behaviour, but also pride.

We cannot elude history, but we ignore it at our peril. Cicero argued that “to remain ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child”. If history in schools seems impenetrable, it’s because we’re not teaching it properly – but let’s not deny its lessons to those who need them most.


Call for charter schools in Australia

The Australian Federal government gives large subsidies to private schools so private schooling is made more affordable that way. But charters would up the ante for sink schools

A NSW Liberal MP has contradicted government policy by calling for the creation of fully publicly funded independent "charter" schools in NSW.

Matt Kean, the Member for Hornsby, said some "radical options" needed to be considered in the federal government's review of schools funding.

A Sydney businessman, David Gonski, who is heading the review, will release tomorrow the findings of four research studies his committee has commissioned.

Mr Kean said NSW should follow the lead of the new Coalition government in Western Australia which oversees more than 100 independent public schools.

He told NSW Parliament that as a Liberal, he did not believe "the radical reforms we need in our education system can come from a centralised system run out of Sydney or Canberra". "Personally, I would like to see a debate about charter schools occur in NSW," he said.

"Charter schools are state-funded community schools, accessible to all for no additional compulsory contribution and run by local boards, while meeting minimum standards set down by the state. In other words, while the state continues the funding, the governance and running of the school remains in community hands."

Mr Kean's proposal echoes that of the chief executive officer of Christian Schools Australia, Stephen O'Doherty, who has also called on the NSW government and the Gonski inquiry to consider adopting the charter school model. The Herald understands the model is being considered by the federal review.

Mr Kean said the school principal and not the Department of Education should choose new teachers to avoid "arbitrary quotas or requirements set by head office".

The Minister for Education, Adrian Piccoli, ruled out the proposal yesterday, saying the state government "is not going down the route of charter schools".

A newly released NSW Department of Education paper called "Raising achievement for all: complex challenges", refers to a Stanford University study of 2403 charter schools which found 37 per cent performed significantly worse than public schools in improving maths performance. It also found 46 per cent of charter schools performed no better or worse than public schools.

Christian Schools Australia and the Anglican School Corporation are lobbying for a fairer share of funding for their schools which receive relatively less funding than many similar Catholic schools.

Catholic schools have asked the Gonski inquiry to increase recurrent funding to help them close the gap between the average income level of Catholic schools and government schools "to ensure Catholic schools remain affordable and accessible to families in all regions and all socio-economic circumstances".


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