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Sisyphus goes to school
A review of Bad Students, Not Bad Schools by Robert Weissberg
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Has there ever been an age in which middle-aged or elderly men have rejoiced at the rising standard of education among the young? The very idea seems absurd, almost against the nature of things. But just because a lament is an old one (that the standard of education is falling) it does not mean that it is untrue. Not every catastrophe happens that is predicted, but predicted catastrophes do sometimes happen.
The author of this book takes it for granted that American educational standards are low and getting lower. But low by comparison with what? With what they once were? With what they should be? With those of America’s competitors, now mainly Asian? Certainly, his pessimistic assumptions are to be heard in all Western European countries: I have, for example, a whole shelf of books about the decline of the once-vaunted French educational system.
Professor Weissberg is a slaughterer of sacred cows, many of which deserve to be put down forthwith, but his own outlook is not entirely clear or consistent. He establishes well enough the folly of much that has been done supposedly to ameliorate the situation, which in all honesty is not very difficult to do because the folly of educationists passeth human understanding. But by the end of his book, one is not quite sure whether he believes that the American educational situation is catastrophic, normal, nothing much to worry about, or even very good: or perhaps, like the general condition of Habsburg Austria, disastrous but not serious.
Here are a few of the propositions in the book that I find difficult entirely to reconcile:
American educational standards are damnably low and falling.
Neither parents nor schools value or impose the kind of discipline and deferral of gratification that results in educational success.
Because of the insufficient IQ of much of the population, nothing much can be done about this and all attempts to redeem the situation are doomed to failure.
Such attempts to redeem the situation are mainly intellectually and financially corrupt make-work schemes for otherwise unemployable bureaucrats and professionals, and to appease the disgruntlement of the lowest social class.
The schemes might therefore be a valuable and indispensable Keynesian stimulus to the economy, and which also help to bring social peace by placating disgruntled sectors of society and giving high-paid employment to their more vociferous and potentially bolshie members.
High educational standards among the general population are not necessary anyway, provided the very brightest people are extremely well-educated.
As China, India and other countries develop, there is a danger that America will no longer be able to import clever people to make up for the deficiencies of its educational system.
No doubt the book will gain most notice because of its claim that certain sections of the American population, namely the blacks and the Hispanics, have lower IQs than whites and Asians; that this difference is genetically determined; and that, since the Hispanics are becoming a larger proportion of the population, the average IQ in America is bound to fall.
These contentious claims, however, are not of any significance in deciding how to treat an individual child. You cannot conclude much about the characteristics of a person from his membership of a group, for example that an unknown Dutchman must be tall because the Dutch are the tallest people in the world. The problem comes when differences in outcome between groups are assumed to be evidence of ill-treatment of those who do relatively badly. (There is an asymmetry, however, between good and bad outcomes. Just as no one seeks complex psychological explanations of his own good behavior, so no one attributes Jewish success to a regnant philo-Semitism.)
The book is at its best in destroying the myth that good material conditions are essential for educational success, and that improving material conditions will necessarily lead to a rise in educational attainment. The children of Vietnamese refugees to the United States are one example (but only one, of which many others could be given, and not only in the United States), of a group of children with every possible disadvantage that nevertheless succeeded because it was intelligent and determined enough to do so, although it attended the same awful schools as groups that failed.
Attitudes are therefore far more important than facilities or teaching methods, but of course facilities and teaching methods are much the easier for giant bureaucracies to change than the attitudes of recalcitrant parents and children. Indeed, the American educational bureaucracy has taken Sisyphus not as a warning, but as a role model, constantly rolling the rock of educational reform up the mountain of educational failure. To change the metaphor slightly, and quote a song from the comic British duo of the 1950s, Flanders and Swann, it all makes work for the working man to do.
I am not entirely convinced, however, that teaching methods have as slight an influence as Professor Weissberg suggests. First, he gives examples of schools in which traditional discipline and standards are imposed, and in which the outcomes among otherwise intractable groups are good. Second, experience in Britain has shown, as conclusively as such things can ever be shown that, using the right methods, more or less all children, regardless of their disadvantaged home circumstances, can be taught to read and write adequately. This is vital for secondary schooling, because if children fail to master reading and writing all subsequent schooling must be a humiliating and boring trial to them. And if all children can be taught to read and write properly, then (in the modern world) any educational system that fails to impart these elementary but fundamental skills is little short of criminal. It only adds insult to injury that the system now spends in the region of $100,000 per child, when all that is need to achieve basic facility in reading and writing is a room, a blackboard, chalk, desks and chairs, and some pencils and paper.
Professor Weissberg is very good on the preference of educational bureaucracies and their shock troops, the researchers, for procedural rather than real outcomes. For example, having decided that it would be nice if a larger percentage of the population received a college education, you lower standards of admission and graduation, and then, hey presto, you announce a tremendous success when, a few years later, a higher proportion of the population brandishes a degree. As Professor Weissberg points out, this kind of intellectual fraud flourishes in educational science (in a way that it cannot flourish in medicine, say, at least not for long) for two reasons: first, people are so little agreed as to what in education represents a desirable outcome; second, most people in America do not much care about education, whatever they might say if asked.
But what of the author’s claim that the general educational standard does not matter very much anyway? After all, America remains what it has long been, a prosperous and technologically advanced country. Do long-distance truck drivers need to be able to quote Shakespeare, repeat the Second Law of Thermodynamics, or find Thailand on a map? If ever they need to multiply numbers, they have calculators to do it for them. And what is so special about academic prowess anyway for those who are not going to be scientists or scholars? Even in an advanced society the majority of people can get by not knowing very many of the things that are taught in schools.
What answer does one give to this purely instrumental conception of education: the view that, if education (within wide limits) does not lead to an increase in GDP, its absence is not worth worrying about? Here I recall Somerset Maugham’s discomfiting question in his story “The Book-bag”:
From the standpoint of what eternity is it better to have read a thousand books than to have ploughed a thousand furrows?
How, we might ask, will Joe Six-Pack’s life be enriched by knowing that Bucharest is the capital of Romania or that the Treaty of Kuchuk Kainardji was signed between Russia and Turkey in 1774? If he is happy in his ignorance of such matters, why force knowledge on him? The scope of every man’s knowledge, after all, is always severely limited, while that of his ignorance is always infinite.
The answers to these questions must depend upon a train of reasoning, each proposition of which will be highly speculative and open to objection. All the same, I am one of those who finds the existence of ignorance and superstition in the midst of technological marvels disturbing. But perhaps my disquiet is as much a product of pride, snobbery, and conceit as of real concern for the future of civilization.
The author’s main proposal, in so far as he believes that a remedy can and ought to be found, is to lower the age at which children may leave school. This, it seems to me, is entirely sensible, for at about the age of twelve or thirteen, recalcitrant children begin to go into reverse as far as knowledge is concerned. Every subsequent year in school they forget a little more of what they have been taught and retain a little less; worse still, they set about preventing their cleverer or more docile peers from learning. For them, an apprenticeship system, of learning on the job, would be much better: though it is no panacea, because apprenticeship requires precisely the kind of self-discipline the absence of which gives rise to the problem in the first place.
The very title of this book gives a clue as to what has gone wrong. Professor Weissberg uses the word “pupil” only once in the book, and very late in the day. The difference between a pupil and a student is that the former grows into the latter, as he becomes gradually more capable of self-direction in his studies. We have lost the distinction not only in words but in reality: adults are only too eager to abrogate their responsibilities, so that a child becomes an authority on his own welfare at the earliest possible age. To call a child of seven a student is like calling someone who boils an egg a chef. It is the abolition of childhood that makes our schools such a nightmare.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 29 September 2010, on page 61
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