“Teach according to the student’s ability.” Confucius circa 500 BC

Once again we’re asking,

What should America do about its worst public schools? States still don’t seem to know.

Of course we’ve known the answer to that, to what we should do, ever since we imposed on our people, without asking them, now nearly 200 years ago, a single system of free and compulsory public school education. At the time we made a big mistake, what has turned out to be a huge error of judgement, and we’re still suffering the consequences, the mistake being to treat students all alike, alike in regard to their interests and abilities. Why? Well probably because we were still, and rightly so, under the influence of Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration that says still today — “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

We never really asked ourselves the meaning of “equal” in the Declaration, wishing rather to think that somehow kids were all equal (and they are in important respects, but not in the classroom). And 200 years of classroom experience have not undone the hold of equality on our schools and classrooms. And 200 years of trying has not brought about any thing resembling equality of achievement among the graduates, let alone the leavers of our schools. In respect to learning, whatever it may be, kids are just not equal and any system of public education ought to begin with inequality as a given and go on from there. Instead of, as at present, with equality as a given and going nowhere from there.

There have been other national systems of public school education that have not made this mistake, and the schools are still benefiting from their realism. Systems that we might have learned from as long ago as 500 BC.  From Confucius, for example:

By the time Yung had arrived in America, education in the United States was becoming rapidly institutionalized, with elementary schools, academies, and colleges established in nearly every county. According to the 1840 census, more than 55 percent of the youth aged five to fifteen attended a primary or grammar school. The state of Connecticut, influenced by the work of the education reformer Horace Mann, had by then established a system of “common schools” based on the Prussian model of education, these institutions were dedicated to the principle that all students, regardless of background or social standing, were entitled to the same uniform curriculum, and that only by a standardized educational agenda could society’s socioeconomic gaps be bridged. Nothing could be more foreign to a Chinese student reared, as Yung would inevitably have been, on Confucius’s famed adage “Teach according to the student’s ability.” Unlike America, with its democratic emphasis on equalizing large swaths of the population through a common curriculum, China nurtured an educational tradition asserting that collective harmony was possible only if the nation’s best and brightest were isolated from their less capable peers and guided through classical studies refined over the course of many centuries. The key word that obsessed each Chinese student was cai, which translates loosely as talent. While the United States has always been dependent on the rule of law—a concept sanctified in the Constitution—China relied on the rule of men, the imperial court and the regional governors they appointed. The elevation of worthy people imbued with cai to key positions was therefore paramount to the success of the state, and recognizing talent became a foremost political necessity.

(I take this passage from: Leibovitz, Liel. Fortunate Sons: The 120 Chinese Boys Who Came to America, Went to School, and Revolutionized an Ancient Civilization (p. 21). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.)


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