Category Archives: America

My Old School, or MOS

What I will call “my old school,” (MOS) to which I am still emotionally if not otherwise attached, has sent me, and hundreds of other present and former members of the school community, a questionnaire with the expectation that the answers of those of us who respond to the survey will play an important role in helping the school administration with strategic planning and setting priorities for the next 3 to 5 years.

“Please take the time to reply, it won’t take more than a few minutes.”

Well I took the time, a bit more than the few minutes mentioned, and when finished, and after reading what I had written, I thought to myself that my priorities for MOS could with few if any changes be the priorities of any private or selective public school, although I don’t know how I could ever determine that.

WhIle writing my own replies they seemed to me to describe a kind of true “common core” of our school, not the false, wordy, dense and mostly unreadable common core known as CCSS, and now adopted by the public school establishments of some 42 states.

Anyway, here are the questions and my responses:

1. What are the strengths, values, and traditions that define MOS (my old school) and must be preserved?

At MOS the students are, or should be I think, freer than in more traditional public or private schools. Freer in the sense of discovering their own interests and talents within the school program (as opposed to finding their freedom, and through it themselves, outside of the school program). This makes schooling and learning the same, and usually they’re not.

2. What do you regard as the key opportunities for the School’s long-term success?

Finding the applicants who will most profit from MOS and in turn be most apt to give back to the school at some future time, thereby insuring the school’s long-term successful survival.

3. Taking into account external as well as internal factors, what do you see as the potential challenges to MOS’s continued success?

Being too satisfied with the way things are, because you can and should always try to do better.

4. Considering academic, extracurricular, and any other programmatic factors, what elements are missing from the educational offerings at MOS that are critical for any 21st Century school?

I don’t know if anything is missing, being not all that familiar with the offerings of MOS today. But I don’t think so. However, not what you do, but the way you do things, how you approach whatever it is that you may be doing, or as Sam Chaltain has said somewhere, how you try to focus less on what you want kids to know, and more on what you want them to become, —all that’s much more important than the “educational offerings.”

I’m sure you still do the same stuff more or less that I did when I was there, math, music, art, French, athletics, Darwinian evolution and all the rest. Maybe you could also do (school or college) wrestling? I did. Chinese? I didn’t. Why not?

5. Are there facilities that could be added that would significantly improve the quality of program offered to students?

Sure. Many. But that will depend on your graduates and friends. For example, an indoor pool? A new Gymnasium? Those two, and probably many more that would be nice to have, and yes, that would significantly improve the quality of life at the school, and along with that the program.

6. How would you describe MOS to a prospective student and/or family in three sentences?

The individual is most important.

The community is most important.

The individual within the community should be what it’s all about.

(This is probably how I would like to be able to describe our country to an immigrant. The same thing it says on our coins, Et pluribus unum, from many (of us individuals) one (community/country). And if all schools were more like MOS still is, I hope, in this respect the entire country would probably move more in this direction, individuals working together for the betterment and improvement of the country.)

7. If you were to give advice to the Chair of the Board of Trustees and the Head of School about the schools’s future, what would you say?

The school will always depend on the excellence of the teaching staff and the quality of the applicants who become students. Nothing is more important. The Board Chair and the School Head ought to be most of all working to make sure that this continues to be the case.

Educational middle ground between left and right

I often return to the article archive of the now defunct quarterly public policy journal, The Public Interest, founded by Daniel Bell and Irving Kristol in 1965, and in particular to a few of the hundreds of writers for that journal, such as: Edward Banfield, Peter Drucker, Milton Friedman, Nathan Glazer, Richard Hofstadter, Samuel Huntington, Seymour Martin Lipset, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, James Q Wilson, and of course James Coleman whom I’m going to cite, this passage taken from his Rawls, Nozick and Educational Equality, Number 43, in the Spring of 1976:

TWO recent treatises on moral philosophy have attracted far more general attention than is ordinarily given to works in academic philosophy: A Theory of Justice, by John Rawls, and Anarchy, State, and Utopia, by Robert Nozick. Together, they offer a framework for considering the difficult problems of inequality in education….

NOW what do these two positions imply for education?


Rawls’ position implies erasing all the “accidents of birth” which give one person more opportunity than another, and thus creating a full equalization of opportunity for each child. As political philosophers have long noted, this necessitates removing the child from all influences of his family-because families provide differential opportunity, and raising him as a ward of the state, subject to precisely the same conditions as any other child.

Nozick’s position implies, in contrast, no system of public education at all. For public education is redistributive, and by Nozick’s “entitlement” principles each child is entitled to the full untaxed benefits of his family’s resources, insofar as it chooses to use those resources for his benefit. Thus for Nozick, all education is private, paid for individually by each family according to its resources and preferences.


Coleman is describing, of course, the two extreme positions that one might take towards education. There have been those who have tried to follow Rawls’ proposal, the creators of the Israeli Kibbutz for example, and many other experimental Communes where absolutely everything is shared in equal parts. There have also been those who have proposed making all education, or at least schooling private, subject only to the wishes of individuals, Milton Friedman for example, has proposed this.

But it doesn’t take a lot of brain power to understand that neither extreme is going to be the answer to the problem of how the young ought best to be educated. Rather the place to be is on the ground in the middle, leaning perhaps a bit to the left, toward equality, or a bit to the right, toward individual freedom. In this respect how have the public schools done? Have they been occupying that middle ground?

I would say no, that they’ve done poorly, and as a result, almost since their beginning, with the Common School of Horace Mann in Massachusetts in the 1840s, they have utterly failed to realize Mann’s original mission which was to make, following some 12 years of free schooling, knowledgeable and skillful young men and women ready to be active and responsible citizens of the Republic. Any quick look at our high school graduates, now or in the past, will see that this has not been done.

Why given the colossal failure of the original mission of the schools, why haven’t the school administrators and their handlers, the politicians, moved onto a middle ground, and why haven’t they ceased acting as if government were at all capable of somehow distributing an equality, if only of opportunity, to everyone? For this is not possible, of course, and government should have turned long ago to the private sector for help in carrying out what has up until now been the almost impossible task of universal free and compulsory education.

Government’s role in education as elsewhere should always be to provide those essential services that for whatever reason individuals seem not able to provide for themselves. Defense, infrastructure, roads and bridges, air and water quality, health and old age assistance, although with caveats, and even certain educational programs, but not as of now the whole nine yards as we have done with our public schools.

In many areas of our lives we the people probably know better than government what we need and how best to obtain whatever that be by our own efforts (including in many respects our good health and education). And as much as possible the representatives of government should stay out of our way, move back onto that middle ground between Rawls and Nozick, and from where they can then easily move in either direction, much as a parent when “helping” a child to do for himself without that help.

The mother of all school reforms, let the kids be free.

Efforts to reform the public schools are not new. They’ve been tried and retried, again and again, almost since the beginning of free and compulsory public school education in Massachusetts in the mid 19th. century. And they have all failed.

Why? The problem then and still the problem now, is that the “products” of public schooling, the graduates, not to speak of the ever high number of dropouts, are not, following 8 to 12 years of mostly sitting in public school classrooms and in some cases actually listening to a teacher, the thoughtful, knowledgeable, morally upstanding, well prepared prospective citizens of the country we would have liked.

So we try one reform after another. And we target everything in and about the schools. Often the schools themselves, the physical plant in need of repair; the curriculum that we’re always changing, always a subject of controversy; the length of the school day and school year (shorten the day we say because teens need to sleep, lengthen the year because they also need additional instruction). Now the biggest target may be the poor teachers themselves who are being held accountable for their students learning or not learning. The students, on the other hand, have never been the target of our reform efforts, although being the most important element in the teaching learning mix perhaps they should have been.

At the moment we seem to be experimenting with several reforms, three or more of them simultaneously, and certainly not for the first time. And furthermore the current spate of reforms is led not by the Federal, state and local school departments themselves, but by private foundations, especially what I call the big three, the Gates, Walton, and Broad Foundations, the three with the most money at their disposal.

Some of the most talked about targets of these reforms are school choice, or enabling parents to choose their children’s schools, vouchers, that will permit parents to decide themselves where to spend the monies allotted for their children’s education, the content of the curriculum, now reduced to a common core of subjects that all children will study and learn, and finally greater emphasis on testing, that which among other things will hold the teachers accountable for their students’ learning.

Of course what is left out of the reform efforts, a kind of elephant in the classroom, are the students themselves. They are the proverbially horse that we’ve brought to water and that is not drinking. We now realize that the students, too many of them, are not learning. When will we see that the reforms have little or no effect because the structure we’ve created for the education of our children is clearly the wrong one?

One has only to ask oneself what are the most important characteristics of a real learning situation, in order to then understand why not more of this is going on in the schools. For learning to go on, yes, there has to be a learner and a teacher (the teacher doesn’t have to be a person, and in fact it’s often not), and you might say in that regard the schools have it right.

But what the schools have overlooked, what they still overlook, is on the one hand the readiness of the student, the readiness for learning which includes an interest in learning, and on the other hand, the teacher’s, at least to some substantial degree, mastery of the subject being taught. Go into almost any classroom and you will see little interest of readiness on the student’s part, or subject matter mastery on the part of the teacher.

Ask yourselves where do schools seem to be working well, that is, where are there motivated and interested students who are learning with the help of knowledgeable and skillful teachers, those who are teaching, or better sharing with the students what they know?

Here are three examples of where it does seem to work: Most elementary schools, where children younger than 8 or 9 bring right into the classroom with them the excitement of learning all kinds of things that has been going on within and about them almost since the day they were born. The bottle neck is of course the 3rd or 4th grade, for at that point too often the natural and spontaneous learning about themselves and about the world around them comes to a halt and for most kids it never returns, at least in school in class.

Other areas where the schools do seem to be working: what I will call the “electives,” the subject areas that the children have chosen themselves in line with their own interests, activities and subjects such as theater arts, music, athletics, the fine arts and crafts, and if we would allow it to happen more in our schools, shop, or the vocations. These are the areas where schools as presently constituted could succeed, turning out graduates having acquired the appropriate skills to go on into an area of their own choosing.

What was it that enabled this to happen? The interest, the motivation on the part of the students, and, on the part of the teachers, the fact that they themselves were active practitioners of what they were teaching, —be they musicians, basketball players, carpenters, artists,…

And of course it is not surprising that these are the very subject areas that the school authorities will hold up to the public as being proof of the successful operation of their mission. How many times have we read about the high school band or theater group competing in a regional competition with credit going to the school administrators?

So why do we have the so often referred to “failing schools?” Because in the 19th century the school for all reform, the original reform that would do away with only some children learning to read at home by candlelight and others growing up illiterate, seized hold of the schools and made them into local, state, and Federal compulsory school programs that would turn out those thoughtful, knowledgeable, and morally upstanding and responsible citizens of the Republic that Thomas Jefferson et al. believed the new country couldn’t do without.

And this became the principal mission of the schools, and it failed of course because it was doomed to fail. Basketball we can teach, but virtue, responsible citizenship, we cannot not. The school founding fathers ought to have known this, and not placed this terrible burden on the schools at their very beginning and from which no reform could ever set them free.

What happened was this. Certain subject matters became important to the country’s leaders, and these subjects then (say in the beginning Greek and Latin, history, geography etc.) and now STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), these matters we just had to teach in our schools and the children, all of them, just had to learn them. Otherwise we were, as they say, putting our country at risk.

And of course it was not to be. Most children in the schools were not going to learn even Jefferson’s original “reading, writing and arithmetic” to any significant, let alone liberating level of mastery. Yet we continued to make them take these subjects and they continued to fail in the process.

What should have happened was that most children ought to have been helped to become better at doing what interested them (music, shop, and math) and not be forced to pretend that, say, “critical thinking” was all important to their lives, and in particular their lives as citizens of the country. How many great athletes or musicians are also “critical thinkers?” How many great Americans are even critical thinkers?

My subject is rapidly moving away from me. It’s much too big for a single blog entry. But if we wanted to bring an end to our failing schools the single “reform” that would do this would be to allow schools to be there for the kids, to free the kids, to help them realize their own potentials, and to stop trying to make them into something that would be useful to us, to the country.

And as I’ve said, this can’t be done anyway. And as others have said many, many times, a country’s strength ultimately is something else entirely. A country’s strength is the infrastructure, and infrastructure includes those people who are able to do well that which they were meant to do, as well as the number of bridges that will carry us safely to the other side.

As a footnote to all this, I take the following passages from a Google search of Thomas Jefferson writings on education. In very different words, and attitude, what Jefferson says is not too different from what I’ve been saying:

Among Jefferson’s drafts for new legislation was the celebrated “Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom,” but there was another piece of legislation that Jefferson viewed as even more important: “A Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge.” In Notes on the State of Virginia (written in 1781), Jefferson summarized his educational plan as follows:

This bill proposes to lay off every county into small districts of five or six miles square, called hundreds, and in each of them to establish a school for teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic. The tutor to be supported by the hundred, and every person in it entitled to send their children three years gratis, and as much longer as they please, paying for it. These schools to be under a visitor [i.e., superintendent], who is annually to choose the boy of best genius in the school, of those whose parents are too poor to give them further education, and to send him forward to one of the grammar schools [high schools, in effect] of which twenty are proposed to be erected in different parts of [Virginia], for teaching Greek, Latin, geography, and the higher branches of numerical arithmetic. Of the boys thus sent in any one year, trial is to be made at the grammar schools one or two years, and the best genius of the whole selected, and continued six years, and the residue dismissed. By this means twenty of the best geniuses will be raked from the rubbish annually, and be instructed, at the public expence, so far as the grammar schools go.

Postcript to Notes for a Science of Education

In case you believe there’s something new  (under the sun) about the public’s low opinion of their schools, or that attempts to reform the schools have not been around at least as long as the schools themselves. Well if you do believe it, that what’s happening today is not at least some 200 years old, read this shocking statement from a Wikepedia source on Common School founder, Horace Mann,

“In 1838 Horace Mann targeted the public school and its problems.”

And things have changed so little that one today would not be at all surprised to read in the news that the leaders of both Houses of Congress had “targeted the public school and its problems.”

Shocking because 1838, with the publication of Mann’s Common School Journal, was the moment in time when our public schools had their beginning, the beginning of free and compulsory education for all. So there were problems even before its founding, and there were problems immediately afterwards. And there are still problems. It does sound a bit like,,,  the launch of Obama Care?

For the founder of our public schools, like the rescuer and provider of health care for all, did suddenly appear on the scene much like a knight in shining armor setting out to correct what he perceived as a wrong. But from the beginning the problems encountered were without easy if any solutions. And in fact both “rescuers” were really Don Quixotes, and like the Don, were only masquerading as knights in shining armor, and would probably eventually realize like him that they had taken the wrong path.

Perhaps it’s the nature of government plans and programs that there are inevitably problems from the very start, and in too many instances (farm subsidies, public transportation, immigration, the mail, … and of course the public schools) the problems never seem to go away. But I would readily admit there are exceptions, the clean air and water acts, social security and health care for the deserving elderly, and a myriad of others, and that’s why we keep trying. And that’s what makes us the truly exceptional nation.


Don’t Go There

It does seem to me, more and more, that the public schools have most of all failed because they’re hiding the truth from their students, the students’ parents, and from themselves. They’re saying, although not in so few words, Don’t Go There. They’re afraid of what might happen if they do.

What truth is that? Well the truth that among and between the kids there are enormous differences in what they can and will learn, much as among us. And instead, of confronting this unpalatable truth of student differences, teachers and administrators, almost from the first day of school, treat the kids as if they were all the same.

This behavior may be a form of political correctness, as it were, — for we would almost have it as a piece of our DNA that we don’t discriminate, that we don’t give special treatment. All students can learn.

And in fact once in school students are expected, although admittedly they are also helped, to learn the same things. Now there may very well be moments during their schooling when the kids are mostly the same, —as they learn to count, for example, learn the letters of the alphabet, read and write their first words, say please and thank you.

Such moments as these are a time of what I call the school idyll, the happy pretense of everyone being together in the joy of learning, and the idyll may even last a few years until, as both teachers and parents admit, the fourth grade.

But then, during the fourth year in school, things start to unravel, as teachers and parents, at least the truth tellers among them, will tell you. They will admit that, in respect to what their students are supposedly learning together, they are in fact growing further and further apart, beginning their own separate school journeys.

Public school teachers and administrators, probably since the time of Horace Mann’s Common or now Public School Movement, have never ceased to adopt one strategy after another to keep things as they are, to “not go there,” to keep things from flying apart and to somehow return things to the center where kids are all together listening and learning.

But they rarely succeed, and if they do, it’s only when the shared activity doesn’t demand special abilities or talents, those gifts that are not at all equally distributed among the participants. By fourth grade unequal learning ability is, if not out in the open, generally assumed to be the case, the general rule.

What are the non-demanding activities that at least early on do not demand special talents? There are a lot of them, and they are, as it were, the dark matter that keeps the school space if not alive from falling apart.

These activities are, for example, waiting in line, which kids do a lot of, being seated in a row and listening or at least pretending to listen to the teacher, going to lunch in the cafeteria etc. And there are also those more substantial and probably more interesting activities such as singing, playing games, doing a sport, playing in a band, doing theater, arts, and crafts, mostly all activities to which probably every child has something of its own, something special they may contribute and for which they will be recognized by the group.

But these sorts of activities, as kids learn well, by 4th grade if not before, are not what school is mostly about. School quickly becomes for them the place where their “intelligence”(whatever that may be) will be observed, measured, and judged, and in all too many instances found lacking, found not measuring up.

The kids will learn how more or less intelligent they are in respect to their age peers. They will learn their place in the “intelligence hierarchy,” the sort of place that our schools have become.

Now even that needn’t be the disaster it often is in children’s lives. If it is a disaster it’s because we not only pretend that the real differences don’t exist, but we do everything in our power to make sure that the kids themselves learn the truth, learn just how intelligent or what’s the opposite, stupid? they are.

It didn’t and doesn’t have to be that way. It probably wasn’t that way in the very best school environment there ever was, the one-room school building, when a group of children of all ages helped one another to learn, and there was ample intelligence and stupidity for everyone, and everyone really was the same.

The fault lies, perhaps, in the fact that our modern civilization gives great importance to two particular kinds of intelligence (see Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences), the verbal-linguistic, and the logical-mathematical, believing rightly that they are often the principal engines of our economic well being and that the kids who have them will do well both in school and out, and that the function of the school is to make sure that all kids be pushed and helped to acquire them.

The schools ought to have resisted the pressure from the outside because it’s just not possible to do this. Most kids just won’t acquire these two intelligences to any significant degree. But they didn’t resist. They went along with what the world outside of school was pressuring them to do with the result that those who are gifted in these two respects know it at a very young age, and that those who are not learn that horrible news about themselves, also at a very young age.

The expression, “Don’t Go There,” means don’t recognize the ways that ability and intelligence, the way we define them anyway, separate us, not only in school but throughout our lives. Now no one would ever defend the proposition that everyone could and should have the opportunity to learn and play chess at, say, a master’s level.

Yet most of our educational establishment does defend the proposition that college is for everyone even though no more than demonstrated widespread chess ability has anyone ever shown that any more than a strict minority of 18 year olds can successfully handle the intellectual demands of a 4 year liberal arts college. Yet we push them to do so.

But the remedy has always been there. The world outside ought to have given the schools a different message, that there are many kinds of intelligence, perhaps not as many as there are kids in the schools, but certainly more than math and verbal kind, and probably more even than Gardner’s 7 or is it 9 intelligences.

For in a very real sense every kid is intelligent. But just as every kid will not become a chess Master, every kid will not become a mathematician, or a writer whereas a large proportion of his time in school is passed in just these two activities alone. Schools have failed to be a place for every kid, and that’s the essence of the story of their failure.

The remedy, give every kid a place where he fits, his own niche. But it may be too late for the schools to do this. They’ve gone too far in just one or two directions. My own recommendation would be that they be closed and in their place there be tens of thousands of places opened up for the hundreds of thousands of different kids. That’s all it would take to keep alive the idyll of learning that was killed for most children when they first started to attend school.

What Makes America Great? It’s not now, and never has been the schools.

I take this passage from the Introduction to a recent report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, called The Heart of the Matter.
“At the very moment when China and some European nations are seeking to replicate our model of broad education in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences—as a stimulus to innovation and a source of social cohesion—we are instead narrowing our focus and abandoning our sense of what education has been and should continue to be—our sense of what makes America great.

What does make America great? In an earlier Blog I said it was people like LeBron James and the United States Military, for the moment anyway both of them being huge success stories, both being admired throughout the world. And of course I might add to these two, scores if not hundreds of comparable stories of American successes.

Now in the Academy report the writers are implying that the schools are a major factor in whatever it is that makes our country great, and that at the present time our “greatness” is threatened because the schools are no longer doing their job, especially in regard to the now diminished place of the humanities, not only in the curriculum but in the interests and resulting career choices of major by undergraduate and graduate students.

Just today, VERLYN KLINKENBORG, confirming the findings of the Academy, in an op ed column in the Times, The Decline and Fall of the English Major, summed it up nicely by pointing out that, “in 1991, 165 s”tudents graduated from Yale with a B.A. in English literature. By 2012, that number was 62. In 1991, the top two majors at Yale were history and English. In 2013, they were economics and political science. At Pomona [where Klinkenborg went to college] this year, they were economics and mathematics.”

Now the Members of the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences are by and large school people, college presidents, professors and the like, journalists like David Brooks, and you’d expect them to assume that one of the very first places where we should look, when looking for that which makes America great, would be at the schools.

And in fact our schools, at least our universities, are recognized, no less than LeBron James and the U.S. military, as being truly exceptional. And perhaps even more so today when, I’ll grant the Academy, the place of the humanities in the schools has obviously been diminished from what it may have been, say 50 to 100 years ago.

Now as a matter of fact the excellence of our universities results much more from the very thing that the Academy is deploring, the place in the curriculum given to mathematics and the natural sciences, and the resulting brilliance and achievements of the latter. That’s probably what most brings the very best young people from other lands to our shores to study. So, instead of celebrating one more American success story, the fact that, of the very top universities in the world, some one half or more are American, the Academy is lamenting the loss of something that the entire world for the most part no longer even wants, a “rightful” if not dominant place for the humanities in higher ed.
A couple things left to say about all this. One, it’s never been clear that the survival, let alone the prosperity of the humanities and the liberal arts has ever depended primarily on the schools. Well, yes the place of the humanities in the curriculum does depend on the schools, but their place in the hearts and minds of the students, of our people, of any people, no.

The Academy in its deliberations is looking back on the past, on what it sees as the golden years of the humanities, but wasn’t it during those golden years, when there were hundreds, instead of tens as now, Yale undergraduates majoring in English, that world, as well as no less devastating, local wars were killing indiscriminately tens, hundreds of millions of people?

Where were the humanities majors during all those times? In other words the humanities while having a large place in the curriculum had little or no place in what was much more important, the lives of peoples and nations.

And the second thing we might say, if we were to answer the question, about what it is that makes America great, about what has made our country truly exceptional, for I believe it is exceptional, what might that be? Well, here’s what I would say, in the form of an HTML unordered list:

+ the great variety and richness of the land itself
+ the unending waves of immigrants including those who were here at the beginning and are only now being assimilated (and immigration is still seen as more likely to leave American workers better off)
+ the rule of law, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, all that sort of thing from our Founders, including the separation (still not well enough observed) of church and state
+ and no less important than all the rest the present role of government in protecting not only our individual freedoms but also in extending protection and help to those not able to make it on their own…

That’s a start. Nothing there about the humanities. Now if the Academy were to say that any one of these sources of the country’s greatness was being neglected, well then I’d be alarmed. But fewer English majors at Harvard (of which I was one myself) is of no more significance to the greatness, and the welfare of the land than fewer people wearing this or that set of clothes, or styling their hair in this or that manner.

OK, my last is an overstatement. But the country’s greatness has never had much to do with how many people are reading Shakespeare or Plato in the schools. Nor has their reading of Shakespeare or Plato in the schools had much to do with what they read, or don’t read later on in their lives, let alone with how they live their lives. For the schools are really not about learning, certainly not about the all important life long learning, rather they’re about learning to behave, and probably they’re not even the best way of doing that.


New York Times, October 28, 1921

What Difference Does It Make, He Asks, How Many times “Greeks Flew Kites”?

Ford defines the Education we need —Learn to Read and Write, Then Work Out Your Own Ideas, Mix With People, Get Experience

Special to The New York Times.

Syracuse, N. Y., Oct. 28.—”The one thing necessary in the nation today is for  employers and employees to awaken to their opportunities,” declared Henry Ford, who stopped there overnight on his automobile trip from Detroit to the East. “There is nothing wrong with industry, education, religion or politics,” he said, “if one’s eyes are open to the truth, which is that life is really as simple as a Ford car.”

“The solution of all this discontent with which every one except millionaires seem to be shot through,” he said, “is must keeping busy and getting a decent return for it. The boys on my railroad out West keep so busy eight hours a day that they haven’t time to think of striking. They know how to run a railroad and they get paid for it.”

“Railroads should throw their stocks and bonds away as mine did and get down to business and make some money. The strike was threatened for the purpose of stock manipulation. It was called off because the manipulators accomplished some of their purpose and because they were scared.”

“Necessary education is learning how to read and write and write and then working out ideas, mixing with people, getting experience. The schools are all right and their organization should go right on the way it is.”

“History is bunk. What difference does it make how many times the ancient Greeks flew their kites?”

“America is the greatest land and has the greatest people in the world. We are the pioneer stock of the world, whose who dared. We all came from the old country in some sense. Your epople were probably Irish or English. My own father was Irish. My mother was Pennsylvania Dutch. We can’t help but win. We won the war not on a fluke, but because it was right to win.”


Contrast these words of Henry Ford, with these of  the Roman statesman, orator, and philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero:

Nescire autem quid ante quam natus sis acciderit, id est semper esse puerum.

“Not to know what happened before you were born, that is to be always a boy, to be forever a child.”

Did Henry Ford remain forever a boy? And how about us? Will we ever grow up? Life is more that a Ford car, or an iPad. And knowledge of history, and especially prehistory of which Americans know little or nothing, helps us to understand that.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

Here’s a strange thought for you. Strange, but based on these facts: 1) Less than 200 years ago most people, 90% or more, were agricultural workers and lived in farming communities. 2) Not even 100 years later 50% or more of the people, men but women also, now living mostly in cities, held jobs in manufacturing. 3) And finally, today, or another 100 years later, nearly 70% of the people living in this country, and in fact according to the World Bank living in all the world’s richest countries, hold jobs in the service industries.

The strange fact? —that the public schools during this 200 year period of enormous changes haven’t themselves changed in any fundamental way. Begun as Thomas Mann’s common school in Massachusetts in the 1840s they’re pretty much the same today as then. It’s as if our schools and our principal occupations were those ships or trains not passing one another but traveling in parallel paths alongside one another but without ever making contact. For what if anything in our schools has changed that at all reflects the fact that people’s occupations, not to mention neighborhoods and communities, are no longer today what they were 200 years ago?

Isn’t this strange, that somehow we’ve acted during the 200 years as if what the parents were doing in their lives had little or any relevance to the education of their children? It may very well be this single fact that most accounts for the frequently noted failure of our schools to educate, as well as the failure of an endless and still ongoing series of reform efforts to improve things. The schools have from the beginning tragically separated themselves from the work of the people, and consequently from the lives of the people’s children.

Working class salaries and high school graduation rates have not budged

Is this causal or coincidental? That the high school graduation rates, not to mention the percentages of those going on to attend and graduate from college, have not changed significantly from the seventies. And that the salaries of our middle and lower class workers have not risen noticeably during that same period?

In any case both trends merit some thought, some explanation. And, as long as we can’t explain either the one or the other, which is our present situation, we are free to say, either that earlier failures in school account for the increasingly low salaries among the working population, or that the low salaries, which in a growing number border on poverty levels, account for the failure for the children, living in these borderline situations, to succeed in school.

More on Chester Finn and school reform

Chester Finn, no less than Arne Duncan and his “Race to the Top,” labors under the (mis-)conception that student achievement levels depend primarily on what the educators, – the teachers, administrators, and politicians — do, and that downward or flat, as at the present time, achievement levels call for additional reforms.

Maybe, but so far a long series of public school education reforms  beginning in this country in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s successful launch of Sputnik into orbit 4 October 1957, have done little or nothing to raise the achievement levels of all our students, and have done particularly little for our most vulnerable, most impoverished and most often minority, Latino, Black and other, students, those for the most part living and attending school in our largest inner cities.

Why is this? The answer is obvious but so far educators have not been paying attention. What have we ever learned ourselves that has not come primarily from our own efforts, from our own active involvement in the learning process?

Why would it be any different for kids? For what students learn, translated into measurable achievement levels, depends most of all (as for the rest of us) on what they do for themselves, not on what we do for them.

What reforms, if any, have sought to make the students primarily responsible for their own education, for their own learning? The three reform movements of which Chester Finn speaks, national standards, data driven instruction (testing), and school choice, have little or nothing to say about the role of the students in all that.

As it is now, even the best students, the so called “good students,” are probably doing what they do in school to please their parents or teachers rather than themselves. Although they may be learning the lessons of the school and classroom, what they’re really learning, what’s becoming an integral part of their makeup, and most important for their future lives, is probably not what they’re doing in school.

When and if learning does take place, if progress is made and achievement gaps are narrowed or closed, it will be most of all thanks to the efforts of the learners, of the kids themselves.

I thought of all this while reading David Brooks writing about the devastation brought about by the earthquake in Haiti. The extent of the devastation, he says, is much more to be blamed on poverty, that which had made for a totally inadequate infrastructure of support systems, as well as permitting contractors to build without meeting proper building code requirements.

Brooks reminds us that an earthquake in the Bay Area of Northern California, on October 17, 1989, just as powerful, 7.0 on the Richter scale, did a tiny fraction of the horrendous people and property damage that we are now witnessing via the Media’s constant coverage of the aftermath of the quake in Haiti. The poverty of Haiti and affluence of Northern California are the explanation of the hugely differing quake damages in the two places.

Then Brooks goes on to say that all the development aid of the past several decades has done little or nothing to reduce, let alone dispel the poverty not only in Haiti, but in the under developed world generally. He concludes with the simple admission that “we don’t know how to use aid to reduce poverty.”

Brooks then quotes the economist Abhijit Banerjee who has this to say about the effectiveness of aid to the undeveloped world: “It is not clear to us that the best way to get growth is to do growth policy of any form. Perhaps making growth happen is ultimately beyond our control.”

And it was here that I thought to myself that similarly, or analogously the best way to raise our students’ achievement levels was not to go on tinkering with the public school environments and curricula, for perhaps making real progress in reducing ignorance and raising achievement may also not be within our power or control.

And in fact the real growth and development, that is taking place in countries like India and China, is not to be attributed to international aid efforts, such as those of the World Bank and others, but to the efforts of the Indians and the Chinese themselves. Similarly perhaps real student achievement will only take place when the students themselves assume the major responsibility for their learning.

This clearly has not yet happened.