“Who is the vice president of America?”

As a postscript to my previous Blog this piece will concern the all out attempt, as reported in today’s NYTimes (September 16, 2007) of the Newton School, a pre-K through 8th. grade school in Newark, NJ. to raise its test scores from their most recent abysmal levels. This effort will be led by the Newark Teachers Union in collaboration with the Seton Hall College of Education.

The story is just one of the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of almost identical stories of failing inner city schools all trying, under the gun of NCLB, to raise the achievement of their mostly poor and minority students, and so far with little or no success.

However, it is not this particular one, nor the thousands of other similar reform efforts that interest me. Rather it was the visit to Newton of Newark’s Mayor, Cory A. Booker, and here I cite the Times reporter’s account of his visit:

The Newton faculty members had planned to introduce the “new Newton” to students during a schoolwide assembly in the afternoon. But it was postponed after Mayor Cory A. Booker stopped by as part of a tour of some of the city’s 77 public schools. Mr. Booker bounded from room to room, dispensing $1 bills to students who had mastered New Jersey history (what is the capital?) and politics (who is the governor?).

Then Mr. Booker came up with a stumper, worthy of $5.

“Who is the vice president of America?” the mayor asked a fifth-grade class. “Come on, I know some people want to forget…”

“George Bush?” guessed one boy.

“George Washington?” said another.

“George Washington Carver?” a third chimed in.

Though the mayor prodded the eager students, no one could name the vice president. Finally, Mr. Booker put his money away.

“All right,” he said. “You have a lot to do this school year.”

Now Cory A. Booker is one impressive guy. A B.A. from Stanford where he played football and made the All-Pacific Ten Academic team, a year at Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship, a J.D. degree from Yale Law School in 1997.

Since 1998 Booker has lived in inner city Newark, the last six years in Brick Towers, a notorious public housing project in Newark’s Central Ward. At present he occupies the top unit in a three-story rental on Hawthorne Avenue on Newark’s south side, an area described as "a drug- and gang-plagued neighborhood of boarded-up houses and empty lots."

So what might you have expected from the Mayor in the way of observations and comments during his visit to the Newton School? Certainly not what the reporter describes. Questions like what is the capital of NJ, who is the governor, who is the vice president of the U.S., and with dollar awards for the correct answers.

For this man, whose own education was the very best that our country can provide, there was only this parting comment following the kids’ failure to come up with the right answers to his questions, “All right, you have a lot to do this school year.”

Not that any of this makes any difference in the lives of these kids, these words or any other words from this Mayor. But to tell the kids that such things as knowing the names of state capitals and governors, and probably kings and rivers, is what education is all about, well that may be a misdemeanor if said only once, but surely a crime if said repeatedly.

The Mayor should have talked with the kids about what they did know, because education is, or should be, all about doing something with what you know or what you have. These kids, like all kids are alive and have all sorts of knowledge and all sorts of interests and it is with these that the school ought to begin.

The Mayor might have asked them about things important to them, about the adults in their lives, about the people and actions that they admired, about what they wanted to do with their lives, about what they wanted from the school, all things that concern the kids themselves. Instead of sending them away with the impression that the name of the vice president of the United States was all that important.

What kids don’t know is less important than what they do.

Michael Deshaies in this week’s National Review on line brings to our attention the Intercollegiate Studies Institute report on civic literacy in higher education. See also the article in USA Today by Tracey Wong Briggs.

The report was based on an analysis of the answers given (or not given) to some 60 multiple-choice questions (Take the Test) about America’s history, government, free-market economics, and foreign relations. 14,000 randomly chosen freshmen and seniors on 50 college and university campuses took the test.

Of interest (?) was the fact that scores were hardly different on average for the freshmen and seniors taking the test, 52% and 53% respectively. Nor were there significant differences among the colleges, although the least prestigious schools, Rhodes College in Tennessee, Colorado State, and a few others, showed greater gains from the freshman to the senior year than did the most prestigious schools, such as Brown, Georgetown and Yale, where senior scores were even lower than those of the freshmen.

What should we conclude from this, if anything? Deshaies says that it is shocking that seniors at the most elite universities know less even than the (when they were) freshmen.

Deshaies: “This shocking phenomenon we describe as negative learning. Considering that a university education can cost almost $200,000 and an undergraduate, on average, leaves campus nearly $20,000 in debt, students and parents are entitled to more.”

This study, of course, isn’t the first time that we’re told how little our high school graduates know about their own country. That was Diane Ravitch’s and Chester Finn’s message in their 1989 book, “What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know?” Innumerable other but similar assessments of what our students don’t know have been made before and since. Regularly and predictably these assessments of what many see as the effectiveness (ineffectiveness) of our public schools have led consistently to major national reform efforts, most recently the No Child Left Behind law.

Deshaies says it’s obvious what must be done. We will need a major new reform of the now ineffectual teaching in our schools and colleges of American history and government. He says, that, “one way to improve instruction is to develop academic centers of excellence on campuses to revitalize the teaching of American history, political science, and economics.” (Deshaies himself is the communications director at one of these centers, the Jack Miller Center for the Teaching of America’s Founding Principles.)

Again and again the American public is informed just how little our students know, and how little they have learned, even while in college, of our country’s history and government institutions. Nothing seems to change. We get up and live the same day all over again, just as Phil Connors in the movie, Groundhog Day.

Are we testing the wrong things, and/or teaching things that can’t be taught or that kids have no interest in learning? The test takers usually don’t even ask these questions. Shouldn’t they?

In fact, is it of any importance that more than half of the seniors in the study could not identify the correct century when the first American colony was established at Jamestown, that fewer than that recognized that the line, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” was from the Declaration of Independence, that nearly half of all college seniors, did not know that the Federalist Papers were written in support of the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, and finally, that fewer than half of these same seniors could identify the Baath party as the main source of Saddam Hussein’s political support?

Deborah Meier and Florence Miller reviewed, “What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know?” in The Nation of January 9, 1988. They write, “When Jean Piaget noted that 6-year-olds gave surprisingly ignorant answers to his simple questions, he didn’t rush into print with the information. How interesting, he thought. The answers I expected are not self-evident. Thus began a life’s work of examining children’s ignorance.”

Meier and Miller say that, Ravitch’s and Finn’s view of ignorance is all to familiar and probably fruitless, in that “they miss the vital connection between knowing and not knowing, and because they do so, not knowing is [becomes] failure, or bad schooling–a case in need of a remedy, a cause for alarm, a reason to rush into print.”

And in fact that’s what most educators conclude when they see the results of these general tests of “essential” knowledge, that the schools are bad, that which is sufficient cause for alarm (the Nation at Risk) and cry out for remedy (No Child Left Behind).

However, after experiencing this nonevent for the nth. time isn’t it time that we came to a different conclusion? Meier and Miller are right to say that the ignorance we uncover is perhaps more interesting in itself than in what it may imply about the effectiveness of our schools and school programs. But they don’t go to say or to show why that ignorance is interesting.

Here’s what I think. What kids know at any given point in time, unless it’s what they’ve learned for a test and the point in time is the eve of that test, reflects much more their own interests, friends, their family environment, and most of all their out-of-school activities, what they do with their own time, for only when, as John Dewey told us, kids fully engage themselves in the activity do they learn. And only in that way does what they learn become a part of their general knowledge.

How many high school seniors or college freshmen do you know who are actively engaged in, say, reading the Federalist Papers? I first read them and remembered them when as a college graduate and new teacher I needed them for something that I was interested in. Isn’t that the way we all learn?

As much as we stress the importance of possessing knowledge of America, its history and its institutions, for our becoming, and being, responsible and participating citizens of the Republic, it’s not an importance that we can simply pass on by our words. How often have you made a child feel the importance of something that is important to you simply by your words?

I try doing this all the time with my grandson, and of course it doesn’t work. Just the other day I had been talking about and having him listen to some of my music. Why did I do this? I knew better. In any case at the end of the day my grandson still preferred Kanye West’s “Stronger” to Schubert’s Notturno Adagio In e Flat.

In this sense much teaching is like preaching. Telling kids the way things are and then expecting them to assimilate (your version) of the way things are. The preacher tells his parishioners the way things are and then expects them to change their lives accordingly. It doesn’t work. I’m sure that for many high school students, and college freshmen, the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers, and many other essential pieces of our country’s history, that these “important” topics are more like Schubert’s Notturno than West’s Stronger.

So what is to be done? Well one thing let’s try to test kids on what they know, because with that we can help them. To find out what they don’t know is no help to them or to us. Certainly no one is going to try after the fact of the test failure to make American history and government subjects of high priority during their remaining years of college. An effort of that kind is test prep and is of no lasting value to anyone.

So what is to be done? Yes, find out what they know. Determine what those 14000 college students have learned during their high school and college years, and estimate how much of that learning, probably very little, did come from their classes. We will probably find out that what they had learned most well came from the situations and circumstances over which the school and college authorities had little or no control. Probably no one “taught” them most of the things they know.

Finally, instead of putting students down as being mostly ignorant of so many important bits of our past we might begin to treat them with respect, as knowledgeable people in their own right, as knowing, and knowing how to do, things that are important to them.

Yes, Roger, “Freedom is a Funny Thing.”

In an op ed piece in today’s NYTimes, The Ottoman Swede, Roger Cohen says this about freedom:

“Freedom is a funny thing. Life without it is misery. But a glance at the Soviet Union or Yugoslavia or now Iraq is a sufficient reminder that distinct peoples forcefully gathered into a dictatorial state will react in the first instance to liberty by trying to get free of each other rather than trying to imagine a liberal democracy.”

Of course Cohen is thinking of any one of the innumerable instances of “distinct peoples forcefully gathered into a dictatorial state,” Chechnyans and Russians, Serbs and Kosovars, Greek and Turkish Cypriots, Iraki Sunnis and Shia. But in each of these instances the member pairs are not comparable. There is a real disconnect between them. The new found liberty, although welcomed by the one, represents for the other the loss of its previously dominant political power.

So in the case of each one of these pairs it’s not so much their trying to get free of one another as the one trying to fully realize the newly acquired freedom and the other trying to retain its favored and dominant position.

Are there recent instances of the situation that Cohen describes? That is, two groups formerly under one dictatorial power and then, being free of that power, trying to get free of one another? Perhaps Cyprus? Perhaps Lebanon? Although in each of these instances the freedom obtained through independence was not freedom from a dictatorial power, but from the liberal democracies, England and France.

Perhaps the case of present day Belgium is a better example, although here also we are without the preceding “dictatorial power” in full. In Belgium the efforts of the Flamands to free themselves of the Wallons seems like a reasonable goal, certainly not one that will lead to widespread pain and suffering as in all the above instances.

But Cohen is right, that “freedom is a funny thing.” Too bad that our president never realized just how “funny” it was. There is “freedom to” and “freedom from.” The latter usually preceding the former. In the Middle East the tribes are so taken up with “freedom from” that they have not yet considered what they might and could do with “freedom to.”

Bush, Sarkozy, and a Newly Belligerent Russia

On August 27 of this year Nicholas Sarkozy, France’s new president, delivered a major speech outlining his views on international relations. In particular he had important observations to make regarding America’s probably biggest international headache not directly related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, that of Russia’s new found belligerency, something which has been clearly taking shape on the international scene since Putin replaced Yeltsin as Russia’s president on December 31, 1999.

It is readily apparent that Putin’s and Russia’s positions regarding both Iran and Kosovo stand in direct opposition to those of the United States. Yet up until now there has been no meaningful response on the part of President Bush to Putin’s anti-Americanism. Putin is allowed to continue merrily on his way, creating a KGB led power center to the East of Europe oblivious to the interests of the United States.

Most of all our President refuses to see President Putin for what he really is, still continues to disregard the Russian President’s words and actions, and instead goes on "looking into Putin’s eyes and seeing his soul," most recently while boating with Putin at Bush senior’s Kennebunkport home in Maine.

In regard to both Iran’s nuclear ambitions and Kosovo’s fledgling independence President Bush continues to rely on the Security Council for blocking the ambitions of the one and facilitating the realization of the other. However in both instances this is not happening and instead Bush’s friend Putin has made it abundantly clear that Russia will not permit meaningful U.N. sanctions being applied to Iran nor will it abandon its long term support for its linguistic cousin and almost neighbor, Serbia, by getting behind a Bush supported U.N. resolution in favor of independence for Kosovo.

Enter Nicholas Sarkozy, the new president of France. Does he get it in regard to the true motivations and interests of Russia? I think he does. I know that Bush doesn’t.

What does Sarkozy have to say about the Russia of Putin? And what is Sarkozy’s advice regarding Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and Kosovo’s independence?

Here I cite the relevant passages from Sarkozy’s August 27th. talk. First of all, he has this to say about Russia:

"La Russie impose son retour sur la scène mondiale en jouant avec une
certaine brutalité de ses atouts, notamment pétroliers et gaziers,
alors que le monde, l’Europe en particulier, espèrent d’elle une
contribution importante et positive au règlement des problèmes de notre
temps que son statut retrouvé justifie."

The single phrase "une certaine brutalité de ses atouts" says it well. For Sarkozy there is "no looking into the eyes of the man and seeing his soul." Sarkozy’s message is understated but nevertheless clear. And when one thinks of the Russia of Putin "brutalité" does seem the right word. Think of Chechnya, of the assassination of the Russian journalist, Anna Politkovskaya. It puts Putin on notice that France will be looking for significant positive changes in Russia’s relations to Europe and the world.

Sarkozy’s words in regard to Iran’s nuclear ambitions are no less noteworthy. Here is  what he says about what he calls the world’s fourth major crisis (the first three being Islam’s confrontation with the West, how to integrate into the world order the emerging giants of China, India, and Brazil, and how to meet the now global risks to climate and health and the exploding worldwide demand for energy):

"Quatrième crise, au confluent des trois autres  : l’Iran. La France
maintient avec ses dirigeants un dialogue sans complaisance, qui s’est
avéré utile en plusieurs occasions. Elle a pris l’initiative, avec
l’Allemagne et le Royaume-Uni, d’une négociation où l’Europe joue un
rôle central, rejointe par les Etats-Unis, la Russie et la Chine. Les
paramètres en sont connus ; je n’y reviens pas, sinon pour réaffirmer
qu’un Iran doté de l’arme nucléaire est pour moi inacceptable, et
souligner l’entière détermination de la France dans la démarche
actuelle alliant sanctions croissantes mais aussi ouverture si l’Iran
fait le choix de respecter ses obligations."

In particular, "un Iran doté de l’arme nucléaire est pour [Sarkozy] inacceptable." He’s putting the Mullahs on notice. He doesn’t say unacceptable to the U.N. Security Council, but that Iran’s nuclear armaments would be unacceptable to the country France.

The he goes on to say: "Cette démarche [sanctions, but that won’t be limited to the actions of the Security Council] est la seule qui puisse nous permettre d’échapper à
une alternative catastrophique  : la bombe iranienne ou le bombardement
de l’Iran. Cette quatrième crise est sans doute la plus grave qui pèse
aujourd’hui sur l’ordre international."

Particularly remarkable is his, "la bombe iranienne ou le bombardement
de l’Iran." This is what Bush must be thinking but not daring to say, given his disastrous performance up until now in Iraq.

"Le peuple iranien [Sarkozy concludes his remarks on Iran] qui est un grand peuple et mérite le respect,
n’aspire ni à l’isolement, ni à la confrontation. La France n’épargnera
aucun effort pour convaincre l’Iran qu’il aurait beaucoup à gagner en
s’engageant dans une négociation sérieuse avec les Européens, les
Américains, les Chinois et les Russes."

Sarkozy’s remarks in regard to Kosovo are not directed at Putin’s Russia. Evidently he still believes that Europe (he doesn’t mention the Security Council) will be able to solve this crisis, and that Russia will consequently not have a part to play.

"Le Kosovo offre une autre illustration de cette complémentarité puisque
l’Union et l’OTAN, sous mandat de l’ONU, y coopèrent étroitement. Cette
coopération revêtira une importance cruciale au cours des prochains
mois. A l’initiative de la France, le Groupe de Contact poursuit ses
efforts pour renouer le dialogue entre Serbes et Kosovars."

Finally, Sarkozy leaves Jaques Chirac far behind and moves clearly and happily toward a renewal of ties with America. Although this step doesn’t come at the most auspicious time, given that our country still has an incompetent man and bungling President at the helm, Sarkozy’s words do promise better relations between our two countries in the future.

"Je suis de ceux qui pensent que l’amitié entre les Etats-Unis et la
France est aussi importante aujourd’hui qu’elle l’a été au cours des
deux siècles passés. Alliés ne veut pas dire alignés et je me sens
parfaitement libre d’exprimer nos accords comme nos désaccords, sans
complaisance ni tabou."

A final footnote to the above. In today’s International Herald Tribune John Vinocur makes it clear just how much Putin by his words and actions is bent on undermining the strength of America’s position in the world. And that while Sarkozy understands this Bush seems to not want to admit it, and is, by his omission, allowing Russia a free ride in its new found belligerence, a belligerence that is fueled by an anti-Americanism recalling that of Soviet Union in years past. It was Vinocur’s piece that got me thinking about Sarkozy and Russia and all the rest.

Evolutionary Precedent for the No Excuses School

We read, in a recent Atlantic article by Olivia Judson, that Sam Bowles, the economist turned evolutionary biologist, has shown that groups of supercooperative, altruistic humans could indeed have wiped out groups of less united folk.

Bowles’s analysis “suggests that individuals who could not conform, or who were disruptive, would have weakened the whole group; any group that failed to drive out such people, or kill them, would have been more likely to be overwhelmed in battle. Conversely, people who fit in—sharing the food they found, joining in hunting, helping to defend the group, and so on—would have given their group a collective advantage, and thus themselves an individual evolutionary advantage.”

I thought of the No Excuses school, where students have to conform to the values of the group or not be allowed to remain in the group. Here in Bowles work we find evolutionary precedent for the No Excuses learning environment. The so-called No Excuses schools, such as the MATCH School, Academy of the Pacific Rim, Roxbury Prep, and a number of others, all Commonwealth Charter Schools in Boston, seem to have achieved a definite “collective advantage,” at least as measured by results on standardized tests, over other Boston public schools with similar student bodies in regard to economic and ethnic background. Is it because in these schools the disruptive individual is not allowed to remain in the group?

It’s a fact that too many of our schools have allowed the disruptive individual to remain in the classroom and thereby more or less undermine the real learning that might otherwise have gone on. Why is this so? In the name of what do we go on sacrificing the best interests of the group to the “worst” interests of the disruptive individual?

In this regard see two recent letters appearing in Ed Week in response to a Commentary piece by Jonathan Kozol. While explaining the flight of the young teacher from the inner city school Kozol seemed to ignore the effect of the disruptive student attributing the teacher’s flight solely to the influence of No Child Left Behind.

Perhaps this situation, as incomprehensible as it is in many respects, results from  our refusal to turn anyone away from our public school classrooms, seeing this all tolerant and all inclusive attitude as representing a kind of higher morality than one where only those individuals, willing and ready to fully accept the learning conditions of the classroom and school, are allowed in.

For the moment too many otherwise intelligent and thoughtful educators don’t see our undisciplined school environments as a threat to our very survival whereas evolutionary precedent is suggesting that is exactly what they may be.

the Petraeus Strategy

In an op ed piece in today’s Wall Street Journal Senators McCain and Lieberman    have this to say:

"The recent National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq was unequivocal on
this point: ‘Changing the mission of Coalition forces from a primarily
counterinsurgency and stabilization role’ — the Petraeus strategy — ‘to a primary combat support role for Iraqi forces and counterterrorist
operations" — which most congressional Democrats have been pressing
for — "would erode security gains achieved thus far.’"

Am I alone in not having a clue as to the difference between the Petraeus strategy and that of the congressional Democrats?

The digital brain

In a recent article in the Boston Globe Mary Anne Wolf says that, "the reading brain is slowly becoming endangered – the unforeseen
consequences of the transition to a digital epoch that is affecting
every aspect of our lives, including the intellectual development of
each new reader."

Why is the "reading brain" becoming endangered? I live in the digital world, as much or more than anybody, and I don’t read any less now than when I was a college student over fifty years ago. I may even read more, because the digital world makes more texts readily available, not to mention the reading that goes into just navigating one’s path through this new world….

Out of Africa

Some 60,000 years ago the "first humans" left the African continent, moving into Europe and Asia, eventually replacing already established populations such as those of
the Neandertals. How many were there? Adam and Eve? And their children? A few thousand? Perhaps as many as 50,000? But there were not 7 billion of them, the present human population of the earth.

It is clear that man has more than survived. From a few thousand to billions of us in just 50,000 years. In fact, if the numbers of us were the only measure, one would have to say that the human species was one great success story.

Those who worry about man’s survival are perhaps really worried about the earth’s, if not survival, at least its continued ability to support billions and billions of us, especially if those billions were to double during the next fifty years, as they did,  actually more than doubled, during the past fifty years. Those who study these things tell us that this won’t happen, and that by 2050 the world’s population will have crested at 10 billion.

This is our history. It ought to be a part of the common knowledge of us all. We ought to rejoice in the fact that never before have we known so much about where we have come from, although never before has there been so much that we clearly do not yet know.

But most have resisted the knowledge of our past, that deep history of man’s journey so far on this earth, and instead are more and more preoccupied with the immediate past, a shallow history of families and nations. Most go on believing stories of the past that science has clearly shown to be at best myths of our origins and not historical accounts of what came before.

Our being taken up with the immediate past of families and nations prevents us from putting our present problems into an historical context where they might eventually be lessened if not fully resolved.

Education is such a problem. Instead of looking at how past human groups successfully integrated their young into their adult lives we look only to reform if not fix the broken pieces of a system that is more and more failing us and our children.

Immigration is such a problem. Instead of seeing this as a world-wide phenomenon, not merely a local problem, and not essentially different from the movement of Africans into Europe and Asia some 60000 years ago, nations see the problem as one of inadequate barriers placed between them to slow if not stop the flow of their people.

The movement of peoples into more advantageous climes is much more fundamental to man’s life on this earth than the separation of peoples into nations. Yet because we don’t accept what science has told us about the nature of the human species, about how we are much more all the same than all different, we go on making everything of our differences, which as a rule are only skin or culture deep.

Francis A. Walker, in 1896, at the time president of MIT, had this to say about immigration:  "Within the decade between 1880 and 1890 five and a quarter millions of foreigners entered our ports! No nation in human history ever undertook to deal with such masses of alien population. That man must be a sentimentalist and an optimist beyond all bounds of reason who believes that we can take such a load upon the national stomach without a failure of assimilation, and without great danger to the health and life of the nation. For one, I believe it is time that we should take a rest, and give our social, political, and industrial system some chance to recuperate. The problems which so sternly confront us to-day are serious enough without being complicated and aggravated by the addition of some millions of Hungarians, Bohemians, Poles, south Italians, and Russian Jews."  (Atlantic Monthly, June 1896)

Sound familiar? You will agree, it does. And that’s a tragedy in itself. For over 100 years later, in June of 2007, politicians of all stripes were saying very similar things about immigration, and thereby blocking what might have become a liberalization of our immigration policies.

There is a difference between now and 100 years ago. We now separate between those who have the right to come here and those who don’t, between legals and illegals. It would be interesting to know when immigrants to our country gained the designation illegal. It certainly wasn’t in the time of the first settlers to Jamestown and Plymouth. Nor was it during the floods of immigrants from Ireland and Germany during the second half of the 19th. century. I don’t think Francis Walker even used the term illegal, that which is the pet of the anti-immigrant talk show host today.

Was the term coined to keep citizens from our close "friend" and neighbor, Mexico, from crossing the Rio Grande? If it was it didn’t work, because the Mexicans, no less than the Africans 50000 years ago, needed to move to where there were greater life possibilities, and so they moved, and are still moving and will keep on moving in spite of the nation that would put a barrier in their way.

Why don’t we welcome those that want to come here with open arms? It’s not as if we are increasing the world’s population by taking them in. They only take up one place on the earth there or here. This is the other side of the debate, that many have defended, the side that I am on.

In that same Atlantic publication, but in 1983, 87 years after Francis Walker’s "Restricting Immigration" essay, James Fallows suggests that "the reality is in fact the opposite [from what Walker then and Tancredo now supposed] because immigration tends to select for those who are especially resilient, adaptable, and hardworking, immigrants being probably more of a boon to this country than a burden."

If he had been writing 50000 years ago Mr. Fallows would have probably said the same thing about the Africans leaving the continent to bring new life to Europe and Asia.

 

Schooling and Education, Two

Schooling, not education, is what mostly goes on in those places we call schools. for schooling as a rule has little direct relation to learning. When learning does take place it’s usually in spite of, not because of the school. What happened that schooling and education have grown apart? (Were they ever together? Perhaps in schools for adults. Perhaps at Plato's "school" in Athens.)

Education, or learning, is what life and the best schools are all about. Learning, which is life long, depends primarily on just two factors, the teacher and the student.

Now most educational reformers think that by positively impacting other factors, such as class size, length of the school day, standardized testing, school uniforms, disciplined classrooms, progressive classrooms, the degree of school autonomy etc. student learning can be given a boost. It can’t, of course, as has been abundantly shown by the history of failed school reforms.

A good teacher and a motivated student are the only two factors that can by themselves significantly boost the amount of learning that goes on, in school, or more commonly, in life. For learning to take place the teacher (which could also be a good book, work of art, or even the natural world itself… Lincoln's teacher was a book, Darwin's was nature) needs to be both knowledgeable and caring. The student needs to be ready, to listen and to want to learn. Absent either one and learning does not take place.

The tragedy of our schools stems directly from the fact that they are not primarily concerned with recruiting the very best teachers and with arousing the curiosity and interest of their students.

OK, that’s not easy to do, and there’s the rub. But rather than work on the “hard problem” (teacher recruitment and student motivation) we busy ourselves with endless “solutions” to the "soft" or easy problems mentioned above, length of school day, order in the school and classroom etc.

What happened that we have now in our schools so few excellent teachers and so few motivated students? For the first the answer is easy. Our country early on gave its respect, and resulting monetary rewards, to those who care for our bodies, our doctors, to those who protect our contracts, our lawyers, and to those who grow our economy, our business men, not to mention our media and sports celebrities. To those who would “school” our children, care for their minds, we gave, and continue to give as little respect and dollar recompense as possible.

Why we did this is not so easy to answer. Perhaps it was because those of us who made it to the highest levels of power and influence in our country always knew how little our own success depended on what we had done in school. Schooling was a minor factor in our lives so why should we by our tax payments heavily subsidize an industry whose major function seemed only to be holding children safely and securely in a place apart, in school, until they were of age and were ready to enter society.

So in regard to the one factor, the teacher, things will not change until we decide to give the teacher the respect and monetary rewards that the importance of the position (being close to the child during the child's formative years) demands.

What about the other factor, student motivation? What happened that most students in our schools, most often before they reach the fourth grade and ten years of age, will lose their natural curiosity and interest in everything they encounter in the classroom? What happened that so many of them by the time of Middle School have little or no interest in what their teachers are doing and saying?

Many have tried to answer this question. The most common answer is hormones. The advent of puberty. The child’s interest in his or her body, in sex, trumps the beginning algebra, foreign language, history and literature classes. The real question is, given this fact of the child's interest and preoccupation with other than school subjects, why do we act as if it were not so?

The right teacher may somehow get through the child’s growing physical awareness of body and self to the child’s mind. This is what happens to those children with particular aptitude and talent for the lessons of the classroom and who are naturally obedient. We call these the "good students" of whom there are always a few in every classroom, their presence enabling those teachers who do remain, to remain. This is not, however, what happens with most children.

Is school destined to fail because it doesn't give proper place and importance to the physical changes taking place in the child's body, let alone to the popular culture that most occupies the child's time everywhere but in school?  There are those who would put middle school aged children to work on a farm, especially one with lots of animals, and where bodily functions may be readily and openly observed and discussed. And there are those who would bring popular culture into the classroom. But both "reforms" have failed to make schools also a place of learning.

Most of all in regard to the second of our two factors, the child’s motivation to learn, we need to give the child a lot of slack, and not pretend that the child is with us when he's not. We need to take into account and deal with the fact that the child is only a little bit with us in the classroom and a lot more somewhere else. The classroom lessons in math, science, literature and history while endlessly fascinating in themselves are probably of little or no importance, probably boring, to the child.

What is important to the child, especially in the tween and early teen years, are the “life lessons’ that they are experiencing all the time. These “lessons” may stem from their close contacts with their friends, from the many hours spent with their games, from the music, films and other forms of the popular culture that surrounds them, from their trips to the mall, shopping and just hanging out.

It's not at all that children are not able and ready to learn. In all the respects just mentioned they are far more knowledgeable than we are. There is no question about their ability to master what interests them. Ask them about the things they are curious about and are motivated to learn, their music, their computers, their video games, their interactions with their peers, and they will quickly lose us, as we lose them in our classes, but in this instance because of our absolute ignorance of what they are knowledgeable about.

Children are of course learning all the time. That’s what being alive means. It’s just that very little of that learning goes on in the places we call schools.

Who Owns the Future?

At present there is some talk that China does. Just as in the past in the thirties there was some talk that Russia (the Soviet Union) did. What did Russia do, and what is China doing to stake their claims on the future?

In totalitarian Russia (as in totalitarian China today) human labor was cheap, and could be sacrificed with impunity to the goals of the ruling class. From a distance the West watched Stalin and company transform the Russian people into a blunt instrument for moving the country rapidly into the future.

Most of all Stalin seemed to operate under the assumption that the Soviet Union had to do everything if not better at least bigger than the West, and hence the series of gigantic projects he undertook during the thirties, at least before his country was invaded by the Germans, that which again transformed the country, this time into one vast war machine.

Prime examples of Stalin’s huge projects that would take his country into the future were the city of Magnitogorsk and the White Sea Canal. In 1929, Stalin decreed that this city, that didn’t yet exist, be built from scratch around Magnitka – an entire mountain of pure iron ore in the southern Ural range, iron being of course the key ingredient of steel, and which, according to Stalin, the man of steel, would determine the future of the Soviet Union.  (My source for this and the following account of the White Sea Canal can be accessed here.)

Magnitogorsk

With expertise provided by Communist sympathizers from the West Magnitogorsk, a
ready-made city for 450,000 inhabitants, was constructed in about five
years. The costs were kept down by having the heavy lifting done by
political prisoners, 30,000 of whom died in the effort. Steel
production began in 1934, but shortly after World War II the iron ore
ran out and the city’s economy collapsed.

Canalworkers

And there was the White Sea Canal. Ever the optimist, this time Stalin
wanted connect the Baltic Sea, with its key port of Leningrad, to the
White Sea’s port of Archangelsk. The idea was that he could move the
Soviet navy back and forth. So Stalin had more political prisoners sent
to work on the canal – there was a seemingly endless supply from the
gulags – and after a few brutal years it was completed in 1933.

Disease, poor nutrition, and brutal conditions took a huge toll,
though, with as many as 250,000 of the slave laborers dead by the end
of it. Of course nothing of lasting benefit came of Stalin’s mad schemes, but at the time we marveled at what a nation could do if all its resources could be directed without opposition to its own ends, a new city, a new water way, and later the first man in space.

There were those of us who even wondered if we were on the wrong track. Didn’t President Roosevelt’s public works projects of the depression years pale in comparison?

The White Sea Canal was completely useless when finished. For most of its length
it was too shallow to admit anything larger than a small barge. Later a
book of propaganda detailing the biographies of "heroic" workers and
engineers, intended for distribution in capitalist countries, had to be
recalled because in the meanwhile Stalin had ordered all the main
characters shot.

Now it’s China that threatens (promises?) to be the future, just as did the Soviet Union in the thirties. And because what we see coming from China is not the same as what we saw in the thirties from Russia we can’t readily dismiss what’s happening in China as being just more "mad schemes" no less wrong headed as those of Stalin.

Furthermore China is not so much doing things differently from the West, but in some respects both bigger and better. They have taken our production model (and much else besides) and with the benefit of cheap manual labor and borrowed Western ideas, have taken it much further than we ever did, or could.

To look at Chinese workers within a Chinese factory is to make one wonder if this is not the future for all of us. Why? Because it works. Production is way up and people all over the world are purchasing the products from the factory floors. And most important the workers on the factory floor are now sending a portion of their earnings to their families left behind in the villages.

China has taken the factory production model and made it the principal engine of their rapidly growing economy. Hundreds of thousands of people from the country have almost overnight transformed themselves into factory workers in the new cities on the coast.

You can go here to see my sources for the following text and images.

Chnaone

The largest mobile-phone manufacturer in China when this photo was shot, Bird Mobile has since been overtaken. Here, workers complete a manual-assembly portion of the phone-production process.

Chnafive

This is the main processing floor of the Deda chicken processing plant, a Thailand/China joint venture. The factory processes approximately 100 million chickens a year, which are mostly exported because of their superior quality.

Chnaseven_2

 

Workers’ uniforms hang outside a dormitory located amid a massive
industrial complex. Waste from the complex has turned the river in the
foreground completely black.

Chnaeight

Lunch time in the cafeteria of Youngor Textiles, the largest suit maker in China, lasts around 20 minutes.

From these pictures alone wouldn’t you have to say that China owns the future?  When people get together, live together, work and eat together, as some 200 million of them seem to be doing in present day China, who could ever stop them, let alone compete with them?

China, unlike the Soviet Union, is taking the best from the West, and trying to do it even better. The Soviet Union of course tried to do things differently from the West and achieved nothing but disastrous results. China is doing some things better than the West, or at least at a much lower cost. And in a market economy, in which China, again unlike the Soviet Union, is now immersed, lowering the costs is doing it better.

Also, China’s products have found hundreds of millions of buyers in the West and elsewhere, thus cementing their industry to the body of the world’s consumers, that which bodes well for their future (and for ours?). The Soviet Union’s products could not even find satisfied buyers within their own country, let alone the rest of the world.

Actually China produces not so much for its own people, who have little or no purchasing power of their own, but for us Americans, and to a lesser extent because of tariff barriers, the Europeans.

In China the production of goods of all kinds is not hindered by concerns for individual or employee rights. Their only concern is to make at the lowest possible cost exactly what their customers will most want to buy. And in fact hardly a day goes when the American consumer is not buying a product made in China.

Could this be a model for China’s future, our future, and the future of the world? In any case the free market will always seek out regions for the production of its goods where the costs of production are lowest, and, for the time being anyway, this region is China.

I end this discussion of China’s ownership of the future on a sour but important note, another opinion regarding in this case the not so bright future of the Asian giant.

I refer you to Guy Sorman’s article, The Empire of Lies, in the City Journal, Spring, 2007.  Sorman clearly implies that it’s not China who owns the future. China has enormous up until now un-addressed, let alone unresolved, problems stemming from its unchecked economic growth. Furthermore, I think if I asked Sorman who did own the future he would say it’s still America, and maybe just a little bit Europe and his own country, France, under its new anti-anti-American president Nicholas Sarkozy.

 

Liberté, Égalité, et Fraternité