Schooling and Education


Everyone is familiar with the point of view that goes more or less like this:

“Students spend a relatively small number of their waking hours in school, and even fewer hours in classrooms.  Their education, if not their schooling, mostly takes place out of school. As a result their learning, or their not learning, depends more on what they bring with them to school than on what happens to them in school.”

Mihaly Csikszentmihaly’s in a 1995 essay for Daedalus is one of many writers who points to the fact that schooling and education are not the same thing. For too many, he says, “education is conceived narrowly as schooling.”

What is less generally known and recognized are the particular out-of-school societal conditions that most affect the student’s in-school learning. For Harold Howe such conditions are the following:

* A rapid decline in the time spent with adults by children across the full social and economic spectrum.

* Growing parenthood among teen-agers unaware of its responsibilities.

* A rapid growth of poverty in young families.

* An unexpectedly large, new wave of immigration since the Vietnam War.

* A major shift in the learning demands of well-paying jobs with an impact on middle-class children as well as the poor.

* A human rights revolution in the lives of racial and cultural minorities, with a serious lag in delivering its promises.

* The concentration in cities of poor and minority families along with well-hidden, similar problems in rural areas.

* The erosion of neighborhood activities to enrich children’s lives as the need for them mounts because of growing poverty.

* Similar erosion of the capacity of health agencies and other services as demand exceeds supply.

As Howe points out such a list could go on and on, but this one is “sufficient to back up the assertion that non-school-related educational services are standing in need of prayer.”

In other words the out-of-school” conditions of kids’ lives are in desperate need of corrective action if we would expect schools to become places of real learning. This is the position of a number of educational writers from Jonathan Kozol, who speaks eloquently of the tormented lives of impoverished, inner city children, to David Berliner who makes it clear that poverty, joblessness, broken families, lack of health insurance, and other such conditions stand as insurmountable obstacles to kids’ learning in school.

This was my understanding of why public schooling was failing large numbers of minority and immigrant children living in impoverished urban and rural areas of our country. Then I read Robert L. Hampel’s “A Generation in Crisis” from Daedalus of September, 1998.

Hampel paints another picture entirely. Schools, all schools fail to educate large numbers of their students not principally for the reasons given above, although this is not to say that we might forget about improving the impoverished conditions of many children’s lives. This should still be a priority of government.

Hampel says that the real culprits to learning in school are what the kids are doing during the greater number of hours spent outside of school. If they do any homework at all it’s only a few hours a week. Whereas they spend inordinate amounts of time with television, video games, computers and other electronic media. They spend probably no less time “chatting” and being influenced by their friends and peers. And, as the get older, they will hold down part time jobs, for as many as 20 hours a week.

We look at our kids and see them with computers, friends, and part time jobs, and are most of all relieved that they’re not over eating and getting fat, trying drinks and drugs, not engaging in premarital sex and getting pregnant, not members of gangs, not,heaven forbid, contemplating suicide. We support them in what seem to us healthy activities. We buy them computers, encourage them to be with their friends, even help them to secure a job.

But what happens, as Hampel makes clear, is that school and classroom learning cannot compete for their interest and attention.  Their games, friends and weekly pay checks are much stronger influences in their lives. School is definitely out of the running.

Hampel doesn’t ask what we should do. What can we do? What has happened is that schooling has lost its way. For the most part it is no longer concerned with what the kids care most about.

It may very well be the mission of the school to:

“produce responsible, self-sufficient citizens who possess the self-esteem, initiative, skills,  and wisdom to continue individual growth, pursue knowledge, develop aesthetic sensibilities, and value cultural diversity by providing intellectually challenging educational programs that celebrate change but affirm tradition and promote excellence through an active partnership with the community, a comprehensive and responsive curriculum, and a dedicated and knowledgeable staff.” *

But this is not the “mission” of the kid. He is on a mission of his own and for the moment, anyway, there seems to be no connecting link between his mission and that of the school.

*The mission statement of the New Rochelle, NY, public schools of June, 1987


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.
There are schools, both public and private, that do stress good classroom behavior and don’t worry about whether the students are learning, knowing that the latter will not take place until the students themselves are ready.

Children do, as we’ve already noted, come to school with their interest and motivation in place. Everyone has seen the great delight that small children take in learning their words and numbers in the elementary classroom. The greatest difference between schooling and learning is the absence (schooling) or the presence (learning) of interest and motivation on the part of the student.

But everyone has also seen kids’ interest and motivation fall away by the fourth or fifth grade when their awareness of themselves, and most especially their growing awareness of their relationship to others, become the principal and driving forces in their lives.

For here begins the process when learning turns into schooling and the content of the lesson becomes confined to the classroom, when what is most vivid and most alive for the kids is no longer words and numbers, as it may have been during the first years of school, but the physical, their bodies, and the social, their friends, thereby relegating the subject matter of the classroom to at best a few minutes of homework squeezed somewhere in between friends, family, sports, television, video games, computers and other such modern distractions.


Ask your own children who wrote the Declaration of Independence, what were the Federalist Papers, who was Jim Crow, and you will see that even your own kids may not be learning, or at least not retaining information about their own country, the very things that school was supposed to teach them.

Then try to carry on a conversation, say in Spanish, the “easy language,” with a third, or fourth year Spanish student in a typical American high school, perhaps with your own child if he or she fits the description. You will very quickly see that the schools (as in teaching Spanish or American history) are clearly not doing what they say they are doing.

Now what we seem not yet as a nation to have fully recognized, is the fact that in our schools, especially our middle and high schools, very few things are learned in the sense of acquired, or made one’s own, — a grounding in American history, or conversational ability in the Spanish language, as in our examples.

Our elementary schools, those schools that have been around since the time of the earliest settlers on the Atlantic seaboard, are probably best at what they do. In part because of their long history. And in great part because what they do is still highly relevant to kids’ lives outside of school. At earlier times and probably still today most if not all elementary school kids do learn to read and to count.

The situation in our middle and high school classrooms, however, is something else. Only for the last 60 or 70 years have most of our young people been subjected to schooling during these years. And the jury is still out on how well we have succeeded, even whether it was such a great idea that all kids be in school for some 12 or 13 years. But they are, and we have them.

The success of the elementary years is probably best explained by the fact that the subject matter, mostly the learning to read and to count, is not limited to the classroom. The kids, at least those who do learn, go on with both activities outside of school. And those who don’t probably don’t learn.

Totally different from the situation of the middle and high schools, where what goes on in class is usually not something the kids take with them and do at home. Rather it’s something, in spite of books and notebooks crammed into knapsacks, that the kids at the end of the day mostly leave behind them in school.

Is it any wonder that just months let alone years after these classroom lessons, perhaps even weeks or days, the kids cannot solve an equation like the one they solved in class, can’t
respond in Spanish to a question put to them in that language, can’t tell you much if anything about the US constitution and the separation of powers, can’t even accurately place the Civil War on an American history time line.

And the reason is not that the schools have failed, as so many echoing the urgency of those who gave us A Nation at Risk in the 80s would have us believe. The schools haven’t failed. The kids, perhaps. But they have failed to learn, not so much because of what went on in school, what the teacher did or didn’t do, but because the “languages” spoken in the classroom, the ones they were supposed to learn, be they math, science, history et al, are just not spoken outside of the classroom.

And math, science, history et al are languages, no less than Spanish and Chinese, and need to be spoken, and read, somehow “used,” given life, if they are to be learned. For John Dewey was right. We do learn by doing, much more than by listening. Lectures and language tapes are not enough.

Try to learn Spanish or any foreign language when you hear only words in that language from your teacher (or on a tape) while sitting in class along with some 25 others who are as ignorant of the language as you are. What language can possibly be learned in this manner, other than by the rare student with exceptional intelligence, a photographic memory, or both?

Now all this is not to say that middle and high school students are not learning in school. They are learning, and many of them are learning a lot, but little or nothing (in respect to what they might have learned) of the academic subjects that are still at the heart of the typical middle and high school curriculum.

What they are, in fact, learning, and this should come as no surprise to anyone, is what they are doing in school (or out of school) with interest and motivation. You can put a kid in a classroom, of course, but that’s it. So far we haven’t been able to make him or her learn.

What kids are learning may be music, as in playing a musical instrument in the school band. It may be art as in designing sets or murals. It may be acting as in the school theater group, or it may be bodily strength and coordination, plus cooperation with others, as in participating in one or more team or individual sports activities.

What kids are learning may be any number of other things including shop, automotive mechanics, and other voc ed activities. Schools, in order to stay in business, learned long ago that play, art, music, voc ed and all the rest were no less important, I would say essential, to kids’ lives, to their mental and physical health and well-being, than college prep and advanced placement courses. Indeed, if you want to see even greater “failure” than you think you see right now in our public schools limit schooling to college prep. (This being for some what the No Child Left Behind Law is effectively doing to the schools.)

Currently there is, and has been, almost from the time of Horace Mann and the Common School over 150 years ago, a sharp, verbal battle between those who would give the public schools failing marks and those who would defend the schools, claiming that they are doing just fine the way they are.

I would say that this battle need not ever have been. The sides could have come together because they are not so much apart as they are talking about different things — the ones about the low academic achievement of public school students (that which has probably always been low), and the others about the real success that the common school has had in reaching all, or nearly all of our youth.

For the defenders of the public schools correctly say that now no one is left out, and that all are given an opportunity to continue their education through high school, college and beyond, even though only a minority of them  will actually do so.

There are many things we could say about our schools that might help to go beyond the school battle I refer to. Most important both groups ought to understand that learning is not what schools are mostly about. For the kids just have little, often no interest, in what the schools are teaching. So why blame the schools. It can hardly be their fault if the kids are not ready to learn.

Although life itself is all about learning, and although kids are learning all the time and everywhere, for the most part they are just not all that interested in what we are teaching, in particular, in math, science, history et al, all those subject matters that we tell them are all important and that they will need, to go on to college, to get a good job, to make a lot of money.

Those who attack the schools say that at one time things were different. At one time in the past, they assure us, kids did learn, — math, history, foreign language and all the rest. But a close look at the past, a close look at student achievement in earlier periods makes it clear that this is not so.

Gerald Bracey and others have shown us that in the past kids, at least the relatively few of them that were in school, did not learn anymore then than their peers are learning now. Kids are kids and the educators who should most of all know this most of all seem to forget it.

In fairness to those who attack the schools they do have a number of reforms in mind. One of their reforms is to make both kids and teachers accountable. First test the teachers, then the kids. Hold the kids to (national) standards. Make them fear for their lives after their schooling if they don’t work while in school.

But of course the threats don’t work. Because the kids, even if they work more in class, and are given additional class time, still don’t take what they are taught in class into their lives, that is, where these things they are taught might be learned.  Equations, American history, and the spoken foreign language are still not a part of their lives outside of class.

The kids are into other things. The schools don’t take this enough into account and go on confusing schooling, what is going on in their schools, with education, that is not going on. Our schools would be just fine if our goals for the schools were things that schooling could accomplish. But too often our goals are in need of an education for which our kids in middle and high school are not yet ready.

What could the kids be learning in school? Good classroom habits for one, such as listening to the teacher and other students in the classroom, speaking up and thereby contributing to the class discussion, being on time, being equipped with whatever is necessary for the orderly classroom activities, such as pens, notebooks, texts, even laptop computers. But instead of doing this sort of thing where we might be successful we go on pretending to teach (math and history) and the students go on pretending to learn.


We still labor under the mistaken notion that education, and worse, education for democracy, is what goes on in the schools. It isn’t, and never was, and could not be. This mistaken notion has led to most of the “problems,” (read dropouts, achievement gaps, discipline, algebra for the middle school, advanced placement etc.), and most of the “solutions” (read reforms, failed for the most part).

What we call education in the schools can never be anything more than the acquisition of certain skills,  to begin with in the primary grades building mostly on skills that the child has learned outside of school, the two principal ones being walking and talking, not necessarily in that order. And if the child has not already learned to walk and to talk outside of school school will fail in what it sets out to do.

No one better than Mortimer Adler understood all this, what he called the difference between education and schooling. Here he is speaking in a 1995 interview:

“I can hardly remember what I used to think when I had the mistaken notion that the schools were the most important part of the educational process; for n
ow I think exactly the reverse. I am now convinced that it is adult education which is the substantial and major part of the educational process — the part for which all the rest is at best — and it is at its best only when it is — a preparation.”

“[school] at its best only when it is … a preparation.” What does that mean? Certainly not education for democracy, not even the start of life long learning, certainly not the knowledge of oneself, in fact none of the major and traditional “goals of education.”

School is a preparation. In Adler’s words, “use ‘schooling’ to signify the development and training of the young; and ‘education’ to signify the learning done by mature men and women. Make this important distinction between education and schooling.

On this point I would disagree somewhat with Adler. I would say that he ought to have said “liberal education” for learning done by mature men and women, rather than education. Because education doesn’t wait for adulthood. (It may even happen in school, although usually not the result of the school’s and teacher’s efforts.) Education doesn’t wait for anything. That’s why we do have extraordinarily precocious children.

However, Adler is mostly correct that schooling for most does come first, and only later education, well after the school years. But he readily admits that we’re not going to change the present understanding that education does take place in the schools by simply saying it isn’t so.

What if we could change the present understanding, what if in everyone’s eyes “schools” suddenly became as for Adler places where schooling, not education, goes on, education becoming in everyone’s eyes something else entirely, maybe just another name for learning, that which is always going on, mostly not in school and at widely varying rates depending on the learner?

A bit further into the interview Adler says that “nothing could be more preposterous” than the assumption,  that to graduate from school, college, or even beyond, means to have become educated. This being one more widely held and incorrect assumption that we’re not able to dispel.

“Imagine'” Adler then says, “this brightest student in the best of all possible colleges spending four years industriously, faithfully, and efficiently applying his or her mind to study. I say to you that at the end of four years, this student, awarded a degree with the highest honors, is not an educated man or woman, and cannot be, for the simple reason that the obstacle to becoming educated in school is an inherent and insur-mountable one, namely, youth.”

So there you have it, youth itself is the inherent and insurmountable obstacle to becoming educated. Those who have been close to their own children during their children’s very first years should not, will not be surprised at this.

What were those stages of psychological development that Freud tells us all children pass through, the oral, anal, phallic/genital stages, taking the child through puberty and beyond? Placed along side these real drivers of the child’s psychic energies the high sounding educational goals of our schools are mostly without influence on the actual psychic life of the child.

But if children cannot be educated in school (for they lack a real independent and responsible life experience on which to draw — to illustrate this Adler compares the classroom behavior of the GIs back in school on the GI Bill following their war experience with their not much younger college classmates)… they can be “trained,” that which ought to be the proper activity of the school.

Again, forget about education for understanding, education for democracy, the essential school movement, all that sort of thing, and instead use schooling to help the child acquire skills and information appropriate to his age and abilities.

Such skills such as speaking and reading foreign languages, gaining a familiarity with the languages of math, and music and art, as well as the skills acquired through such combined physical and mental activities as athletics, art and theater, any number of vocational pursuits, all kinds of science experiments.

And then there is the acquisition of all kinds of useful information, the knowledge of the past, the knowledge of the earth, and the creatures of the earth including man, the knowledge of the universe to mention a few. All of this is more than enough for the child in school.

But, while it’s true that children can, much more easily and more rapidly than adults, acquire the skills and knowledge mentioned, it’s not enough, as more and more the schools and teachers have recognized, just to simply stand up in the front of the classroom and teach. The center of the effort to learn from the very first has to be the child.

Therefore, as much as the teaching of skills and of knowledge the principal and primary role of the school and teacher has to be to motivate the child. Up until now that has not been the case as, for example, for every 100 or more curriculum papers we have one or fewer papers on what it takes to arouse the motivation and interest of the child.
At the end of his interview with Max Weismann Adler makes a common mistake regarding our nation. We are, he says, a nation at risk, because there is so little of what he calls education going on. But education, especial the liberal education of a lifetime of which Adler is most of all speaking, has always been rare, perhaps mostly non existent in prehistory, and we are probably no more at risk in this regard than we have ever been.

Teaching and learning

That the child become the vehicle for saving our world may very well be what drives idealistic young people into teaching, that the world will somehow be a better place through their efforts with the children.

Of course this sort of thing never happens. the world is not changed, Helas!, by what we do to the kids in school. Would that it were! Schools do not make kids more virtuous. Nor do they make them more democratic.

Such organizations as The Forum for Education and Democracy, working to promote education for democratic life, are at best naive, and at worst terribly wasteful of people’s time and energies.

Do you want to teach democracy? Take the kids outside of school and throw them into life, into real life situations where they have to make choices and decisions. They will quickly learn the difference between dictatorial and democratic organizing principles.

The only way that good things happen in the schools, that is, the only way that real learning takes place, has to be through the efforts made by the kids themselves. School administrators and even teachers are clearly of secondary importance in the pursuit of learning.

I think of my own grandson. “What did you do in school today?” “At recess I played soccer, I think I’m an excellent goalie.” Not a word about Spanish, math, language, science, or history classes.

I know he’s taking these classes, but somehow they don’t reach his consciousness, or if they do they don’t stay in his consciousness beyond the final classroom bell.

Most of what kids learn in a single day proceeds not from the classroom, but from their time outside of school doing things of their own choice, things that reflect their own interests.

In my grandson’s case, these things are computer dependent activities, such as adding to his store of jokes and riddles by doing Google searches, playing games and watching movies, then away from the computer, playing Othello and 52 Pick-up with me, and outside, taking long walks all the time playing practical jokes on his grandfather.

All of course only after he has done his 30 minutes of homework, which for him is kind of the dues he has to pay in order to free himself to do what he wants.

So far after two years of classroom Spanish my grandson does know a few words. But in French he’s bilingual, fluent in the language, because that’s mostly the language he hears and has to communicate in when he’s in our home.

Schools just don’t seem to get the nature of language learning, nor math, nor science…. Immersion is the only effective technique of learning anything. And yet immersion, be it in math, science, or writing an essay, is nearly absent from our classrooms and schools. So far no one knows how to hold 20 to 25 kids under water at the same time.

The educational theorists don’t make things happen, any more that the physicists by their own thinking determine the nature of matter, nor the biologists the structure of the cell nucleus. At best the theorists uncover what’s there, but what’s there determines the course of our lives.

In schools what’s there, or what’s “in the kids” determines what’s learned. The kids more than the teachers make things happen, or that’s the way it should be. In society people more than politicians make things happen, or that’s the way it should be.

The tragedy, or better comedy, in which we now live, is that educators and politicians, rather than kids and people, are the driving forces. And in most cases they’re driving us off the road.

The fact is that up until now kids have pretty much escaped all the educational systems into which we would enclose them, nor have they been much influenced by the endless series of educational reforms to which we have subjected them.

I’m reminded of this every day….

Reply to Gus

No, I don’t think the Rev. Wright is a “lunatic.”  Fanatic I’ll let you have. Wright is not wandering about clueless. He’s got his eye right on the ball. He obviously knows just what he wants, this being attention from the media, all he can get of it, and at the moment he’s getting a lot.

And, unlike Obama, Wright seems to be enjoying himself through it all, first during the interview with his old friend, Bill Moyers, then at the NAACP dinner in Detroit, and Monday, at the National Press Club in Washington, before many of his liberation theology friends.

Wright says his purpose in speaking is to defend the black church, which was for hundreds of years invisible, but is now out in the open and under attack.

Clearly, however, what the Reverend is really doing is displaying his considerable biblical knowledge and quite striking rhetorical skills, all to further his own position and agenda, not those of the black church, nor of his own church, Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, nor of Trinity church member, Barack Obama.

I don’t call into question the Reverend’s intelligence. Furthermore, much of what he says is true, although hardly original, in particular when he recounts our shameful treatment of the native Americans and our several hundred year long oppression of black Americans, most of whose ancestors are more American, have been here longer, than most of us.

However, these and other equally unsavory “truths” of our history have probably blinded him to seeing the whole truth. And in his “blindness” he repeated his other much less defensible and long held positions.

Once again he defended his wholehearted attachment to Louis Farrakhan, even had Farrakhan people as body guards at the Press Club. And once again he refused to retract and repudiate his own conspiracy theory in regard to the origin of HIV.

These two “crazy” positions are probably the basis for your term, lunatic. And in fact these two positions alone make one wonder about Wright’s judgment regarding everything else.

At the National Press Club event Wright clearly revealed his oratorical gifts and while listening to him you could easily understand how he could hold for so long the rapt attention of the members of his congregation.

Probably those who were not thoroughly persuaded by Wright’s rhetoric did not remain in his congregation. Why Barack Obama remained so long is difficult to understand, and not just for you.

I would explain his remaining by his relative innocence and inexperience, that which, probably more than anything else, makes one question, as you do, Barack’s readiness to be president.

But you in what you write, why do you continue to mention and fault Barack’s contacts with the Weather Underground figure, Bill Ayers? You ought to get over that. Did you ever read the Stanley Fish piece I sent you? That should have made you realize (what I see as anyway) your error for faulting him for those contacts.

Finally, when Barack says, “I may not know Wright as well as I thought,” I accept him at his word. How much do we know even those who are closest to us? And furthermore, haven’t you ever been mistaken in your judgment about someone in your own life?

Barack probably needed a father when as a young man alone in Chicago he met Wright. His own father had abandoned him when he was 2 years old, and most likely the Rev. Wright became the missing father figure. Again, no reason to condemn Barack for that.

Note to Ben Thompson

Ben, I read the Times article as you suggested. I found it terribly discouraging. There are always, it seems, good people (such as Peter Santos and Mayor Booker in the article) who want to help, but no program yet that seems to be effectively working for the majority of the returning ex-offenders, helping them to get back into life and work and stay there.

You’re right, the educational component is missing from the Newark program(s). And education may be, as you believe, the missing factor, although I sometimes think that there are problems that will always go beyond our ability to remedy, and this may, at the moment anyway, be one of them.

I guess I would agree with Ms. Giardi when she says: “A lot of these guys want the easy way out. We can give them everything — hold their hand, give them a job and a place to live — but something has to click in their head. I don’t think anyone has figured out what that magic switch is.”

What about you?

"Something has to click in their head." In fact one can probably say that about most everyone, ex-offenders certainly, but also kids in our inner city public schools, even our own children on occasion. The only effective change strategy has to come from within. I guess we know that and that from the outside we can’t make that "click" happen, try as we might.


Ben Thompson is the CEO of STRIVE, the Boston, Massachusetts branch of STRIVE National. STRIVE under Ben’s leadership has decided to concentrate its re-training efforts on ex-offenders, first helping them to complete high school and at least two years of community college, before helping them to find a job.

For recidivism is considerably less for those ex-offenders who have gone back to school, and remained until graduation, than for those going directly from prison to job, most often one usually not paying a living wage.

The Times article makes clear the extent of the problem we are facing, one that neither Hillary or Barack is addressing.

First that in Newark alone, some 2,300 men and women pour into the city from prison each year, and that 65 percent are rearrested within five years, and also that one in six adult residents of the city has a criminal record.

And second that even with crime at historic lows, the number of people behind bars in the country is 2.3 million, its highest level ever, according to the Pew Center on the States; last year, there were 7 million people in jail or prison, on probation or on parole.

Obama and the Liberal designation

Now people are calling Obama a liberal, placing him with Michael Dukakis, and John Kerry, and before them, with Adlai Stevenson and George McGovern.

There is some question whether Obama will be able to successfully avoid the label now in the primary campaign, but most of all in the presidential campaign in the Fall, when the label alone may destroy his winning chances.

It is a fact that Democrats, during the 60 years since FDR, who gave the modern meaning to the term liberal and was himself immune to its subsequent electoral poison, have only won the presidency when they have backed a centrist candidate, starting with Truman, then Kennedy, Johnson, Carter, and most recently Clinton.

In every election when they have put up a liberal or left of center candidate, first Stevenson, then Hunphrey, McGovern, Mondale, Dukakis, and finally Kerry, they have lost, most often to Republican landslides.

It’s not clear to me that Obama fully understands this. That more important even than the Rev. Wright or "bitter" controversies is his being able to avoid the designation liberal.

In our country the term liberal, a most favored attribute in earlier times, has come to mean someone out of touch with ordinary people and out of touch with reality, someone for whom books and ideas are more important than "bread and circuses," than eating and drinking, Nascar and professional wrestling.

It also means someone who looks primarily to federal government programs in order to alleviate poverty or economic hardship, that which is still the main source of human suffering.

In today’s news we see pictures of hungry people, Haitians rummaging for food in the city dumps, Indians with hands outstretched grabbing at sacks of flour and sugar. The liberal would say we have the food, let’s distribute it more equitably.

The centrist wouldn’t be quick to take any action, but would look for non-governmental ways to prevent these situations from arising in the future, while not fighting government handouts in the present.

Most of all it’s not clear to me that Obama is as much concerned with wealth creation as he is with wealth distribution. This distinction alone does most to explain the liberal having fallen out of favor, for most people understand, at least in this country, perhaps no longer in Europe, that wealth creation has to come first.

We know from long experience that wealth creation doesn’t come from government action (the former USSR being the proof of this), but from the free, inventive, and imaginative actions of individuals who by their own efforts come up with things that are useful and pleasing to others and thereby represent new wealth.

What in Obama’s stump speeches on the campaign trail shows that he understands this? Not his protection of the jobs in the rust belt that had to go, not his rejection of NAFTA or the trade treaty between the U.S. and Columbia. Only his support of more enlightened (more "liberal") immigration policy suggests that he may understand that immigrants are and always have been probably the principal source of this country’s greatest economic strength, and resulting wealth.

Why School?

We founded a school and it always seemed to me that what kids learned was mostly out of my control (I say “my” because my wife and co-founder didn’t and still doesn’t agree, about this and about many other things in regard to the education of children).

Smart, motivated kids would come to us, more and more as we became better known in our community north of Boston, and at best we didn’t by our actions switch off their motivation and they learned. When they left us they were still smart and motivated and we didn’t reject the credit that wrongly came to us for this outcome.

But of course we couldn’t take the credit for the one or the other. Neither the smarts nor their motivation were our creations. Both had been with them from the start, and remained the most important factors affecting their school experience througout the time they were with us.

Not so smart and not so motivated kids also came to us. And we didn’t undo their “unsmartness,” nor did we motivate them to learn. They left us, four to six years later, still not so smart and not so motivated.

Right from the beginning such considerations as these made me want to shut down the school because the two things kids will most need in life, smarts and motivation, were not much influenced by what we were doing.

If we didn’t shut down (and we didn’t and the school is still alive and “well,” now, some 36 years later) it was probably much more because of the teachers who liked to teach and the parents who loved their children than because of the kids themselves, who never in my eyes made a convincing case for the validity of what we were doing to them and with them.

So why school at all? For the radical educator John Holt, “School is a wrong idea from the word go. It’s a nutty notion that we can have a place where nothing but learning happens, cut off from the rest of life.”

I actually have an answer to the question, why school, stemming from the following considerations. Children, we agree, are learning all the time. And most if not all of what they are learning follows from what interests them, what they spend their “own time” doing, probably more out of school than in.

Children are observant, and they will even observe what goes on in school because they have no choice, because they have to be there. It follows from these considerations that the school’s principal responsibility is to make sure that good things are happening in the school where the children are.

By good things I mean all those things that lend truth, beauty, and goodness to our lives.  Music (bands, choruses, ensembles, orchestras), public speaking (presentations, debates, student teaching), the sounds and rhythms of English and other languages, athletics (team and individual sports activities), discussions (of books, countries, historical periods, current events) and of course literacy and numeracy activities of all sorts. I don’t mean test prep and test taking.

The result of this school environment will be, not that the children grow in smarts and motivation, but that they become aware of at least a few of those intellectual, artistic, bodily, and other activities that throughout recorded history have brought men such great joy.

So why school? School may still be the best place to introduce kids to the best of what has come before. By and large the culture and popular media do not do that.

A Nation at Risk (25 years later)

There are many reasons to improve American schools, but declining achievement and international competition are not good arguments for doing so. Asking schools to improve dramatically without support from other social and economic institutions is bound to fail, as a quarter century of experience since A Nation at Risk has demonstrated.
(Richard Rothstein, A Nation at Risk, 25 years later)

The fourth-grade instrumental-music program

Why is it that city and town governments, let alone larger entities such as states, provinces, and nations, have been so little able to motivate their citizens into volunteering their time and know-how to meet the community needs? Why is it that instead all, or nearly all town and city services must be paid for at the going rate, and when the money is not there they must be suspended indefinitely?

At the present time in many Massachusetts cities and towns, and throughout the country, given the present economic downturn that some are already calling a recession, adequate funding is not available. We’re told, for example, that in Canton middle school students will idle in vast study halls because electives have been pared and teachers have been laid off.

We’re told that the town of Brookline without a higher tax rate will have to shed three teachers, four police officers, all school library assistants, the equivalent of 2.8 school social workers, the fourth-grade instrumental-music program, as well as the use of one of the town’s seven fire engines from May through August.

For as long as ever families have been surviving, and in good times more than surviving, because of the voluntary labor of their members. And no less than the family the city or town needs "stay-at-home" moms (or pops) or other volunteer "family members" to insure that services are not cut. 

Why haven’t we done much more to create within each service area, be it schools, health care, even police and fire departments, volunteer as well as paid staff? Then in tough times, such as now, the volunteers could expand their number so that services wouldn’t be cut. The task of the relatively small paid staff would be to organize the work and make things happen.

Many activities do work in this manner, after school soccer leagues and chess clubs for example. But not enough, and especially not enough in the tough impoverished inner cities where economic downturns are felt the most.

The present system seems indefensible. That in tough times children get less attention, less care, less tutoring, less of everything, which process usually begins with such cuts as losing the school band, theater program, or the privilege of small class sizes. If anything the children probably need more of everything during the tough times, and they get less.

Cities and towns produce nothing of value, nothing that they can sell and thereby make a profit. But they promise more and more services that for their realization require more and more revenue from taxes, usually property taxes. The people have learned through this process that the taxes they pay are never be enough to pay for the services promised. Higher tax rates are always needed with the result that discontent is everywhere.

It might have been different if from the beginning the public schools, fire departments and all the rest were made up of volunteer as well as paid staff. Furthermore this would help the city or town to become what it’s always talking about, a community. As it is the town’s needs, and in particular the needs of growing children, will never be fully met and satisfied.

Thoughts on the dropout “problem.”

If dropping out was considered no less acceptable than staying in, graduating, and going on to college, the problem would disappear overnight.

And dropping out ought to be no less acceptable especially when by staying in kids have to continue to pretend that a college prep program interests them.

What is out there for those who do drop out, or who may want to drop out but don’t? That’s what should be on our minds. But it’s not, and instead we go on trying to motivate kids to acquire sufficient math and English language skills to pass a test and thereby earn a high school diploma.

Have we helped them by doing so?

Well, yes, if you go by the numbers demonstrating that those with a high school diploma will get a better paying job than those without.

But innumerable other things, such as being in possession of good work habits, may be more important than any diploma, and there’s no reason why those who drop out of school can’t be in possession of good work habits.

We know that dropouts are highest in urban schools where SAT and ACT scores are lowest. We know that dropouts are highest where poverty is greatest, that dropouts are highest among Latino and African American minority student populations.

The “liberal” approach to the problem is to improve the conditions of kids’ lives in these urban schools believing that kids will then stay in school. And this is probably true.

Isn’t that what has happened in our suburbs? By and large we have eliminated poverty in the suburbs (or rather those who now live in the suburbs left poverty behind them in the inner city) and higher percentages of suburban kids remain in school and graduate.

This is the route that some reformers would take, somehow place inner city kids in schools that do not have large majorities of poor kids, busing them to the suburbs, for example, as in the METCO program in Boston, or in similar programs such as the one in Wade County, NC.

But so far all of our reforms have done little or nothing to decrease the numbers of inner city kids who are dropping out of school, not finding a decent job, and in too many instances joining the growing population in our prisons.

Isn’t it time to question whether our policy of one academic, college prep education for all is worth pursuing? Whether vocational or other programs might be more appropriate for many young people, returning thereby to an earlier period in the country’s history when job and work preparation was no less reputable than preparation for college?

There have always been those who have held the position that college was not for everyone. Further education, some form of training, skill acquisition, yes, but not an academic program which at the present time we’re imposing on all of our students.

The most common reason giving for dropping out of school is math, although it could have been reading, writing, or history or foreign languages, if the latter had been given the importance that math now has in our society, if not in our culture.

It’s true that science, applied science and engineering, all of which are based on math literacy, have most of all accounted for the great material progress of our age. But why is it necessary to push all children to become “literate” in these areas?

Is there anything wrong with our allowing a minority of math and science talented individuals to account most of all for the technological progress that benefits all of us?

This siituation doesn’t bother us in other fields, where only small minorities of gifted individuals carry the weight for us all, in music, basketball, and other athletic endeavors, in art, and in fiction and non-fiction writing, for example.

If nothing else we are a nation of specialists. Why go on for the first 18 years or more of our young peoples’ lives, expecting them to become more knowledgeable and skillful in certain academic disciplines that are of little interest to them?

Why not at a much earlier age pay greater attention to the individual’s gifts, for not only are all created equal, but all are in possession of something unique and important.  At the present time our college for all program results in many young people losing their belief in their own uniqueness and importance.

Even an otherwise admirable effort, such as Bob Moses’ Algebra or algebra for all Project, has probably done more harm than good. This should have been accompanied by a Music for all Project, an athletics for all project, and innumerable other such programs or projects. In respect to an individual life is algebra really more important than music or athletics? Certainly not.

Look at the many minority and innercity and poor children who don’t graduate with their class, and at the even more among those who, while they do graduate on time, are no less convinced that they are not students, don’t know much, aren’t going to succeed in their future endeavors.

And why? Often for silly reasons like they still have trouble adding fractions, or calculating percentages, or are unable to write an decent essay. The tragedy is, of course, that there were many other things that they could have done well, successes that they could have taken with them from their school years, instead of the feeling that they hadn’t accomplished much in school, nor would accomplish much in their lives in the future.

Classroom learning in comparison is wasteful and ineffective

Attending 97,000 elementary and secondary public schools in the 50 states are some 50 million students with their 3.6 million teachers. Each student of the 50 million is unique and will learn in his or her own and unique manner. No two students, and certainly no two students in the same classroom, will learn in the same way.

Yet the schools, from this country’s beginnings in the 17th century, have always placed their students into whatever size classroom groups the particular circumstances permitted. And the circumstances have never allowed a one-on-one learning relationship, perhaps the only one that is truly effective.

Classroom learning in comparison is wasteful and ineffective. Witness the numbers of people who, when they want to learn something, and have the means, will go to a tutor, will find someone who knows the subject matter or skill and is willing and able to teach what he knows.

Schools have always been a compromise between how students learn and how teachers are able to teach or help them learn. Always a compromise because if we talk to Tom we know that Jerry may not be listening, and vice versa. Imagine what it’s like in a class with ten times that number, probably the average size classroom in the country’s 97,000 schools. How many are listening to the teacher at any given moment?

I still ask the question, did it have to be this way. Did students have to learn in a classroom with 20 of their no less ignorant peers?  In any case, that’s now the way things are. If we’ve accepted the situation isn’t it because whether the students learn what we’re teaching them or not is not all that important. We’ve known for the longest time that what we teach them has little relevance to their daily lives.

Liberté, Égalité, et Fraternité