Saturday, December 09, 2006

Speaking of Absolute Authority

John Derbyshire takes down the education establishment in this article in the New English Review:

Education is a subject I find hard to contemplate without losing my temper. In the present-day U.S.A., education is basically a series of rent-seeking rackets.

* There is the public school racket, in which homeowners and taxpayers fork out stupendous sums of money to feed a socialistic extravaganza in which, when its employees can spare time from administration, “professional development” sabbaticals, and fund-raising for the Democratic Party, boys are pressed to act like girls, and dosed with calming drugs if they refuse so to act; girls are encouraged to act like boys by taking up advanced science, math, and strenuous sports, which few of them have any liking or aptitude for; and boys and girls alike are indoctrinated in the dubious dogmas of “diversity” and political correctness.

* There is the teacher-unions racket , in which people who only work half the days of the year are awarded lifetime tenure and lush pensions on the public fisc, subject to dismissal for no offense less grave than serial arson or piracy on the high seas.

* There is the federal Department of Education racket, aptly summed up by the teacher-union boss who declared, when the Department was established by Jimmy Carter, that he now belonged to the only labor union to have its very own cabinet officer. The DoE is also much beloved by politicians, who can posture as kiddie- and family-friendly by periodically voting to tip boxcar-loads of taxpayers’ money into this bureaucratic black hole.

* There is the homework racket, exposed in Alfie Kohn’s book The Homework Myth —basically, a device for getting parents to do teachers’ work for them.

* There is the teacher-training racket, in which the “professional” training of our nation’s educators has been placed in the hands of the clinically insane. You think I exaggerate? I offer you Dr. Kamau Kambon, a product of our teacher-training colleges—an atypical product only in that he has so many “professional” degrees. According to his Wikipedia entry: “Dr. Kambon holds a B.A. degree in education/history, a master's degree in physical education, both a M.A. and a M. Ed. degree in education/administration, and an Ed. D. in urban education/curriculum and instruction.” Phew! This is one very thoroughly teacher-trained dude! Listen to what Dr. Kambon has to say about the proper priorities for American educators here. There is a wellnigh infinite supply of news stories about teacher-college lunacy at websites like that of the estimable F.I.R.E., and Rita Kramer wrote a fine, if horribly depressing, book on the topic.

Towering over all these lesser scams is the college racket, a vast money-swollen credentialing machine for lower-middle-class worker bees. American parents are now all resigned to the fact that they must beggar themselves to purchase college diplomas for their offspring, so that said offspring can get low-paid outsource-able office jobs, instead of having to descend to high-paid, un-outsource-able work like plumbing, carpentry, or electrical installation.

It's an excellent, commonsensical critique of the excesses, abuses and the underlying theoretical fallacies that keep this establishment in power. Above all the tricks of the education racket, the alliances with politicians and the never ending promises to spend more money on schools, is the fallacy known as the "Blank Slate" theory of human development:

If you read much Ed Biz theorizing, you find yourself wondering how a single field of human enquiry can contain so much error and folly. One answer is that educationalists wilfully—ideologically, in fact—ignore the understanding of human nature that the modern human sciences are gradually attaining, and cling doggedly to long-exploded theories about how human beings develop from infancy to adulthood. From false premises they proceed to false conclusions.

The long and short of this new understanding is that human beings are much less malleable than everyone supposed half a century ago, and much less malleable than “blank slate” leftists—a category that includes practically all education theorists—have ever, for reasons not difficult to fathom, been willing to contemplate.

Reading recent results out of the human sciences always brings to my mind those “shape memory alloys” that so fascinate materials scientists. These are metal alloys that “remember” their original geometry, and can be made to return to it, or something close to it, usually by heating, after any amount of deformation and pressure.

So it is with humanity. We come into the world with a good deal of our life course pre-ordained in our genes. At age three or so we begin to interact with other children outside our home, with results that depend in part on us, and in part on where our home is situated. We pass through various educational processes—formalized extensions of that out-of-home environment, and also highly location-dependent. We end up as adults with personalities and prospects that are, according to the latest understandings, around 50 percent innate and pre-ordained, around 50 percent formed by “non-shared environment” (not shared, that is, with siblings raised in the same home by the same parents—a somewhat controversial concept in its precise contents, but clearly consisting mostly of those out-of-home experiences), and 0-5 percent formed by “shared environment”—mainly parenting style.

(And we then, having reached adulthood, regress a little to our pre-ordained shape, like one of those peculiar alloys. It is a curious fact, well supported by a mass of evidence, that the heritable components of our personality and intelligence become more marked as we age. The IQs of 40-year-olds correlate better with those of their parents or siblings than do the IQs of 20-year-olds. The advice traditionally given to young men contemplating marriage—“Get a good look at her mother”—is very sound.)

All of this wouldn't be possible if the education establishment and its allies could not rely on the essentially progressive and egalitarian conscience of the average American. Contrary to Orrin Judd's constant refrain that we are a conservative nation, we continue to act out of a guilty conscience that is informed by notions of Americanness that are decidedly progressive. These notions include the following:

* There must not ever be underclass in America. The existence of an underclass is an indictment on the American people.

* We are a melting pot. Race, ethnicity and religion must never be allowed to determine social and economic outcomes.

The plight of inner city schools will always be a potent issue in our election campaigns, because Americans will never resign themselves to the idea that inner city underachievement is a symptom of an underclass that perpetuates itself through classic underclass social behaviors: drug and alcohol abuse, children beign raised without fathers, criminal behaviour, etc.

We continue to pour money into education to solve problems that education cannot solve, and to acheive results that we should not expect to be acheivable. We shouldn't expect every child to go to college. We need bus drivers and convenience store clerks and parking lot attendants and every school class will have its share of students whose destiny is to be one of those lower paid workers, and we shouldn't beat our breasts over it. We have to accept the reality that each person is an individual with innate talents, capcities and temperaments, and that the trajectory of their lives is largely of their own doing. Schools cannot mold people into ideal citizens, they can only teach to the willing and the able.


Blogger Bret said...

"girls are encouraged to act like boys by taking up advanced science, math, and strenuous sports, which few of them have any liking or aptitude for"

Gag me with a spoon. My daughters are quite into math, science, and strenuous sports. What's wrong with being encouraged to take up science and math and strenuous sports?

December 09, 2006 4:06 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

We shouldn't expect every child to go to college.

No, just ours, because ours have such potential. Other peoples' children (dummies imprisoned in their genes) should become bus drivers and convenience store clerks.

This is a good example of a conservative rant that starts by scoring lots of direct hits and then dribbles on into the realm of the nostalgic for a very distant past. You get the education your parents deserve and all these bureaucratic fiefdoms he complains about are built upon a society that is hopelessly confused as to what an educated child is. My wife teaches in a small private school and the range of concerns the parents express about their kids, and the consequent expectations placed on the school/teacher, are astounding. One parent wants to debate how marks are calculated, another is concerned her underachieving, badly-behaved child is bored ("What does the school intend to do about that? Don't you see he is gifted?"), a third is into endless counselling or psychological testing, a fourth into self-esteem "peer" issues etc. It's as eclectic as 19th century American Protestantism and every teacher knows he/she is never far from an attack in these non-deferential, consumer-oriented days. Sometimes it sounds to me like a game in which the winner is whoever is better with the Dr. Phil rhetoric. I'm all for parental choice, but in our hyper-democratic times we seem to have no way to distinguish it from parental competence. Today, the two things everybody seems to believe is that they are competent to be President of the US and to run their kids' school.

Derb's attack on blank-slate thinking is loads of fun, but his feudal alternative is, thankfully, unlikely to go far. A good teacher can bring out results that belie his genetic determinsim and we all know it. Goodbye, Horatio Alger, hello, Louis XIV.

As to homework, surely the issue here is what would the kid be doing if he/she didn't have it. Playing sports or hanging out at the mall? Does Derb understand early teen years and how important it is to keep them busy? Does he think they would be seeding the back forty or hauling coal to the basement instead? He sounds like those modern types in the '50s who thought forced piano lessons were cruel, so now they are rare and nobody plays the piano--they listen to rap on their iPods instead. Civilization marches on. If you think homework is cruel and that the kid should be out exploring the streets or baking muffins instead, fine, but don't then whine when the Asians and Muslims win all the school prizes.

Bret, good for your girls. Even if there are natural gender preferences for academic study, surely we know by now they are relatively weak and unpredictable and that there are far too many exceptions to build policy on. But what do you think about gender-segregated schools, especially say from grades seven to nine or ten?

December 10, 2006 4:29 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Sorry, a little bit off topic, but I have to share this. My wife just printed out a suggested lesson plan from some expert outfit on the Internet on "What do you for for Christmas?" Here is the first sentence:

"Talk to students about what a ritual is and how we all have rituals that we do everyday such as brush our teeth."

Here's wishing you all a hygienic Christmas and "regular" Hannukah.

December 10, 2006 5:44 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

I don't think he is denying that there are girls who are capable and willing to take on math, science and intense sports, just that their numbers are less than boys and we shouldn't expect them to gravitate to these in equal number. I think that Title IX was a disaster for collegiate men's sports programs, because it meant that men could only participate in sports in the same percentage that women were willing to do so. Which meant that many men that wanted to play on a sports team were denied the opportunity.

December 10, 2006 6:58 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Peter, pretty soon we will have public service announcements urging us to "practice safe celebrating".

December 10, 2006 8:10 AM  
Blogger Bret said...

peter burnet asked: "But what do you think about gender-segregated schools, especially say from grades seven to nine or ten?"

I'm not sure since my oldest daughter is only in fifth grade. Certainly, at this point, gender-segregation would be bad for her since some of her most compatible cohorts (in math, science, and sports) are boys. If she were stuck in a class with only wussy girls, she'd be decidely worse off.

One of the most important things one needs to learn, I think, is to deal with people. That includes people of the other gender. Thus, my gut feel at the moment, is that gender-segregation isn't optimal, even for the early teenage years.

December 10, 2006 10:31 AM  
Blogger Bret said...


Derbyshire doesn't mention expectation, rather he talks about encouragement. Maybe your interpretation is correct but it's far from obvious to me.

December 10, 2006 10:33 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

I don't recognize any of the public schools my kids went to in Derbyshire's description.

The worst events I observed during a total of 39 kid-years of public schooling were no worse than what I saw around myself in 14 years at Catholic school.

Talk about 'inner city schools' raises many, many questions. Maui is unusual, in that you have no inner city but you do have readily identifiable social groups with inner city attitudes.

These go to the same schools with the aspirational groups. Same schools, same teachers, very different outcomes, by group.

December 10, 2006 11:18 AM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home