Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Education: It’s the Philosophy, Stupid!

For decades we’ve been hearing about the need for improving our mediocre public schools. We’ve gotten reform after reform imposed by central planners at the behest of vote-seeking politicians, and still we have failing schools. (See my 9/24/10 post, “Toward Real School Reform”.) And still, we get staunch defenders of the status quo.

The author of a recent NJ Star-Ledger article, Bob Braun, has a new rationalization to add to the grab bag of the status quo’s defenders – he claims that the reforms weren’t given enough time to work:

We have lost patience. … We ricochet from policy to policy, never waiting to see what works. Impose a set of standards, a set of tests, a set of curriculum guides, then change it all in a few years.

Braun goes on to quote Joseph DePierro, dean of the Seton Hall College of Education, who laments that “Every decade or so, a new crisis and we change things around”. Keep in mind we’re talking about children going through the crucial primary and secondary school years, for whom every year of lost learning time is a devastating, permanent loss of individual human potential. Yet, a few years, or a decade or so, is not enough time to decide if the latest reform “works”. In fact less patience – a lot less patience – is desperately needed. And that impatience should be directed at the very institution that reactionary apologists like Bob Braun keep trying to defend – the government-run public schools.

What Braun and other public school apologists don’t get is that it is not a matter of “lost patience”. Even if a workable, coherent educational model can be found, it can only last until the next man with a plan comes along. That is because there is an inherent contradiction in any kind of public ownership. The public schools are owned, in theory, by everyone and no one – at the same time. Unlike private owners - who are free to implement an education model, and then answer only to the parents of the children in their schools - public school reformers must be accountable to whatever pressures emanate from whichever groups of owners emerge from that vast reservoir of ownership, the public. He must first seize political power, then impose his reform plan. But, once in place, it is only good until the next reformer comes along, seizes political power, and enforces his ideas. Worse, it is in the nature of “democracy” that ideas get watered down by compromises needed to satisfy all of the disparate special interests that are always milling around any public enterprise. This is a roiling, never-ending process.

Modern school “reformers”, however, all have one thing in common: They are essentially central planners. By the nature of the beast, they have to be. They consist of politicians, education departments, special interest groups, college professors – the “experts”. They all have a plan - to be, as Braun correctly puts it, imposed across the board - on all students, teachers, parents, principals, superintendents - in all schools in some district, state, or even the entire country. They bring about their “reforms”, and then sit back and wait for bean counters to scour the latest statistical data to determine if it is “working”. They see children, but not the actual child.

And that’s the problem. The whole collectivist model has to be called into question. Children are literally seen as a student body, moving through a system in lock step, as if each child is interchangeable. They are not, and there is some recognition of that. So, the solution: break the body down into smaller groups - special needs, gifted and talented, “average”, etc. The student is still identified, not as an individual, but according to his particular grouping. But each child, in a very basic sense, is special needs. Each has his own required pace of development, strengths, weaknesses, motivations, and interests. Each, as Maria Montessori discovered long ago, needs a high degree of autonomy and privacy as he develops his mind. Tailoring the education model to the group, rather than to the needs of each child as an individual – which is, metaphysically, what he is – may be convenient for the adults operating within the present establishment. But, it does not meet the needs of the child - each as his own nature requires - except by random accident.

I submit that a properly structured educational mission should strive to produce graduates who have learned how to think independently, to employ the full power of their reasoning capacity, so as to enter adulthood with the unclouded confidence, self-esteem, and motivation to build a life by their own effort. But, preparing the child for the task of living his life as an individual is not the goal of today’s government educators – preparing them for obedience to the authority of others, is. As Braun explains it:

Public schooling is a value as well as an institution. Fostering a democratic, egalitarian America. Reject that value and you change the country in unknowable, maybe dangerous, ways.

Everything that is wrong with American education is embodied in those few words.

Democracy is the subordination of the individual to the majority, which – through the state - has unlimited power to do as it pleases. Egalitarianism holds that human beings are interchangeable components of a human ant colony, which reigns supreme. Both are fundamentally collectivist, and opposed to the American view of people as sovereign individuals possessing unalienable rights to manage their own lives. Progressive education has a hammerlock on education, and it has one overriding goal – to foster conformity to the group, or “social adjustment”, which is exactly what democracy and egalitarianism require.

To call that a value is to subvert the very concept of “value”. The purpose of education, fundamentally, is to train the child’s mind to deal with reality – to think, to analyze, to understand, to acquire and integrate knowledge. A value, as philosopher Ayn Rand has observed, “is that which one acts to gain and/or keep”. Living is fundamentally about achieving the values that make for a flourishing life, and preparing the child for value achievement is an educator’s proper goal. Democracy requires that one give up one’s highest value – the source of all of one’s values, one’s independent judgement – to the will of the majority. Egalitarianism, as it is understood today, requires that values be held equally by all, regardless of individual personal character, effort, or ability. Human beings are metaphysically autonomous beings, but egalitarianism rebels against nature, striving to make them homogenous. That is why the independent mind is what democracy and egalitarianism abhor: The person who does his own thinking doesn’t readily submit to the will of any collective pack, or renounce his other values on the alter of pack “equality” – or to the pack’s rulers.

The missing ingredient in the whole school reform discussion is consideration of education philosophy. While, as stated above, reform plans will constantly come and go, the overriding philosophy governing education is determined by the dominant cultural ideas, which is determined by the dominant ideas held by the intellectuals, which is overwhelmingly collectivist. That is what needs to be addressed. Failing schools are not caused by poverty, or lack of money – not @ $26Gs per year per student. They do not fail because black kids are not surrounded by enough white kids (what Braun absurdly labels “segregation”). Blaming the students is unjust and perverse. The problem is bad educational philosophy. Autonomous individual students, each with his own unique needs, strengths, and interests, can not be pushed robot-like through a school assembly line. Don’t think for yourself, conform to the mob is a prescription for boredom and failure, envy and resentment, fear and power-lust – and the killing of personal motivation.

The opposite of Progressive Education can be summed up nicely in the words of education researcher and entrepreneur Maria Montessori, who sought to give every child a chance to “become as powerful in their concentration, as independent of spirit, as strong of will and as clear of thought as the world’s greatest geniuses” (as quoted by Beatrice Hessen, page 847). Can you see a school establishment dedicated to “Fostering a democratic, egalitarian America” churning out such graduates? But, that philosophy and similar alternatives have almost no chance to break the progressive stranglehold – not as long as progressive intellectuals, through the government, have a stranglehold on education.

The whole education model needs to be re-examined, otherwise Mark Zuckerberg’s millions will disappear down an establishment rat hole. (As reported by Braun, Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, agreed to donate $100 million to the Newark, NJ, public schools.) Government-run schooling has had its day, and has failed. The Progressive stranglehold must be broken. The public school quasi-monopoly must be phased out and dismantled, and a free market established in education. Start by converting the $100 million gift into student scholarship grants to be used on the school of the parents’ choice. Then, follow that with universal parental school choice through tax credits, where the parents’ tax money follows the student to the school of choice. These reforms will establish the groundwork for an eventual free market that will liberate the children from the clutches of progressive central planners, and empower the parents - who know their own children’s educational strengths, weaknesses, and needs - to set their children’s educational course. A free market will open the school doors to a badly needed philosophical revolution in education, and the one kind of “diversity” that the progressives have always feared – a diversity of ideas. Not all ideas would be good, but all ideas would get a chance, and the free market will allow the best philosophies to prove themselves and win.

The “change” will be “unknowable” and “dangerous” only to the utopians that have never given up the dream of presiding over a compliant, orderly human ant colony. It’s time for real school reform.

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