5 June 2008 04:25 PM

Uninformed and Incurious 25 Years Later

by Dr. Rick
We’ve been hearing a lot lately about how dumb we Americans are. Still. Twenty-five years ago “A Nation at Risk” was published, a report that shook the education community by telling America that our students were woefully uninformed and incurious.

When the report came out, I was an English teacher at a well-respected suburban high school, known – then and now – for its academic and athletic achievements, the high percentage of students who went on to post-secondary education (a good proportion to first-tier colleges and universities), and its strength in maintaining the real estate values of the community. I was proud of my work, fond of my students, and not the least bit surprised by “A Nation at Risk.”

Why was I not surprised? Here’s but one example. I taught a unit called “The Bible as Literature,” which examined the literary forms in the Old Testament: narratives, poems, even dialogue like a play’s. I was surprised when I realized that what I assumed were universal references – what E.D. Hirsch calls “core knowledge” – were anything but universal.

“The patience of Job” met with blank stares.

The “Great Flood” got the same. Noah, anyone?

Rather than examine literature, we had to begin with the fundamentals, learning instead common references and where they come from.

Today, twenty-five years later, six – going on seven – presidential elections later, is it any better? Since then, education has scored high on national polls about what we’re interested in. Hirsch’s books about “What Your First, Second, Third, etc. Grader Should Know” are widely read. Deservedly so. We have had half a decade of No Child Left Behind. Are we any better off than we were in 1983?

Jay Leno’s “Jay Walking” segments on his show are as dispiritingly funny as they ever were. On the excellent PBS series Carrier, a young seaman, presumably technically-savvy and educated enough to serve aboard the USS Nimitz, the most advanced warship ever, froze, his eyes staring into the middle distance, when he was asked who the Secretary of Defense, his ultimate boss, was. You could see his mind racing, as if he were on a lucrative quiz show. His colleague looked away, afraid he’d be asked too.

The hapless sailor, on his way to do his country’s bidding, guessed with “Condoleezza Rice,” badly mangling the first name of the Secretary of State.

Now it’s presidential campaign season again, and we’ve heard precious little from the candidates about education. We haven’t heard much from voters, either. Why is that?

Here are a few topics I’d love to hear voters and the distinguished Senators discuss and propose solutions for.

1. No Child Left Behind: Good intentions, even “bipartisan,” but what next? In a rush for “accountability,” we’ve concentrated on reading and math, a good beginning, but to the exclusion of many other disciplines. Time for some common sense, I’d argue. Hire the best teachers, pay them well, give them high expectations with incentives and consequences, then let them follow community-supported guidelines on what students should be able to do and what they should know (The answer for that floundering sailor is Secretary of Defense Robert Gates).

2. Teacher Training: Controversial, but can anyone with any common sense still say that there’s only one way to become a teacher: through the traditional teacher-training and accreditation route? What about all those private and parochial schools that don’t have the same credentialing paths as public schools, and still manage to turn out students who seem capable of holding their own in society? There should be traditional and alternative routes to the classroom that are supported – with more than just lip service – by government, teacher training institutions and teacher unions.

3. The Media: The media should focus their “education” stories on examples of inspired teaching rather than the heavy doses of endless and repetitious political wrangling that are as far removed from the classroom as Pennsylvania Avenue is from Main Street. What passes for much education reporting is nothing more than tired political stories.

4. The Role of Teachers: Presidential candidates have started “national conversations” on religion and race, among other worthy topics. That’s good. I’d like to see the same attention given to the role of teachers in our society. Can’t we make teaching the respected, valued, and honored profession it once was? Can’t we make learning as attractive as say, video-gaming? Candidates, you have a bully pulpit. Please use it.

Yes, each of these topics has been written about and orated upon for ages. I’ve been in the business for nearly forty years, and except for the neat, focus-group-tested new names (No Child Left Behind, no doubt), too much has stayed the same. Too many kids don’t know what “the patience of Job” means or don’t know who the Secretary of Defense is, even if they’re serving – patiently, with plenty of afflictions – on one of his ships. Teacher training and credentialing look pretty much as they did a generation ago. The media follow education controversy before education substance. Politicians – and taxpayers – all extol the nobility of teachers, but the profession suffers from neglect: careers used to span decades; now, it’s not unusual when a new teacher leaves around year five. What a shame.


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