Written in loving memory of Sister S. M. H., School Sister of Notre Dame, Sister M. D. C., Convent of Saint Joseph, Sister M. F., Convent of Saint Joseph and respecting Sister M. B. M., School Sister of Notre Dame, and Sister K. S., Sister of Loretto, Mrs. O. and Mrs. A. S., a handful of the women who taught the young ladies of my high school how to think, write, use a library, organize research, balance responsibilities as well as basic English, literature, math, biology, chemistry and how to be a good woman. (If only more of my classmates had absorbed it.)
To say that the high school experience in my hometown is a bit different than the rest of the United States is understating the strength of the private and religious high schools here. We have, per capita, more than any other city, and academically, many of them are rigorous (which ones are the best varies from year to year, though, usually having to do with who is principal). The competition to be accepted in any one of these schools is fierce, and, unlike the public schools, maintaining standing within the school academically and as a representative of the school is required to not only attend, but to graduate. (It’s a big deal if someone doesn’t get to walk at graduation.)
Having attended one of these schools and graduated passing the top math section in my class through four years as well as one of the top two English sections, it is always strange to discuss high school education as my experience is not the norm in any place save this one. Unlike many of my classmates, I did not pursue education as a career and therefore know little to nothing of the modern theories of teaching. Being the daughter of a teacher, on the other hand, I have heard the complaints for a number of decades that education is not what it used to be. (That my parent has countless old reading, English and math textbooks to preserve some of the old ways of teaching is a testament to that.)
And then in the last week, fellow ConClubbers NEO with Education’s Great Divide: A Report from the Trenches and Rat’s Texas Schools: Allah is “Almighty God”; Boston Tea Party Carried Out by Terrorist Organization preceded Why all the cool kids are reading Executive Order 13423 from Fox News regarding the Common Core Standards and what students are expected to be reading in class all were published. It’s very clear that education is, once again, a hot topic in what is sure to be the set-up for a major intra-American conflict coming soon.
In visiting the actual Core Standards guidelines (available at the link above) on the surface, most of it doesn’t seem objectionable, until one begins to realize that “grade level proficiencies” are not defined with examples and that reading comprehension covers history and science as well as “language arts.” With the Common Core, in high school, assigned reading in English class is to be 50-70% informative texts. According to the documentation, that means non-fiction, including science, history and technical skills, and the recommendations are strong in the government and Federal Reserve issued papers. (Editorial comment from experience reading this stuff: zzzzzz…….) Why are science and history topics not covered in their own classes? Why take up English class time for these subjects? Yes, biology and geology at the high school level is largely memorization and regurgitation, but there are other class periods for that. Same with chemistry and physics. It’s not all lab work. There is lip service to phonics at least through grade school, forming sentence structure, and grammar, but given what has been coming out of many public schools for quite a number of years on that front, how is this being taught, and why does phonics stop at fifth grade? (One of the most valuable classes I ever took was Latin and Greek Usage in English, which was more or less phonics for college students. I wish we’d had it as freshmen in high school. Word parsing is a lot like algebra, to be honest, and it would have been very helpful when Sister M. B. assigned Jonathan Edwards in American Lit class. As it was several of us went to her and said we needed help understanding what he had to say.)
Execution and evaluation of scholastic achievement is also not mentioned other than four specific standardized tests and the recommendations for reading assignments listed above. There’s no discussion on the amount of drill needed to instill proper grammar or at what grade level a sentence should be able to be diagrammed. All that is stated are generic guidelines of what should be achieved and demonstrated in terms of a student’s capacity, and then tested of course, as if writing ability is objective. (Out of curiosity, just exactly how can one demonstrate writing ability with a standardized test that uses a scantron style sheet that grades by pencil marks in bubbles?) Where I attended high school, in English, for the most part, we wrote papers and answered essay questions for examinations with the expectation from the teachers of being able to defend an argument. There was nothing objective about it other than content, and it required a human to grade. And what happened to the tests given every other year in grade school that reveal things like learning disabilities? (From personal experience, if we knew then… my 8th grade CAT scores pointed to a pretty severe visual perception disorder that wasn’t correctly diagnosed for another ten years. I figured out how to compensate on my own and no teacher ever picked up on it until the material was too difficult to finesse it. Most of the sisters wouldn’t have believed it anyway, but it sure explained a lot.)
It seems that this is to be the face of American compulsory education, dictated from the top, and there is but one way to achieve the goal. If I were a parent, this would be the end of any possibility of government schools for matriculation, and not simply because I was educated by orders of sisters who drilled us ad nauseum on grammar and taught us how to connect poetic meter to music. (Their grasp of economics and finance among other subjects I picked up later – like technology – left a lot to be desired, to be honest, but English, literature, and math were a different ball of wax.) What seems to be the bottom line is government schools are drumming out human ingenuity and creativity, or to put it another way, dreaming and thinking.
Far from being truly about education, compulsory schooling has always been more about preparing citizens to be cogs in the machine. Potential workers do not attend school necessarily because they want to learn, but because they are forced to be there by someone else. A hundred years ago, compulsory schooling was geared toward training factory workers and being sure that the populace was literate enough to be able to consume “news” and understand messaging. (Remember, until the 20th century, literacy was not expected of everyone.) Now, with this “Common Core Standards” it seems to be about limiting “outside the box” knowledge and thinking.
Before we had computers and the automated assembly line, not to mention “experts” and all the kitchen gadgets and other conveniences that people buy “to have more leisure time”, it was necessary that workers be able to think a bit. There were reasons to know about the antiseptic qualities of vinegar and alcohol before antibiotics were widely available, and how both should be applied in specific situations. At one time, when automobiles were hand crafted, it was desirable to have a worker who could think through changing the sequence of assembly to make production more efficient. Before Walter Lippmann standardized and shaped journalism as a profession rather than a trade, and before the wire services were simply reprinted rather than used as a source for a rewrite, journalists actually had to be able to produce hundreds of words that made sense at the drop of a hat. Women working for clothing manufacturers actually had to know how to sew and adjust for flaws in fabrics. Thinking was necessary. But, since we no longer have numerous factories and there’s a product for so many tasks that used to be done by hand and clothing makers use imported labor (after a fashion) and “journalism” is one big echo chamber, “American children” are now being trained for the cubicle farm (where boredom is a way of life), and conditioned to not notice they are being oppressed. If they were to learn to think for themselves, they might notice (like their grandparents have). (Which does beg the question, why are English teachers allowed to read Animal Farm and 1984 with their students? Just because it was science fiction when it was written….)
In one way, reading factual information about history and science is not necessarily a bad thing. Well written and researched biographies on truly historical figures can be fascinating and very informative on history and science, if the person was a scientist like Albert Einstein or Marie Curie or someone who made history (one of my favorites is titled Gentleman Spy by Peter Grose which is about Allen Dulles, the first Director of the CIA. There is a lot of behind the scenes information about the European theater of WWII in that book). There are any number of factual books on major topics such as finance and commodities that tell a story of the history of a subject, i.e., The Creature from Jekyll Island by G. Edward Griffin (history of the Federal Reserve) and The Prize by Daniel Yergin (the history of oil) that would be great additions to anyone’s education. Not that the education establishment would ever recommend those texts, but to take class time and effort from what we call “literature” where a student sees demonstrated how a word artist can paint a picture or describe other worlds and transport us into someone else’s life is to imprison the student in their own microcosm of existence. The children will know no other reality.
I’ve often thought that history and the literature of the time period should be taught in tandem when students are old enough to understand the message an author tried to relate: how Mark Twain made Jim a real person in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn rather than just a slave or piece of property; how Nathaniel Hawthorne exposed the hypocrisy of strict Puritanism in The Scarlet Letter; how Robert Louis Stevenson painted the methods medical schools used to get their cadavers in the 19th century with “The Body Snatcher” (that is a short story); how wealthy society trivialized the application of faith in life in Evelyn Waugh’s books; there’s countless examples. It helps make history accessible. Not much substitutes actually visiting the places history happened for making it come alive, but great writers make it possible to at least imagine being there. (I would be careful with the 20th century Americans, though. Several of them had a bet going as to who could write the most depressing stuff. The realities are probably exaggerated. I’d say the winner of the bet, though, is a toss-up between Arthur Miller and John Steinbeck. Ernest Hemingway would be a close third.) Science fiction authors thought of “what could be” and thought through moral dilemmas that could (and have) surfaced as science left the service of faith. Aldous Huxley and George Orwell are the most prominent, but there are other classic science fiction authors and some truly chilling short stories that give food for thought (The Arena, anyone). There were and are so many great writers that just make the dryness of mere words on a page more palatable and truly a feast for the mind, that to exclude them from “education” is a disservice to the students.
But, it seems, that government schools are not meant to serve the students or the children or their parents or society, but the machine and those in power, which is why so many strings are attached to government funds for private schools and why homeschooling is downright persecuted. The messaging and conditioning cannot be controlled. In government schools, creativity and its application in the arts is not encouraged. Neither is using the tools and skills we have to increase our knowledge as a lifelong goal. This would mean the people thinking for ourselves and that just cannot be; not if the machine and those in power cannot use us to betray our own best interests and further theirs.
We know what our best interests are because we looked them up.
And seriously, the cool kids are still reading Tolkien, just like they did when I was in school. Executive Order 13423 is “Strengthening Federal Environmental, Energy, and Transportation Management.” Who wants to read about that when the Hobbits are wandering around Middle Earth?
And now to dive into Tom Wolfe’s newest commentary on American life, Back to Blood, which C.L. received as a Christmas present.