Saturday, December 06, 2003


My old friend, biggest reader of Real Art, and part-time devil's advocate, Kevin, comments on yesterday's post:

Disbanded, that's a good one. It was a good thing you were able to go to a private school. Otherwise, I guess you woudn't have learned anything. What was the name of that private school where you learned debate, acting, government, history, mathematics, english lit, english composition (at least I've heard that some schools teach ritin and reedin although I've never seen it in the publik skuls). Or was it actually a public school that taught you all all that stuff that's so worthless they might as well be disbanded?

There are very few schools where history is taught in the manner described in that article (just look at the major textbooks, they include the material that the most districts will be willing to buy, and those books include information on many religions, just like the social studies books used in most schools)You have focused narrowly on anomolies and used them to make sweeping generalizations (kind of like fox news does :)

I think I'm not really getting my views on public education across as well as I'd like. This is a huge issue for me and it's important that my criticisms of US schools are understood, so it's time for a revisitation of the subject if only to give some of my more radical statements some kind of context that makes them seem less insane. So here goes.

For starters, I don't really believe that I learned debate, acting, government, history, english lit, and english composition in high school--I do agree that what little mathematics I now retain, I got in high school (although, my level of mastery of that subject is quite low by my estimation). Rather, I don't think that I really knew what I was doing with those above-mentioned content areas until I was in college. That is, I learned interscholastic rules for competitive debate in high school, but I didn't learn to think in an argumentative way until much later. Acting was very much a self-taught subject until I had actual acting teachers at the University of Texas. I couldn't analyze literature in any way but the most shallow until college, and I sure as hell couldn't write coherent essays until college. For some reason, however, I graduated from high school with a 3.8 gpa! I believe that my high grades were the result of doing well what I was told to do, not because I was really acheiving any sort of intellectual mastery of those subjects. In short, I date the beginning of my true education to the fall of 1986, when I moved to Austin to start my long career as a university student.

I had a very strong sense by the time I was a senior in high school that I was really only mastering a system of behavior: that same year, I got myself blackballed from the National Honor Society by penning an essay about our school's unworthiness to be recognized as one of the best in the nation. The essay was called "The Masters of B. S." I pissed off a lot of teachers with that one; the principal even threatened to give me some extra schoolwork to compensate for my feelings of being ill educated. The essay concentrated on how easy it was to avoid assignments if one knew how to do so. My conclusion was that the main lesson I had learned from school was how to sling bullshit, and that I had not been truly educated.

Eighteen years later, after teaching high school for five years, and after reading and thinking about public education for nearly as long, I stand beside my first foray into educational criticism. Of course, I don't agree with everything I said back then. For instance, it is absurd to suggest that I learned nothing in high school--in fact, I learned a lot. However, I believe that I could easily have learned just as much (if not more) on my own, at home and elsewhere, if I had been inclined to do so. Indeed, learning, if one defines the term as meaning "to gain knowledge or understanding," is an almost unavoidable process. That is, it's rather difficult not to learn some things unless one is deaf, dumb, and blind (in which case, I hope I'd play a mean pinball...). The point here is that what I learned in high school, I learned because I wanted to. In other words, for the most part, I educated myself while my "teachers" made sure that my shirt was tucked in, that I came to class on time, that I didn't cuss, and that I performed the tasks that were required of me. I was rewarded with good grades, status, and praise--the boost to my self-esteem encouraged me all the more to please my "teachers." Occasionally, I was punished with bad grades, disparagement, and disciplinary action--the blow to my self-esteem encouraged me all the more to please my "teachers."

Of course, the entirety of my "educational" experience was far more complicated than I'm saying, but this is a good, simplified, overall picture of my days in high school--I did, in fact, have one or two great teachers who defied the norm; however, most of my "teachers" were simply bored managers, making a living, lifelessly working through the curriculum (and after five and a half years as a teacher, myself, I'm far more forgiving of them now than I was back in the day). My overall point here is that there is a big difference between true education and the institution that we call public education.

In order to understand why I so devalue American public education, one must look at what actually happens in public schools. That is, one must consider what is emphasized, what students and teachers do on a moment to moment and day to day basis, and what the actual outcomes of those emphases and routines are. I have written quite a bit about such things here at Real Art over the past year. My first major post on education, back in February, was a rambling collection of comments that I had made over at Eschaton about the lack of free thought in the classroom: even though there is a lot of discussion in school, it rarely strays outside of rather narrowly proscribed bounds; that is, thought is free in school only to a particular point--going beyond that point generally ends up with someone (usually the student) facing some kind of punishment. Later that month, I extended my discussion of education and thinking in a post about an argument I had with other theater teachers when I advocated treating theater as a hard, academic subject rather than as a blow-off elective. This, in retrospect, is an interesting post if only because it shows how the people who run the system seem to be troubled by it, but have no understanding that business as usual will create the same frustrating results. The bottom line is that these two posts illustrate how the educational institution seems to unknowingly resist it's own holy grail, "critical thinking," because it is unwilling to abandon time honored methods of schooling.

By June, I was starting to get more specific with my criticisms of educational routines. In my "REPORT CARD BECKY" post, I show how large class sizes tend to handicap a teacher's ability to teach, tying up his hands with disciplinary, procedural, and bureaucratic issues--I also begin to discuss issues of economic class and diversity, and how the schools are quite backward in dealing with them. By July, my mood had become even more bitter and hopeless: my "SMASH THE SCHOOLS" essay about the overwhelming authoritarian emphasis in public education (that easily outweighs any lip-service paid to freedom), education's militaristic structure, and the public's unwillingness to consider such issues, ends with my vowing to leave teaching at the end of the coming school year (a vow I intend to keep, I might add)--this essay also hits on class and diversity issues. By October, I was addressing class issues in education head-on: in "THE FUTILITY OF PUBLIC 'EDUCATION'," I try to show how kids from wealthy families get "better" educations than kids from poverty--the reality is that kids from wealthy families learn more because they are better motivated to learn more; that is, they teach themselves better because they have to.

I have now concluded that American schools are so terribly screwed up, so utterly at odds with their stated mission, that they cannot be fixed. The only way to have any kind of public education system that does what everybody says they want it to is to start all over: the people running the system cannot collectively conceptualize or implement the reforms necessary to truly educate American children. Furthermore, my criticisms aren't just something I came up with because my personal experience as a teacher has been so bad. Read John Gatto, Theodore Sizer, James Lowen, or Jonathan Mooney, all respected education critics, to get even more insight into these issues. As Mooney points out, there is, indeed, a difference between "schooling" and learning--our society loves "schooling" but barely understands education.

My buddy Kevin condemns my recent posts on education: "You have focused narrowly on anomolies and used them to make sweeping generalizations." This is simply not the case. When taking my recent posts on such "anomolies" in the context of everything I have written about education, my hope is that such exceptions prove the rule. That is, the overall structure and emphases of American schools tend to make such "anomolies" likely--I make these posts to show what happens when our society's understanding of education is taken to its logical extreme, to show that these are not isolated incidents; there is a pattern to such seeming insanity. I do not make sweeping generalizations about education. Quite the reverse, I have provided an alternative and more honest understanding of "schooling," and then shown examples as evidence.