Thursday, August 11, 2022

Never forget that 'Education Reform' is about reforming you

As noted previously, the good intentions that our Founding Reformers had in mind when they began the movement towards reforming education in the late 1790s, had a lot in common with our own good intentions today, but those good intentions are just about the only point to be found in common between their time and ours in regard to the what, how, and why, of the content being taught, and how long it took to teach it. That the content and methods of teaching have changed between then and now is unlikely to raise any eyebrows, but shouldn't it be surprising for us to learn that their students spent far less time in school learning far more than we do, today? At the time when our education reform process first began, Noah Webster, who'd been a teacher, thought schools should need no more than "...four months in a year...", beginning with students no younger than eight years of age, and "...completed by the age of fifteen or sixteen...", meaning that they successfully taught the 3R's (and substantially more than that) in half as many months per year, and did so in at most only eight of those half-length years. Our educational system has shaped our peoples' thinking across a sizable stretch of time - we should be paying closer attention to what shape it's being reformed into.

For a very different approach to mathematics, here's John Adams' personal copy of "Cocker's decimal arithmetick",
and for everything else there's Thomas Jefferson's suggested reading list
Learning their 3R's as was once done through actual works of literature and history (from the Bible, to Thucydides, Livy, Cicero, Plutarch, Shakespeare, etc.), meant that those eight or so years would invest them with not only the ability to read, write, and calculate, but would also orient themselves within the landscape of a history whose landmark places, names and dates, were more meaningful for them than any number of 'key facts' memorized for a quiz, ever could be. Learning meaningful lessons, rather than focusing primarily on skills based exercises, gave students a sense of what the men & women populating their historical landscape had accomplished, and under what conditions, and in identifying where their behavior was admirable, or despicable (or both), they developed an appreciation for the good, the beautiful, and the true, a revulsion for the lie and the ugliness of evil, and an understanding of why it was important to distinguish between them. And to point out a sometimes startling bit of obviousness, that ability to discern and understand such matters, was something which the student did not have within them before being taught them, IOW: students are changed by their education.

Too often when speaking of education reform, we seem to focus on schools, teachers, and books, and lose sight of the fact that we send a student to school in order to change them. Learning the 3Rs is not only about gaining useful skills, but using them to put information, ideas, and habits, into students in order to change their thinking and behavior. What basis do you have for assuming that the latest reform's changes will be for the better? What guides the changes that are being made? What ideals are they aiming towards? Are those ideals admirable? Mundane? Ugly? If textbooks are primarily what those changes are being made through, which form do you think they are more likely to take?

More than homework strategies, test scores, job skills and what facts students might be able to repeat on demand, prior to the modern reform era, learning the 3R's often involved committing to memory various passages from significant and meaningful works and poems so as to furnish their minds with valuables that would inform their thinking and provide them with something worth reflecting upon at timely moments for the rest of their lives, and there is nothing trivial about that - it both anchored and added something of permanent substance into their very selves. My grandmother caught the tail-end of that practice when she was in grammar school, around 1910, and just before her death at 103, she recited one of those poems to me from memory, Thanatopsis, and though she could barely see at the time, her eyes lit up with what she was seeing within her as she recited it to me. Contrast that to the little that students commit to long-term memory today, which typically is trivial, and is less likely to come from school than from the Top 40 songs and movie tag lines of pop-culture - a good measure of just how empty and impoverished we have been made by the 'good intentions' of our educational reforms, can be had by comparing what you or your child can recite from memory today, to even a single poem like Thanatopsis.
A rendering of 'Thanatopsis'

Don't neglect the obvious here: an education involves nothing less than terraforming the student's interior as well as building structures upon it - will the resulting mental and spiritual landscapes be barren, or fertile? Will their inner landscape be dotted with soaring structures, or a shambles of scattered sheds and rusting machinery? Will the foundations of those structures be set in solidly reasoned ground, or shifting about upon the sands of popular opinion?

Am I being overly dramatic? Dramatic, yes, but overly? Given the stakes? No. Those who're being educated with Social Studies, DEI, CRT, etc., - their education is forming the nature of the mind which their thoughts will inhabit from then on, will that be an inviting place for them to explore, will it map a correspondence between what is within them, to what is real and true outside them - will it help them come to 'Know thyself', or will it shunt them off to wander about aimlessly lost within themselves for the rest of their lives (see woke activists for reference)? The reason why an education used to involve the finest examples of our culture's history, literature, religion, folklore, music, was to help in forming that inner landscape, familiarizing and equipping the student with the means to navigate through life, shorn up by, illuminated by, and adorned with, what were known to be the priceless jewels of the highest and best of the Greco/Roman-Judeo/Christian West. Is your child's education helping to form their mindscape into a hospitable place for living a good life, or one which they'll be desperately seeking to escape from for the rest of their lives?

Past is prologue
Sometimes I'm asked why I dwell so much on past reforms instead of focusing on the latest ones (Common Core? CRT? DEI? SEL? 'School Choice'?), and my reaction is to wonder why ya'll are dwelling upon the distractions and ignoring the underlying substance that they are distracting you from? I'll give you two points to illustrate what I mean. Firstly, with parents today who are being bullied by the woke scolds of CRT & DEI 'toleration' in the media and establishment, and feel as if this is something that's never happened before, allow me to take you back to the beginning of the experiment in using school for purposes other than education, to when Lyman Beecher was leading an effort to reform the newest school reforms in the 1820s:
"... the press belched and bellowed, and all of the mud in the streets was flying at us... There was an intense, malignant enragement for a time. Showers of lies were rained about us every day. The Unitarians, with all their principles of toleration, were as persecuting a power, while they had the ascendancy, as ever existed..."
, parents, do those 'principles of toleration' sound familiar? Sure, the details and perhaps the intensity might be different today, but the form is the same, and nearly two hundred years later I think we can safely say that his efforts to reform the details of the latest reforms, failed to 'fix' the schools, as has every effort since then - so why would you want me to repeat the same error? Where is the wisdom in focusing on the latest details of the moment, when the underlying substance of them has persisted through to the present day by shrugging through one guise of details after another, year in and year out, since the 1820s!? The details are distractions that come and go, the devil isn't in them, but in what conveys and is concealed by them.

The second point comes from my own experience, from when we were challenging DESE during their attempt to roll out Common Core back in 2013, and there was a young father there who was astonished at my opposition to Common Core's claims to promote 'skills for the 21st century!', and he actually said to me:
"But I want my child to be able to decode informational text, and to learn the skills she'll need to succeed in the 21st century!"
, and as we spoke it became obvious (to both of us) that he had little or no understanding of what he meant by that - he couldn't tell me what he meant by 'informational text' or how 21st century 'thinking skills' differed from those of the 18th century, but he'd heard from people he trusted at his child's school that they were important, and so he wanted his child to have them, so that she could succeed in life. His concern was an example of the very first reform of our Founding Reformers - which took no law to put into place - in action; that belief that education could and should be for some other purpose than the child's education, that is what birthed the beast, and most people today still nurture it along. That unthought-through 'oh!' is how the reformers gather political power to their reform by coupling the parent's sense of their own ignorance, together with their hopes & fears for their child's future, to secure the support needed for reforms which will make very real changes in their child's life and future. Whether those changes will prove to be for better or worse, is an unknown variable of each reform's experimental nature, which is something that most reformers know all too well, and few parents even suspect.

Here's some 'informational text' which that dad would've done better to consider: Slave masters did not severely punish people for teaching slaves to read because they worried that their slaves might read the informational text of instructions on how to operate and maintain their master's machinery or learn better recipes for baking their master's bread, but to ensure that they didn't get a hold of the ideas that Fredrich Douglass found contained within books like 'The Columbian Orator', which helped in his becoming the pillar of fire that helped burn their tyranny to the ground. Alexis de Tocqueville wasn't awed at the prospect of education no longer being the sole province of the rich & powerful because he thought that the public might learn how to become as proficient at buying, selling, and bargaining as those who'd acquired their educations at great expense, but because he knew that a liberal education was the key to living lives worth living and the best way to escape from being the pawns of those who had wealth and power. Neither King Alfred the Great nor Emperor Charlemagne had expended massive amounts of time, effort, and wealth, on establishing schools that recovered and taught the classic works of the West, so that they could maintain a technological edge over the Vikings, but to reclaim and re-establish a civilization's wisdom wherein a person's life could amount to more than a bitter fight for survival.

The sad fact is that this dad's focus on 'informational text' was enabling his school to trade away what little still remained of the old lessons that aimed at helping to develop a child's ability to reason by identifying theme, plot, and character development in a story, in exchange for the hunter-gatherer skills of ferreting out information such as the number of grams of iron noted in a breakfast cereal's nutrition label to support its claims for being 'more nutritious!'. It is that persistent approach of going to school for *reasons* other than the students education which shapes 'education reform' and provides it with the camouflage of the latest in popular distractions - from 'values!' to 'informational text' to securing the 'skills of the 21st Century!' - various skills & benefits do of course result from educating our youth, but they are effects of an education, and not the causes or purposes of one, and that attempt to reverse cause & effect is what has led to the disastrous state of our schools today, where somehow losing still more ground is an ever present feeling of Deja-vu all over again.

I continue to point out the mistakes of the past, because it's those mistakes that we keep repeating under differing guises in the present, over and over again, and that battling the many-headed hydra of popular
Battling the many-headed hydra
distractions, only helps the beast to grow stronger and more entrenched. Until we learn to recognize that those earlier fundamental errors lurk behind whichever new mask of buzzwords they're wearing today, then each and every effort we take to 'fix' the latest issue, will do little more than make matters worse, as was the case with the 'informational text' dad above, and as has been the case for well over a century. Parents are too quick to accept the promises of new more 'rigorous' metrics for students, without sufficiently questioning what purpose is being served through
such 'rigors' as those that promote the idea of having grade level expectations (from kindergarten on) of students demonstrating their passionate activism in service to causes they know next to nothing of. Rarely do we question what vision of the world, and of those trying to live lives worth living within it, is being served by exposing kindergartners to transgender story hour, or secretive discussions about 57 genders?

The current system which increasingly focuses on inflaming passions and feelings, with open hostility to substance and merit, brings to mind two comments from Edmund Burke and Thomas Jefferson, who, though they differed on many things, especially as the French Revolution got underway, they were in agreement upon at least one sound and salient theme, in which Edmund Burke said that:
"...It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things that men of intemperate minds cannot be free; their passions forge their fetters..."

, and Jefferson's bullseye which is a fine complement to that:
'If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be'
, do you suppose that most educational reformers today are more likely to heed those two warnings, or treat them as threats to their reforms? The reason why Fichte wanted to use a more scientific approach to education that "...completely destroys freedom of will...", the reason why Dewey proposed the aim of "Teaching how to think, not what to think" while ensuring schools rid themselves of materials which thoughts worth thinking might accidentally develop from, the reason why DEI trains everyone into the guilt of systemic racism, is to raise up a safe and useful populace who're full of relevant information but unfit for either freedom or civilization, and devoid of any wider knowledge that would interfere with their ability to serve 'those who know best', in a state ruled over by themselves, for the greater good.

... is the definition of insanity
How anyone expects our youths today to demonstrate an education's important secondary effects: civility, manners and morality, without their cause: an understanding of what those are and the knowledge of how and why they should be central to your life, is beyond me, but that - seeking effects without causes - is a hallmark of modernist pro-regressive thinking, and you should not forget that the effects of past education reforms are all around us today. When we encounter rude, uncivil, even brutally violent behavior, that is the harvest of past school reforms that we're reaping. Those are the ideals that 'decolonizing' our libraries have been aiming at - people who've never learned what civilized behavior entails are not going to behave in a civilized manner when it matters, let alone as Westerners or as Americans - and what kind of mind expects accomplishments such as that to come from nothing?

The answer to that, of course, is that they are the kind of minds and ideals who, since Rousseau, have extolled the 'noble savage' to us because they don't think of The West, or of America, as being worthwhile accomplishments. While that is (or at least should be) sickening and disturbing, it shouldn't be all that surprising, but what should be at least as surprising and even more disturbing, is how any of us ever imagined that some other outcome than the anti-Western and anti-American beliefs and behaviors that we are facing today, would follow from educating our youths minds, with such ideals as those from those minds? It should be no surprise that savage behavior follows from those who've been taught to revere the 'noble savage' - it's only natural - and yet we do behave as if we are surprised by it. Whether through tuition or taxes, we pay, and even go into debt in order to teach our students wrongs as rights, we fund 'scholarly efforts' to portray pure ugliness as a nuanced form of literary appreciation (such as this paper on a barbaric poet of hate, by my current troll, a he/him/his 'gradual student' who teaches Drama to students at the University of Washington), which is taught to our K-12 & college students as being worthy of their admiration, and then we are somehow shocked that our colleges graduate wave after wave of students who are sympathetically aligned with Antifa & BLM rioting in our streets, and who help to spread the mentally and spiritually twisted messaging of groomers in our classrooms.

What is truly unnatural, is our expecting that a course of training which ridicules the idea of objective truth, exalts utilitarian thinking skills, derides wisdom, and holds up tyranny as an ideological ideal, could lead to something other than cleverer devils for us to contend with when societal frictions bring us face to face with the inner barbarian that we've awarded them diplomas and degrees for cultivating. Such 'scholarly' cleverness is in some ways worse than enslavement, as a slave can still recognize, admire, and yearn for what is good, beautiful, and true, while those who've been 'educated' into appreciating such a state of lies are unlikely to even attempt to escape the ideas that bind them. The barbarians outside our gates have become less of a concern to our life, liberty, and happiness, than the native-born barbarian hordes that we're going into debt to 'educate!' alongside us within those gates.

To repeat myself yet again, the skills and facts which are needed to get an education, are not the equivalent of one, and confusing the two - perhaps modern education's most pernicious notion - is not just an ancillary error, it entails abandoning and subverting education's actual purpose, that being to improve the student's grasp of how best to be human - to be an informed, virtuous person, capable of thinking reasonably, and able to live a life worth living in liberty and society with their fellows. But 'education reform!' is and always has been about reforming us into something very different from that, something empty of, and hostile to that, and whatever pretext is used to justify the reform with - whether that be to improve civic understanding, achieve economic success, beat the Russians, etc., - means using state power (even with private and church schools) to transform our youth into the material means of serving those other ends (to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars per child) - we need to learn how to avoid doing such things 'with the best of intentions'.

Because of the good intentions of the past 200 years of education reforms, many of our kids today fail to learn even their 3Rs in the establishment schools (public, private, and church) which take charge of their lives for twice as long per year, and for four more years than pre-reform schools thought necessary. Additionally, most of those students graduate with a barren internal landscape, and even as the popularity of Marvel, DC, and Star Wars 'universes' demonstrate their thirst for meaningful stories in their lives, the cultural stories that arguably form much of an education's greatest value - the knowledge of how to find your place in, and successfully navigate through life - play little or no part in their 'education' (see 'The Story Killers'). As a result of the modern progressive education's 'hunter-gatherer' approach to cramming 'key facts' & skills into short-term memory, the lives and minds of our leading people today truly lack a worldview within them that's worth viewing anything from - it adds little or nothing to their inner life to make their lives more endurable, enjoyable, and meaningful, and provides them with no worthwhile perspective for understanding the world and their place within it.

One thing we can say for sure about education reform is that it has undoubtedly worked - it is how we've come to accomplish so much less, with so much more. Unfortunately, of course, saying that has been a good thing, would be an especially ugly lie - our education today alienates us from both who we are, and from who we should be. Amazingly, we continue to employ it, even today, while expecting different results - how does repeatedly doing the same thing while expecting different results, differ from what they say is the definition of insanity? On the bright side, our history provides us with enough examples of these reforms that their pattern is easy enough to spot, and if we can do so before our own good intentions are turned against us once again, that'd be one lesson of history that a brighter future could come from learning. We'll take a closer look at that, in the next post.

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