Some Thoughts On Education
1. Education in our society has been taken over by training.
The objective of training is skill development; the objectives of education are the growth of knowledge, the widening of worldview and the development of personalities. Skill training helps a person find a career, but it is a means rather than the ends of education.
2. Poor results in writing tests in American public schools should have been expected.
It is impossible to develop writing skills without first being able to express one's thoughts clearly. Many of our children are unable to express themselves in proper spoken English; how can one then hope that they will be able to express themselves in writing? There is only one tool that develops the ability to express oneself both orally and in writing: reading good literature, and reading a lot of it.
3. The development of reading skills is impossible unless children are taught how to read and encouraged to read often.
Books play a fundamental role in building character and acquiring maturity. Reading good books enables an individual to participate in lives of people from different epochs and civilizations. People learn how to empathize with books’ characters, suffer, and be happy together with them. Without reading one experiences only one’s own live; reading expands life experience, makes life – the real life outside books – richer, more fulfilled, and meaningful.
Reading must be the foremost objective of teaching from the very first grades. It has to be encouraged through homework, and be mandatory during all twelve years of education. The reading load should be gradually increased (with careful and sensitive control of the problems of individual students) until it reaches an optimal level (say, one hour of reading a day).
Of course, the role of family in this gradual process is extremely important. Ronald Reagan recalled his mother’s words: “If you learn to love reading you will never be alone.”
4. We need educational reform that will shift the objective of our educational system from skill development to introducing children to the world of knowledge and personal maturation.
A strong academic curriculum has to be a core of the new educational system. The framework of the new curriculum developed in Massachusetts (http://www.doe.mass.edu/frameworks/current.html) is aiming in the right direction. The curriculum of English Language Art is very strong. If implemented, it could be nothing less than an educational revolution. Unfortunately, the curricula in mathematics and science are inadequate. They are not directed toward developing abstract thinking and understanding formal logic (mathematics) or understanding physical laws (science). Rather, they are variations on the "skill development" theme: giving some scattered information about mostly applied science. This is quite inadequate for the high-tech society of the 21st century.
5. Such important subjects as world history and geography are almost completely out of the existing public school curricula.
This results in an unacceptable degree of ignorance in a large percentage of our population, e.g. confusing the War for Independence with the Civil War, or placing France in Australia. Knowledge of geography is a must in the era of globalization. Teaching history could be successfully accomplished even without textbooks. There are hundreds of history novels covering the whole history of humankind: from the stone age through the middle ages and Enlightenment to the turbulent 20th century. If reading and discussing such books were part of history curricula, then students would develop a wide picture of the world they live in and feel a sense of belonging to our civilization. A novel may deviate from rigorous historic fact, but this is unimportant if one's goal is to get a general picture of the world through centuries. Unfortunately, at present, realization of this project is impossible. First, students must be taught how to read – beyond just acquiring “reading skills.” At the same time, “learning to love reading” would come with reading fascinating historical novels. A much easier project to begin with is to compile a list of such books.
6. The foundation of any educational system is the qualification of teachers.
The major drawback of both the old and the new curriculum is that teachers in numerous school districts will have the freedom to pick from the suggested curriculum as they see fit. If we had unified core curriculum, or at least mandatory standards; and if there were unified requirements for educating and training the teachers qualified to teach this curriculum, that, by itself, would be a powerful mechanism that would dramatically improve teachers’ quality: those who were unable to teach the curriculum would have to either be seriously re-trained or leave the profession. A movement Kids Teaching Kids (see next item) could be an effective vehicle of attracting young and able people to the teaching profession.
7. Extra-curricular activity could be an important factor in enhancing education in our public schools.
In my view, a new movement Kids Teaching Kids, would be extremely important. If every public school had a sponsoring university, then the school interest clubs could be led by university students majoring in corresponding fields rather than by teachers. This would serve a triple role:
(i) Bringing up young and enthusiastic university students as teachers. Not only will they help children learn, but will also serve as role models that our kids need so badly. At the present time, candidates for role models for our children are mostly athletes or movie stars, but seldom people of science and learning.
(ii) It will also be important for the student-teachers, sharpening their knowledge of the subjects they teach, and possibly attracting them to the teaching profession.
(iii) This could become the foundation of a new National Service movement that America needs so badly.
The Kids Teaching Kids movement would have an enormous impact not only on our education but on our society as a whole.
8. A strong curriculum filled with exciting learning and intensive reading of great literary fiction will change our children's lives.
The heavy homework load and the necessity for more reading will persuade many teenagers to give up their paid jobs which at present have a powerful negative impact on our children's lives. School bi-weekly stipends to students reflecting their academic success could be a useful vehicle that would help to compete with meaningless paid jobs. The necessary funds could be supplied by numerous supermarkets where kids now work jobs we could live without (and which do not exist in Europe): putting our purchases in plastic bags. As a kind of charity these expenses would be tax deductible. Of course parents would have to somehow compensate their children for "the loss of revenue."
9. Intensive reading will also have an enormous impact on our children's personalities.
Reading the world's great love literature will restore romanticism in our teenagers' souls. As a result their attitude towards sex will change, gradually returning sex to its proper place in human life as the summit of love, rather than a necessary attribute of a relationship. The impact of this "sexual revolution" on the whole society is difficult to overestimate.
10. School discipline.
Traditionally, the easiest and the most meaningless way of restoring discipline in class has been suspension or expulsion of the troublemaker. Suspension or expulsion for a student who does not want to study is a reward rather than a punishment. It may even be the objective of the troublemaker. By expelling a teenager from school we create a social problem of enormous dimensions. The decision a few years ago to expel a group of troublemakers in Decatur, IL, for two years is just short of deliberately pushing those teenagers to a life of crime. Dropping out of school is the ultimate option for those who do not want to study. I firmly believe that the school evictees and dropouts create the social base for teenage (and then adult) gangs. I see only one meaningful alternative: the troublemaker is not to be suspended or expelled, but transferred to a special boot-camp-type of school with strict discipline (such schools, the so-called “reform schools,” did exist in America some 50 years ago).
The dropout problem can be resolved if the Mandatory High School Education Law is passed by Congress; then, dropping out of school would be unlawful. Those students who do not want to study in a regular public or vocational school would have no other choice but to finish their education in a boot-camp-type of school. This measure would significantly diminish juvenile crime as it is today. Also, our society would be free of millions of youngsters now unable to find a job and thus destined either for welfare or crime.
11. A powerful network of predominantly African-American schools must be created with predominantly African-American teachers of high qualification.
Breakthroughs in the education of minorities will be impossible unless the meaningless quasi-desegregating policy of busing black children to white schools and vice versa has been rejected. Instead, a powerful network of predominantly black schools (and possibly thousands of boarding schools) must be created, with predominantly black teachers of high qualification. First attempts in that direction have already been successful.
I mean Chicago’s all-black Urban Prep Academies (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Urban_Prep_Academies)*. Founded in 2002, the Academy, by the fall of 2010, will have three campuses. This is an extremely important beginning. If such schools become typical, then within one generation the disparity in education between different ethnic groups would be eliminated. The effect of such a revolution on American society is difficult to overestimate.
This, in turn, would be impossible if a powerful movement towards self-reliance has been launched by the African American community. Unfortunately, previous attempts in that direction have failed. A revolutionary success would be possible should President Obama decide to lead such a movement.
12. To summarize: The above suggestions could be the foundation of a new approach both to our educational system and to solving important social problems.
Some of the suggestions may look unrealistic in the present American social and political climate. Others, however, could be an important component of a meaningful political campaign. The bitter truth, however, is that no matter how highly trained an individual is, either in the concrete profession that he or she has chosen, or in the politically correct understanding of society, this is not a substitute for building a strong, mature personality. Only a strong, intensive general education can do that; the educational system that will force our children to work hard and persistently from kindergarten on, and thus inspire them with the unstoppable thirst for knowledge.
In these short notes I did not touch upon other important problems discussed in my book This Unbearable Boredom of Being: A Crisis of Meaning in America (iUniverse, 2004), such as gender polarization, the drug culture, racism, moral problems, etc. The gist of the book, however, is that the whole spectrum of our devastating problems is the direct or indirect consequence of the loss of meaning in people's lives, when, in words of Viktor E. Frankl, one of the greatest minds of the 20th century, founder of the Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy, and author of internationally acclaimed book Man’s Search for Meaning, “Ever more people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for.”
I see the degeneration of education into mere training as the most important factor that has exacerbated the loss of meaning in our society.
What will happen if we fail to revolutionize our educational system? While training alone may be able to sustain, possibly even for a long time, the high-tech development of our society, we will not be able to significantly improve our social climate. Racial strife will continue to haunt us. The drug culture will flourish (with our children an indispensable part of it), and perhaps move into a new, more devastating phase of high-tech drugs. As its companion, social inequity and crime will increase. I hate to further develop doomsday scenarios of that ugly future: science-fiction writers have done it well already.
Of course, it would be naive to expect that a comprehensive reform of our educational system will solve all our social problems. However, I see no other way out of our deep existential crisis. This is the gist of my book, and this is what prompted me to write these short notes. If we find the moral strength to rebuild our educational system, then we will have built the foundation of a New America, healthy and flourishing, a light unto the nations, a country eliciting deep respect and emulation.
Genrich L. Krasko
24 May, 2010
See also my website: http://www.SayNoToBoredom.com
and essay: Training or Education? America’s Cultural and Existential Dilemma
* Ó 2010 Genrich K. Krasko
* The school has a strong curriculum: Four years of math, four years of science, four years of social studies, three years of foreign languages. Students attend school from 8:30 a.m. until 4:30pm. Every day they have a double period of English. All 107 students of class 2010 have been accepted to four-year colleges.