Krasko's BOOK


This is a letter that my friend, a retired distinguished scientist and educator, sent to me after having read the book. The names have been changed.

Dear Genrich: Many thanks for sharing your book with me. I must confess I have not read all of it, because it is reading of the “heavy lifting” school; I did master enough of it to grasp the core of your ideas, your diagnosis of the ills of our society and the terrible consequences we face unless we correct them. I would tend to disagree that it is a “book on sociology,” as you said. It is really a Jeremiad: “Repent ye, repent ye, my people and return to the ways of your forefathers and your God, else I will banish thee to captivity in Babylon!”

While I agree wholeheartedly with your description of the present disgraceful state of affairs, I believe that your analysis of how we got there is incomplete. Moreover, since I am of a practical bent rather than the philosopher you obviously are, I tend to see practical problems as having practical causes rather than existential ones. Hence, I regard the malaise that you have identified as “meaninglessness,” as an effect of our present state, rather than a cause.

In this respect, I have the advantage over you of having lived through the entire transition: having been born into, been educated in, and grown up in a society so far removed from the present one that it sometimes seems to have been on a different planet. I catherefore identify some of the things I believe to have been significant causes of the problem. However, these would have been “third-rail” political incorrectness for any author to put into print. Thus even your extensive reading could not have uncovered them.

To begin with, American society in my boyhood was firmly rooted in Anglo-Saxon Protestant family values and civic ethics. The vast majority of the people were churchgoers. Sunday School and Vacation Bible School were part of every child's education. Fathers were heads of the household, with unquestioned authority, and bore alone the awesome responsibility of providing for family support. Childhood and adolescence were periods of apprenticeship, during which the youth learned his or her responsibilities as a citizen; they were not supposed to be fun, and usually were not. The concept that you could infringe on an adolescent’s constitutional right of free speech by prohibiting him from wearing offensively decorated clothing would have been ludicrous in the extreme. Minors had no constitutional rights, because they were not yet citizens. They were only apprentice citizens learning the duties and obligations of citizenship so that they would be able to discharge them, as well as enjoy the benefits of citizenship upon reaching their majority.

The public schools were rigorous. Absolute accomplishment was expected; few teachers graded “on the curve.” Failure to pass a course required a summer-session make-up; failure to pass more than one course generally required repeating them. The decentralized nature of the American school system was a blessing. Schools “in the provinces” (at least in the South) were not yet affected by the pernicious ideas of “Progressive education.” Teachers generally brooked no nonsense; discipline was enforced with an iron hand. I recall my high-school history teacher, Mrs. B, a five-foot-two little old white-haired lady, known throughout the school as “Iron-hand B” (and B was for “bitch”!). One of the duties of the football coach was to administer the paddle when necessary, although in my high school the principal was a towering Amazon of a woman who could effectively tend to such matters herself when the coach was busy. Any kid who got paddled at school did not dare to complain when he got home, because then he would get a worse whipping there. Incorrigible student troublemakers who also had run-ins with the police were sent to a so-called “reform school,” basically a school inside a prison camp. Parents who could afford it sent their at-risk boys to a private “military academy,” a similarly restrictive environment having a somewhat higher social standing.

In addition to being racially segregated (by law in the South, by geography and custom elsewhere), the student population was “tracked” after elementary school into several levels of “college prep” for academic achievements, and several levels of vocational education for those students whose formal education would end upon high-school graduation. The tracking was based on performance rather than any fuzzy “aptitude” evaluation. The “A” students went into the prep group targeted at the most selective colleges; “B” students went to the state university prep group; “C” and “D” students went on to the vocational tracks. The “F” students had to repeat at least one grade. Of course, this system takes no account of late bloomers, and there was a strong correlation between family economic status and track position; it must have been quite unfair, but I do not recall any significant controversy over it, nor any fights over kids “assigned to the wrong track.”

The school system in which I was educated was an eleven-year one rather than twelve. Ninth, tenth, and eleventh were the high school years, seventh and eighth were junior high school and sixth and below were elementary. As I recall, in the college prep tracks, three years each of English and History were required in high school, together with two years of Science. I took Physics and Chemistry; Botany was studied in junior high school. A course called “Civics” could be substituted for one year of History. Either two years of two foreign languages or three years of one were required. Since I was already fluent in Spanish, I took three years of it as a no-brainer course. Math included algebra, advanced algebra, geometry and some trig. The eleven-year program allowed no time for calculus. Mechanical Drawing and Shop were also included. Geography was an elementary-through-junior-high-school study. All in all, I found myself to be quite adequately prepared to handle the freshman year at a small but rigorous Liberal-Arts college.

And it was this generation of Americans that went to war and “saved the world” and then came home to staff the post-war economy, drive the greatest expansion in scientific and technical knowledge the world has ever seen, sire the baby boom, win the Cold War, and come a-cropper in the myriad societal ills you have identified. What went wrong?

 To begin with, I think my generation failed to inculcate the same sense of duty in our offspring that had been pounded into us. I believe, in fact, that we became rather ambivalent about even the concept of “duty.” We had seen unscrupulous German politicians use it to turn good German burghers into gas-chamber mass murderers. We had seen Japanese politicians use it to turn sensible Japanese youths into mindless, murderous robots who would march into certain death for no purpose except to satisfy the “code Bushido.” (Of some one hundred thousand Japanese soldiers on Okinawa, all but five thousand had to be killed before the island was secured.) I believe subconsciously we wanted to prevent future politicians from having that level of control over the minds of our offspring. A substantial proportion of my generation became suspicious of all organized religion after seeing the same God invoked by all sides of murderous, hardly godly, conflicts. Those of us who, like myself, would have come home from Japan in body bags had it not been for the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs have acquired a life-long suspicion of the leftist bleeding-heart breast-beaters who keep preaching the evil we were to have used nuclear weapons at all, and how doubly evil we were to have based a cold-war strategy on them. Perhaps in all these areas we went too far, and discarded the good with the bad. But since most of these feelings are subconscious, they are doubly difficult to reverse.

When the baby boomers became teenagers and decreed that adolescence should be fun, not work, not only were we outnumbered, we subconsciously and secretly agreed with them. We were in fact more than a bit jealous because our own adolescence had been made more difficult than most by the twin disasters of the Depression and the Second World War. Unfortunately, many of the boomers appear to have found adolescence such fun that they have never left it to this day.

When idiot lawyers and legislators made corporal punishment of one’s own children into a felony crime, we could only meekly protest. The one tool we have left to compel civilized behavior in our unruly offspring is to deny the keys to the family cars. Some fathers have found even this to be risky, since a rebellious child so wronged needs only to bruise himself in appropriate places – blaming it on “child abuse” in order to exact revenge. Family discipline, at least as I knew it, is a thing of the past. Good behavior on the part of one’s offspring can no longer be compelled, but must be negotiated and usually bought with some significant concession or expense. Such cost is too great to be incurred for any except major issues, which usually do not include such trivia as keeping rooms clean, showing up on time for dinner, being polite, and respectful. Strangely enough, the baby-boomer generation itself seems to have regarded its upbringing as too rigid and onerous, and has been even less strict in rearing its own offspring.

 Along with relaxation of family discipline, discipline in the schools has been totally destroyed. A number of legal cases in the 1950’s found corporal punishments to be “cruel and unusual,” the result of which was its elimination through legislation or policy change in any public school system in the country. Reform schools would now be considered a barbaric anachronism. Unfortunately, the abolition of corporal punishment without some other equally compelling means of enforcing good behavior among a naturally rebellious population in urban schools has turned them into “urban jungles” in which the inmates run the asylum. The destruction of discipline has since permeated all sections of the country, rural as well as urban.

In and of themselves none of these changes would have been drastic enough to produce the present parlous state of American society. However, they occurred in tandem with a disastrous implementation of the process of desegregation – or more properly, integration of the black community into full, first-class American citizenship. There is no doubt that the segregation of African Americans is a terrible stain on the history of American democracy. However, the undoing of it was carried out in a catastrophically mistaken manner. We should have taken every step possible to help integrate the black community into mainstream society and culture. What we did instead was to attempt to integrate mainstream society and culture into the black community.

Today’s pop-culture, and the millions of people who adhere to it, have accepted the language, the dress, the manners, the music, the behavior, the taste, the family values, the social ethic, and the morality of a segregated ghetto as the norm of American society, instead of relegating it to the status of an aberrant backwater. What is worse, we have adopted the urban versions of these traits, the most savage and uncivilized of all. The replacement of the study of great literature – the foundation of our civilization – by “minority studies” at both the university and the high school level is a reflection of the degree to which the educational establishment has bought into this nonsense. Most of the negative features you have identified in your scathing dissection of the state of American society stem from this miserable state of affairs. Since all of these abominations have permeated and now dominate our entertainment industry, the products of which we ship around the globe, they have infected other western nations as well. Hence, all of western culture is degenerating into a morass of savagery.

Whether these trends can ever be reversed, I do not know. They were begun and completed by the baby-boomer generation; their children consider them normal and proper state of affairs, and their grandchildren are slaves of the system. You set great store by the possibility that “education” can make the difference. I am not so sure, because as you note, the educational industry has fallen on hard times as well.

One of the important factors of its decline was the rise to muscular power of the National Education Association, the teachers’ union. At first, in the 1950’s, they had many positive influences on the system, and at least tried to act in the best interests of the students. They succeeded in getting most state legislatures to pass laws requiring certification of teachers, to help insure competency; they were able to agitate for teacher salaries high enough to permit a man to take a teaching job and still support his family. Unfortunately, the certification process was handed over to the teachers’ colleges, which as you note were already infected by the Progressive ideology. Besides, as one wag said, “A teachers’ college is a second-rate campus attended by a second-rate student body, taught by a second-rate faculty; it would be a miracle if you got anything but a third-rate product out of it.”

However, the system of certification laws has given this educational establishment too much control over the quality of our teachers, resulting in far more credit hours being devoted to arcane teaching methodologies than to mastering the subjects to be taught. Among the nonsense perpetrated by this system was the virtual abolishment of the “phonics” method of teaching reading to kindergarten and first-grade children that had been successful for hundreds of years. The rationale for this was of course that no adult reads by painfully sounding out the letters and then combining the resultant phonemes into a word, with adjustments of the sounds of particular letters for the context in which they are found. Rather, we read by the “whole word” or even the “whole phrase” method. The educational establishment presumes that the process of learning to read can be speeded up drastically if children are taught to read that way in the first place. Unfortunately, one-third to one-half of children cannot learn to read that way; they have to learn by the phonics method first. Once they are comfortable with the sounding-out process they can begin to read by the whole-word method. The educational establishment ignores this statistic and classifies these children as “slow learners,” but makes no attempt to integrate phonics learning into its regular curriculum.

My friend’s daughter has twins, a boy and a girl. The boy easily mastered reading by the whole word method; the girl did not. You can imagine the social and family problems this caused. Despite the parents’ repeated intercessions with the teachers and the administration, the school system would not modify its program to accommodate her. Finally, in the second grade, the parents hired a private phonics tutor and within four weeks the girl was reading at grade level; she now reads a book a week for pleasure. While this was a happy outcome, it was achieved only by the expenditure of private resources. This would not be available to inner-city children, of whom a major fraction is equally unable to master whole-word reading straight up. This alone could account for the fact that half the country’s inner city school children cannot read well, hate reading, and are penalized for that throughout their lives.

In the 1960’s, during the Kennedy Administration, laws were passed granting full union powers to public-employee associations: the right to organize and to negotiate wages, benefits, and working conditions, and the right to strike. The NEA then became a full-fledged union, which began to assert itself on behalf of, not the school children, but its members. Since the negotiating entity on the taxpayers’ side was the local school board, a part-time body composed primarily of volunteer citizens, there was no contest. Every aspect of school operations is now controlled by the NEA – which while piously proclaiming that it acts only on behalf of the school children – assiduously protects its own membership, not hesitating to institute slowdowns and strikes to get its way. In my town, as a negotiating weapon, NEA members of the high-school faculty recently refused to write letters of recommendation to accompany college applications for seniors they had known and educated for four years. This was on the purported grounds that such letters are written after classes “on the teacher’s own time.” In addition, the NEA vigorously resists any attempt to cull out poorly performing teachers, or to rapidly advance excellent ones. All personnel decisions are to be made only on the basis of seniority. Can you see why we have one of the highest-cost-per-pupil primary and secondary education systems in the world, while at the same time one of the poorest performing ones? The only hope of reform is the charter school system, a parallel education operation not subject to the dictates of the NEA. But if it ever became large enough to seriously challenge the hegemony of the NEA, you can bet that it would be brought under the same control.

Again, this by itself would possibly have been manageable, but it was accompanied by the disastrous effects of desegregation of the public school system, as mandated by Supreme Court decision in 1955. There is no doubt that the pernicious system of legal segregation in the states of the former Confederacy needed to be abolished, since the black system was far from equal in quality.

For whatever reason, poorer diet, poorer home situation, poorer prior schooling, rampant anti-intellectualism, or whatever, it is a statistically-repeatable fact that in a classroom containing both blacks and whites, a greater proportion of blacks will fail than whites if grading is done either on an absolute basis or according to a common bell-curve. This will happen even if the teacher makes an absolutely determined effort to help along the black students, to the extent of entirely ignoring the needs of the white students. That this is not entirely a problem of greater poverty among the black student cohort is apparent from the fact that equal poverty does not in any way impede the scholastic performance of Asian students. Given the above judicial rulings, the school system cannot permit a greater fraction of its black student cohort to fail. It would reflect an inequality of outcome, by definition evidence of illegal discrimination. Teachers could be and were disciplined, even fired, if this situation was not corrected forthwith.

Three things were done: the curriculum was dumbed down; the bell-curves were race normed; standards were lowered to the point that nobody failed. After all, if nobody fails there will be no inequality of outcome. You have identified two of these in your Jeremiad; the race-norming was instituted very quietly, and has only recently come to light. Given the legal situation and the facts of the matter, this outcome was inevitable. Teachers did the only thing they could do and still survive. What would you do?

The response of many of those most concerned has been to abandon the public school system for a real education whenever possible. When Judge W. Arthur Garrity took control of the Boston public schools, there were 100,000 pupils in it, of whom 60,000 where white, the balance one kind of minority or another. However, because of residential segregation, the bulk of the minority students were concentrated in only a few schools, which were more than 80 percent minority. By judicial dictate, this was required to be corrected by extensive cross-town busing to equalize majority-minority ratios across the system. As far as I know, the only people who really benefited from this were the private contractors who operated the school bus systems. Ten years later, when Judge Garrity threw up his hands and turned the school system back to the elected school board, there were only 60,000 students in it, of whom only 20,000 were white. 40,000 white pupils had simply evaporated from the system, in a massive “vote-with-the-feet.” The entire school system was as segregated as the most segregated schools prior to the beginning of this fiasco.

In the South, school systems boast that integration has only cost them 5 percent of the white student body. However, the 5 percent are the elite, the "saving remnant”. My cousins down south made a determined effort to support integration of the public schools, both because of feeling it was the right thing to do, and because their kids were in their last year or two of high school. They all noted an immediate lowering of standards of scholastic achievement, behavior, and manners. None of their grandchildren attend public schools.

My son is a science teacher at a private school in Maryland. When he went there 16 years ago, there were only about 200 students, and the school essentially topped out at middle school. Today, there are 500 students in grades pre-K through 12, paying $12-15K per year in tuition instead of attending “free” public schools. A non-trivial percentage of the student body are African American, which will give you an idea of what they think of the local integrated public school system.

Because the biggest causes of the absolute destruction of the public school system are the intractable juggernauts I have described, I am less hopeful than you that any real reform is possible. I think much of the pessimism and malaise that you identify stem from similar feelings on the part of the public.

So, many citizens have opted out of the political process, believing that the strongest message of the last election was “a plague on both your houses”! They might prefer to vote foursquare for gridlock, so that none of the bought-and-sold pols can enact your cockamamie agendas. There is a strong temptation to opt out and “go with the flow.”

So, while I wish you luck in your efforts, I don’t hold out too much hope for your success. But you are not alone. Nobody listened to Jeremiah either, and the Babylonians came and took the Israelis into captivity.

Best regards and thanks again.



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