Learning Bent Out of Shape

Washington Times  12.10.96
Balint Vazsonyi

Education is in. George Bush wanted to be the "education president." Bill Clinton has his "Goals 2000." Bob Dole thought it took parents, but Hillary Clinton insists it takes a village. James Carville is as sure as the squeal of a suckling pig about to be barbecued that all it takes is more money, and Al Gore agrees. How much more? In our nation's capital, the total price tag of a high-school graduate, possibly qualified only to take orders at Burger King, is already the equivalent of a Harvard degree. How did we get here?

Before the exodus of European intellectuals in the 1930s, immigrants who made it to America were mostly uneducated. Yet they knew the value of an education, and fervently wished for their offspring to benefit by it. They knew it cost money and they worked day and night, went without, sacrificed, saved - in other words, did whatever it took. Their aim was that every subsequent generation should receive a better education, acquire higher standards of civility, progress to greater affluence. It never occurred to yesteryear's immigrants that someone else ought to pay for their aspirations, for their rising standards of living.

It never occurred to America's Founders that the federal government should interfere with education, so delicate a process. They knew, instinctively, that exposing the youngest to the whim of government's awesome power could lead only to disaster. And right they were: Year after year a growing multitude of officials makes speeches, writes papers, assembles for conventions - all without a shred of evidence that a single idea of value has emerged. In fact, the higher the officials involved, the steeper educational standards seem to decline. By now, the process resembles an attempt to produce delicate imprints in soft matter using a sledge hammer.

While governors, presidents and justices of the Supreme Court are trying to figure out how Johnny could be induced to spell, Jane to count, and whether Juan ought speak English, history provides some pointers. For the countless centuries directly preceding the 1960s, education had been a relatively simple matter. It required a group of people who knew things ("teachers") and a group of people who didn't know things, who understood that they didn't know things, and to whom it was made clear that they were there to acquire knowledge ("students"). Prerequisites in need of funding included compensation for the group which possessed the knowledge and a venue where they passed it on, preferably a permanent building with seating, lighting and heating. Desks, a blackboard, and chalk were provided. Everything else was an optional extra. The result: a constantly growing number of learned people.

And what of "motivation"? Evaluation of the student's accomplishment or lack thereof was made public and unacceptable conduct was punished. Indeed, that is all the motivation needed. Neither politicians nor business, neither fancy tools nor money will do us any good, since our current mind set is to replace a perfectly good round wheel with a square one.

Having caused our educational institutions to send forth people without knowledge or discipline is but one harvest of the post-1960s. The currently advocated elimination of competition at grade-school level will produce generations who cannot function effectively in the market place. Where the market place shrinks, government power moves in effortlessly, imposing additional limitations on the market place, causing it to shrink further - a vicious cycle which has been seen to end in catastrophe.

Completing the elimination of round wheels, it is now being suggested that parents should not only be relieved of the financial burden that comes with having children, but that they are not the appropriate guardians in any case. The phrase "It takes a village" at once dispenses with proven principles of education, removes responsibility from the shoulder of parents, and charges society with a role it simply cannot perform. Worse yet, the debate is moved, like so much else in our national existence, from the realm of concepts and institutions to the mind-numbing cacophony of political slogans.

If we are serious about restoring quality in education, first we need to recall what education is, and what it is not. Contrary to other fashionable slogans - and they are truly nothing more than slogans - education is neither a right nor an entitlement. Education is an opportunity, a privilege which comes with advanced and affluent societies. From the student's point of view, it is a duty, an obligation - the day's work. As for teachers, the need is not for new technologies, methodologies and other "-ologies." Before time runs out, qualified, honest and dedicated teachers must regain leadership of their profession, now in the hands of political activists, and resume instruction of the time-tested fundamentals.

Preferably, in plain English.