Monday, August 24, 2009

Jefferson's Children - commentary

Education has driven political campaigns for as long as I can remember, which goes back at least as far as J.F.K., and it still does. Why? To use an automotive metaphor, we keep adjusting the timing and the carburetor when the rod bearings are knocking. Knocking rod bearings require more than an adjustment, they require a radical overhaul. In his book “Jefferson’s Children” Leon Botstein, president of Bard College, offers a fresh discussion on the problem and suggests a plan for a radical overhaul: do away with high school. He is obviously thinking outside the proverbial box.

On his way to that conclusion, however, Botstein provides a lot of provocative information. To begin with, he says most people who are critical of today’s education are comparing it with school as they remember it, not as it actually was. When you take into account that we are now trying to educate all children instead of just the fifty per cent that continued past the eighth grade, as was the case fifty years ago, we are doing no worse. Only those who were privileged and academically inclined stayed beyond the eighth grade fifty years ago. If you only compare the fifty per cent today who are academically inclined, we do as well.

Botstein would claim that the failure of the system today is not that it is worse than it was fifty years ago, but that it is not as good as it should be. Student motivation is one of the reasons education is not as good as it should be. In his chapter on motivation, Botstein suggests a negative view of the future seriously impedes student ambition. “No generation of young people has been subjected to as much adult discouragement as today’s school children and college students.” The “Henny Penny the sky is falling” talk so prevalent in the mass media doesn’t do much to encourage students to prepare for the future. In my lifetime it has been nuclear holocaust, global cooling, global warming, population explosion, at least three economic collapses, five wars and the second coming of Christ, all imminent. Not many young people will adopt the view of the Protestant reformer Martin Luther who said if he knew Jesus were coming tomorrow, he’d still plant a tree today.

People have been talking about doomsday as long as I can remember, about 67 years now, and things have only gotten better. The same will hold true for the kids I teach, and my job is to help them believe in their future.

Another problem with our system also happens to be its strength. We are the only nation in the world that truly tries to democratize our education system, to provide a fair and equitable education for every citizen. This becomes a problem from the mid-teens on, in that we try to mix those who are ready for a serious academic education and those who are not. “The behavior of sixteen-year-olds is influenced by that of other sixteen-year-olds as perceived through popular fashion and trends. …In terms of educational performance, this translates into a powerful dynamic within the high school. The best are influenced by the weakest.” The longer you think about this statement, the more home schooling becomes an attractive alternative.

Botstein raised many other issues leading up to, “…if a young person comes to college at age eighteen without a serious love of reading, without a reasonable comfort level with mathematics, and without a basic concept of science or history, it is usually too late to fix all this.” Yet, I predict that as thousands of scholarship dollars become available from the new Arkansas lottery, many more of these students will show up on our college campuses.

Studies show that we can begin the educational process at least a year younger than we now do, lowering the age of kindergarten to four, and Botstein suggests we do that. He then suggests that … “because of the clash between the high school and maturity, the last two years of high school … are a waste of time. …The problems we face have as much to do with motivation and linking learning to life in age-appropriate ways as with defining the proper tests and standards.”

His solution is to end high school at age sixteen and let young people move into learning environments more appropriate to their individual life goals. Some possibilities are on-the-job training, quality vocational schools in partnership with industry, junior colleges patterned after our state run magnet schools. These could include a school for music, another for performing arts, and another for writing, science, or math. These schools could be scattered throughout the state with residential campuses so they wouldn’t be the responsibility of each school district.

Because he is a post secondary educator and not a politician, an angry parent, or a member of the NEA, Botstein frames the issues surrounding education in refreshing ways with the hope of provoking serious discussion. He doesn’t spend much time adjusting carburetors but gets right to the suggestions necessary for doing a radical overhaul. However, the only way the discussion he hopes to provoke will begin is if you read the book, otherwise he is just talking to himself.

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