Friday, July 6, 2012

The Whining School-Boy

David Brooks spends an entire column mashing together Shakespeare’s Henry V and the public schools and comes to the conclusion that rebellious Prince Hal doesn’t fit in to the homogenizing culture that is our current system of education.

If schools want to re-engage Henry, they can’t pretend they can turn him into a reflective Hamlet just by feeding him his meds and hoping he’ll sit quietly at story time. If schools want to educate a fiercely rambunctious girl, they can’t pretend they will successfully tame her by assigning some of those exquisitely sensitive Newbery award-winning novellas. Social engineering is just not that easy.

Schools have to engage people as they are. That requires leaders who insist on more cultural diversity in school: not just teachers who celebrate cooperation, but other teachers who celebrate competition; not just teachers who honor environmental virtues, but teachers who honor military virtues; not just curriculums that teach how to share, but curriculums that teach how to win and how to lose; not just programs that work like friendship circles, but programs that work like boot camp.

And if pigs had wings, you’d have bacon that tastes like chicken.

In case Mr. Brooks hasn’t noticed, the public education system in America is in deep trouble not because of curricula and culture but because at every level — federal, state, and local — the people who decide these things are cutting back funding to the point that schools are crumbling, teachers are working double duty in overcrowded classrooms, support staff is being laid off, classroom materials are paid for by the teachers and bake sales, and parents who are struggling with their own economies can’t be the partner the schools need or the child demands. And to top it off, there are the guardians of ignorance such as the Texas Republican Party who are aghast that schools would dare to teach their precious children about such heresies as Knowledge-Based Education… as opposed to the other kind. According to these geniuses, God does not want children that think for themselves. After all, Jesus did, and look what happened to him.

The system is both broke and broken. If it was only about the money, it would be a comparatively easy fix. But even in schools where money is not a problem or where they do celebrate competition and how to do all the things Mr. Brooks thinks are so important, you still have the simple fact that learning is a highly individualized process; each child learns at their own pace and fashion, and one size does not fit all at all. Just ask my parents: four children, four very different experiences in educating us, and the one who had the most struggles and tears is the one who ended up with a Ph.D. and a career in education. Educators struggle every day to come up with new ways of reaching as many students as they can in ways that meet as many needs as possible. But at some point you have to realize that a high school with five thousand students cannot devise five thousand curricula for a group of people in the midst of the metamorphosis that is life among the raging hormones. And that does not even begin to address the students who are disadvantaged by physical or mental needs that defy assembly-line education and risk becoming lost through nothing more than the cruelty of genetics and the social structure that requires conformity and a passing grade on the FCAT.

Or as Portia says in The Merchant of Venice, Act I, Scene 2: “It is a good divine that follows his own instructions: I can easier teach twenty what were good to be done, then be one of the twenty to follow mine own teaching.”