In the dark early days of the Second World War, when most men and nations were too frightened to ridicule Adolf Hitler, Charlie Chaplin released a brave, defiant, comedic film he titled “The Great Dictator.” In it he played two parts, a persecuted Jewish barber and a tyrannical maniac unmistakably modeled after the German chancellor, down to the toothbrush moustache Chaplin’s Little Tramp had made famous long before there was a Fuhrer.
By the end of the story, owing to their resemblance, the barber is mistaken for the conquering dictator. As the whole world listens, he offers his contrarily decent vision of how the world should be.
The whole world is hardly listening, but here are Poor Elijah’s contrary thoughts as we start a new year.
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From television commercials and parent magazines to segments on the nightly news and presidential stump speeches, every official and expert agrees that education is more important than ever.
That’s their first mistake. Education has always been vital, especially in a country like ours with designs on broad prosperity and world power where the people govern themselves. That’s why Thomas Jefferson advocated public education — so that our infant republic wouldn’t perish from the earth. And up through the 1960s, Americans did become a better educated people.
But education is no more important today than it ever was. If we were a little less infatuated with ourselves and less impressed with the significance of our own era, we’d realize that. Contrary to both candidates’ fancies, this presidential election is not the defining moment in American history. In the same way, American students have graduated in more crucial times.
Critics complain that our students are unprepared for the 21st century, but reading, writing, working with numbers and mastering a useful body of knowledge are skills for any century. Despite our historically upward educational trend, today’s graduates are not better educated, not better equipped for the workplace and not better prepared for citizenship. Ironically, owing to our national obsession with self-esteem, they just think they are.
I’m sure you’ve heard those complaints about our graduates’ common shortcomings before, along with prescriptions for how to reform our schools. The trouble is most experts’ prescriptions won’t help. That’s because they’re prescribing the same recycled reforms that have been leading schools off on the wrong track for two generations. Reform is supposed to mean changing things to improve them. In education it means persisting in pipe dreams that have failed for 40 years. Public education’s problems aren’t rooted in the “traditions” that reformers incessantly blame but in the bankrupt reform theories and practices they themselves instituted and still cling to.
Therefore, the first thing we do, let’s fire all the experts. It’s time we took the power to run schools away from theorists who have never taught in a classroom, or whose experience is so limited and remote that they’ve lost touch with classroom reality. In addition, public education would be far more efficient and far less expensive if we eliminated all jobs above the rank of principal. Sometimes it may be necessary to hire professionals with special expertise, and larger districts will require a superintendent to coordinate efforts among constituent schools. But governing education should be left to a local school board elected by parents and taxpayers and the principal and teachers that board chooses to hire.
Beware of the new Common Core. Some of its standards and ambitions are fine, and others aren’t, but good or bad, it has no more power to improve academic performance than any of the other expert-hatched manifestos that preceded it. This one, however, dramatically centralizes power, meaning local communities will lose even more control over their schools. It will also channel billions of tax dollars for assessment, curricula, software, and computers to a few corporate publishing and technology giants.
Beware of technology, not because it can’t be a useful tool, but because it promises more and costs more than it delivers. It also, by means of its mesmerizing speed and alluring graphics, distracts students from the painstaking labor of actual study and learning, while also often leaving them socially inept. In 1913 Thomas Edison made the same claims about movies rendering books “obsolete” and “completely changing” education that Bill Gates and his associates are currently making about computers. It’s worth noting that Edison invented movies and had something to gain.
Beware of data, the impressive collections of frequently meaningless numbers that policymakers marshal to prove whatever their momentary point happens to be. Numbers don’t prove anything when they’re derived from faulty assessments, speculation, and bias-ridden, unrepresentative surveys.
Beware of professional development, the costly parade of workshops where experts and their disciples promote the latest bandwagon education miracle cure. Teachers often miss class for days so they can be “trained” in methods that careen between obvious and ridiculous.
Beware of adding to schools’ noneducational burden. Requiring schools to assume more personal, social and psychological responsibilities formerly shouldered by families and society, from morality to obesity, means schools have fewer resources and less time to devote to academic teaching and learning.
Beware of anyone preaching “high standards” and “success for all students.” They’re either foolish or deceitful. All students can learn more than they presently know, if they’re willing. But students, like adults, vary in ability and motivation, and therefore aren’t equally able to succeed in school, especially if we raise standards.
Beware of sacrificing the many for the few. Every student has an initial right to an education, but no student’s right should be permitted to eclipse the rights of the other children in the class. Too often, frequently owing to threats of lawsuits, children are serially subjected to the outrageous, aberrant behavior of one or two students that robs the whole class of days, weeks, months, and sometimes years of learning.
Finally, beware of discouragement. Teachers matter, and ability matters, but in the end, each student’s achievement rests substantially on his own diligence, perseverance, and responsibility.
Those are virtues every parent can encourage and every student can govern for himself, no matter where he goes to school this year.
Peter Berger teaches English at Weathersfield School. Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer letters addressed to him in care of the editor.