Once again the honorary degrees have all been handed out, the commencement speeches have all been delivered, and Poor Elijah is clearing his throat in my living room. It’s not that he expected to take the president’s place at Annapolis, or that he hopes to match the level of insight in Oprah’s Harvard declaration that there’s “no such thing as failure.” It’s just that every year he composes his thoughts, and every year he’s left with me as his audience.
If you’ve got a few minutes to spare, we’ve still got plenty of seats up front.
Nearly four decades ago, President Carter got himself into trouble by confronting the nation with what he described as our “crisis of spirit.” His message that night got tagged as his “malaise speech,” and it dogged him for the rest of his single term. If you read his speech over, you’ll find it’s remarkably prescient. Mr. Carter talked about things we need to talk about today, like an ineffective government that trades in “false claims and evasiveness” and a Congress where “every extreme position” is defended “to the last breath by one unyielding group or another.” He condemned our “worship of self-indulgence,” and he quoted ordinary Americans, like the citizen who’d told him, “Mr. President, we’re in trouble. Talk to us about blood and sweat and tears.”
Mr. Carter did, and we sent him packing.
How would we react today to a leader, like Churchill, who promised us nothing but “blood, toil, tears, and sweat”? I doubt we’ll ever find out, because a speech like that would never make it past the president’s Oval Office censors. They know us too well.
When FDR faced the nation in the Depression’s “dark hour,” he promised a “leadership of frankness.” Do we, who’ve now fought two lengthy wars on the backs of a small corps of volunteers, and opted, even in good times, not to raise taxes to pay for either — do we really want frank talk about our own obligations and our own shortcomings? Or would we prefer that our president speak frankly about everybody else?
Do we really want to know how dark our hour is?
Do you want to know?
I’m a teacher, which means I deal every day with the next generation of adults. I’m genuinely fond of my students, and I’d likely be fond of most of you, but I’m genuinely worried about the kind of adults we’ve prepared you to be. First, we’ve muddied the distinction between being an adult and being a child. At school, having determined that you don’t know very much, which sadly many of you don’t, we elected to solve the problem by empowering you to design your own education. Unfortunately, children who don’t know much don’t know enough to be able to do that.
We extended the definition of bullying to include even the smallest slights. Then having rendered you hypersensitive, we informed you that as bystanders, it was your job to stop the bullies. Meanwhile, we adults retired from the field and waited to “counsel” the bullies before we sent them back at you. That’s because we decided that as bad as bullying is, punishing bullies is worse.
In fact, we decided that punishing anybody is worse. We decided to appeal instead to everyone’s sense of social responsibility, entirely forgetting that some of you, like some of us, don’t have a sense of social responsibility.
We declared ourselves “child-centered” and then left you to shift for yourselves. We enacted laws that placed your classmate’s right to hit you above your right to have a teacher who can legally stop him. We’ve turned reason on its head and been appallingly derelict in our responsibility to be responsible adults.
We’ve declared war on schools that suspend disruptive students, and as we pass laws that outlaw suspensions, we congratulate ourselves that students and parents have “won a major victory.”
Which students and parents have won this “victory”? Los Angeles has passed a new law that prohibits schools from suspending students for “willful defiance.” Who benefits when willfully defiant students remain in our classrooms and corridors? Which students and parents should rejoice in this dubious triumph? We outlaw suspensions and then illogically conclude that those lower suspension rates mean behavior has improved. We crow about our success when all that’s really happened is more disrupters are still in school stealing more education from their classmates than they used to.
In our crusade against dropping out, we’ve created “alternative” programs that bypass most of the elements of a high school education but still award a diploma. Then we congratulate ourselves that dropout rates are declining.
It’s easy to cut the dropout rate when you let kids graduate without coming to classes.
Officials and experts are concerned that you lack skills for the 21st century. They demand that schools change to provide those skills. They entirely ignore the fact that literacy, mathematics, and a grasp of the arts and sciences are skills for any century. Those are the skills you lack.
You and the age in which you live are not exceptional. Knowledge means hard labor whether it comes on paper or on a video screen.
When the president visits a middle school and promises “connected classrooms” with laptops for every student, all the 12-year-olds cheer. The president touts technology as the key to improving our education system. He credits the students’ enthusiasm for that technology as enthusiasm for learning. Meanwhile, Arne Duncan, his education secretary, sermonizes about the necessity of increasing schools’ Internet bandwidth.
I’m no more opposed to the appropriate use of computer technology than I am to the appropriate use of ballpoint pens. But does the president really think all the 12-year-olds are cheering because they love knowledge, or because they love all the new “apps” they’ll be able to play with during class? Does Arne Duncan really believe that the primary reason American students can’t read or work with numbers is they lack adequate bandwidth?
Will adequate bandwidth save a nation where homes are dissolving, a nation that expects schools to feed its children, and tend them 12 hours a day, and fix their teeth, and soothe their psyches?
What will you expect of schools?
What will you expect of yourselves?
Because now it’s become your turn, as it was once mine.
Peter Berger teaches English at Weathersfield School. Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer letters addressed to him in care of the editor.