Why Public Education Is Doomed

The “plot” to subvert our republic through mis-education is overrated: bureaucratic idiocy and professional cowardice are sufficient in themselves to effect our ruin.

As they gradually learn about the arrogant, devious, and altogether blackguardly manipulation within Common Core (Bill Gates’s latest attempt to take over the world, with the blessing of other would-be kings), many conservatives are more convinced than ever that the education establishment is one big statist conspiracy.  I am not far from that conclusion myself.  Yet we constitutionalists tend to underrate two key motive forces in this massive mind-control onslaught: cowardice and stupidity.  (One might make the same point, of course, by saying that we overrate the role of deliberate and malign design.)

My life, and the lives of other professors in my department (which lumps literature, composition, and foreign language together, like so many former English departments at lesser institutions these days), has been greatly complicated in April by the dictatorial and imbecilic demands of state government.  In the very middle of our semester, we have had to divert attention from teaching and grading to fill out forms for “resubmitting” our core courses.  Don’t ask me to explain why.  All I want to do for now is share some of the inquisitors’ questions, and also—with great sadness—a few answers that clearly reflect a surrender of sound pedagogy to the inane demands of these Mandarins.

I will not disclose my institution here, or even my state, other than to note that the latter is among the reddest in the nation.  Those details are irrelevant to the broader point: i.e., that voters apparently have little idea of, and no control over, what an elite of rare idiots is doing in their children’s classrooms.  Naturally, I also wish to write nothing to give away the identity of a colleague whose responses fell into my hands.  This person is one of the most genuine and caring souls I’ve ever met in the Ivory Tower, and—to boot—is a more trusting, child-like Christian than I would ever know how to be.  Yet she evidently thought the wiser course was to throw the dog a bone—the slavering hound of state bureaucracy.  Perhaps she was thus pliant precisely because of her trusting, see-no-evil character.  One can only imagine how far a more calculating careerist would have yielded.

The most critical form’s first section solicits “basic information”.  (Does anyone recall Patrick McGoohan’s magnificent BBC series, The Prisoner?  “We want… information.  Information.  INFORMATION.”)  Under the “content” subdivision (bureaucratese always parrots analytical thought with incessant subdividing), the text reads, “Courses that meet the language, philosophy [sic—no comma] and culture requirements focus on how ideas, values, beliefs [sic] and other aspects of culture express and affect human experience.  Please provide a written explanation of how the proposed course content meets these attributes.”  Are values “aspects” or “attributes” of culture?  Neither, I would have said.  About, my brain.

The solicitation, to be sure, is not as outrageous as its misty diction.  My colleague, responding in the context of a World Literature Survey which we both teach, wrote as follows: “Through close examination of cross-cultural, multicultural, and language arts in literary texts (essays, autobiography, poetry, short fiction, and novels); historical contexts; global paradigm shifts; and artistic movements from 1800 to the present, students  learn how human creativity both shapes and is shaped by sociohistorical forces. Comparing the literature of various cultures provides a unique means of understanding how beliefs, values, and traditions are developed, expressed, and adapted across time and space.”

Okay, we’ve got that covered.  I’m not sure what it all means—but then, I’m not entirely sure what the “prompt” means.  I’m utterly certain, on the other hand, that administrators in our state capital will have no clear idea either of what they asked or of what my colleague answered and will therefore be fully satisfied with both ends of the communication.  After all, this is primarily about the Emperor’s New Clothes.  Just pretend that he’s wearing something stylish.

On to “assessment of core objectives”: “Several key objectives must be assessed for courses that form part of the core curriculum.  Assessments should be authentic, intentional and direct.  For each core objective (a) through (d) below, provide discussion on what activities in the course will address the objective, how these activities will be assessed, and what specific assessment instruments will be used….”

If you’re curious about the peculiar meaning of “authentic” in these circumstances, I’m afraid I can’t help you.  Maybe I should have written “if you’re curious on…”  The phrase “discussion on” is entirely typical of contemporary student writing, but it’s embarrassing to find that our fearless leaders in education have acquired a fondness for it.

Let’s start here with “Critical Thinking Skills (includes creative thinking, innovation, inquiry and analysis

evaluation and synthesis of information)”.  I won’t keep “siccing” the missed comma after the list’s penultimate member.  I believe we must conclude that our faceless guru is a Brit or Canadian of some extraction.  May one ask why, in that case, non-Americans are prescribing the parameters of our educational system?

My estimable colleague handled this section much as I did: she explained the importance of writing to thought—the intricate art, that is, of reaching a logical conclusion based upon textual evidence and reasonable supposition.  Yet she also added something about “worksheets” that gave me pause.  These sheets would not only assess whether or not students had read the assignment (my crude paraphrase): “They also will be used as prompts for or responses to class discussion in a manner that recognizes and appreciates the variety of perspectives to be found in a classroom setting.”  What?  May the questions on the sheets, then, not have better and worse answers—or is the better answer that which “appreciates” more “perspectives” found in the “classroom setting”?  So if one student volunteers that Ophelia reminds him of his last girlfriend, would a good answer acknowledge that some readers of Hamlet may interpret the eponymous prince’s beloved as one of those uptight chicks one sees at the Catholic Student Center?

After “content” comes “skills”—“includes effective development, interpretation and expression of ideas through written, oral and visual communication”.  I still haven’t figured out what is intended by “visual communication”.  Posters filled with newspaper clippings and Magic Marker labels?  Sign language?  Videos?  Winks and scowls?  Not reading, obviously: that would have to fall under the rubric of the written.  Or maybe not… who knows?

My colleague and I both devote a lot of time to grading essays, and I was proud of her for enumerating the crucial contributions that writing makes to thinking.  Yet the concession she made to the absurd category of “visual communication” continues to trouble me: “One or more of the written assignments will ask students to compose a concise and detailed analysis of a visual image that is either an integral part of the literary work (e.g., a panel in a graphic novel) or that in some way complements the text. They will be asked to consider the use of line, proportion, color, light, shadow, texture, and perspective for the subjective meaning it evokes, while also considering the inclusion of symbols, visual clues as to historical context, literary devices that contribute to aesthetic effect, and other elements they believe contribute to interpretation.”  So… the literary survey course is now an Art Appreciation class?  Using what criteria will students “be asked to consider the use of line, proportion,” etc.?   Will they wing it, or will the instructor jettison Tolstoy and Yeats from the syllabus to make room for a few lectures on aesthetics?  And in any case, is this really what “visual communication” means—responding in writing to an image?

Naturally, if graphic novels (a.k.a. comic books) also satisfy the requirement, then we may keep Tolstoy and skip the lecture on Critique of Judgment.  Is there a slender graphic version, perhaps, of War and Peace?

Or maybe students will figure out what to say in their discussion groups.  My colleague alerts faceless bureaucracy that “oral and aural communication”, in her splendid phrase (is there a means of communicating by ear, no speech necessary? ear-wiggling?), will be handled under the category of “teamwork”… which comes up next.  This essential objective of the liberal arts curriculum “includes the ability to consider different points of view and to work effectively with others to support a shared purpose or goal”.  I’m glad we’ve all got that straight.  Teamwork is… working together.  As a team.  My colleague went after this one with rather too much zeal to work for the other side, if you ask me: “Group assignments will be based on literary texts that are engaged with civic and social responsibility.  Small discussion groups will be given class time as well as a restricted online forum to engage in group conversation and reach consensus prior to their class presentation.  In tandem with these discussions, students will rotate the responsibility of reporting their group’s findings to the class.  Additionally, students will respond in writing to all presentations by groups other than their own.  Discussions may be focused on multicultural, cross-cultural, and intercultural issues that relate to (a) individual and collective identities, (b) changing social mores between and among generations, (c) marginalization of the Other, and (d) contending local and global sociopolitical ideologies.”

It takes a worried man to sing a worried song… how’s that for aural communication?  I could write plenty of new lyrics based on my colleague’s Orwellian reply.  Will her class read Orwell, I wonder?  With so many group presentations (and a section of World Lit may hold forty or fifty students), how will they find time?  And again (or should I say “additionally”—don’t you just love that word?), how much precious class time will be devoted to explaining to late adolescents what the hell is meant by “collective identity”, “global political ideology”, and the rest?  Tolstoy, I’m afraid your comic book has been elbowed off the syllabus, after all.

Let us save the worst for the last, however.  (They used to say in Scotland, “Its beginning was better than its end.”)  Last and worst, then, is Personal Responsibility.  Yes, your local U is now taking care of that, too—at least if your taxes support it.  Included here (notice how no term is ever defined: they all “include”) is “the ability to connect choices, actions and consequences to ethical decision making [sic: the Brits do still hyphenate, I believe]”.  My colleague surpassed herself in compliance: a special “assignment supplements the measurement of civic and social responsibility described in ‘Teamwork.’  Each group presentation leader will compose a short essay of 350-400 words that recognizes and reflects personally on the implications of an ethical dilemma associated with his or her presentation question….  Criteria used for the assessment will include the student’s ability to recognize and articulate differing, sometimes conflicting, ethical perspectives and their larger implications; illustrate self-awareness of core beliefs and how these beliefs influence one’s response to a particular ethical dilemma and its resolution; and demonstrate respect for differing perspectives and an acknowledgment that others’ perspectives can be valid.”

I will confine myself to commenting that the assignment is grossly unfair if only the group leader completes it—unless everybody is a group leader at some point, in which case we really must be looking at a semester of constantly talking students and one very quiet professor—quiet, that is, when she is not explaining aesthetics, geopolitics, ethics, and everything else but Symbolist poetry.

My own response to Personal Responsibility began thus: “A ‘direct’ assessment of ‘ethical decision-making’ scarcely seems possible with reference to any ethical system other than a behaviorist one.  The fundamental assumption of any coherent moral system is human free will, for no one may rationally be held responsible for actions that he or she cannot choose.  The notion of free will turns out to have a long cultural history.  Even though a philosopher may suppose that human beings have always enjoyed the freedom of choosing whether or not to kill or steal, cultural circumstances have played a major part, practically speaking, in our awakening to such powers.”

And that was just the beginning.  My department chairman took a razor to it (not Ockham’s, but something more like Bob Vila’s utility knife) and reminded me that we were just trying to fly under the radar here: an ideological face-off was the last thing we needed.  She was right, of course.  She hails from an Asian nation that knows all about oppressive, stupid, arrogant bureaucracy.  The solution is always to appear to give them just what they want—which is precisely that appearance, since they never really know what they want—and then go right on about one’s business.

Maybe my colleague has taken this advice to heart.  Maybe she in fact budgets not a single moment of class time to the service of this folderol.  Maybe she really does get to Leopardi and Flaubert and Tolstoy and Yeats.

But I doubt it.  She’s too honest, and too earnest.  She has not yet imbibed the wise and subtle cynicism of a Buddhist cleric scribbling for a megalomaniac emperor.

And if she is sincere, then the efforts of a vast state bureaucracy to insist upon the teaching of cross-cultural awareness, teamwork, personal responsibility, and the rest have once again succeeded in ensuring that the exact opposite will happen.  For there can be no enhanced awareness of any culture when there is no time for instruction; there can be no teamwork when students must regurgitate indoctrinated P.C.-speak and otherwise substitute institutional prejudice for their native ignorance; and there can certainly be no maturation of responsibility when adolescents run the discussion (within P.C. limits) of subjects about which they know nothing—when, in the Bard’s words, “the baby beats the nurse.”

Public education is a debacle at every level, as far as I can tell; but it isn’t so primarily because George Soros (bad cess to him) has funded an immense plot.  Bureaucracy, like cancer, metastasizes at a certain stage and becomes impossible to control.  It grinds out futility upon imbecility in its effort to create new work, demands obeisance to each deeper level of folly, and then generates yet more positions and protocols to service counter-productively the disintegration of entire systems.  Bureaucrats are imperious idiots incapable either of designing a conspiracy or of sticking to its plan.

And then we have the cowards who recite the formulas and make the obeisances lest they lose their pitiful positions.  Many of these, probably most, are good people but for their spinelessness.  When the ancient temple lies in rubble, its Byzantine vaults and volutes at last brought down by the immutable laws of physics, they will scurry about helping us to pick up a few functional pieces to keep the rain out.  In circumstances where their excessive humility can pass for virtue, we may safely call them friends.

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