The Suffering Student

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Every student I have polled in my classes has spent years of his or her life parked before a TV set or a video game and practically none can remember being read to at an early age or conversed with in their maturing years on cultural, political, historical, or literary questions. This goes a long way toward explaining the critical deficiencies from which they suffer in both the lexicon and the morphology of the language, the privation of the latter being most evident in the confusion of their written productions. Clarity begins at home with reading to children, with literate discussion and good speech habits, with diligent monitoring of homework, with expressions of concern. This is obviously an ideal scenario, but as Emerson urged in Society and Solitude, “Hitch your wagon to a star.”

Regrettably, there is no doubt that the educational system in which our kids are trapped does almost nothing to ameliorate their situation and in fact only exacerbates the predicament in which they find themselves. Far too many have been ideologically indoctrinated by progressivist teachers, taught to nurture an unearned feeling of self-esteem and to assume a sense of entitlement. Very few are actually trained in the protocols of thinking and studying, to take course work seriously or even to write properly. Thankfully, as we see from the above exemplars, some are conscious that they have been short-changed.

These latter are the students whom literary scholar Janice Fiamengo, in an as yet unpublished paper, calls “the teachable remnant.” Like them, we should be aware that on the whole students are treated very superficially indeed, despite the pamphleteering cheeriness of our school representatives, in what amounts to little more than the promotion or imposition of a kind of shuck-and-chuck pedagogy. But since it is less problematical to try to modify the school than it is to rehabilitate the family or transform the culture, I come to the reluctant conclusion that, faute de mieux and even if the eleventh hour has already passed, we have little choice but to tackle the problems where we empirically meet them.

With regard to the schools, parents need to get their act together. They must offer critical support to their children’s responsible teachers, many of whom are struggling to retain their dignity and effectiveness in a rapidly degrading environment and who must be encouraged to resist both the shortsighted attempts—aka “reform”—to repair the intellectual mutilations from which students suffer and the techno-administrative ideology that is defrauding them of their birthright. Parents must also be pro-active in discerning and protesting against those teachers who are a discredit to their profession, who have not invested in mastering their subjects, and who are content to float their way to retirement. Those who can afford it might consider enrolling their children in the better private schools, as do most of our politicians who, despite their laic advocacy, wouldn’t dream of sacrificing their kids to the Moloch of public education. And parents who do not enjoy the means to defray the tuition costs of the private schools, but who are educated and committed, have the option of home schooling.

One does not need to be clairvoyant to agree with Quebec intellectual Jean Larose, who writes in L’Amour du pauvre [The Love of the Poor] that the new curricular dispensation will produce chiefly des esprits conformistes…incapable de concevoir d’autres réalités que celles de leur milieu et de leur experience immédiats. Parce que les mots leur manquent, parce que les formes leur manquent, ils se trouvent souvent sans originalité au moment de concevoir…condamnés à réinventer le bouton à quatre trous… [conformist minds…incapable of conceiving other realities but those of their immediate environment and experience. Because they lack words, because they lack the forms (of thought), they find themselves without originality at the moment of intellectual conception…condemned to reinvent the four-hole button…].

This numbnuts curriculum is refracted in the practical sphere as programmatic reform—a synonym for useless theoretical busywork—, as the application of a cybernetic mindset to curriculum and methodology that dissolves subject matter into a swarm of innumerable and contentless objectives, and especially in the continuing moral, psychological, and professional diminishment of the student. But it is precisely such a process of student demotivation and institutional contempt that makes any restructuring program or curricular renovation which does not focus on the basics and the disciplined formation of the mind pretty well idle if not downright harmful. If this situation is not reversed or even partially remedied, we can write off the next generation more or less wholesale.

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  • clarespark

    I appreciate the Solway essay, and have contemplated the same problem for decades. Here is one attempt to explain the Great Dumbing Down, as I call it: http://clarespark.com/2010/01/02/jottings-on-the-…. I blame all of "progressive" culture starting with the post-Civil War period, but accelerating after the Great War, and even more accelerated during the New Left ascendancy. In the end, look back to the rooted cosmopolitans of German Romanticism, starting with Herder and his followers. The title of my essay is "Jottings on the culture wars: both sides are wrong."

  • guest

    I thought by increasing educators salaries to astronomical levels and providing lakes of cash to spend as they see fit was supposed to stem "the rising tide of mediocrity"

    Maybe they need more money…

  • tagalog

    For what it's worth, the journal entries you included in this commentary are pretty articulate, the spelling and grammatical errors seem below average (that is, they're pretty well-written for what they are), and they all contain complete sentences. They know how to make a point and support it with examples.

    Plus these students have been able to hold on to some degree of judgmentalism. In most of the public high schools I know of, that's one of the first things that's taught out of them.

    So these students maybe should not get a pat on the back for the quality of their educations, but they're far from the worst.

    The erosion of public education is far deeper and more extensive than these samples reveal.

  • Jim_C

    My kids are learning algebra in public grade school…is that supposed to be some benchmark?

    The "problem" with education: most people, including very educated people, do not understand whats, hows, and whys of education–they only think they do, because after all–they went to school. I count myself one of them. At this point in history, I'm not sure how best to make good citizens.

    It's easy for "old timers" to wax nostalgic about the 3 R's they learned and how kids these days aren't learning those. In the old timer's day, let's face facts–there simply wasn't nearly as much to learn about, nor did the world they were entering require they know it all. It was, in all respects, a much simpler–if maybe less luxurious–world. They didn't have to understand the architecture of software. They were not bombarded with information 24/7. There were many "givens." Mom and Dad stayed together whether they wanted to or not; Dad won the bread, Mom cooked the meals. Dad may have went to college; Mom probably did not. But college wasn't necessary to earn a middle class living, nor were two incomes necessary to support a family.

    In the 21st century, we still have not come to terms with the massive compression of technological advancement and the enormous socio-economic and demographic changes of the 20th century. Kids aren't any dumber–but their world is full of rapid fire, blinking screens, divisive politics, empty pop cultural facsimiles of joy and gratification. Their time is way more regimented than mine was (remember playing baseball just for fun?). They shop at chain stores, not locally-owned stores. Their communities, if they have any–are small and niche.

    And yet we're supposed to address all this with an educational system built essentially for farm kids 100 years ago?

  • Jim_C

    And do you honestly think the curriculum and teaching talent is that much better in private schools?

    And I'm not talking the types of private schools that cost upwards of $30,000 a year. I'm talking the types of private schools people can usually afford by making the equivalent of a monthly new car payment.

    These schools do perform marginally (though not significantly) better on average, but guess why that is? Parental investment, parental involvement. The tuition payment proves the parents value education. It also keeps the riff raff out. And the parents make sure their investment is paying off.

  • Schlomotion

    Credit is due. This is a great article, especially the criticism of parenting and of the precession of a reductive cybernetic mindset in education. I also think that Jim_C's rebuttal about the inadequacy of a hundred year old farm educational system is true as well.

  • aspacia

    Solway is correct about pedagogical theory being garbage and too many teachers are not masters of their discipline. When the teacher is a master, the other teachers submarine her or him, and argue against teaching spelling and grammar. Currently, I have regular 11th grade proficient students writing Freshman, university level essays in MLA format, complete with in text citations and a Works Cited page. Because of this success, I am being moved into American History. Why? I hold an M.A. in English and B.A. in history, and few in English want to teach the basics.

  • aspacia

    Also, we need to ditch the numerous vacations, especially the 3 month summer break. Too much information is not retained.

  • Kevin Stroup

    Education is merely a facet of American society. It has gone downhill for the same reason so much else has. Entropy. We forget that to sustain a system, let alone upgrade one, requires energy inputs. We on the other hand, expect something for free. Businesses make bad decisions and are bailed out by my tax money, politicians in bed with business on an unprecidented scale, utterly useless people are held up at cultural icons, we are mammon worshippers without restraint, failure is tolerated sometimes even extolled. Did you really expect outstanding successes from a culture that is this corrupt? Schools, teachers and students do not exist in their own separate universe, they reflect the culture that produces them.

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