Sunday, March 05, 2006

Modern Education - Incomplete


A reader last week asked me to address Post-High School Education in the United States as a topic, and I gladly take up that challenge. I have to say at the start, however, that the topic is a broad and serious one, and one which I can only touch in a very superficial way in one sitting. Wordy as I am, I cannot address the issue in a comprehensive sense without a lot more time and space, and I suspect the readers would not wish to examine too many fine details on the subject, so it’s overview time again.

Education has changed from what it used to be. Back when the United States was founded, you basically had four types of education. There were colleges for professionals like doctors and lawyers, and the sons of noblemen, which accounted for the survival of bad poetry and medeival architectural studies through history. There were trade guilds, which used apprenticeships to bring in the new talent for such things as smithywork, tannery, or cobbling. There was the basic knowledge of reading, writing, and simple arithmetic for the average sort, and sadly there was a whole class of folks who were not provided with a means for any structured education whatsoever. The purpose of each class was to equip the individual for the life they were expected to lead.

The American Ideal, however, naturally found class distinction unsound, and over time there was a movement towards some measure of education for everyone, and general admission to universities for anyone so inclined, provided they could pay the tuition. By the beginning of the Twentieth Century, therefore, most Americans had access to basic educational skills, and a man could at least dream of sending his kids to college or a decent trade school. The level of education received, however, varied considerably from place to place, resulting in a modest attempt at standardization by way of local school boards.

Fast-forward then to the 1960s. After Sputnik, Americans began, for the first time, to doubt that their education was the best in the world, and the fear that we would lose the Space Race to the Soviets led to emotional demands for better education and resources. Unfortunately, human capacity is not so easily adapted to political goals, but fortunately, the American character pursued ambitions which the Soviets could not offer. The fact is, however, that in the past generation especially, schools at all levels have been unreasonably influenced by political considerations and social correctness, and temporary priorities have been allowed to subvert basic lessons.

The obvious solution, in my opinion, is to return control to the Independent School District level, with standardized testing at each grade level in the basic coursework and scholarly skills. This will allow for correction to unbalanced curriculum, and will further allow each district more control of its own resources. The trouble, of course, is the likelihood of court intervention in the pursuit of equal outcomes, which is both a mathematical impossibility, yet also the unyielding demand of everyone whose kid is failing school.

Ironic, but the old rule of getting the education you need for the work you do is valid again. It’s valid, because where it originally was imposed on someone (Son, the blacksmith has agreed to take you on as an apprentice. You start tomorrow at 5 AM. Good luck), today it’s available as an option. Anyone can pursue a college degree or go to a trade school, anyone can choose to settle for what they learn while underage. The key skills are developing a sense of intellectual curiosity and honesty, a work ethic and a personal code of honor. By adulthood, you either have and use those things or you do not.

And that is really where I think education has fallen down. You can still learn your reading and writing, your math and your science, and even if it gets politically colored you still get some version of history. But a large portion of young people grow up without a sense of responsibility, or a hunger to prove themselves. Not enough people see losing as a valuable life lesson that gets you ready for the real world. Not enough people are willing to accept that you will inevitably see both good and bad luck in your endeavours, but only the combination of some luck and a lot of hard work ever turns into lasting success. Not enough people learn while they are young that spending all your money early means you will not have it later, or that excess in anything leads to an eventual but certain disaster. To have a full education before they finish High School, young people need church and community work to teach them those vital, missing, lessons.

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