Man is a noble animal, splendid in ashes, and pompous in the grave. — Sir T. Browne
This past Christmas Eve, my grandmother handed me a book titled In the Basement of the Ivory Tower which concerns the current state of lower-level college English courses. The book was written by an adjunct professor of English who, wishing to remain anonymous, simply calls himself “Professor X.” Finding myself lounging around my grandmother’s house with not much to do and nothing else to read, I perused the book a bit. Being a teacher of writing myself, I found his anecdotes and frustrations to hit home. While I can certainly relate to some of the frustrations he raises, the book is unfortunately negative in its tone which in my opinion undermines the point he attempts to make. Writing certainly is an avenue for venting; but if it does not inspire in its venting, it is more like a diary than anything, and diaries rarely make for good reading. To be fair to Professor X, though, I have not and probably will not finish the book. Instead, I would like to discuss my thoughts on a conversation I had with the aforementioned grandmother which has some vague connection to the book itself.
There are millions of problems with the American public education system. Each student is a problem. Each student carries within him the sin nature handed down by his father and is thus a very big problem in the classroom. I want to focus on what I believe are the three biggest reasons why the American education system does not work and will not work. The first two I will merely mention, for I would really like to stress the third. These are in order of what I feel are the biggest issues with education in America. These follow the problem of sin, of course. Sin is that horrible little word that the modernists have all but taken out of the English language, pretending it does not exist. We have replaced it with a whole host of other words, most of them beginning with “psycho.” But the only psycho in our society is the man who denies sin, for denying sin is denying the one real fact we have concerning human nature. It is not mere conjecture that we have a sin nature. A boy may do something nice for the wrong reasons or mean for the right reasons, but in either case we can make the distinction between nice and mean, right and wrong.
The first issue I see as a problem with American education is that it cannot sustain itself. We cannot possibly educate everyone well (or even good for that matter). There is a reason it has never been tried before. You either have thousands of mediocre students or you have hundreds of brilliant ones. We seem to be fine with mediocrity. The second issue is the family, or I should say the lack of family. Education should begin and end in the family, but modern society seems bent on destroying the family, and as the family crumbles so will education. Neither of these issues upset me as much as the third. It seems noble to at least try and educate every person, and to a certain degree I believe we should strive to do so. The destruction of the family I see as more of a societal issue that affects every area of our culture.
But the third issue is one that is actually a product of our educational ideology itself. It is the horrible monster of self-esteem.
Self-esteem is a mere word made up to make us feel good about the void in our lives. We feel a void because we have “killed God” and replaced him with idols. Moderns are so terrified of the vast nothingness out there; they must make up some theory to explain away the vanity of their philosophy. This fear has trickled down into the elementary classrooms and dominates the ideology of education departments. So we no longer study the stars to see how big God is but rather to see how big we are. We tell children at a very young age that they are special (disregarding what that word actually means); we make sure their self-esteem balloons are full inflated (disregarding what happens to over-inflated balloons). The child hears how awesome he is; and then he goes to middle school and gets picked on or starts failing classes, and his world crumbles. He is not as “awesome” as he’s always been told. This happens in high school for some, college for others. Some don’t experience this awakening until they enter the workforce (or get married?), and unfortunately some get through life without ever really being told they are not as great as they think they are.
Yet the best thing for us is a true self-discovery, a real picture of who we are.
I did not receive a great education growing up. It was not horrendous by any stretch of the imagination, but it certainly could have been better. However, I remember three specific teachers who refused to let me get away with any foolish thought that entered my head. The modern ideology is that we need to “accept” every thought as potentially worth merit. If Johnny says something that is not even remotely close to the right answer, we are to say “good thought,” “interesting,” or some other jargon, write it up on the board and then pray to John Dewey that the student figures out the stupidity of his statement on his own. I do this all the time, but I cannot help but think that I am doing the student a disservice. If “every thought has merit” no thought has merit. I am, of course, not advocating that we tell the student his ideas are worthless. I am simply considering the affects of this ideology in the long term.¹
The problem that Professor X addressed in one of his chapters is the temptation to inflate grades. It used to be that a C was the grade of an average student, but now it seems that the B is the new C. Everyone seems to feel they deserve an A because they signed up for the class and showed up every day. No one is comfortable telling anyone else they are wrong; in the first place, we are constantly blurring the lines between what’s wrong and what’s not; in the second place, we just don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.
But Socrates knew that true knowledge was knowing that we actually know very little. How much happier would one be if we didn’t feel we had to carry the world on our shoulders? I argue that to reach your intellectual capacity, you must embrace a life of humility. You must approach each subject area with a sense of wonder, the sense that you are learning about a universe outside of yourself, much bigger and more fantastic. What is killing education today is not money, or Republicans, or No Child Left Behind, or home schools, or private schools, or bullying, or school lunches, or lack of PE and Art, or the television. What is killing education is apathy and pride. I am not sure students are any lazier than they have ever been. They are perhaps more prideful about how much they know (thank you Google), more apathetic about a universe that is nothing but cells and gas (thank you Bill Nye).
The repercussion of this ideology is that students leave high school feeling as if they deserve the cushy jobs. Students have a sense that they have failed if they do not make it in the world of education. They feel trapped in having to go to college where they probably do not belong because nearly every trade today requires some form of higher education. Thus, it is natural for one to feel as if he has failed if he finds himself picking up trash for a living. It is a fallacy to believe that the man picking up your trash each week is of any lesser value, is any less special, than the lawyer living across the street. It may just be true that the trash man has more common sense and morality than 15 lawyers, 3 doctors, and the president. Pride keeps us from seeking the “lower jobs.” It gives us a sense of self-entitlement. We believe we are more self-fulfilled if we are doing something worthwhile, when the truly self-fulfilled individual is the one who is willing to give up his life for others. The man who decides he is going to go do something he abhors each and every day to feed a family is more commendable than a thousand philanthropists who have lost the ability to wonder. I cannot help but think that a humble garbage man who has a correct view of reality is even more enviable than the millions of kings and queens we are currently raising in our elementary schools.
For the next generation won’t get a sensible balance of subjects.
They won’t be taught practical skills.
They won’t be independent.
They won’t be able to think critically.
Or compare and contrast.
They won’t be able to read.
They won’t get Shakespeare.
They won’t know history.
They won’t know anything prior to 1960 for that matter.
They won’t be able to write.
They won’t know grammar.
Or anything remotely close to beautiful prose.
They won’t be able to count.
They won’t be anything other than cells and gas.
They won’t be anything other than intelligent apes.
They won’t be angels.
They won’t have any sense of morality.
They won’t be allowed to fight.
They won’t have winners and losers.
They won’t have any sense of objectivity.
They won’t be able to wonder.
They won’t be able to worship.
They won’t believe in dragons.
Or good and evil.
Or anything for that matter.
But, by God, they will not be bullied.
They will believe in themselves.
¹The nature of this post lends itself to a misunderstanding. We cannot tell children they are special because each child is a spectacularly unique creature individually created by God. What I abhor is the “puffing up” of each student which leads down a road in which correction becomes impossible. I argue it would be better to have students embrace a higher view of others around them. The smaller we see ourselves, the bigger the universe becomes. But if we give every student a trophy for mere participation, if we give every student a pat on the back for merely answering a question, if we drum it into his head that he is perfect, we begin to lose the ability to correct the student. We rely on self-correction. We deny the inherent nature in humans that argues the self is always right. Self-correction can only happen if we first correct the child, if we first show him how to correct. But if we have no distinguishing marks between better and worse, right and wrong, we cannot possibly correct anything. Every student is just as good at any random trade as any other student. Everyone is special, no one is uniquely talented in one area. But every child competing in something at recess sees this ideology is a fantastic farce.