Education Revolution

 

Broken hands on broken ploughs,
Broken treaties, broken vows,
Broken pipes, broken tools,
People bending broken rules.
Hound dog howling, bull frog croaking,
Everything is broken.
     – Bob Dylan, “Everything Is Broken”

 

State of Emergency
Few of the authorities who write, speak, advocate, and lobby on behalf of ideologies about education or improvements in its delivery ever have created or managed a school. Fewer still have taught, and virtually none have taught recently. No doubt they mean well, but most authorities know little about actual teaching and learning in the contemporary world. Few have familiarity with nations and cultures that have achieved distinction in teaching language, mathematics, and science. None, in my opinion, place sufficient emphasis upon the sole protagonists who truly matter in any dialogue about education: the learners.

Despite these limitations in expertise, broad consensus exists in the United States that our public education system at all learning levels confronts severe challenges. The consensus is correct. Throughout our country, students’ motivation and academic performance seems to be declining in all fields of knowledge.

Many analysts fault teachers. I believe it is not possible responsibly to criticize or to laud individual teaching professionals, because we do not yet possess any generally agreed means by which teachers’ efficacy can be quantified and measured.

All experts agree we face epic financial challenges in sustaining and modernizing our education endeavors. An alarming number of communities are finding it difficult appropriately to finance putatively public resources. Schools are beset with spiraling costs, decreasing revenues, and attendant challenges in providing core programs, suitable staffing, sufficient facilities, necessary maintenance, and basic safety. In many localities, particularly in economically disadvantaged districts, our education infrastructure is outmoded and, in many instances, in acute disrepair. Lawrence Summers, Director of the National Economic Council for President Obama, recently suggested that 75% of American schools are in an unacceptable state of disrepair.

Resource deprivation is a serious national problem. Even more serious is the sheer pertinence of our curriculum and instruction system. Education in the United States has not changed materially since its origins in outmoded economic, geographic, and cultural paradigms. Our nation no longer is a predominantly rural agrarian civilization existing in immune isolation from global geopolitical forces. Everything about our instructional program, its content, its calendar, and its hours of operation, was designed for an historical situation that long ago departed. Our public education philosophy and practice make little sense for the contemporary universe, and for the world of work our children soon will enter.

In truth, we seldom give the needs of our children and the welfare of our society the attention they warrant. Instead, we focus on the preferences of various sectarians’ ideals, the narrow self-interest of teachers and education bureaucrats, and the pandering of indifferent politicians who seek these influencers’ financial and electoral support.

We blithely ignore the fact that other countries rapidly are improving their education systems. Societies are not necessarily competitors of one another. However, we ill can afford to ignore the reality that our peer nations in Europe and Asia are making major strides in providing their children with impressive competencies in many of the fields that most signify in modern life.

These are our current circumstances in American education. Many commentators agree the conditions constitute an unacknowledged state of national emergency.

The Action Agenda
The corrective action most analysts most frequently advocate is reform. Across numerous political and other ideological divides, we are told education in America needs modification, improvement, revision, renewal, repair.

This is not accurate. Few will say so for risk of imperiling their employment, but everyone who actually teaches in classes or actively administers schools and universities knows that education in America needs revolution. Our conceptions about teaching and learning, their broad purposes and specific objectives, scale and scope, format, governance, management, and economics do not require adjustment. They need to be completely rejected, reinvented, and replaced.

Fixing public education in America is not a task of renovation or reconstruction. It’s a teardown.

The Problems We Face
For more than forty years, I have served as a senior teacher and executive manager in preschools, schools, and universities. My experience has led me to conclude we confront eight key challenge areas in American public education:

  • Candor and Practicality
  • Mission-Critical Truths
  • Purposes and Objectives
  • Content Design
  • Delivery Design
  • Outcome Assessment and Reporting
  • Teachers’ Qualifications and Accountability
  • Teachers’ Compensation and Job Security

 

In the passages that follow, I will discuss each of these problems in turn. I will close by recommending the specific revolution I believe our education system most needs.

1. Candor and Practicality
We cannot identify problems unless we are willing to be truthful about their nature and importance. And if we truthfully seek to find effective solutions, we must commit ourselves exclusively to the criterion of practicality. A remedy is not a remedy unless it actually can work.

In any discourse about education, the welfare of our children and the benefit of our society are the only values that ultimately can command our allegiance. In comparison to these imperatives, the workplace preferences of teachers and administrators are irrelevant. The predilections of idealists, theorists, and partisan adherents of any philosophy, creed, or dogma are extraneous and immaterial.

2. Mission-Critical Truths
Here are several fundamental truths about teaching and learning. Few educators and no polemicists will acknowledge them. They nevertheless are baseline realities, and they centrally concern the process and project of education. Unless we take these mission-critical truths into full account, we cannot possibly design and deliver valid learning for our children, or ensure abiding vitality for our society.

  • Not all children are born with equal intelligence, motivation, complexity, flexibility, emotional resilience, and character strength.
  • Children do not want or need to lead similar lives. They do not need to pursue comparable fulfillments, develop analogous gifts, or create like relationships, careers, and accomplishments. They need to nurture and enact their own selfhood.
  • Children do not learn in the same way, in the same sequence, at the same speed.
  • Learning almost never occurs sequentially. It occurs by leaps and bounds, most powerfully when the learner achieves confidence and attains a personal resolve to learn, a self-motivated joy in discovering, engaging, and internalizing skills and knowledge.
  • Teaching differs drastically from learning. Just because a teacher “covers” a subject does not mean all learners have learned it, or will remember it.
  • A test almost never can reliably quantify what a student has learned. Exceptions may occur in such content-intensive fields as computation, geographical names, orthography, etc. A test primarily measures, if anything, some students’ skill in understanding and mastering the requirements of the test itself. This ability will be importantly affected by many socioeconomic and other environmental factors.
  • Grades are abstract, improvisational approximations. They refer metaphorically to criteria that frequently are undefined, and always are merely figurative. They involve samples that invariably are unstated or overstated: “norms,” “grade levels,” “the general population,” “bell curves,” etc.
  • Much, arguably most, of what we are required to learn in school turns out to have little consequence in the lives we lead as adults. During my grade 9 and grade 10 years, for instance, I was forced to devote myriad hours learning how to recognize and parse the ablative absolute syntax in Latin. I have utilized this awareness rarely.
  • Most adults cherish the memory of one or more teachers who were transformative in the growth of our imagination, our character, and our erudition. Sadly, most of the teachers whom we have encountered produced little influence on our learning or our lives, and many created decidedly negative impacts. In our school communities everyone knew who the great teachers were, and who the mediocre or horrid teachers were. Yet, great mentors rarely were institutionally recognized, honored, or rewarded; and nothing disciplinary or ameliorating ever seemed to happen to middling, below-average, or dreadful instructors.
  • During our school life, especially during our middle school and high school years, many of us frequently experienced emotional discomfort and social cruelty. The principles extolled in particularly our upper school communities, the virtues respected, the values celebrated, excluded most students from inclusion and bore little relationship to what, as adults, we have discovered most matters for living in happiness, success, and goodness.

 

These observations suggest a distressing conclusion. A great deal that is foundational in anyone’s comprehension of useful and healthy education is imperfect or failing in the current American system.

3. Purposes and Objectives
Most citizens of our nation would agree that the primary purpose of education is to prepare children and young adults to conduct happy, beneficial, and productive lives. Most would agree that our schools should produce independent, self-motivated, lifelong learners; and should foster students’ commitment and ability to behave with decency, compassion, integrity, and honor.

More concretely, preschools must prepare their graduates for success in elementary programs. K-12 schools must prepare their graduates for skill and effectiveness in work fields; or, for those who choose to continue their studies, success in universities. Universities should prepare their graduates for discovery and leadership in life.

4. Content Design
American public schools commonly ignore education’s most compelling purposes, and substitute politicized or recondite goals in their place. Many establish self-referential curricula: they “cover” fields of knowledge that local education bureaucracies or other influential forces deem appropriate for various “age groups” and “learning levels.” These fields and their required “coverage” may have little to do with the knowledge base and the thinking and creative skills most universities require; or with the competencies and capabilities employers expect of non-collegiate professionals.

For all intents and purposes, education policymakers ignore students who do not aspire to or seek university education. We increasingly are reluctant to identify and track such learners, or to equip them with qualifying career preparation in honorable, necessary, and remunerative fields of work. Few districts even attempt to audit prospective employers’ hiring requirements for terminal senior secondary school graduates. Few make any provisions for high school leavers.

Our failure to focus on practical outcome objectives is paralleled by our refusal to respond to our country’s rapidly changing social conditions, economic topography, and cultural mores. History curricula in the United States remain obsessively Anglo-European and patriarchal in their emphasis. Few science curricula have kept even approximately current with the remarkable pace of scientific discovery and technological advances that are the most important hallmark of our era. Many science courses are leavened with ideological concerns, or issues concerning religious revelation. Our expectations for learners’ mathematical competency and English language literacy are woefully outmoded for the era in which we now live, and for the polity our graduates eventually must lead. Children and young adults in the United States seldom learn an international language other than English. Despite the fact we now inhabit what we often term a “flat world,” we decline to prepare our learners to comprehend or informedly respect any other society’s consciousness and civilization.

This problem is compounded by our ever-growing insularity and unconscious arrogance. We behave as though our daughters and sons somehow are entitled to flourish in their lives because they dwell in the United States. We often feel contemptuous or bitter about nations that seem to be “pushing” their children to achieve standards more exacting than our own. The reality is that our education system’s graduates must live and compete in the actual great world – not in the realm of our fantasies, biases, and preferences. They need to comprehend and transact in an economy that years ago became incomparably more global and meritocratic than the forebears who designed our education systems could have envisioned.

5. Delivery Design
Deficiency and dereliction in our schools’ content designs are serious problems. Far more dangerous are the defects in our delivery designs.

The most troubling of these proceed from our insistence, against all evidence, that children always learn in a linear order, all in the same manner, all at the same pace. Almost universally, we teach courses of study in a straight line sequence. Fields such as history and literature customarily are taught in a chain of chronology, organized by region or nation. Mathematics normally is taught in a progression of capabilities. So is language acquisition. Those students who do not move along the grid as the teacher presents it lose root constructs and competencies. They are fated to fall ever further behind, unless, improbably, they receive specialized remediation or achieve a self-directed renaissance.

The problem is not simply that we teach in grossly artificial straight-line modalities. The obstacle is compounded by the fact that we habitually aggregate learners by their age, house them in grade levels based upon their age, and make no genuinely consequential provisions for those who learn much more readily and swiftly than the “norms” we invent; or for those who learn much less easily.

We rarely utilize meaningful criteria and instruments to identify gifted or challenged learners. Even if we could achieve these vital distinctions, we seldom empower our most caring and capable teachers to serve either group; or, for that matter, to assist any individuals or specialized groups. In most of our schools, classes are not only too homogenized. They also are grotesquely too large. We permit this syndrome – often we deliberately engineer it – even though knowledgeable researchers and experienced pedagogues always have known that the single most determinative factor in education effectiveness is a low student-teacher ratio.

Every mathematician will tell us that our education “norms” statistically must fail to serve a majority of learners. A greater part of any cohort must perform “below” or “above” any “median” we choose to establish. Every skillful, committed teacher will confirm that our “norms” indeed do fail to serve the large majority of our daughters and sons.

The truth is we don’t care. We placidly accept the despair of perceived inadequacy and progressively more damaging ignorance for those who learn too slowly for the prevailing “norm.” With equal comfort, we resign ourselves to the even more insidious despair of boredom for those who learn too quickly for the benchmarks on offer.

I regard our commitment to synthetic norms as the most pernicious defect in our schools’ delivery system. There are several other grave flaws that warrant attention.

Let us consider our traditional instructional schemes. Most public schools insist educators compose, review with the colleagues to whom they report, and implement in their entirety prefabricated lesson plans: inflexible, inert metrics that assume a teacher should know or can predict how an actual group classroom dynamic will occur and operate. Almost all our schools require teachers to devise blueprints or gridirons of a kind that ensure every “lesson’s” intents will be rigid, its energies formulaic, and its outcomes precisely definable. This practice is intended to guarantee that a “grade level” curriculum will be “covered” on a definite and defined schedule.

Forward planning is a sensible and necessary pedagogic activity. But fabricating in advance the entirety of a lecture, a discussion, a unit, or an entire semester so that classroom work will consist mainly of assembling and uniting standardized parts cannot succeed in generating thoughtful learning across any spectrum of a specific learning community’s inevitable individualism. The manufacturing paradigm so dear to modernist cultures has no salience for education. In fact, it is acutely counterproductive.

This problem is compounded by the teaching tools we commonly utilize. Most schools deploy textbooks as their primary informatory and educative instrument: dry, desiccated, dull, reductive, emphatically hindering learning devices – and hugely expensive. Modern technology offers immense possibilities for teaching and learning. However, technology is expensive to acquire, license, and maintain, it requires enlightened cognition and use, and it often is subject to student abuse. Many schools use some elements of modern technology creatively and constructively. Most, though, cannot or do not.

The unfortunate impacts of this limitation are exacerbated by our most commonly accepted teaching methods and learning platforms. Too often, schools rely still on archaic teacher-delivered presentations, delivered by lecture, supported by dry marker runes drawn on white boards. Too often, schools rely still on outdated student recitation responses repeated in orchestrated chants. Pupils reply to their instructors’ lectures, if at all, by rote, regurgitating mindlessly what a notional authority robotically has conveyed. Or, in the most common supplemental model, pupils reply to set questions when called upon by name. Those who do not volunteer and those who are not specifically summoned to reply are assumed to comprehend the lesson’s material. This assumption normally is ratified by many teachers’ standard closing query: “Are there any questions?” If there are no queries, group mastery of the subject matter supposedly can be presumed.

Contemporary research abundantly establishes that these teaching protocols cannot succeed for a large majority of learners. At best, these methods can force-feed some students information that will help them achieve successful scores on examinations that test these specific data. No one pretends, however, that information mastery and data recollection constitute thinking, problem-solving, or creating – the skill sets most necessary for achievement in universities, workplaces, and the living of life.

As a matter of course, we supplement this ineffective way of teaching by mandating homework. Schools routinely assign learners often quite onerous self-study requirements. These assignments usually are mechanical, repetitive, nonanalytic, and noncreative in their design: they emphasize chores of drill and repetition. If teachers reply to the exercises assigned, they normally do so with an abstract mark and minimal comments. Few teachers would argue, none plausibly, the exercises ensure or even assist student learning that has meaning or purpose. No one will argue homework of this sort can animate and feed any person’s inborn embryonic passion for study.

Nor can our customary classroom architecture and semiotics provide these necessary stimulations. We force students to sit still in enclosed spaces for much or all of their learning day. We bolt chairs to floors or cluster them around tables, with the teacher installed in a symbolic fortress in the front of the room. We signal the beginning and announce the closing of a class period by sounding bells or claxons like we do in prisons, as if education were a regimen punitive, penal, or in some other corrective manner prescribed and inflicted. Our daughters and sons properly ought to regard learning as their joyful vocation. How can they regard the environment that confines and regulates them as either a professional or a pleasurable surround?

We tolerate another conspicuous defect in our delivery design. We no longer expect that our students will assist with sowing and harvesting. Why, then, do we operate our schools for, on average, less than 50% of the calendar year? Why do so many schools conclude the learning day at 3:30 PM or 2:30 PM, or begin it at ever later hours in the morning?

American children need far more school time than we currently provide. Many of our students swiftly forget much or most of what they seemingly learn, especially during break or holiday periods. Our most challenged students desperately require remediation, tutoring, and ongoing guidance. Our most gifted and talented students need, deserve, and would relish accelerated learning opportunities. Many of our children confront compromised or actively perilous homes, and greatly would benefit from assured persisting access to safe, protected, nurturing communal environments.

Our schools should be all-day, year-round community centers. They should be hubs of inspiration and safety where children can engage in academic study, arts, sports, arrays of salubrious extracurricular activities, and ongoing health and wellness counseling.

Nothing prevents us from modernizing and expanding our atavistic education order. Nothing except developing the resolve to do so, and allocating budgetary resources to pay for it.

The problem principally is that of resolve. We already pay for elaborate physical infrastructures that we minimally use. We already pay for a workforce that regards it as a somehow inviolable right to work considerably fewer hours per day and per year than other professionals. And we already pay momentous hidden costs to care for children whom we lose from the schooling and developmental tracks we regard as necessary and normative. In worst instances, we pay massive sums to detect, bring to trial, and incarcerate those whose alienation and neglect lead to criminality.

These are negative perspectives. Let us rejoice in the more positive viewpoint. We may be certain that all expenditures necessary to modernize our education content, design, and delivery systems would be abundantly recompensed by the social and material gains we would accomplish. How swiftly our national productivity would advance if we more fully would recognize, protect, and empower each child’s capacity for learning.

6. Outcome Assessment and Reporting
Measuring learning has not changed substantially in the United States since the advent of public schooling.

Teachers develop assessment mechanisms that in various ways attempt to quantify students’ commitment to and participation in class work, their success in particular exercises, quizzes, and cumulative tests, the results of their homework, and, in some cases, their school attendance and daily deportment.

For the most part, though, American schools still determine learning results by means of locally-generated or standardized written examinations – examinations to which, accordingly, all teachers must teach, and ever more class time must be devoted. We rely on tests no one ever has been able to demonstrate actually succeed in meaningfully calculating knowledge. Not by means or measures many honest and effective teachers will endorse. Not by criteria that in any reasonable manner reflect the lives students will conduct in their communities and cultures.

The tendency to measure comprehension and understanding by test is growing. Indeed, it rapidly is becoming federalized. This process is the more destructive because it increasingly controls the extent to which districts and schools receive finance, and the means by which individual teachers’ effectiveness is evaluated

We continue to report on individual learners’ performance by periodically delivering teacher-generated grades to parents, as if children were not responsible in any degree for their own learning or answerable in any manner to their own conscience. Almost never do we invite or require students to set their own expectations, or help evaluate their own performance. Almost never do we expect learners to establish a formal contract for their learning commitments with their parents and their schools. Almost never do we expect students to generate and present a portfolio of their education’s products, or to discuss in what manner their creations express their learning and reveal the pathways they want to develop for their awakened awareness and knowledge.

I know of no instance in which our public schools attempt to measure or report on a student’s achievements in terms of the individual’s potential. Instead, we report as if the only significant frame of reference for a person’s learning were a single, coherent, definable, monolithic “grade level expectation.”

Why do we fail to measure and report learning outcomes collaboratively with students? Why do we not even try to gauge students’ individual potential in each “subject,” and reflect upon the quality of their learning results in the terms of their inherent capability?

I think this must be because at the present moment our society does not genuinely care about individual children or their learning. Nor do we genuinely care about parents’ percepts and awareness. Our practice indicates we are concerned solely with legitimizing our education system itself: the rightness of its coverage, the rectitude of its methods, the clarity of its self-awareness, and, above all else, the totality of its authority.

Parents do not genuinely care, either. If they did, they would insist upon reform. Passive uncomplaining mothers and fathers are essential to and complicit with the education paradigm our social order inflicts upon their children.

We also must note that most students do not care, either. If they did, they would insist upon challenging and changing the education experience that in a multitude of its most important aspects disrespects and damages them. Mute submissive students are necessary to and acquiescent with the infantilization their educators impose upon them.

7. Teachers’ Qualifications and Accountability
Throughout the United States, prospective teachers are required to prepare for their employment by studying in an accredited university’s department of education. They accomplish state licensure on the basis of fulfilling a university’s program requirements, achieving a passing mark on a written qualifying examination administered by the state’s department of education, and, in some cases, by successfully completing an internship under the supervision of an experienced teacher.

Teachers theoretically are accountable for the quality of their work. Most districts delegate to the administrative leader of each school the responsibility to evaluate the quality of each teacher’s commitment and capability.

Some districts mandate that junior teachers undergo a period of senior peer mentorship and review. These evaluations often are confidential, as are the nature and results of any ongoing mentoring work that may ensue. Increasingly districts measure teachers’ effectiveness primarily by the rate at which their students achieve learning as assessed by standardized examinations. In 2010, the Houston, Texas district determined that students’ performance on standardized examination will serve as the sole criterion by which it evaluates its teachers’ merit and employability.

In many but not all districts, teachers are encouraged to continue their professional development by completing “enrichment courses” provided by university departments of education or other vendors, and by participating in conferences and workshops. The salience and usefulness of these programs rarely are assessed.

I am aware of no instance in which a district permits students or parents to contribute to their “public” schools’ assessment of teachers’ effectiveness.

Most American public schools are unionized. Teachers’ unions vigorously monitor districts’ treatment of all issues concerning licensure, assessment, and accountability.

Our prevailing qualification and accountability procedure hypothesizes that all teachers have achieved and will maintain mastery of the courses of study they provide to students, and expertise in pedagogy. Possibly this is so. It is more likely, though, that our procedure ensures ossification. Established instructors exercise exorbitant control over new colleagues who seek to enter the profession. All teachers, senior and junior in service, are thoroughly indoctrinated in and reliant upon the outmoded education schemes, content designs, delivery mechanisms, and assessment methods we have discussed, and therefore can never become a focal point of resistance to them. We have built a system that is hermetic, self-refereed, hostile to inquiry, and highly resistant to change.

8. Teachers’ Compensation and Job Security
Compensation for teachers varies widely by region. All salaries have improved in our generation. However, as costs of living in the United States inexorably increase, particularly in such chronically inflationary sectors as housing and healthcare, it is becoming ever more difficult for teachers to accomplish economic comfort. No one can build wealth by choosing to pursue this essential but undervalued profession.

Districts compensate teachers on fixed scales determined by length of service. Much debate has arisen about the desirability of creating merit pay systems for instructors who warrant recognition and reward. Teacher unions energetically have resisted this conversation. Few political leaders have dared challenge the unions’ stand. None have done so successfully.

Budget permitting, districts award annual contract renewals to all teachers who meet “average performance” standards. Districts commonly award lifetime tenure to instructors on the basis of minimal longevity achievements.

Few school principals and district superintendents have developed credible means by which substandard teachers can be responsibly identified, improved, or removed from service. No practical means short of proven moral turpitude now exist by which tenured teachers can be involuntarily retrained or retired from employment. [The New York Times recently published shocking reportage about this problem. Please see: “Progress Slow in City Goal to Fire Bad Teachers,” 23 February 2010]

Our present compensation and job security policies link all instructors’ economic self-interest to length of service rather than excellence. Renewal in employment is the sole accomplishment our public schools currently recognize and reward. The ultimate reward is the conferral of lifetime appointment, without any serious annual performance review or professional development expectations.

This situation is irrational and tragic. The essence of educating ought not to be durability of contract terms but jubilant experimentation, deliberate diversity, passionate investigation, and absolute devotion to individuality. Our public school system and its workplace organization encourage apostate energies. Even though we know our education philosophy and practice are not succeeding, we engineer for orthodoxy. We impose upon our principals and teachers, the system’s only feasible internal change agents, essentially insurmountable pressures of compliance and conformity. Indeed, we reward them exclusively for accepting and enforcing our existing, failed conventions.

Exceptions That Prove the Rule
Many education practitioners, numerous analysts, and virtually all political leaders recognize the conditions we have discussed, realize they constitute a national emergency, and share this essay’s judgment about the need to create swift and deep improvement.

Of course there exist plentiful instances of education excellence in American education. We can cite numerous examples of better-equipped, better-staffed schools that generate better results for many students than those criticized in this commentary.

However, the illustrative illustrations are exceptions. The individual schools we may reference know themselves to be out of the ordinary and remarkable. And they are restricted to districts whose population is prosperous. Throughout the United States, there invariably is a direct relationship between family affluence and relative public education quality. Too often, there is an equally direct correlation between family affluence and race.

Although we can find exceptions, and although public education in America has in many respects a proud heritage, no one responsibly can dispute how imperfect our schools now are, how rapidly conditions are deteriorating, and how dangerous this corrosion is for our children’s future prospects and our nation’s wellbeing.

The Reform Solution
The solution most reformers prefer is to perfect and universalize standardization. They believe if we confer control of education to states or, as an increasing number suggest, grant total authority to the federal government, we can regionalize or nationalize:

  • Superior teacher qualification standards
  • Enhanced curriculum
  • Better teaching practices
  • Accurate student assessment [universalizing the use of standardized tests]
  • Reliable teacher assessment [measuring whose students score well or ill on standardized tests]

 

Reformers argue we can enforce the potency of these measures by directing state and federal funding primarily to those districts and schools that achieve the highest degree of success in fulfilling the reformers’ agenda. We can do this most efficiently, it is said, by financing only those schools whose students score suitably on nationalized standard tests. Some recommend we go so far as to close schools whose students consistently fail to score appropriately.

There are many political problems that attach to this scheme of putative reform, particularly during our current era of internecine social and governmental polarity. To name but one disqualifier, we must anticipate that few American communities voluntarily will cede additional control of their schools to state or federal authority.

In my judgment, the reformers’ strategy presents a far graver problem than procuring and preserving political acceptance. I believe the strategy simply cannot work. It cannot work because:

  • Standardizing teaching never succeeds. Great teachers teach in idiosyncratic ways that are indissolubly connected to their personal sensibility. Their specific talents and tactics rarely are transferable.
  • Standardizing learning never succeeds. No matter how well or how ill a pedagogue may teach, each human being learns in a distinctive, perhaps entirely singular manner.
  • Standardized examinations never successfully measure meaningful learning. Such tests do not even purport to measure a student’s critical and creative thinking skills, power of present comprehension, or potential for future gestation.

 

I do not believe in the curative power of additional program standardization. Even if I did believe in this reform as a panacea, I would continue to feel profoundly disturbed by all the other crucial issues of content and delivery raised in this essay: the inexplicably brief length of our school day and year; the parochial and inverted nature of our content designs; the irrelevance of many of our learning programs’ preoccupations; the dysfunction and pathology of our nominal quality controls; the monotony and cruelty of many school communities and environments; our shocking indifference to inspiring each child’s learning aptitude – an aptitude that my long experience in the field has taught me is limited only by the restraints imposed upon it by adult authorities.

The Revolution Solution
Reform will not help us. I conclude public education in America requires revolution.

The specific revolution we need is choice. Let parents freely choose the approach to education they prefer for their children.

Let there be as many approaches to school education as interested practitioners can devise. Let schools clearly and candidly define their approaches. Let schools attract and retain their clientele legitimately by fulfilling expectations, or lose their clientele by failing to provide expected value.

Let this multiplicity, this free market competition, be fairly and fully funded. Let federal, state, and local jurisdictions stop extracting involuntary payments from our citizenry by assessment and directing our tax funds to so-called “public” school districts without transparency or accountability. Let there be instead a Public Education Voucher System. Let each family annually receive for each school-age child an amount of money equivalent to that which our government now allocates per child to public school districts.

This sum is startlingly large, although the dollar amount that reaches each learner for actual education contact hours is scandalously low. Let us fairly tabulate the total to which each child is entitled, and grant it to the child’s parents as a public entitlement. The total should constitute a proportionate amount of the entire publicly levied expenditure for education, including that apportioned for ill-designed, ill-maintained real estate, ill-conceived and underperforming bureaucrats, ill-advised textbooks and other supplies, school vehicles, utilities, officials’ unnecessary perquisites, etc.

Let the free market determine the varieties of education experience parents can purchase for their children with that sum. If families want to spend more than their annual allocation for exceptionally costly education experiences, let them do so. If private schools price themselves out of their market, they will flounder or fail.

Let the free market determine what should be taught, how it should be taught, and how its outcomes should be measured. In its wisdom, over time, the free market will discipline unwise, untruthful, or outlandish education philosophies and practices.

Teach creationism? Fine. Teach Nazism? Fine. Eventually, probably swiftly, parents will note that universities and workplaces do not grant access to graduates who know little, or who espouse mindless viciousness. Mothers and fathers will determine whether they want to use their voucher to enroll their child in a school that vitiates their child’s future. Parents are not dumb; and they want the best for their children.

Religious education? Why not. We are one of the world’s few nations that celebrate and formally legalize freedom of worship. Our society should cherish multiplicity in all aspects of our national life, including state-sponsored education. Again, parents in their wisdom will determine in the free market whether specific instances of religious education are or are not beneficial for their children.

Teacher certification, compensation, assessment, and job security? Let all schools decide freely whom they want to employ, how they want to evaluate their efficacy, the compensations they want to offer, and the employment securities they want to provide. Let teachers contract freely with the school whose system they prefer. For employers and faculty as well as parents, our education system can operate as it ought to: by choice, and by merit.

Current Alternatives
Some may maintain we already are moving toward this solution by authorizing charter schooling and home schooling options.

Charter schooling is a valiant and valuable experiment. But I do not foresee how charter schools can achieve or even pursue significant reform if they must win, as is presently the case, the consent and support of their sponsoring public district and teacher union. These entities, the beneficiaries of monopoly, have obtained exclusive ownership of “public” education through legal privilege, command of supply, concerted action, and consummate political sophistication. In my opinion, neither districts nor unions willingly will surrender any of these entitlements. They have too much to lose if they grant genuine emancipation to enlightened and effective charter competitors.

Home schooling is a burgeoning movement. It is fueled primarily by libertarian parents’ discontent with the public and private school options that are available in their localities.

We ought to permit home schooling, as we should allow all appropriate freedoms in our nation. I believe, though, that we should not allocate tax dollars or in the future award tax-supported vouchers to parents who exercise their freedom to educate independently. Society has an immense collective interest in communal education. It has none in wholly personalized education.

Center of Resistance: Teacher Unions
I believe a universal voucher system and open market freedom for all schools is the education revolution we require. I further believe this revolution is inevitable. The forces that will produce it are building inexorably and swiftly.

There are, though, centers of resistance. These are impassioned, empowered, articulate, and well-financed. The most vocal opponents of a national voucher and free market education system are teacher unions and the political leaders who rely upon organized labor’s support for their electoral campaigns.

In particular, unions fear and fight all threats to existing standards for teacher tenure. Their opposition usually is framed as a defense of freedom of thought and freedom of speech. Unions assert tenure is the indispensable guarantor of education’s sacred principles: the disinterested search for truth, and the sovereignty of independent, honest, apolitical, nonsectarian teaching.

Unions also claim freeing public education from its existing controls and financing parent choice with public voucher stipends would allow unqualified or unscrupulous providers to engage incompetent teachers, offer defective courses of study, report inaccurate learning outcomes, and provide unsafe facilities.

Ensuring teacher quality, teacher independence, learning integrity, and student safety are crucial values. I believe a free market education system will protect all these canonical provisions much more thoroughly than any writ of tenure, or any government bureaucratization of curriculum and assessment in a public education monopoly. Schools that choose to muzzle their faculty, discharge teachers for teaching truths, provide substandard courses, report dishonest grades, or imperil learners in perilous environments will swiftly lose their clientele. In a free market system, discontented parents will react to corrupt schools and inferior education products just as dissatisfied wealthy families do now: by transferring their child to a superior institution.

Center of Resistance: Politicians
Many political leaders maintain that a voucher system will lead parents of gifted and motivated students to withdraw their children from public schools and enroll them at public expense in privileged private academies. Left behind for the public schools, these politicians assert, will be all the children who present the greatest educational challenges: students with learning differences, substandard intelligence, psychological disturbances, indifferent homes, etc.

This argument has force. However, the present situation is a plutocracy’s solution. How does it benefit our democratic nation if only wealthy parents can choose the education program they prefer for their children? How does it assist our populist society if less wealthy parents must accept the public school that is available in their district: a school that is enabled by policy of government monopoly to collective the learning experience for all students of certain ages, regardless of their individual capability and needs; a school that may deliver uninspiring courses of study that insufficiently meet the requirements of many universities or the expectations of prospective employers; a school that may tolerate the wastage and boredom of many learners’ mind and spirit in order to convenience an intractable institutional preference for standardization?

Let us ask three other questions about our politicians’ acceptance of the status quo in our public education system.

1) How can it benefit students in the so-called “general population” who require specialized learning provisions if they do not receive them? How does it aid “special needs” learners if they are subjected to synthetic “norms” whose criteria they cannot meet; or if they are supplied with occasional teaching “specialists,” “special programs” or “streams” that provide only lip service to their complex and permanent requirements?

  • Voucher financing would enable education entrepreneurs to establish learning communities designed to deliver specialized education specifically for children with special needs.
  • Teachers committed to and qualified for special needs education would flow to these schools if they were compensated appropriately.
  • Should political leaders and the voting public determine that additional financial support is necessary to subsidize special needs education, it could be awarded by deed of grant or by increasing the qualified students’ voucher stipend as needed.

 

2) How can it benefit our nation if those students in the “general population” who possess highly developed talents, advanced learning gifts, and elevated motivation are forcibly restrained from learning at the most rapid pace they can accomplish? Do we believe America’s future will be best protected if we cultivate only the brilliance or genius potential of private schools’ most advanced pupils? Do we for some reason suppose that only the children of wealthy parents are capable of precocious and important intellection?

  • In a publicly funded free marketplace, education entrepreneurs would be induced to establish accelerated learning communities for demonstrably gifted students.
  • Teachers skilled at this type of teaching would direct themselves to these academies if they were rewarded suitably.

 

3) If our political leaders believe so fervently in the sanctity of the present public education system, why do so few of them enroll their own children in it?

Preschool Education
A rapidly growing body of research demonstrates children derive enormous benefit from receiving preschool education. Evidence is unequivocal that all children:

  • should enter preschools at the earliest possible age
  • early education teachers should be highly trained and skilled professionals
  • early education programs should provide teaching in language, mathematic, and scientific cognition as well as socialization and life skills
  • programs’ duration should be much longer than is presently conventional
  • kindergarten programs in particular should be far more academic in content than currently is the case, and should be on offer throughout a full school day.

 

I know of no one who is informed about contemporary child development research who disagrees with these conclusions.

Why is it, then, we do not provide universal preschool education? Because it is costly. We assert we cannot afford the expense.

It is an offense to reason to aver that the United States of America cannot afford universal access to preschool education. The truth is we prefer not to afford it. We prefer to invest in other goals rather than maximal welfare for our children.

This is a mindless preference, because it commits our society to constraining the productive potential of our populace. It is mindless, too, because in the long term our country will recover the expenditures needed. We abundantly will recoup every cent of our investment cost in human capital, the outlay needed to incubate and nourish our children’s invention and leadership potential, as surely as we tend to earn back our venture outlays in technology, manufacturing, and other nonhuman sectors.

Not to mention how many valuable, dignified, permanent jobs we can create for our adult workforce if we resolve that our tax funds should build and maintain infrastructure, equip and supply it, and mount a professional instructor corps to design and deliver universal early childhood education. Can taxpayers not more wisely and more enthusiastically support public payments for this purpose than, say, to purchase preposterously large bonuses for incompetent and possibly criminal banking executives? Or to underwrite unacceptable cost overruns for defense systems our military leaders declare we do not need?

This is an economic imperative. The moral obligation is even more powerful and persuasive. Our daughters and sons incontestably deserve every opportunity for intellectual, emotional, and spiritual development our government can provide. What more compelling purpose can any government imagine it has?

Preschool Education Revolution
Here again we confront a situation of opportunity that cries out for a free market solution. We most wisely can protect the value and efficiency of our taxpayers’ investment in our nation’s future if we simply grant each child in our nation who reaches a certain age – ideally, the age of 30 months – an annual Preschool Education Voucher for a certain fair sum.

Let preschool education entrepreneurs make the capital investment in infrastructure, education design, workforce, and supporting technology they believe will be most successful. Let the marketplace determine which models parents prefer to support. Let national Preschool Vouchers stimulate and sustain a host of new early education initiatives that in short order will catalyze massive systemic acceleration in the entire corpus of American elementary, secondary, and university programming and learning.

If local governments wish to provide “public” preschools to compete for voucher clientele with “private” programs, so much the better. The free market cheerfully will tolerate competition, and fulsomely will reward the most successful exemplars.

Nothing can be worse than the condition of national inertia that now applies in the early education field. Why should we tolerate a government monopoly of public education when the monopolist refuses to invest in our preschool-age children’s full learning potential; and neglects to exploit this sphere’s extraordinary immediate and future job creation impetus?

Principle and Precedent in America
Freedom is more than the absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action. Freedom also implies confident embrace of variety, range, and mixture. Our nation’s devotion to orthodoxy and homogeneity in public education has been unnecessary, expensive, destructive of many learners’ best interests, and increasingly failed by its own narrow and nonscientific criteria. Our neglect of preschool children’s developmental possibilities is shameful and indefensible.

I believe a universal Preschool Education Voucher system, K-12 Public Education Voucher system and open market freedom for all schools is a social revolution we require.

Americans have a long and venerable history of creating change despite the apparent control of our governors, and against the vested advantages of narrow interest groups in our society. Precedents in our history are ample and consistent. The record shows that when we know something is broken in our polity, we fix it.

The record also shows that no intricate process for change need be artificially organized. The American people not much longer will tolerate an unnecessary, unjust, and failed artificial government restraint against our children’s educational opportunities.

The demand for revolution and the appropriate, readily available, immediately affordable revolutionary solution – funding untrammeled parent choice in an emancipated education market – inevitably and spontaneously will arise.

What Children Need – Part 2

You fathers and you mothers
Be good to one another
Please try to raise your children right
Don’t let the darkness take ‘em
Don’t make ’em feel forsaken
Just lead them safely to the light
– Billy Joe Shaver, “Live Forever”

In my work with preschools, schools, and universities, young people of all ages tell me there are five life experiences they most need from their parents.  In the order of their importance, these are:  

  1. Meaningful Time
  2. Boundaries and Discipline
  3. Healthy Activity
  4. Spirituality
  5. Adultness

1.  Meaningful Time

Children crave dedicated time with their parents.  They yearn for regular, protracted periods of interaction in which their parents’ focus is undiluted, and their energies are wholly committed to communing substantively and intimately.

Children want their parents to talk with them, counsel them, and explore life with them. They want their parents to help them understand complexities, discover wonders, discuss hopes, dispel fears, explore horizons.  They want to talk. They want to listen. They want to share life, love, and learning. Children particularly need and benefit from family reading time, family films, family walks, family trips, and, above all else, regular family meals.

Children especially do NOT benefit from inappropriately long hours in front of a television set, electronic games, earphone isolation, or excessive hours with solitary computer play.

For many parents, finding time to build family intimacy can seem impossibly difficult. The pressures of our careers become ever more consuming. Or we may be out of work, anxious about the future, and desperately seeking employment. We may be preoccupied with multiple other concerns that seem personal, adult, and therefore primary.

Solutions must be found. Parenting must be our baseline priority. Our children need to know that we honor this commitment, embrace it as our paramount calling, and regard it as our most joyful opportunity.

Our children often will not state that they want extensive, fully engaged time with us. Many boys will not say so, and most adolescents will not. They even may object to or complain about customary and intense engagement with us. Nevertheless, they want it.

If they do not receive it, they invariably will believe they are not loved. Even worse, they almost always will conclude they are not loved because they do not deserve to be.  They will assume they are unworthy, ignoble, undesirable, defective.  And they are likely to seek approval, love, and time with those who do seem to appreciate and care for them.  Such people, peers, plausible elders, or emblems of the popular culture, may well be predatory.  They almost certainly will be undesirable shepherds for our children’s psyche and spirit, entirely unsuitable models for our children’s mentality and action.

2.  Boundaries and Discipline

Children need to know the attitudes and behaviors their parents expect of them.  They yearn to understand clearly what our boundaries and limits are, and what, therefore, theirs must become.   Children require rules.

Rules are but rhetoric unless we mean them and enforce them. Children need us to identify our principles clearly. They need us to define fully and fairly what consequences we will impose if they disrespect our expectations. If they disregard our rules, they need us consistently and justly to implement the consequences we have promised.

Many mothers and fathers believe they are parenting progressively and lovingly if they impose no limits, or few boundaries. In my experience, children never see an absence of limits or a neglect of boundaries as either broadminded or affectionate. They invariably regard untoward parental liberty as indifference and neglect. As one seemingly rebellious but in fact tenderhearted and anguished adolescent girl once told me:  “My parents don’t love me.  They don’t care about me at all.  If they did, they never would let me get away with my behavior.”

This child’s suffering and eloquence were unusual. Her judgment’s extremism was not. In my work I have learned that all children whose parents impose neither boundaries nor discipline feel themselves to be unloved. And without exception, children who believe themselves to be unloved suppose they deserve to be. They believe they are unloved because they are unattractive, defective, worthless.

The ringer? Children need their caregivers to give them systems of boundary and discipline that are harmonious and constant. Spouses, grandparents, extended family members cannot appear to be divided and subversive of one another. Binding customs and practices, and the principles that shape them, only can make an internal compass for the child and a communal governance for the family if they are universal and unequivocal.

Children of all ages and both genders regularly will experiment with their parents’ boundaries and test their parents’ discipline. This is natural and necessary. Rules only feel real when they are tried; and children only can learn how to become appropriately autonomous by exploring inappropriate autonomies.

No matter how belligerent their explorations and no matter how bellicose their protests, our children secretly will relish and feel relieved by our unwavering resolve. Our resoluteness is proof-positive that we are in charge, we care about their welfare, and we are committed to protecting them.

The alternative? Children who successfully violate their parents’ rules and abrogate their pledges of discipline have to live in a universe in which no one seems to be in charge. No one, that is, except their own utterly undeveloped selves. Unregulated children always will test their boundaries with ever-increasing ingenuity and extremity. They will press more and more outrageously, more and more dangerously. For any extreme of lawlessness and its attendant perils will seem preferable to a child than accepting a universe in which there are NO controls – and, therefore, no sense, sanity, or safety.

3.  Healthy Activity

Like all human beings, children want and need to be vigorously alive, dynamic, functioning, vivacious, operative, working, playing. They want and need to be alert, assiduous, industrious, energetic, strenuous. They want to be robust, spirited, hearty, healthy.

Children do not need to sit still before an entertainment box. They do not need to lie recumbent. They do not need to twirl knobs and twit buttons.

Nor do children need a multitude of possessions. They need – and they intensely prefer – to create competencies, develop skills, build repertoires of confident capability. They want to delight in their limbs, exult in their lungs, and revel in their musculature. They want their cheeks flushed, and their eyes blazing. They want to feel healthy and happy.

Fit active children stand erect. They stride proudly. They feel themselves to be an essential part of a universe that ebulliently lives. They don’t require incessant external amusements. They don’t require capital investment. They invent their own entertainments, and make their own community.

Parents can facilitate this crucial development by encouraging it. If necessary, they can impose it. The best way we can encourage devotion to healthy activity is to model it, and to include our daughters and sons in our own wholesome pursuits.

Family hobbies, sports, recreations are invaluable for children. Family time that fosters healthy behaviors also teaches beneficial lifelong habits and vital life skills. Family sports, hikes, bicycle rides, camping trips, boating expeditions, ice-skating, snowshoeing, outdoor cooking parties, stargazing gatherings: recreational opportunities have no limits, and confer wonderful benefits for children and adults.

Passivity and sloth, alas, also have no limits. Idleness and immobility, though, do teach habits, do form ways of thinking, and can impose lifelong impacts on health.

4.  Spirituality

Many children who talk with me and write for me speak repeatedly about a hollowness they experience in their affect and in their identity. They describe their hollowness as a vacancy that makes them feel empty, lonely, or lost and severely, if abstractly, frightened.

They define their hollowness as a lack, or a failure. They cannot discern their connection with nature. They cannot perceive their unity with the universe of living beings. They may have a sensitivity or an attachment to religious values and teachings. Yet, they cannot determine in what manner they may know, commune with, and react to the divine. If there is a divine.

In this sense of inchoate but intense anomie, our children may be reacting to broad social tendencies. They may be responding to the excessive authority of science and technology in our era, the disproportionate preeminence of rationality in our culture, the championing of cerebration at the expense of the instinctive and intuitive in our civic lives. They may be dealing with the fact that, in all public and many public schools, it has become impossible to teach character, consciousness, or creeds. They also may be observing that many modern communities are aggregated by commerce or convenience; whereas, in almost all earlier epochs, people gathered into kinship and societies because they shared faith traditions, belief doctrines, or other collective ontological determinants.

Many parents now neglect teaching their children about spiritual dimensions, feeling, and faith. This may be an outgrowth of the fact that, since the onset of the Industrial Revolution, more and more adults have lost faith in received beliefs, and have endorsed the rapid ascendance and controlling dominance of reason, science, technology, and engineering in our civilization. Many adults find it challenging or outright impossible to pass onto their children wisdom and truth about sentiment, emotion, and spirit life, for they themselves suffer from the absence of this elemental human consciousness.

Children long for spiritual life. Spirituality is inborn in our daughters and sons. It alarms them to have this primal aspect of their awareness go unrecognized in their families, their homes, their schools, and their communities. Spirituality is the essence of childhood, and it dismays and frightens our children to lose it.

Solutions for this endemically modern quandary are not easy to find. Concerned parents may want to consult and collaborate with trusted friends, religious counselors, and other spiritual teachers. At minimum, parents should welcome and involve themselves prominently in their children’s experience of the arts, life science, philosophy, and metaphysics. For children rarely will mutely accept a void in their learning. If they do not receive teaching in spirituality from their parents, they may seek guidance and training from peers, improper mentors, or the popular culture – a culture unabashedly committed to temporal concerns, materialism, consumerism, premature sexuality, and, far too often, virulent violence.

5.  Adultness

Children perforce are childish. Children’s peers are childish. Much about the contemporary culture is morally and emotionally immature.

Children love the childlike. They should love it. However, young people always tell me how deeply they need and cherish the presence of decisive, dependable adults in their lives; how they hunger for, rely upon, and are grateful to mature, confident, reliable grownups who responsibly shape, preserve, and protect their family, their minds, their actions, their existence.

This may seem an automatic provision. It is not. Many young people sense that the adults in their lives are not fully adult. Children find nothing else in their experience more terrifying.  No other circumstance or condition more unsettles and disenfranchises them. Children are wondrously resilient. But they need guardians:  fully developed grownups, who are fully devoted to parenting.

Once more let us recognize a truth absolute and eternal. Children will learn. Learning is all that children do. If our daughters and sons cannot learn from authentic adults, they will learn from immature, unwise, uncaring tutors: peers, false prophets, dishonorable gurus, malign forces.

__________

We will discuss effective parenting strategies and techniques in a series of essays entitled:  “Parenting for Happiness and Success.”

The Mandatory Mercy of Goldman Sachs

You have many contacts
Among the lumberjacks
To get you facts
When someone attacks your imagination
But nobody has any respect
Anyway they already expect you
To just give a check
To tax-deductible charity organizations
     – Bob Dylan, “Ballad of a Thin Man”
 

The horrid, big, rich scoundrel.
      – Anthony Trollope, The Way We Live Now

For months, journalists and politicians have heaped indignation upon our nation’s leading bankers for being, as we term it, “tone-deaf.”  Bafflingly ignorant about appearance, colossally indifferent to public opinion, many of our country’s financial directors have awarded themselves and their peers vast sums of shareholders’ and, it may be felt, taxpayers’ money as salary and bonus payments for contributing powerfully to the domestic and global economic collapse.  No one has displayed more ignorance of or arrogance about public reaction than the directors of our society’s most influential and successful bank, Goldman Sachs.  Nor has any other bank received more ignominy.

Goldman reserved from its earnings nearly $17 billion for compensation during the first three quarters of 2009.  The bank’s solvency was protected – was made possible – by previous taxpayer-funded government payments and loan guarantees.   Taxpayers’ outrage and politicians’ incensed criticisms evidently surprised the bank’s leaders.  Their initial responses, unapologetic, indignant, intractable, were beyond “tone-deaf.”  They were unprincipled, callous, and astonishingly incompetent.

Belatedly, damage-control specialists conceived that a public ignored and a government defied perchance might make for future political complications.  Their most recent attempt at tardy remedy?  Compulsory charity. 

On January 11, 2010, The New York Times reported:    

As it prepares to pay out big bonuses to employees, Goldman Sachs is considering expanding a program that would require executives and top managers to give a certain percentage of their earnings to charity.

The move would be the latest in a series of initiatives by Goldman to soften criticism over the size of its bonuses, which are expected to be among the largest on Wall Street, bringing average pay to about $595,000 for each employee — with far higher amounts for top performers…

While the details of the latest charity initiative are still under discussion, the firm’s executives have been looking at expanding their current charitable requirements for months and trying to understand whether such gestures would damp public anger over pay, according to a person familiar with the matter who did not want to be identified because of the delicacy of the pay issue.

Here’s a wild guess, a stab in the dark.  “Such gestures,” we assert, will not “damp public anger.”  Such gestures may well, though, intensify it. 

It’s not the case that we who abide in the realm of the public despise charity.  We revere it, and we practice it.  However, we do so in emotions of sincere concern and care.  Not to “damp” other people’s anger.  Not to dupe other persons or newspapers or our government into believing we are compassionate or generous.  Not to make any impression whatsoever, but to aid.  Without calculus, to shelter.  Without manipulative intent, to give succor.  

Mercy, which is compassion toward those who are in distress, by its nature cannot be mandatory.  Altruism, which is unselfish devotion to the welfare of others, cannot be obligatory.  Charity, which is benevolent helpfulness for the suffering, cannot be compulsory.  Certainly it cannot be an insidious artful maneuver.

Fool us with mandatory mercy?  Dupe us with obligatory altruism?  Gull us with involuntary empathy? 

Clams clinging to our coastlines have more commonsense than these guys.  But, of course, it’s not that these guys don’t get it.  They just don’t care.  Their avarice is limitless.  It’s confiscatory. 

Greed and indifference on this scale belong to a species other than the normally human.  When the American president proposes to tax this species heavily, he is pressing against the confines of the U.S. Constitution.  Yet we who inhabit the body politic are not likely to think our president has gone tone-deaf or craven when he does this.  We are likely to sing his praises, send him hosannas, and urge our elected representatives to support his indignant initiative.

What Children Need – Part 1

 – I am, a stride at a time.  [James Joyce, Ulysses]

For more than forty years, I have taught literature, history, consciousness, and writing as a senior teacher and administrator in schools and universities.  In the context of these profound and elemental fields of learning, students of all ages often have confided in me with uncommon intimacy and trust.

From my students I have learned that nothing in life is more important for human beings than our experience of parenting.  How we are parented almost always determines how we conceive of ourselves, other people, life, and the universe:  how we exist, how we seek, what we achieve, and what we accomplish.

There is no single method or formulaic means of parenting that is suitable for every parent and ideal for every child.  However, children do seem to experience several universal requirements.

What children need

Children have three fundamental and essential needs.  They need their parents to:

1.      Know their true nature

2.      Love their true nature

3.      Nurture their true nature

The child’s true nature

Children need their parents to know them for who they actually and individually are.  This sounds both simple and evident.  It is neither.

We accept that all of us have unique fingerprint whorls, retina patterns, and speech timbres.  We understand that all of us have singular DNA compositions.  We realize that every snowdrop is distinctive and matchless.  We believe in theory that every human being also is unique, singular, distinctive, and matchless.  In the lives we live, though, we often find it impossible to apply this belief to our children.

Instead, parents vision their children.  Many parents attempt to program their children.  Consciously and unconsciously, we hope and expect – in many cases, we require – that our children will evolve into people who will fulfill our preexisting ideas about them.  Frequently these ideas express one or more paradigmatic but hidden aspects of our negative egotism:

  • Our dreams about ourselves.  We want our children to be the person we wish we had become.
  • Our parents’ dreams about ourselves.  We want our children to fulfill our parents’ expectations about us.  We ask our children to remedy our inability to fulfill our parents’ often unreasonable hopes and requirements.  We require our children to accomplish the inevitably incomplete missions of our childhood.
  • Our ideals about our identity in society.  We want our children to reflect to the world our normalcy, rectitude, and consequence.  We demand our children demonstrate by their commitments, manner, and achievements that we are correct, worthy, responsible, good adults.

We rarely consciously apprehend when we surrender to any of these subliminal impulses.  No doubt we always leaven our irrational and unfair impulses with authentic love.  However, our children invariably discern, fear, and resent our unconscious contortions.  And in their fright and anger about the manipulations we unknowingly impose upon them, they often cannot detect the true love that shapes and informs our behaviors.

What do children do with their frustrations?

How do children express their frustrations with our parenting?

Often they don’t know that they do feel frustrated.  Children rarely understand themselves any better than we parents understand ourselves.

In any event, it might not matter if children could fully comprehend their wish not fulfill our subliminal agendas.  Children rarely can advocate for themselves, and they almost never can acquire advocacy from society.  Society is primarily organized by and for adults.

In time, though, all children discover that they do have abundant power.  Primal, prepotent power.  Later we will talk much more about children’s reluctant discovery and complex, uneager exercise of their unique authority.

The sad struggle

We who parent continuously struggle to impose our unconscious preconceptions and our seemingly all-powerful will upon our children.  But over the course of their developmental years, our children invariably find ways to demonstrate and eventually to embody their inherent character and true constitution.  In every element and aspect of their existence, they express their sensibility and enact their personality.  They display their likes, tastes, wants, and talents.  They indicate their dislikes, disinterests, and disinclinations – the sum of which conveys not necessarily their weaknesses, but rather their own preferences and potential life directions.

All children expect that the parents who birthed them will know them, and will rejoice in their inborn nature.  They expect we will hear them, see them, and revel in their unadulterated actuality.  Not prefer them to be different from who they actively are.  Not require them to fulfill mandates external to their spirit and psyche.  Not oblige them to develop interests and talents they lack.  Not hector and hound them to become replicas of other, somehow more desirable children.  Not yearn or insist that they be thinner, taller, prettier, more handsome, more graceful, smarter, more practical, more spiritual, more this, more that.

Every daughter and every son’s most urgent life need is to become known, accepted, and cherished by other people:  particularly and principally by their own parents.  At one or another level of awareness, every child thinks, always:  I reveal my spirit and my soul to you so clearly.  Please see me, hear me, know me.  Please love me:  “As I am.  As I am.  All, or not at all.” [These lines are spoken by Stephen Dedalus in James Joyce’s novel, Ulysses.]

Nurturing nature

If we can recognize and love our children’s intrinsic character and consciousness, we can devote our parenting to fostering all the passion, confidence, capability, and creativity with which life or The Divine has gifted them.  We can help them build their own pathways of power.  We can help them incubate, protect, and limitlessly expand their sacred infinite potential for happiness and success.

This is not an easy role, for we often cannot help but respond to our own fierce subliminal drives:  our need to fulfill our parents’ imperatives, our mandate to be perceived in our community and culture as adequate and correct adults, our yearning that our child will evolve into the person we hoped to become.

Our task – this should be a joyful mission – also is challenging because our children may well be different from ourselves.  Radically different.  Am I by birth, predilection, and choice mathematically inclined?  Devoted to and gifted at intellection, cerebration, calculus, the numeric?  What if my daughter in her mind and soul is an intuitive?  What if she possesses the faculty of attaining to direct cognition and knowledge without evident rational thought and inference?  What if she’s an ecstatic, and doesn’t thrill at all to the discipline of numbers and their operations, interrelations, combinations, generalizations, and abstractions, the science of space configurations and their structure, measurement, transformations, and generalizations?  It may be that  my daughter, unlike me, was birthed to become a poet.  Perhaps a savant.  A healer.  My opposite, yet not apostate.  My opposite, but not my opponent.

Our children need from us precisely what we needed from our parents, and most likely did not completely receive.  Our children need us to perceive, treasure, and nourish their genuine essence and identity.  They need us to help that flourish.  Not fear it.  Not dread it.  Not prefer something else to it.  Not improve it.

The social imperative

We want our children to understand, embrace, and develop their full inborn potential.  However, we also want them to comprehend, move fluidly within, and ideally exercise effective and just leadership upon their social and civic surround.  We need them to establish what we have sought to establish:  a suitable balance between their innate sensibility and the civilization that houses their individuality and enables its power.

This is the ultimate project of our children’s selfhood and our parenting:  how to create a middle path between the extremism of unfettered personality and overly intolerant conformism.

__________

We continue this conversation in an essay entitled:  “What children need – 2.”

U.S. Relief Command

The recent events in Haiti demonstrate that the United States must develop a new Military Relief Command. 

The U.S. Relief Command should be modeled on the Marine Corps:  an essentially autonomous, highly trained, pre-equipped rapid response body that swiftly can deliver and operate anywhere in the world:

  • Emergency food, water, shelter, and sanitation supplies
  • Earth-moving equipment
  • Comprehensive emergency and long-term medical care capabilities
  • Emergency and long-term telecommunications services
  • Temporary and long-term government functionality
  • Security for populace and relief workers

The Command should be led by a General George S. Patton of relief. A formidable, indefatigable, entrepreneurial, universally admired and deservedly feared problem-solver with a history of pre-eminent effectiveness in armed services leadership.  A person who will place the urgent humane aid objective before all other goals, constituencies, and practicalities.  A person who enjoys, and who is known to enjoy, the complete confidence of the President of the United States. 

The Command should control its own air, naval, and land transportation assets, its own supply depots, and its own telecommunications systems. These may well be comprised of existing military resources outmoded for modern combat, but well-suited for domestic and worldwide relief needs.

The Command should have at its disposal and be able swiftly to transport, house, feed, and equip a National Reserve of trained human services volunteers who are willing to be called to duty as needed.  

The Command should report directly to the Secretary of Defense, and be deployed at the order of the President. 

By Act of Congress, the Command should have the authority, subject to approval by the President, to impose military controls as needed over domestic and international jurisdictions.  For example, the Command should be able to exercise control over air, seaport, rail, and highway traffic in areas affected by disaster.

Lead From The Heart

“Which way am I heading?

President Obama is a brilliant man, but he delivered a banal State of the Union address last week.  It was a speech shrouded in shrill anger, tedious sloganeering, tendentious posturing.  It was a performance rooted in ritualistic tilts, nods, bobs, weaves.  Our president sounded tired, and looked defeated.  In a Victorian novel, it would be said that he was bilious. 

His audience was worse.  Democrats rising and clamoring with every invocation of 50-year-old clichés.  Republicans refusing to rise, staring grimly at cameras or primly at one another.  Everywhere, for nearly 90 minutes, we beheld every conceivable tepid symbol, emblem, talisman, and totem of old paradigm Capital consciousness.  It looked as it is:  devoid of higher truth, empty and inane, and consciously malignant. 

Our nation and society confront enormous problems.  Some are ancient, but many are entirely new.  All are immensely complex, and all are imposing immense injury upon multitudes of individuals, our body politic, and the planet we share. 

Our lawmakers, jurists, military officers, and chief executive sat, stood, sat again, in their mausoleum, clasped in soporific cadences, trapped in morose meaningless jingoisms, locked in scarcely concealed platitudes.  The hundreds of persons preening in that marble chamber style and name themselves leaders.  However, not one living soul in that audience, and certainly not our president who nominally addressed them, manifested any substantial awareness of the true State of the Union.  Nor did one living soul appear authentically to care.

We expect little, maybe nothing, of Senators or Representatives.  But we do count on much from our senior uniformed officers and our senior jurists, whom we want and need to believe are men and women of honor, keen intelligence, and genuinely patriotic selflessness.  We surely expect and need much from President Obama.  Not for four decades have the American people felt so much excited hope for the presidency, and for the president himself.  Agree with him or disagree with him, President Obama has seemed to a large majority of American people and a massive majority of international citizens to be a genius of politics, an intellectual of major importance, and a spiritual presence of the greatest significance.  To a great many people at home and abroad, President Obama has seemed to be a noble human being.  It was for this reason that the American electorate elevated to power.

The broad perception of our president’s distinctness and distinction has not emerged by accident.  President Obama campaigned magnificently for election.  He deployed his extraordinary talents to this purpose, and he did so with unprecedented effectiveness.  He presented himself splendidly as the being whom the world has come to believe he actually is:  a man of the highest intellect and most decent, righteous spirit who acts from his lovely heart.

Where is President Obama’s mind these days?  In what does he believe?  What are his ideals?  What does he seek?  A kaleidoscope of least common denominators, parsed in secret through heinous compromises with ward bosses, venal interest groups, and their wee minions? 

This potentially very great leader was elected to end now a tragic and terrible national tendency toward reductiveness and violence in our foreign policy.  He was elected to end now mindless class conflict and parochial sectarian quarrelsomeness in our domestic affairs.  He was elected to dialogue and discourse with us all on the most elevated plane of reasoned passion.

Yet, two disgraceful wars continue.  The war in Iraq is utterly mindless, and always has been.  The war in Afghanistan is neither sustainable nor winnable.  The cost of these horrid, unnecessary, and unjustifiable battles in lives, welfare, and national treasure is disastrous and heartrending.  And a new war in Yemen is undeclared, and is rapidly spawning. 

Domestic political affairs remain paralyzed in provincial polarity.  Angry unfelt prating passes for dialogue and discourse.  Selfish careless extremism masquerades as thought.  Implacable biases and loud orations impersonate as actions. 

Our economic woes, awful as these are, are but epidermal.  Our nation and many of our people are spiraling into ever more perilous states of confusion, emptiness, and anger.

Where is our president, who believed himself to be and who genuinely was the leader for our times?  And what union was he describing last week?  What state did he believe he was naming, and what conditions did he imagine he was healing?  “It’s not my fault” is a locution that belongs to adolescents.  Tossing imaginary sums of money aloft into the ether is a tactic that belongs to demagogues and miscreants.  Reading a committee’s clichés and inanities from a visible teleprompter is the error of incompetents. 

What has gone wrong? 

Our president has become captured.  He has become incarcerated by his deputies.  He poignantly if subconsciously signaled his awareness of this predicament when, after his speech, as he passed slowly through a throng of acolytes, the network microphones picked up his sad question to the Senate and House ushers:  “Which way am I heading?

A great leader surrounds himself with advisors of exceptional ability and experience.  He listens to them.  He savors learned astuteness.  But he does not yield his essence.  He does not cede his spirit, core, soul, and true meaning.  He remembers, always and deeply, that he and he alone was elected to leadership by the entire nation in its peopled wisdom.  

A great leader seeks mentors.  He convenes counselors, he hears them, and he esteems them.  Then he takes himself away for a swim, a walk, basketball, Camp David, am entirely private congress with his sensate self.  He thanks his head very much, adjourns it, and turns to his heart. 

A great leader knows his heart to be his compass tried and true.  He knows his heart’s voice, as no one else does.  He listens, ultimately and finally, to this voice alone.  He hears in its teachings his counselor supreme.  He sees in its teachings his highest truth and his most correct pathways.  He articulates the truths and pathways of his heart to his deputies, and to his fellow-citizens.  And he, they, and we joyfully join minds and souls and follow – into the desert, to the moon, across impossibly yawning crevices and chasms, straight through the most daunting obstacles, clear around and beyond even the most onerous challenges.

President Barack Obama is a person of rare and wonderful brilliance.  He was born to lead himself and our nation well beyond norms now ossified, far above worn destructive paradigms now prevailing.  He has had only one year in presidency, and he visibly has learned much.  He will find his way.

This may be the redeeming gift of his purely terrible first State of the Union address to the Congress and the American people.  Our president’s eyes and his body language expressed palpable anger and marked impatience with himself.  He knows what has gone wrong.  He surely will discover how to relocate his heart, and how to heed it.  This man is a very quick study, and he leads from his heart.

He had best hurry.  The State of the Union is severely imperiled.

Ecole Haiti

 

The terrible tragedy in Haiti cannot be accepted, and it cannot be redeemed. 

The only use the tragedy can have, the only gift it can confer, will be if the calamity leads to fundamental change in the people’s consciousness, capability, and control of their nation.  This can only occur only from upon a platform of universal, locally supported, locally meaningful education.

This site is written by an experienced educator with many trusted friends in key professional fields.  We will use the gifts and experience we have been given in life to create Ecole Haiti.

Ecole Haiti will have many branches, linked to orphanages that own student-developed and student-maintained farms and fisheries.  

In the beginning, there will be no traditional western grade levels or curriculum.  Everyone will live together, study together, work together, and advance together. 

Students will study only what most matters for Haiti’s circumstances and needs.  Initially, remedial literacy in English and French/Creole, foundational mathematics, science principles linked to health, wellness, agronomy, husbandry, and fishery, and essential life skills.  As learners advance in confidence and capability, emphasis will be placed on advanced language, mathematics, science, and history; leadership in community-building and nation-building; business and other life skills; and university readiness.  At all stages, learners will study Haitian heritage, culture, and faith traditions.

Ecole Haiti will operate on an all-year basis.  At the end of the instructional day, students and staff will maintain the school’s farm and fishery.  The yield will feed the community.  Excess production will be sold.  

The schools will operate with minimal equipment in inexpensive, earthquake-safe, easily maintained tents with locally managed electric and septic resources.   

Students will pay no fees.  All staff will be volunteers who will receive compensation only if the school’s finances eventually permit.  Retired international teachers and other retired or active professionals will be welcomed as faculty.

There will be no capital drive plan, although successful athletes and entertainers from Haiti will be encouraged to help.  The Divine will provide.   

A detailed plan design follows in PowerPoint format.

Ecole Haiti.ppt

Signs of the Times

Carlyle-seated 

– There is still a real magic in the action and reaction of minds on one another.  [Thomas Carlyle] 

 

In 1829, a young man from Scotland published an essay entitled Signs of the Times.  Carlyle was unknown, and seemingly ill-equipped for consequence or celebrity.  Yet the essay seemed to all who read it utterly original, acutely prescient, and powerfully persuasive, and it launched a career in authorship of the utmost significance.  Carlyle went on to write numerous essays, biographies, and volumes that strikingly analyzed and influentially criticized the culture and society in which he lived.

1829 was an important year in England and Europe.  A lengthy era of rural, agronomic civilization was changing precipitously.  Opinions and beliefs that had seemed fixed certainties and were almost universally shared became broadly challenged.  Profound changes in science and technology fostered and fueled stunningly swift changes in the ways in which multitudes of people gained their living, organized their lives, and conducted their experience.  The basis of human existence began to shift from farming in village, estate, and family constructs to working for hire in impersonal, often inhumane factories and cities.  Stratification and conflict replaced previously prevailing systems of seemingly synergistic cooperation.

The preeminent constant in human life was becoming change itself.  The preeminent value was becoming personal gain, measured principally in cash money.  Previous ideas and imaginations about coherence, community, and holism were fracturing.  Beliefs about and communions with God were becoming far more questioned than most individuals could comprehend or readily countenance.  Philosophies about and comfort with society and government were becoming rooted in angry or aggrieved consciousness of economic class, rather than a common awareness of pleased citizenship.  On every front, ideas and ideals seemed under siege, altering, vanishing.

For some, this made a condition for excitement, hope, and confidence.  Perhaps, the optimists believed, human beings now had it in their power radically to improve their existence.  For others, the evolution into the industrial age produced suffering, woe, hopelessness.

Carlyle was one of the first thinkers to recognize and react to the phenomena of change that were transfiguring the polities and psyches of his age.  His generation of contemporaries passionately respected his brilliant analyses of and fervent replies to the transformational changes in human experience and sensibility that characterized his times.

 __________

We inhabit a similar moment in history.  We,too, are living during an era in which a multitude of changes, all mighty, none minor, are altering profoundly the fundaments of human identity and the terms of our existence.  Science and technology have discovered more during our generation than, arguably, all previous peoples ever have learned.   Since 1989, the geopolitical and economic architectures of the world have changed almost entirely.  The mechanisms, modes, and imprint of communication have become revolutionized.  Throughout much of the world, demographics are altering rapidly.  Politics and their poetics are shifting swiftly and unpredictably, with sweeping import.  Many people’s viewpoints and values are undergoing momentous modifications.  Individual and group behaviors are enduring historic adjustment – perhaps actual mutation.  Substantial, seemingly intractable conflicts are appearing among multiple social groups within individual nations and across crucial cultures. Most informed scientists believe our species’ attitudes and behaviors are changing, potentially irreversibly, the nature of nature.  We may well have imperiled the planet that houses and nurtures us.

For some, as during the age of Carlyle, this topos of extraordinary change makes a condition for excitement, hope, discovery, and creation.  For others, the contemporary era is producing disturbance, dislocation, economic and emotional distress.  For a vast, largely inarticulate mass of the earth’s population our times are generating despair.

__________

For all peoples who ever have lived, reasoned conversation among persons of good mind and good always has been important, lively, and lovely.  In eras such as Carlyle’s and our own, reasoned conversation is essential to our power to understand our conditions, and vital to our ability to choose courses of thought, principle, and action in response to them.

This essay is a greeting, and an invitation.  Let those who feel interest in the spirit of our age talk together about the signs of our time and their meanings.  Let us laud what we find praiseworthy in our age.  Let us object gently to processes and products we find dangerous to our dignity and damaging to our happiness.  Let us create means to resist and refute the broad and powerful tendency of our times to isolate and alienate.  Let us embrace our unparalleled opportunities to speak with one another across the reaches of space, time, culture, and generation about our shared humanity, our fondest hopes, and our highest aspirations.

__________

This is the first of a series of ongoing observations and reflections that I will publish about the signs of our times.  I will organize these essays around such key subjects in contemporary life as:

  • Health & human welfare in the modernist era
  • Education & learning in the age of science & technology
  • Parenting in the 21st century
  • Economics & geopolitics:  thought, policy, & judgment across cultures
  • Celebrations of transformative leaders & works in the modernist civilization

I’ve chosen this means of publishing because, in common with so many other paradigms that once seemed absolute, inevitable, even idyllic, we now know that traditional print, television, and radio media are severely compromised and increasingly inaccessible.  The instrument by which we here may speak with one another is owned by no one, is open to all, and need satisfy no imperatives other than candidness, clarity, generosity of spirit, and hunger for truth.