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Mid-January 2017 - Education in America

About ten years ago, I chanced upon a magazine article that opined to college graduates, “Go forth and forget everything that you have learned here.”

I chuckled. Education in the ivory tower is indeed a far cry from education in life. How does one separate the two? Should one separate the two? Why are the two so separate nowadays? Was it always that way?

During the razor’s edge that constituted my high school education, I was informed by one elitist classmate (of many) that I always “seemed” to have been able to learn something outside the classroom. I don’t recall my gratitude being hearty then; it is now. Looking back, I see with clarity the things that looked so darn fuzzy at the time. But I was busy, getting ahead in spite of the spoiled brats. It was one of the major commonalities between adolescent me and at least half a dozen of my teachers.

Perhaps that ambiguity about life is the problem that so many pre-adults face in the modern world of “education”. There is a concerted effort by the educrats to prevent the students from finding out too much about what is really going on in the classroom or on campus.

Many college students spend an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out how to maneuver from one course to another within the latest catalogue and its sets of curriculum requirements. It’s quite a paper chase for diplomas! By comparison with the extraordinary effort to flow with the flow chart of mandatory units, prerequisites, requisites, cancelled classes, substituted classes and waiting lists for classes, the actual course content is a breeze to navigate!

Currently, all that is required by any American college from the student is a normal pulse rate and, from the parent, an active credit card that won’t be maxed out for the ever-increasing tuition. If cold hard cash can’t be extorted for promises that can’t be kept, then there is the Student Loan, the slippery slope of crushing debt that mortgages the future of all involved, except for the ones at the receiving end of the transaction: the college. The ivory tower is a business, and a dirty one at that!

For the students, there are basically two paths in College Town. One path is the path of frustration. It is littered with the students who do not have a clue why they are there, except their parents expect it of them. Their transcripts look like crazy quilts. They transfer from one class to another, from one major to another, from one college to another, and from one degree to another. These young adults ought to be in technical or trade schools, not handed the fear-soaked statement (warning): “Go to college and make something of yourself.”

These young adults typically end up working in low-paying retail jobs that are reminders of their lost years, years when they were steered into the wrong direction by people who gave them wrong-headed advice out of fear, the fear that unless they went to college, they would become failures. It is a shameful message for anyone, but especially for Americans because universities, by and large, are not what made this nation great.

The other path of this learning curve on campus leads toward fulfillment. It is trod, and doggedly so, by the students who know exactly why they are there and why they want to get that piece of paper and get out of the infernal ivory tower ASAP. They know what they need to learn to become keenly competitive in their chosen professions; and they know that the college (or university) is not really offering it to them: qualified instructors, quality books, course content that compels the gray cells to cogitate.

Those achiever-students also deserve awards for achievement and for academic excellence, as well as for accomplishing the survival course that is, indeed and in deed, getting the degree. There is, of course, the Dean’s List, but that single honor gets inundated amidst the paper flood of degrees handed out on Graduation Day like gift certificates for Christmas. Department Heads double as Santa Claus; the parents get to play Scrooge if they dare to ask questions that educrats do not want to answer, questions that they prefer no one asks.

When my son was at university, he got a Dean’s List certificate for each semester. I told him to save them in a manila file folder and then, at the end of five years, trade them in for a diploma. He did; and the graduation ceremony for the diploma was turned by the whining administrators into rude requests for more money, more handouts, more donations. In short, the graduation became a fund-raiser. I was tempted to take those pieces of paper and demand my money back but, alas, those papers did not belong to me. My son had earned them, each and every one.

The Awards Ceremony farce begins early, in grammar school. The farce is also a fraud, one that indirectly or even directly teaches children that it is okay to cheat; the adults/authorities are okay with it! I have seen physical fitness awards given to 4th graders who were not physically fit; and I have witnessed tampering with writing assignments so that students could “pass.”

The awards for excellence that were once received in “elementary” and high schools have become viewed by educrats as unfair to the children who are not as excellent. In reality, or really, the leveling impulse (compulsion) among the fairness fascists has lowered everything. The children who learn from books become frustrated with the rote nature, predictable p.c. content and the bland stupidity of the textbooks, and with the subsequent suppression of their intellectual skills. The children who do not learn from books become “lost” because the “educational system” ignores their innate technical skills. Woe to the young person who wants to make things other than trouble. He will surely be ignored!

Not everyone learns from a book. The most informative, enduring and meaningful education, in life or elsewhere, does not come from any book. It might be an odd comment for a writer to make, but maybe not. I was born to be a writer but I come from a long line of pragmatic artisans, farmers and tradesmen. I consider my work to be that of an artisan more than an artist: I like to work with my hands.

Alongside the battery of aptitude tests “preparing” me for high school were the aptitude experts analyzing them. The Guidance Counselor to whom I was assigned asked me what I wanted to do. I wisely did not entrust him with my heart’s desire to become a writer. I truthfully declared: “I like to work with my hands.” He then herded me into Typing Class.

Extraordinarily excelling in that blue-collar skill, even though I’d been funneled into the College Prep group (“track system”) did not endear me to the Business Students. As a non-business major, I got to learn typing on a manual Royal typewriter; the business students used the electric models. My WPM was still faster than theirs, with fewer errors. I’ve got strong hands! And excellent sitting posture! (“Start with your hands on the home row keys!” I can still hear that ticking time bomb of a timer clock as it got grimly wound by Typing Teacher.)

Of course, being a technically skilled broad with a brain and a future full-merit-scholarship student from the poor side of the poorest town did not exactly make me popular among the kids from the wealthy town in this regional high school. I was supposed to marginally compete with them but not win! After all, the deck was stacked in their favor, what with the Board of Education being composed mainly of their parents. I learned early in life about the underbelly of universities from the formalized but nonetheless filthy and flagrant favoritism of that high school administration.

The fact that the children of those parents expected the deck stacked in their favor did not do them any favors in life; they persisted throughout their adult lives to expect the same tilting of the board(s) in their favors. And when that preferential treatment did not occur, something was clearly wrong with The World.

The teen-aged snob who made the comment about my seemingly having learned something outside the classroom also complained mightily that she was not getting any financial aid for college (the early form of the student loan sump pump of today) because her parents owned a vacation home at The Lake and a boat for The Lake.

I was but an orphan making all my decisions on my own. I suggested that her parents sell the boat. This minister’s daughter did not respond with what I would call brotherly or even sisterly love.

Those adolescent students were from the nouveau-riche upper middle class. They would be sent by their parents to elite universities and they would “grow up” to be adult elites. I was from the upper lower class (to be part of the middle class in America, one must own property and renting space on this earth was the fate of my family of origin). I chose to attend an elite university where I would not fit in, located in a city where I could not fit in. By that point of my life, not fitting in felt normal. I suppose it still does.

My roots are working class, my tree trunk artisan, and my branches aspire to « Il n'y a pas de limites. » : the Sky is the Limit. I was hybrid before hybrid was cool!

At this regional high school, I also excelled in the Industrial Arts class called Materials and Design. The guys in “shop class” were good-natured about my injecting some artistic conceptions into a room full of buzzing table saws and whirring power tools. I can still recall the sweet soothing scent of sawdust. I learned many invaluable lessons during those two semesters. And I learned by the time I was seventeen that art is fundamentally technical.

Those days of technically training young minds and young hands to make things: to work, truly work, for a living — those days are long gone in the school-land of the free and the stressed-out home of the brave. Modern American “education” sorely lacks any development, cultivation or even acknowledgement of the trades and technical skills among the young or even the old, and we might as well toss in every age group in between the two “demographics” or categories.

The availability in America of trade schools for plumbers, welders, carpenters, auto mechanics, artisans, artists and designers of all kinds — in short, for people to learn how to make things with their hands — that wealth of opportunity has been lost, along with the truth that working with your hands is a fundamentally ennobling activity, a deed that enriches the heart, mind and soul.

Working with your hands has been replaced, at great expense on many levels, by a several-decades-long obsession with “higher education" for everyone. The results are not pretty.

Overall, the fundamental function of colleges and universities in the States is extended daycare. Hiding from real life in the ivory tower is disguised as progressing in a chosen major or field. The result is adult children who are more child than adult. In my antiquated time, college forced an adolescent person to grow up. Nowadays, it delays personal maturation, sometimes to a point of painful embarrassment and infuriating, even insulting, absurdity for parents and offspring.

This politically-profitable idea that every child must go to a college has turned many colleges and universities into paper mills. One must now obtain a Master’s degree to possess (with inflated costs) the equivalent of what once was a B.A. But don’t go for the PhD (even if the parents can manage to afford it) because you will be pricing yourself out of whatever job might exist in your profession!

Grade inflation has become diploma dilution. As for the professors, narcissism is the key requirement! The professors at the lower end of the education food chain (community colleges) are, for the most part, the humble, grateful ones, yearning to give of their knowledge, their time, their talents to fresh young minds. The higher up one goes in the university food chain, the more insolent and uppity the professor and the more fresh (as in impudent, brazen, rude and disrespectful) are both students and teachers.

Part of the problem in American education begins with the textbook: they’ve become mass marketed; ergo the current state of the strait-jacketed academic mind. Books rule! It may be yet another odd statement for a writer to make but the point is not the book; it’s what’s in it. Have you taken a look at what passes for a textbook lately? Have you experienced the sticker shock? Buyer’s remorse must morally ensue.

The concept of defining who you are first and then proceeding to develop yourself as a mature person through education, followed by work that you are suited for — it’s such a quaint notion. The herd effect in education has produced masses of students following each other, round and round in circles, on campus and elsewhere, looking for the “right” degree to get the “right” job: The Job.

Life will then be a Disney animated film with no fears or foibles, just a steady sense of being safe and okay and secure: no stress among the huddled “educated” masses! No stout individuals or lone decision-making either among these American collegians. They are so risk-averse that it is almost painful for me to observe them. I’ve been called a high-stakes person but I wager with caution. These course-takers do not even wager, except to pool their bets!

This group-think dominates classrooms, starting in kindergarten. Well, no, it starts in pre-school, which is actually day-care or, as the Brits call it, child-minders, a delicious term that comes second only to their spot-on term for “news anchors” — news readers.

In my home-schooling-mom opinion, the advent of classroom-groups to solve math problems was the first step toward this herd mentality mess. I can think of no other mental activity that requires more individualized thought and solitary decision-making than an arithmetic problem. A child builds confidence that way! Trial-and-error! You know, you come up with the wrong answer and you learn how to fix it! The process kinda repeats itself through life! The path that math (“arithmetic”) has taken from an individual mental process to group-think is exponential in its awfulness.

My first baby step toward the freedom of home-schooling was the Whole Language debacle in the zoo-like 1st grade classroom of my firstborn, my son. You see, I volunteered to assist with teaching reading. When my son first came home from public school and told me that he was getting headaches from being in his classroom, I’d concluded that he was overly sensitive to external stimuli. Twenty minutes in that classroom and I had a headache too!

I will give the dear and devoted instructor immense credit for her courage in attempting to deal with the failed Whole Language “approach” peddled to the educrats by the consultant “experts.” This savvy veteran teacher devised a Closed-Door-Method. She closed the door to the classroom. We then daringly and covertly taught . . . Phonics!

The surreptitious nature of our clandestine deeds would help me, fifteen years later, to create the proper ambiance for my war novel, THE DAWN. In spite of her guarded and valiant efforts and mine, however, we were found out! Some parents ratted on us. The Administration, no ally of teacher, parent, or child, intervened to put a halt to our subversive activity.

This wonderful primary-school teacher then had to endure an organized assault on her professional life. She was a non-CTA teacher, meaning she had refused to join the California Teachers Association, the politicized blob that has killed off learning in this state. There was a concerted effort to have this woman fired, and I’d like to think that I helped her to escape a fate that the incompetent union - “teachers” would never experience — being fired, no matter how egregious or indecent their behavior.

This woman requested that I write a “letter of recommendation” for her Professional File. I did so, and the impotent-powers-that-were that backed off from this veteran of 20 years of teaching in California public schools. “Ashley” was still stealing all the manipulatives, the Gummy Bears, from teacher’s desk, but I’ve a hunch the manipulative Ashley moved on to other forms of crimes against decency.

Phonics would become slated for a future home-schooling activity because two years later I realized that my son, at the age of eight, was basically unable to read. Like many of his classmates, he’d been memorizing the politically-correct reading textbooks and repeating them verbatim.

My moment of awakening came when I asked my son to read the headline of a newspaper and he could not. Whether he would want to read a headline or not was immaterial; he could not do it. By that point in his very young life, his “reading, writing, and arithmetic” were all deplorable.

It was the 1990s and the California school system was flush, very flush with taxpayers’ money. California schools have never been known for their academic achievement or excellence but lack of money had always been used as the excuse. There now was no shortage of funds, but there was a ton of failure on the part of the school system. It was failing my child, along with all the other children. I was furious; most of the other parents were not. I placed my son in a private school for a year of remedial education. Mother and Son learned that the ills and evils of public school had infected in an even more noxious form this parochial school.

Back to the government school we went. There I experienced the next-to-the-last straw that broke the government camel’s back: Rain Forest Math.

Watching the very popular wonder-wizard teacher, the globe-trotting young e-school graduate, the pally with the cool backpack, the joker with the advanced degree who, like all his other cohorts, advocate groups and use groups to advocate, watching that elitist dolt in front of the 5th grade classroom, herding the kiddies into groups of six to calculate Rain Forest Math — that observation was my next-to-the-last-step toward taking my child out of the public classroom and into the world of learning, otherwise known as real-life education.

The final straw, the last step was my realization of the abject teaching skills, overall blatant ignorance and pompous attitudes, and the highly unprofessional, rudely political messages (verbal, written, snide and implied) of not only this 5th grade teacher, but of the majority of government grammar school teachers that I encountered in the 1990s. The Friday “newsletter” of one teacher was replete with misspellings, grammatical errors and poor sentence structure amidst the politically correct propaganda. This 5th grade teacher was merely the latest example of educational non-excellence.

I found it all too symbolic of this supercilious hack when he blithely pronounced a certain type of pronoun, demonstrative, like a variant of “demonstration”, as in protest. I politely informed this teacher that the correct pronunciation of this type of pronoun is de-mon-strah-tive. He was mildly amused.

This fully certified and credentialed California public school teacher still insisted that Central America is its own continent. I guess when you live in your own deluded world, anything is possible. When pointedly asked by myself and by several other school-moms why he was not teaching grammar and punctuation, this public employee told us, the people paying his freight, that he could not possibly have the time to teach such an extraneous subject as writing.

“They’ll pick it up from reading.”

Yes, it hit the fan that day. My son and I became home-schoolers.

If you think that I was finished with government schools, think again. My daughter was in the 1st grade of the same spanking-brand new school (complete with kitchens for kindergarteners). Her teacher was a retired commercial passenger airline pilot and he was excellent not only in teaching every subject, including phonics, but in welcoming parents into the classroom to engage in the primary parental responsibility of inculcating their offspring with virtues and manners and “the Basics,” another educrat fundraising ruse of that era. (The Crock-pots of the 1970s evolved to Crocks of the 1990s and they have now all gone to, or returned to, their beloved pot.)

Two weeks after I removed my son from his 5th grade class at this government school, I returned to the front office of this school to sign in as a “visitor” with my son to volunteer in the 1st-grade classroom of my daughter. I assisted her highly professional teacher, someone without the e-school degree, with math & science. My home-schooled son joined in the classroom activities as part of his “socialization” (community service & volunteerism), a developmental process that the California educrats deem so vital in the creation of their Socialist Citizen (protoplasm) of the Future.

That year of my initiation into the free-thinking world of home-schooling was 1997. My friends and colleagues were very concerned that my technical writing work and fiction-writing career were being “set aside” so that I could home-school my child. I had already been teaching each night to my son the lessons not correctly taught or not even attempted in the classroom. This choice was the next logical step along a path that I’d already been travelling. And that path was very unknown to me, but the daunting prospect of plowing that unknown furrow was part of what told me it was the right decision for me, for my children, for my family.

I stated: “If my son is unable to read any book that I write, then what’s it all worth? I would have failed as a writer, a mother, a person.” Whether my son would want to read any book I write is another matter, but he ought to at least have the ability to read and the freedom of choice about what to read.

And it is the utter lack of freedom of choice among parents and children, combined with the execrable excess of willful and arrogant ignorance among teachers and educrats, along with their snooty disregard for essential teaching skills, that define the current state of education in America. The plight of education mirrors the plight of medicine: the bureaucracies, politicians, “special interests” and lawyers control the government’s rich revenue stream of a once-proud profession. That word, profession, may be a stretch; “industry” might be more correct since America’s teachers’ unions have reduced teachers to the status of assembly line factory workers in New England, circa 1889.

The only people left out of American education at present are the students and the teachers (with medicine, the only people left out are the patients and the doctors). I won’t say the parents are left out because too many parents have abdicated their responsibilities for raising their children to The School System, with horrid results. Evidently leaving the teaching to The School System is not a such a spiffy idea either.

After I moved from the suburbs to the foothills of California, I added my daughter to the home-schooling roster. Our experiment with the germ factory that was called her 2nd grade class ended after 3 months. She was not being taught much of anything, except to read the political posters hung on the walls everywhere. It happened to have been an election year. When I researched Vichy for THE DAWN, I learned about the ubiquitous nature of the Pétain posters, something I now call The Vichy Effect. There’s just One-Size-Fits-All and that size is made by the Government and you’d better not ask for another size!

One-size-fits all means “it” fits no one. The standardized approach to “learning” has rarely worked. The individual approach to learning, and life, has been lost, largely because, laughably, it is said to cost too much! The billions of dollars poured into the endless rathole of the education blob in America (and worldwide) staggers the imagination!

Students have been reduced to numbers that must meet academic standards (more numbers) in order to meet unrealistic educrat criteria (more numbers) for ever-escalating budgetary demands (more number$) to keep pace with fantastical standards (more numbers) being met by other nations which have their own blobs and tyranny of the numbers.

Students in America are mere guinea pigs for the educrat blobs that devise ivory tower figures to prove the magnitude of their magnificence. What gets proven is their megalomania. These education zealots would be wise to read Plato: “A good decision is based on knowledge and not on numbers.”

It’s no wonder test scores in America are in the basement. The mantra of the California public schoolteachers in the 2000s was: “Teach to the test,” the standardized test. Gee, during that craze the teachers forgot to: Teach the student! Plato was once again correct and wise in saying, “Knowledge which is acquired under compulsion obtains no hold on the mind.” The “knowledge” forced upon the youths of America is not even knowledge!

Trying to put real square pegs into imaginary round holes has resulted in a lot of empty holes. And a lot of angry square pegs. Children need structure and the ranking of actual performance, even if the adults “in charge” of teaching the children cannot handle those basic tasks or cannot discipline a classroom that is deemed too filled with children. Remember the furor in America over “class size”? It was yet another phoney crisis, a PR ploy for that endless supply of tax dollars, a way to build more schools, hire more government teachers, and hire at least 2 bureaucrats for each teacher.

For both parent and child, the chance to learn true knowledge is never abolished although it is sorely taxed and tested! Turns out the educrats can lack class and be very cheap, in many senses of that word.

One American small ivy league college provided students with coloring book pages to cope with the stress of finals. They skimped on the venting implements, however, and opted for colored pencils. The least the educrats could have done for the beleaguered student was to furnish quality Crayolas. The proper tool makes all the difference! No one has complained. Such a shame! I will speak for them!

The raucous revolt in education in America has been underway for quite some time — the elites have not noticed it: they are too busy being elites. For decades I have hoped for this quiet revolution in this country. Within the past decade, the deed has actually been done, through free market forces bursting forth from the bondage of bureaucracy, that amorphic monolith of mediocrity that finally began to topple from its own worthless weight.

The free market when free is an amazing force!

America is engaging in true education, the kind where children are learning more outside the classroom than in it. I’d like to think that I was part of the vanguard of that development.

It’s a sign that American education is about to learn the lesson of its 100-year institutionalized life: GIGO. The computer whiz kids, the ones who dropped out of college in the 1970s, came up with that one. I’m sure there will be more prophetic acronyms from the whiz kids of the future, the ones who are currently taking part in inventing and devising the classrooms of life for a new century. Online curriculum courses for “alternative ed” are now so common that educational e-books have become standard (!) requirements. My guess is that the paper model will soon be coming back into vogue:

Plus ça change, c’est plus la même chose. The more it changes, the more it is the same thing.

This truism was granted to the world by Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr (1808-1890), a Frenchman who lived during an era when fundamentals were fundamental. He knew whereof he spoke; he was a novelist and journalist and concomitant critic. When he was the editor of Le Figaro, Karr penned a monthly journal, Les Guêpes (The Wasps) that did indeed sting with satire and wit. At times, the wit verged on bitterness, but one can easily understand the acerbic nature of Karr’s tone and his take on life.

I have always found the statement a bit illogical if not circuitous, but my mind has settled upon the conclusion that in order for anything to progress (in the true sense of change and transformation, not spinning the thing while it sucks up money, time, energy and morals) — it must alter its course to remain constant.

And so my vision of education in America is that it is returning whence it came during the 19th century. It was a golden time. Way back then, the goal of teachers was guiding young minds toward independent thought, not shoving down the formative gullet the silly standards of politically correct pablum to regurgitate (academic bulimia) for prescribed tests that prove the “excellence” of the educrats so they can evermore expand their tax-funded fiefdoms!

The mindless mania for changing society (and the world!) appeared to have died down during the past decade of the Great Recession, but that diminution was undoubtedly due to the gusher of public money having dried up for funding the feeding of the education blob. The public relief (or relief to the public) has been temporary. Thus, in stating, Plus ça change, c’est plus la même chose, I caution patience and tolerance and good humor.

The gusher of public money will return. And it will have to be re-routed, or hydraulically re-engineered toward the parched public coffers that offer the real thing, the real deal, the real education in life: schools that teach smarts, work smarts, book smarts, even street smarts. Maybe my home-schooled son, now a successful hydraulic engineer, can assist with the design flow for all that cash outflow.

La même chose, “the same thing,” has been buried somewhere in the past. But we Americans are good excavators (diggers). We’ll find that old bedrock of fundamentals soon enough. And we’ll give it a completely different name, one that can be advertised as “new and improved.” Some things never change!


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