Confessions of a Reluctant Teacher

June 8, 2009

Response to Harold Levy in the New York Times

Filed under: New York Times,School in the News — christinag503 @ 5:23 pm

Now that I have read over this article a few times, I’m not sure whether Mr. Levy intended his op-ed piece, “Five Ways to Fix America’s Schools,” to be read by the public, whom all this “education” is supposed to benefit, or by those in the Schooling industry, who are anxious to ensure their profits in these uncertain economic times.  Throughout the article, he emphasizes advertising, “aggressive sales tactics,” and the need to re-establish the United States education system as a “globally competitive industry.”  This would be par for the course if he was discussing a consumer-driven business, which must do everything in its power to convince the consumer to buy because the consumer ultimately has the right to choose.  Schools, however, have the government on their side.  They have made it illegal for children to not receive any type of schooling and very difficult for parents to choose an option outside of formal schools.  To fight truancy, he recommends that Schools use “high-pressure sales tactics” developed by salesmen to “overcome the consumer’s will.”  Replace the word ‘consumer’ with ‘parent,’ ‘child,’ or ‘citizen,’ and you understand why his ideas are truly horrifying.  Since when do Schools want anything to do with breaking a future generation’s will?  Oh, wait…they’ve been doing that since the Industrial Revolution.

What is the purpose of advertising?  Mainly, it is to convince us to spend our hard-earned money on something that we don’t really need.  We don’t need to launch special advertising campaigns to babies to convince them to learn to talk.  We just speak, both to them and to each other in their presence, and they naturally want to imitate us.  As John Holt wrote in Instead of Education, “The baby who begins to talk, long before he makes any sounds that we hear as words, has learned from sharp observation that the sounds that bigger people make with their mouths affect the other things they do…He wants to be a part of that talking group of bigger people, wants to make things happen with his voice.”  The baby has only a strong, innate desire to learn, not any real Schooling in speech.  People seem to learn how to talk anyway.  There is a large amount of evidence that children, and adults too, are perfectly capable of learning everything they need to know without going to a specially designated place to be ‘educated’ by a specially designated person.  Yet Schools continue to spew the propaganda that without them, we would all be a bunch of drooling idiots, to stupid to even design a video game so we could waste our days playing it.  Instead of unquestioningly believing that a piece of paper with a School’s name on it is necessary for life in our society, we should be exploring what real learning is, and what success means in the REAL world.  I don’t know if you’ve ever tried it, but no store has ever sold me a bag of groceries in exchange for a report card full of A+’s and gold stars.

He says that colleges should recruit “the more than 70 percent of the population that lacks a post-secondary degree.”  Why?  So they can get jobs?  I personally know several college graduates who are having a lot of trouble finding a decent job–or any job, for that matter.  In my experience (which is admittedly limited), employers are not interested in what you have studied.  They are interested in what you have done, and what you will do for them.  What Schools are interested in, as we can see from what Mr. Levy has to say, is their own bottom line.  For both private and public Schools, more students = more money.  They will act in their own best interest to get the funding they want, regardless of what is best for the student.  Public Schools lose money when students are absent.  No wonder Mr. Levy turns to sales tactics to fight truancy!

The biggest fault I see in his proposed solutions, though, is inflation.  Fifty years ago, earning a college degree meant something.  Today, as previously mentioned, college graduates often have a hard time finding a job.  This phenomenon will be further exacerbated if Levy’s idea to “advertise creatively and aggressively to encourage college enrollment” is implemented.  He advises colleges to target older students specifically.  Here’s the thing: when you are advertising a product to a customer, you need to make it extremely easy for them to buy it and use it.  When we apply this principle to college degrees, what results is a dumbed-down, devalued “education.”  This will doubtlessly apply for older students, who most likely will have spent some time in the workforce, thereby learning the value of a dollar and the value of their time.  They will likely have other claims on their time and attention, such as a job and/or a family.  As Professor X pointed out in his article in the June 2008 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower,” for many of these older students who are lured into going back to school, their best (under the circumstances, at least) isn’t good enough to earn them a passing grade in an English class, let alone a college degree.  But if they fail their courses, do they get a refund?  Or do the colleges just lower their standards so that everyone can get what they paid for?  In this world view, education is a commodity, a thing that can be bought and sold, rather than a solitary pursuit that is so perfectly tailored to nourish an individual’s interests and capabilities that it is, quite literally, priceless.  In reality it is worthless until YOU are able to use it to truly add value to YOUR life.

Like a corrupt government that prints more money to cover up its failing economy, Mr. Levy wants us to “fix” schools by feeding them more and more of our children’s time and energy, along with a substantially higher dose of our tax dollars.  He asks: “Where is it written that learning should end at 3 p.m.?”  (BTW, my first response to this was, “Where is it written that the only place a person can learn anything is a School?”)   Many dwell in the fantasy that if they won the lottery, all their problems would be solved. It is estimated, however, that nearly one-third of lottery winners end up declaring bankruptcy.  Without a solid framework of good financial habits, more money just creates circumstances for bigger problems.  Likewise, without a basic understanding that real development in the human mind and character can only occur with freedom, more Schooling will result in more problems (and almost certainly less learning).

His suggestion to eliminate summer vacation is equally alarming.  Perhaps he does not believe that children should have the experience of free time, and the responsibility of deciding for themselves how to fill it (which rarely happens in the summer anyway as of late, due to parents who fill their child’s calendar until it is brimming with extracurricular activities, so little Johnny or Sara can gain that competitive edge when it comes time to apply for kindergartens).  School already invades our children’s minds for the seven hours of the day they are forced to be there, in addition to following them home for however many hours it takes them to complete their “homework.”  If, as I have heard many teachers claim, the reason homework is required is because the real learning only takes place when the student works alone, why should we bother schools and teachers at all?  But I’m getting ahead of myself.  That is the beginning of a long discussion that cannot possibly be resolved on one little blog.  (Although I aim to try.)

Mr. Levy does, however, make an excellent point in an analogy about water: he compares for-profit colleges to bottled water, and public colleges to tap water, which is less expensive, but “tastes just as good.”  I can do him one better though: how about an education for just the price of books?  In the classes I have taken at public colleges, the ‘lesson plan’ was generally as follows: we were assigned certain readings, and then in the next class, the professor would give us a synopsis of what we had just read.  That seemed like a waste of money AND time.

The only thing that these proposed solutions would ‘fix’ are his industry’s profit margins.  Mr. Levy would have us buy his bottled water, even though we have a bountiful, fresh spring in our own backyard.


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