"More and more, when faced with the world of men, the only reaction is one of individualism.  Man alone is an end unto himself.  Everything one tries to do for the common good ends in failure."  ....Albert Camus

Commentary of the Day - March 14, 2011: Commonwealth.   Guest commentary by Poor Elijah (Peter Berger).

I've been a classroom teacher for a quarter century now.  Along the way I've been shaking my head at the madness of modern education reform.  From pipedreams like letting ten-year-olds design their own education to solving the problem of kids who fail by outlawing Fs, from costly "authentic assessments" that yield meaningless data to "alternative" programs that lower dropout rates by reclassifying part-time jobs as "school," from simultaneously "raising standards" and guaranteeing success to banning homework on the grounds that it isn't fair to students who won't do it, public education has foundered for forty years on serial follies that common sense should have silenced before they were ever visited on children.

Over those same forty years changes in American homes and minds have burdened schools with what A Nation at Risk identified as "personal, social, and political problems that the home and other institutions either will not or cannot resolve."  Cheating is now a website industry, the "social network" generation can't distinguish between real friends and online strangers, nearly half of us don't pay taxes, and more than half of us aren't married.  Self-reliance is on the ropes, entitlement is our national creed, and everybody's wondering why Johnny isn't succeeding academically.

Decades of unsound philosophy and practice in tandem with our broad societal malaise and decline continue to undermine our schools.  But our classrooms and students are also compromised daily by the narrow grievances and demands of individual parents and students, and the disproportionate pressure they bring to bear on schools and the other children who attend them.

Don't misunderstand.  I care about my students as individuals.  I deal with them as best as I can according to what I learn over time about their talents, quirks, and characters.  I'm in a better position to do this than some teachers because I'm fortunate enough to work in a small school where it's hard for any of us, teachers or students, to remain anonymous.  This is an advantage that will increasingly be lost as officials chase after the fictitious economies that boosters of school consolidation falsely promise.

The fact is, though, that I'm a public school teacher, not a private tutor.  Despite all the expert press release rhetoric about tailoring lessons to each student’s individual needs and personal learning style, classroom teachers deal with a roomful of children at a time.  Picture a parent at home trying to manage simultaneously two or three of his own kids, make the task academically rigorous, multiply by ten, and you have some idea just how individualized classroom teachers can be in practice.

Besides, while I enjoy seeing my students grow as individuals, public schools exist primarily to equip the next generation with the knowledge and skills necessary to support themselves and to inherit the Republic.  While good teachers try to find a middle ground between the societal imperative to prepare the next generation as a whole and the specific needs and interests of individual students, it's extraordinarily difficult to accomplish both often conflicting objectives at once.  The common tendency of experts to gloss over those difficulties and inherent contradictions doesn't make them go away.  Meanwhile, reasonable parents are understandably watchful and concerned.

Regrettably, not everyone is reasonable.  It's natural for a parent to care more about his own child than about everybody else's children.  It's not reasonable, though, for him to expect me to care more  about his child than everybody else's.  Yet over the years I've attended countless conferences where parents tacitly expect exactly that. Sometimes they even come right out and say it: "I don't care how what I want affects the other kids.  I just care about what's good for my kid."

Some parents are so desperate for a cure for their child's academic problems, sloth, or misconduct that even though their expectations are unrealistic, it's hard not to sympathize.  Others, however, are nakedly, arrogantly selfish.  Some seem so unhinged that their behavior and demands can only be described as irrational.

That this antisocial conduct exists isn't really surprising.  We see these people all the time on the road, in the supermarket, and on television.  They frequently don't conform to stereotypes and are often well-dressed and articulate.  When it comes to school, they're even better camouflaged because most of what happens at school pertains to children and is therefore confidential.  That cloak of confidentiality means the public rarely hears about the bizarre accommodations this fringe demands, concessions for their children that distort classroom instruction, subject other students to aberrant, disruptive behavior, and stagger the public schools the public pays for and sends its children to.

Schools surrender to these demands because they're in thrall to parents who brandish the weapon officials fear most -- the lawsuit.  Sometimes administrators reason that it's cheaper to appease litigious parents, that fighting in court will cost more than just giving in and giving them what they want.  Many officials have learned not to trust a jury to find in favor of a school, that a student, however troublesome, will usually come off more sympathetically than an education bureaucracy or a teacher who reminds jurors of a teacher they didn't like.

That retreat in the face of intimidation has to stop.  Public education is less a private right than it is a public service that strengthens the commonwealth.  We can't continue to sacrifice schools in the name of expediency.  We can't continue to shroud our cowardice in the guise of legal caution.  We can't allow a few self-serving parents to hijack the classrooms that belong to all of us, anymore than we can permit their children to endanger the safety of other children or steal their education.  We can't permit the threats of a handful of delinquent adults to poison the air in the common house where the nation's children spend their days.

The "we" here isn’t someone else.  It's us.  It's local school officials and school boards.  It's communities and jurors.  A rational society says no to irrational people.

Private rights exist.  Our nation was founded on them.  But the faulty, malicious assertion of a private right can't be permitted to trump the public good in our public schools.

Or anywhere else.

2011, Peter Berger.
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Peter Berger teaches English in Weathersfield, Vermont. Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer comments addressed to him in care of the editor.

The Irascible Professor comments: The IP agrees with Peter Berger wholeheartedly.  Unfortunately, the idea of "commonwealth" or the "common good" has been under assault in recent years.  In our political discourse it has become more and more difficult to convince the average American that he or she has obligations as well as rights and entitlements.


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© 2011 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.
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