The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"People commonly educate their children as they build their houses, according to some plan they think beautiful, without considering whether it is suited to the purposes for which they are designed." ....  ...Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, in a letter to her daughter Lady Bute written on February 19, 1750.

Commentary of the Day - April 3, 2002:  The Buck Starts Here.  Guest Commentary by Remy Benoit.

The principle of democracy is an ancient one based on the concept of government by the people.  The world looked on and said government by the people would degenerate into chaos if attempted on so vast a scale as that called for by the Founders of this country.  Ignoring worldwide admonitions they fought for, and won, the right to try.

We have long passed our Bicentennial celebrations and yet we still have to learn that true democracy includes all phases of life for a free people.  It means that the citizenry is informed and actively participating in the day-to-day life of the country.

One of the most important components of that activity is personal responsibility.  Truman knew this: "The buck stops here."

Lack of acceptance of personal responsibility lies at the root of the prevailing disillusionment with our educational system.  Initial responsibility, true responsibility, for what our children learn lies both with them and with the attitude we as parents instill in them from the beginning of their lives.  They must be taught that education is a lifelong thing for which they are personally responsible.  When a child enters school, she brings an attitude toward education with her.  A child listens -- a child mimics.  What she has heard at home and about the neighborhood is packed in the same bag with her milk and cookies.

When we send our children to school, we send them into the success or failure syndrome of a regimented "education."  All grade levels, all subjects, have curriculum guides available to those who ask for them.  While we may not be expert in a particular field, we can take note of what is being learned; what is being understood, and what isn't.

Yes, the onus of learning does fall on the shoulders of the student, but does your child have an adequate "support staff" at home?

What are your rules concerning school days and nights?  Do they include adequate hours of sleep, a balanced diet, a place to study, and the understanding that although you might not know the answer to a specific question you are willing to help find it?  If a communication problem develops between your child and the teacher, does your child know that you will be open to hearing both sides, and to finding resolution through acceptance of responsibility on both sides rather than by assigning guilt?

I have heard very, very often, that teenagers do not like to talk.  Perhaps that is because many of them are looking for real listeners.  Think about conversations with your child, your teen.  Are you really listening, or are you trying to show them the right way?  Have you ever heard yourself say "it is done this way because it has always been done this way?"  Do you remember your reaction to that answer?

Are you really hearing their legitimate complaint that the building they are in is housing twice the number of students that it should?  Are you hearing their complaints that their textbooks are a decade out of date and in poor condition?  Are you hearing them when they say they are afraid while at school, or that they don't know how to handle peer pressure?

Can you hear it when they say that they are people, and if they are to give respect they feel that they should get it too?

Can you hear their cry that we are real people, whole people, with different skills, different modes of learning, and different needs, many of which are not being met?

Can we look to see if they are really learning in the sense that they can apply the things that they are being taught to real world problems?  Can we look at the fact they these young people are individuals, each with enormous potential, and begin to ask why they are being educated like sheep?

A few months ago I watched a television special on my 1964 graduating class from Northeast High in Philadelphia -- the 122nd class to graduate from Northeast.  I "did well" at Northeast, a suburban high school with a good academic program.  But watching that show, seeing my classmates, teachers, counselors all these years later put my stomach into knots.  What happened to me there that coming up on the 40th year reunion, I still feel like that?  What would your reactions be if you could turn back the clock to revisit your high school days?

We hear young people speak of "surviving high school" now, rather than hearing them speak of graduating.

We are sending them into an environment where they have no power except their own determination to stay alive and to try to learn something.  How quickly they lose the desire to learn when faced with antiquated books, curricula, and teachers who although they try to give their best must constantly deal with teaching to the test.

It is time that all high school curricula were carefully examined and updated.

This is not a voice howling the residual "Where is the relevance?" echo of the Sixties.  This is the voice of our children asking us to prepare them to live in the present day world; teach them the history they need to know to understand what is going on in the world around them.  Each of us has expertise in a different area.  If we kept on baking at least metaphoric cupcakes beyond 3rd grade and continued being involved with our children, we could help to bring about the changes needed to truly educate them.

Granted, it does take considerable time, effort, and commitment to provide the requisite support structure to your child during her school years.  Yet, while that time, effort, and commitment may be somewhat difficult to balance with an already tight schedule, it will be less demanding and heartbreaking than it will be to watch, and contend with, your child's school years, and life path, poorly paved with the stones of failure, low self-esteem, and irresponsible choices

Mr. Jefferson said that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.

It is not only the price of democracy, it is also the price of educating those who will be responsible for it. With all that is around us today, it is time to broaden the scope of what we teach -- not limiting it just to Western Civilization.  We share a fragile planet; and for that too we share responsibility.

©2002 Remy Benoit
Remy Benoit is the pseudonym of a freelance writer who now lives in Baton Rouge, LA.  She holds an M.A. degree in history from West Chester University and has taught at both the secondary and college level.

The IP agrees with most of what Ms. Benoit has said in her guest commentary.  The active involvement of parents and guardians in the education of their children is indeed important, if not essential.  Too many folks complain about the quality of their public schools without ever taking steps to become involved.  There also are far too many children living in poverty who have no support structure at all in the home.  Standardized tests, while they have their place, are no substitute for that support.


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© 2002 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.