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

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"Middle age is when you've met so many people that every new person you meet reminds you of someone else."... ...Ogden Nash.

Commentary of the Day - April 27, 2001:  A Father Looks at Fifty...and His Children's Education.  Guest Commentary by Skip Corsini.

Whether it is because of the two recent incidents of school violence here in our Golden State; or whether it is because I am turning 50 and I'm a father of four intelligent beings who are bored out of their skulls with school; or whether it is because my feet are numb from having to turn the heat down in this energy-critical time, the fact is that I have been thinking a lot about our society's methods for producing smart and able young people and I don't like what I see.

History buffs will recall that the late, great Tunisian philosopher, Ibn Khaldun, wrote that actual events often contradict the universal idea to which we would like them to conform.  So it is with our schools.  In this light, it is interesting to note how education has become a political and social phenomenon in California and elsewhere.  The problem is that we aren't going to learn much from experts and elected officials about how to improve schools.  Too many of them are hired guns of special interests, some of which are education's special interests, so what they say is of little value.  In politics and society, as with all living, breathing organic entities, we occasionally observe the development of certain mechanisms that evolve to a point and then stop dead in their tracks, perhaps to move ahead at a later date.  Film making is one such endeavor, and so is education.

I know this for a fact, just because I have these four bright children in the house.  They are looking for things to get better in school. Sure, today was boring, but there is always tomorrow.  Tomorrow there will still be problems for the schools, as with many global belief systems, hallowed institutions, and sacred ways of being. We are in need of a more productive and positive approach.  We need new thinking.

Not standard education reform thinking, either, produced as it is by experts in their think tanks.  Many of the most prominent thinkers on this subject have never spent a day in the classroom, held a fully grown crack baby in their arms, or tutored a child in a home with barred windows.

Across this great country of ours and on across the globe, young people are spending their most formative years passing through a system of education that provides our society with an extraordinary opportunity to ensure us all a bright future via the development of new skills, attitudes, and ideas.  But, if we are really going to be brutally honest about what is going on, what we see is that this system is good for only this: keeping children hidden, out of the way, and occupied.  The secondary benefit is the creation and maintenance of a mass employment program for our teachers, administrators, coaches, assistants, and other service providers. It isn't enough.

I am not here to blame anyone for this.  As a product of the California education plan created in the 1950s and 60s, I benefited greatly from the energy and dedication of many great educators, some of whom I see and thank on a regular basis.  But what used to be an experiment in passion, exuberance, and high standards has taken a U-turn toward a self-sustaining organization that exists for its own purposes and without much benefit to the world external to it.  Whether it is a church, a union, a company, or a school, the organ as end-unto-itself doesn't serve a valid purpose any longer.

And, the biggest problem we have is content, in deciding what is a primary concept and what is background noise.  For example, I majored in a background field in college, geography. That's fine for college. So are art, anthropology, English Literature, and history.  But for younger people, we have to teach them about how the world works first.

As the first level of learning, we need to teach, and by that I mean facilitate direct experiences in, things like practical math, thinking, reading, writing, and social skills.  As a nation and a world, we are full of people who can't write.  By write I do not mean compose a novel or doctoral thesis. I mean write a coherent letter to a friend, a proposal to a manager or client, or a basic appeal for funds to support a cause.

All people need social skills.  Many of us emerge from school, from the highest levels of graduate study, without them.  Perhaps they cannot be taught in a strictly academic sense, but they can be given emphasis and practice. I have found that people who demonstrate mastery of social skills are the most resilient, the most satisfied, and the most accomplished people I know.  They are rarely the people who earned the best grades in school.

In the second level we need to teach our kids about how society works, not in the quasi-political sense in which we explain the Jewish Diaspora or the socioeconomic make-up of Hollywood, which are excellent subjects for later study.  Kids need to know more about nuts and bolts and screwdrivers, and cities, business, economics, and industry.  How society gets along is what kids should learn.

How people manage projects should also be taught.  Imagine how much better the business of building homes would be if kids learned how homes are built when they are in school, before they actually have to build one, buy one, finance one, or sell one.  Imagine how much commerce would work better if kids had some early experiences in how to use a bank, get a mortgage, fill out needless government forms, or fix a car.

It's also high time we develop critical thinking content in our schools.  Thinking is a legitimate, highly utilitarian skill that is missing much of the time in public life, especially when, with freezing toes, one ponders the whole issue of electric power deregulation in California and elsewhere.  In thinking class, the emphasis would not be on what one knows already but what one does with what is known or discovered.  This puts children who are not considered "smart" on the same plane with the classroom savants.

In spite of the fact that I have some teacher training and experience in California and  have these four intelligent children in the house, there are bound to be some gaps in my own thinking on this matter.  A blueprint on education this essay is not.  However, the time has come to put an end to the greatest evil educators face, complacency.  It is not enough that our system has satisfied its own criteria for success.  The fact that my neighborhood school has that "California Distinguished School" sign is cheapened by the fact that the award is given to schools by the California Department of Education.  It would be better if the award came from the Chamber of Commerce, for goodness sakes.

The mechanisms of change grind slowly and the status quo is a powerful, driving force.  Let us end the appalling waste that is education today.
©2001 Skip Corsini
Skip Corsini is a freelance writer, consultant, and educator who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. A graduate of the University of California at Berkeley and the Sonoma State University School of Education, he is the father of four children who attend public schools.

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© 2001 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.