The Irascible ProfessorSM


Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"Education is not filling a bucket, but lighting a fire."... ...William Yeats

Commentary of the Day - May 10, 2001:  The "Three R's".  Were They Really All That Good?  Guest commentary by Tom Cordle.

The American educational system is something on which everyone is an expert. After all, don't most of us have at least twelve years experience with it?  It is also a subject on which there is a great deal of heat, but very little light.  It is easy to decry a system with so many obvious faults.  Then again, it is always much easier to decry faults in others than in ourselves.  For many these days, the argument against our present system goes something like this:

"Miss McGillicuddy (or Sister Gertrude) had 47 kids in one classroom, and we all learned good.  That's 'cause she stuck to the three Rís -- and because she had a big ruler, and she'd swat you across the knuckles if you didn't toe the mark. And we could pray in school then, too. We ought to go back to the good old days."
The problem with this mind-set is the good old days weren't really all that good.  We have forgotten that many of the students educated under that system did not turn out to be very good at reading, writing and 'rithmetic.  They were taught to memorize Shakespeare's sonnets, but seldom taught why Shakespeare was a great writer.  They were seldom taught how the lessons about humanity that lay beneath the strange language were lessons they could apply to their own lives.  As a result, far too many stopped reading as soon as school stopped because they were never taught to love literature.  And as every good teacher knows, those who do not read do not write well either since the first step to becoming a good writer is to read good writing.

'Rithmetic was often reduced to the dull memorization of addition and subtraction and multiplication and division tables.  Quick -- whatís seven times nine?  Some were taught to balance a checkbook, but need I remind you how many failed that?  The principles behind the numbers, that purest form of science we call mathematics, was rarely pursued.  In those days, mathematics was far too often thought of as an intellectual playground of little practical use in the real world.  But mathematics is infinitely practical in the real world because it teaches people how to think logically.  We are only now rediscovering that music trains the mind in the same way.  Of course, we are rediscovering this at precisely the moment that music programs are being gutted as a frivolous waste of money that could be better spent on more standardized testing.

Question: if teaching The Three R's was such an effective system of learning, why are there a hundred million VCRs blinking "12:00" all over America at this moment?  Programming a VCR is no more difficult than the lessons taught in the first week of an algebra class.  But, of course, most students under the system of The Three R's were led to believe they were too stupid to learn something as simple as Algebra.  Is it any wonder these people believe they are too stupid to program a VCR?  The plain truth is that The Three R's are not enough in a rapidly changing, highly technical world.  If we cannot master something as simple as programming a VCR, what business do we really have with computers -- or, God forbid, cloning?

The truth is, we are rapidly returning to a time when knowledge, or at least the secret workings of things, was kept in the hands of an intellectual elite, a priestly class who knew the comings and goings of the stars and seasons.  Such knowledge is power, even absolute power.  If you don't believe it, try arguing with the automated answering machine at your local bank.  Or try to get groceries from a store whose computer is down.  Scary!

So what to do about education?  Well, I suggest we go back, but much further back.

Socrates is generally considered one of the great teachers of all time, even though he had no certificate from a modern teacher factory.  Nor did he train his students to regurgitate facts to satisfy a standardized multiple-choice test designed by a committee of scholars with state senators looking over their shoulders, state senators whose only apparent intellectual skills are the ability to add up campaign contributions and to recognize which way the wind blows.  As a matter of fact, I would be very surprised if a majority of committee members could pass the tests they foist off on students at the insistence of legislatures.  I am even more certain a majority of senators could not!

As I recall, it was the senators of Socrates day who offered a nice cup of hemlock as a reward for his successful teaching.  Why?  Because Socrates taught his students to think.  And then as now, independent thinking is a dangerous idea to those who would maintain absolute power.  Furthermore, the ability to think independently is difficult to measure on a standardized multiple-choice test.  Nor is it easily represented on bar graphs so that even senators can understand.

In fact, the best measure of independent thinking is an electorate that turns such scoundrels out of power.  Another measure of independent thinking is a society that invests in its young and cares for its old and helpless rather than lining the pockets of the already well-to-do.  I suspect most legislators would become very nervous if educators began, in fact, to educate.

On the other hand, if we are only interested in training another generation to become file clerks, field hands and fry cooks, we probably ought to pursue this notion of teaching to tests and actuarial accountability for teachers.  But if we want to prepare young people for an ever-changing interconnected world, we better teach them how to think.  We better go back to the Socratic method.

Oh -- there is one aspect of "the good old days" I would like to see return.  As in Socrates day, teaching used to be an honored profession.  If we are to attract the best and the brightest to teaching, we better begin to honor our teachers.  And we better begin to reward them for a difficult and important job.  Our own education should have taught us at least this simple truth: the future is in the hands of those who teach our children.

Excerpted from the book Scattered Thoughts by Tom Cordle, ©2000 Talking Leaves Company.
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Tom Cordle lives in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. He has a BA in political science which left him totally unprepared to make a living. This led to jobs in music, sales, and construction which left him knowing very little about everything.  Obviously, this was a perfect background for a writer.

Tom raises some interesting points.  He certainly is right about things looking better in hindsight than we saw them at the time.  Teaching students to think indeed should be the primary mission of the education system; however, the IP reminds folks that the "Socratic method" can be abused to intimidate students as well as to teach them to think.

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