Thursday, August 23, 2012

The semester is about to get underway.  I love this time of year.
I've been teaching at the college level for just under 10 years now.  That by no means makes me an expert at it.  But I have noticed something.  Maybe it is unique to Tennessee, but I don't think so-- national papers & policies have been aimed at the issue for quite a while now.  Our education system is suffering, & I see the tangible proof of it the start of every semester.
In 2001, the No Child Left Behind act was passed.  It was pushed through Congress on a faulty premise-- the idea that our children were scoring lower than other nation's children on standardized tests.  Most of you know now that wasn't true, it was just a political talking point that got blown out of proportion, so I won't bore you with the details.  The effect of it, however, was really horrifying if you stop and think about it-- we revamped what had been the best public school system in the world {not perfect, of course, just the best available-- inequalities based on economics were/are a huge problem for example} and reduced it to a testing factory.
And who makes the tests?  School boards lend out the job to corporations that sprung up to meet the demand in the early 2000's.  The tests are based on criteria set forth by the school board-- a political body. You should spend a few minutes tonight googling your county & state school board & see who sits on it-- chances are you'll be a little surprised at how few educators are on them, and how many are radically politicized.  The Texas textbook debates are a great example of what I'm talking about.

For the record, if you want to know what the Civil War was about read the state's declarations of secession & the constitution of the confederacy-- the actual documents that started the conflict.  None of those documents mention state's or individual rights, they talk about slavery entirely, and the states' desire to maintain it. The governments created under the confederacy did allow more power to states economically, which resulted in massive inflation and intense poverty.  That said, the confederacy granted far less power to individuals-- it was more oppressive, religiously intolerant, and granted much more power to politicians at the expense of citizens {believing, as they did, that only the planter class was fit to rule}.  Even the "national" constitution granted more power to the President than the President of the federal government had/has.  Its a null argument, not because that is my opinion, but because that is what is documented and true. 
As to Christianity as the religion of the United States?  Well, if the 1st amendment isn't enough for you there are numerous letters, journals & official papers from the founding fathers specifying that religion should not be mixed with government business {not just Jefferson's quote of "separation of church and state," but all of the founders, including Washington, specified in less concise language the same sentiment}.  And then there is the Treaty of Tripoli, 1796, Article 11-- 1 of only 3 ratifications in Senate history to pass unanimously.  End of discussion. 
No one gets to rewrite history, at least not in America.  That is one of the calling cards of fascism.  All the "great" dictators did it-- Hitler, Mussolini, Idi Amin...when we broke through Baghdad there were reports of how Saddam had rewritten Iraqi history books to put himself in the best possible light, and we were outraged.  And now we sit here and debate it doing it to our children-- why not rewrite history to reflect what I want to believe is true damn the reality? It really turns my stomach. 
Those same school board members are deciding what your child is supposed to learn in school, and hinging school funding & teacher's jobs on whether or not your child can fill in the bubble that the school board deems correct. 
The end result, the result I see in my classes, are kids who come out of high school knowing nothing.  They can't think critically, they can't analyze a problem-- they believe that there is only one answer to every question {which may be true in math and sciences, but that's about the only time it is}.  And worse, if you try to get them thinking or challenge what they believe, their response is often furious anger and frustration followed by the denial of every idea other than the ones they were taught in kindergarten.  I had a student emotionally insist that she was persecuted (her word) because another student respectfully disagreed with her religious opinion in a humanities class-- just disagreed with it (she had argued that you couldn't call yourself Christian if you believed anything other than the biblical creation stories-- the student who disagreed with that view was transferring to a seminary and aspired to become a minister).  I had a student tell me that she could not read the textbook because it mentioned the theory of evolution (it was mentioned in conjunction with the Scopes trial by way of explaining what the trial was about and why it was significant, not as a scientific theory in its own right).  I've had students say that all college professors were liberal hippies* and therefore students had a duty to ignore everything they said and even refuse to study or listen to lectures beyond what was necessary to pass exams.  When I asked why they bothered to go to college if they didn't want to learn anything, the response every time was because they had to in order to get a degree and a job-- as if the piece of paper itself was what somehow gave them the intelligence to be an asset to their chosen field as opposed to the education it represents.  How messed up is that?  

** just as aside, if you too believe that college professors and higher degree holders, the most educated people in the American system, are all liberals {which is not true, scholars and professors represent all political ideologies from extreme liberalism to extreme conservatism, though in my experience most are moderate-- but for the sake of argument, lets say you believe they are all hippies}, doesn't that mean that the more educated you are the more you believe liberalism is correct?  And if that is true, doesn't that make liberalism the ideology of smart people?  

I could go on.  And on.  And on. And I've heard far worse stories from other teachers.

Its not just teachers noticing the change, corporate leaders are complaining about the quality of graduates that are applying for jobs-- any successful business needs people who can problem solve & come up with new ideas, but the general consensus is that it is getting harder and harder to find applicants capable of doing that.  And there is more that the corporate world is saying-- here is a nice summary from the Harvard Business Review-- and you can google the news to find the latest reports.

All of this should scare you.  It should make you angry-- and yet so few people are saying anything. 

Teachers tried to fight back-- my sister among them.  It isn't easy for an employee to fight back against an employer.  Its even harder if that employee is fighting back against angry, misinformed people.  My sister risked her job {she teaches high school literature} & her reputation to try and fight back against testing & the way teachers were treated.  The government response in Tennessee, as in a great many quarters of our nation, has been to punish teachers further.  To take away their right to unionize.  To hinge their salaries to teaching what is essentially political rhetoric.  It is a travesty. And shockingly, citizens across the country seem to be supporting it.  They willfully choose to ignore facts in favor of political rhetoric-- the most obvious being the deliberate obfuscation of what tenure means at the K-12 level, the twisting of facts regarding what teacher's salaries are, and the out-and-out lying about what percentage of the federal and state education budget those salaries take up.  That info is easy to find: the sunshine review is a great place to get a reliable, non-political review of finances per state and more.  Here's Tennessee's-- did you know that we, like many other states, actually made more money than anticipated last year before most of the proposed dramatic cuts took affect?  Never guess that from the crap they say on the evening news now would you? 

Everyone has had a bad teacher.  And everyone has had a bad banker, a bad doctor, a bad server at McDonald's-- people being bad at their jobs happens sometimes.  When I was waiting to speak in New York to a group of about 300 teachers about the importance of teaching history as it is as opposed to what people want to make it, I overheard a teacher say to her friend that she was not about to include any new information in her classroom, she was paid to teach the test and that was what she was going to do-- any more effort "was above her pay grade."  She shouldn't be teaching, clearly.  But she was not representative of the bulk of teachers.  Punishing 299 to purge the education system of 1 is just silly. 

I could go on.  I want to go on.  But I don't want to bore you.  Look this stuff up-- know what is happening before you vote, or worse yet, make decisions affecting your children based on faulty information.  And don't just turn your back on the system either-- you may be able to protect your child by removing them from the public schools, but you are doing nothing to help the world your child will live in, so what good are you really doing him/her in the long run?  They will have to enter the real world eventually-- don't you want them to be prepared for it?

So, how do we fix it?  Well, Neil deGrasse Tyson summed it up nicely.  He was speaking about sciences, NASA in particular, but it could well be for any subject.  We need to promote enthusiasm.  We need to stop wallowing in fear-- or more importantly, to turn the fear into something great.  We need to encourage kids to question and challenge and refine their opinions based on fact, -- after all, if history can be whatever you want to make it up to be, then why study it at all?  Why not just make stuff up to fulfill our own sense of importance-- because lets face it, denying facts is not about religion or political faith, its about a person's belief that they are right and every one else is wrong.  It is about ego, not faith.  Refusing to compromise is the definition of fascism-- literally-- it is the opposite of everything democracy stands for, period.  We need to inspire our children to work together in eager anticipation of  the future, not to be so egotistical that they believe the only way is their way (that breeds bullying-- which I think is reflected in the increase of violent bullying among K-12 children) .  We need to stop being so conservative as a culture and start dreaming again.  And before that last remark leads us in to some sort of political debate, the definition of conservative is to limit change and maintain existing conditions.


disposed to preserve existing conditions, institutions, etc., orto restore traditional ones, and to limit change.
cautiously moderate or purposefully low
traditional in style or manner; avoiding novelty or showiness

So, with all that in mind, I'll finally shut up and let Tyson speak for me...

Are the same challenges facing y'all in Canada, England and beyond?  Parents out there, how do you feel about the education your child is (or will be if we stay conservative) getting?  What do you propose we do to change it?  Instead of complaining about the problems we face today, lets try to understand it, then fix least on Thursdays~*