Public Schools - How to Fix Them
Contributed by Ronald F. Bernard
Historically, society's leading families have rejected public middle and secondary school experiences for their own children.
Their reasons are many.
For example, public schools, originally created in the United States as a response to both industrialized society's requirement for a workforce capable of reading and "summing," as well as a perceived need to share a uniquely American vision with millions of European arrivals, have, during the past century, failed to keep pace with the general psychological evolution of the student population.
Much of the disengagement seen in American public schools can be attributed, I believe, to the incompatibility of the social messages children receive at home and through the media emphasizing their very real importance as individuals, with the inexhaustible emphasis on collective values delivered in the public schools.
Too often, collective values as interpreted by American public school systems turn out to mean that it is the job of the schools to prepare students for secondary roles in business and the professions, roles where independent thinking, creativity, and the development of leadership skills are relegated to secondary positions, pushed aside if you will by restrictive formats, symbolized by time segmentation, bells, klaxons, and whistles, as well as codified by policy, regulation, and statute.
Said differently, it is the continuing mission of our public schools to train middle and lower class children to accept the normalcy of regulatory authority without thought. However, American adults and children are no longer willing to lend unthinking support to this sort of situation, resulting in both the poor performance of our public school children, as well as the highest expulsion rate of any public school system on Earth.
Pre-planned curricula, as well as bell, whistle or klaxon regulated academic and athletic sequences, were first fully developed as instruments for engendering discipline in groups, most notably by the 19th century Prussian military. This model was then adopted for American public schools as a direct result of the advocacy of social philosophers, such as John Dewey and William Harris, who, like many scholars of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, looked to Germany for academic and philosophical leadership.
Training methods used in America's present day public schools, while remaining fully appropriate for military purposes, fail to address students' needs, specifically their interests, aptitudes, learning style, skill levels and emotional preparedness.
As a result, American classrooms suffer massive student disengagement.
Cameos from America's worrisome educational history include:
--Stanford University's H. H. Goddard, an early advocate of American compulsory public schooling, wrote, "...government schooling is the perfect organization of the hive. Standardized testing will cause the lower classes to face their biological inferiority, which will discourage their reproduction."
--Albert Einstein, who was labeled "lazy and intellectually slow" by his high school teachers, was concerned with the "modern" American schools he saw, since they reminded him of the system that he had been subjected to as a child in Germany. Dr. Einstein disapproved of the system he saw being imposed on American families and was vocal about his concerns up until his death in 1955. Einstein is famously quoted as saying of both German and American public schools: "It is in fact little short of a miracle that modern methods of instruction have not already completely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry. It is a grave mistake to think that the enjoyment of seeing and searching can be promoted by means of coercion and a sense of duty. I believe that one could even deprive a healthy beast of prey of its voraciousness if one could force it with a whip to eat continuously whether it were hungry or not."
--Thomas Edison was considered to have severe learning disabilities by his formal American-style classroom teachers.
Edison began school in Port Huron, Michigan when he was seven. His teacher, G. B. Engle, considered Thomas to be a dull student. Thomas especially did not like math. And he asked too many questions. Engle punished students psychologically (similar to American classroom dynamics) who asked questions to which the teacher did not know the answer. After three months of this treatment, Thomas was labeled as "addled" (ADD today).
Nancy Edison, after a very short while of watching the light of curiosity die in her son's eyes, brought Thomas back to school to talk with his teacher. The teacher told his mother that Thomas couldn't learn. Nancy became angry with the teacher's perspective. She knew her son wasn't addled, but would soon be if subjected to the continued squelching of his interests. She withdrew Thomas from formal school, teaching him reading, writing and arithmetic at home. Edison, as with all children who are not subject to a militarized, forced schooling environment, remained naturally curious. Once his mother had given him the basic tools, he taught himself through his own reading, and throughout life believed that self-improvement through personal effort was the only way to truly know anything.
Edison's parents loved to read. They read good literature and history to Thomas.
Nancy Edison encouraged her curious son to learn things for himself. They did not force him to learn about things he didn't enjoy.
When Thomas was nine, Nancy Edison gave him an elementary science book. It explained how to do chemistry experiments at home. Edison did every experiment in the book. Then Nancy gave him more books on science. He soon loved chemistry and spent all his spare money buying chemicals from a local pharmacy. He collected bottles, wires, and other items for experiments.
At age 10, Thomas built his first science laboratory in the basement of the family's home. His father disapproved of all the time Thomas spent in the basement. Sometimes Sam offered a penny to Thomas if he would go back to reading books. But Thomas often used his pennies to buy more chemicals for experiments.
Before he was 12, Thomas had read works by Dickens and Shakespeare, Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and much more on his own.
--John Taylor Gatto, New York City and State Teacher of the Year (fired by the New York public school system), "The dynamics that make modern schooling poisonous to healthy human development aren't difficult to spot: the work in classrooms isn't significant work; it fails to satisfy real needs pressing on the individual; it doesn't answer real questions experience raises in the young mind; it doesn't contribute to solving problems encountered in actual life. The net effect of making all work external to individual longings, experiences, questions, and problems is to render the victim listless."
However stark the view of compulsory education is from the 19th and 20th centuries, there are certainly many references to the need for individualized instruction among the upper classes of ancient recorded history.
Socrates, for example, believed that the best way to teach was to engage his students in personal dialogue. That was true of the intellectual giants who followed, including Plato and Aristotle.
Marcus Aurelius, the last great Emperor of the Roman Empire, wrote, "From my grandfather, Verus, I learned good morals and the government of my temper. From the reputation and remembrance of my father, modesty and a manly character. From my mother, piety and generosity, and abstinence, not only from evil deeds, but even from evil thoughts; and further, simplicity in my way of living, far removed from the habits of the rich. From my great-grandfather, not to go to the public schools, but to have good teachers at home......."
From all of this, what are we to conclude?
I suggest that the time is appropriate to adopt a method of accreditation that will change the kind of offerings traditional in the public schools, offerings that no longer work for the majority of students, especially those in our society most in need of sound, personally tailored instruction.
The International Association of Schools and Colleges (I.A.S.C.), this author believes, uses the only kind of accreditation format that has a hope of returning public middle and high school education in America to the healthy system that it once was.
The I.A.S.C. criteria for accreditation which can be seen elsewhere on this site, involves personal choice, and the unique interests of students. Said differently, the I.A.S.C. stresses the very kinds of experiences that social aristocracies have known for centuries result in the best possible chance for a fruitful life path for each student.
Only by planning curriculum based on the needs of students as individuals; students who freely choose to participate in quality educational experiences, can we hope to answer the challenge presented by the archaic and destructive edifice that is now the syllabus/management driven public school. We must recognize that unless we place the individual student in the first position organizationally, America's international school ranking, currently 20th among industrialized nations, will continue to deteriorate.