[I’m using this morning to post some important, backlogged Comments of the Day. Today’s Warm-Up will be after noon, if all does according to plan.]
Keith Walker registered a fascinating reflection on his experiences as a teacher in response to the post regarding the decline of cultural literacy. I do take umbrage at his categorization of my commentary about public school’s ongoing failure as “ranting” and his implication that I have designated teachers as “useless.” If I have criticized teachers and administrators, it has always been based on specific conduct. In Alexandria, VA., I had to pull my son out of one public school, a Catholic school and two private ones upon observing exactly the kind of incompetence, bias and abuse I have written about over the past eight years. Indoctrination, child abuse, incompetence and sexual predation in the schools are real, and teaching is still a “profession” without codified ethics standards. Dedicated, smart, competent teachers are heroic, but their existence does not make my criticism and analysis less valid or less urgent.
Here is Keith’s Comment of the Day on the post, “No Wonder We Can’t Communicate With Each Other Or Have Coherent Debates: We’re Culturally Illiterate”
As one of those useless public school teachers so often ranted about in this space, I want to rise to the occasion here and, if not defend our profession, at least offer my take on things over my 31 years in the business.
I was a fairly new teacher when Hirsch’s book came out. I thought then that it was a silly tome, written from the perspective of a grumpy old man. I still don’t hold much respect for it, though I have become a grumpy old man myself. Who gets to decide what’s important cultural literacy? (Yes, I am about to say something like “it’s always been old white guys…”) I wonder if someone else had written that book if it would have contained different things?
But since 1988 several things have happened to make teaching these important things virtually impossible, the internet and standardized testing being two major ones. Yes, I know that standardized testing has been around for many decades; I remember taking the MEAP (Michigan’s state test) when I was a small boy in the 70s. But in the 70s test scores were not blasted across the front pages of newspapers everywhere, and politicians were not decrying our “failing public schools” and telling everyone that privatization and profits would be a much better plan for education.
The pressure on schools, teachers, and students to “succeed” on these tests is ridiculous, and it has gotten to the point that if it can’t be measured, we don’t have time to teach it. And everything is measured. As a music teacher I am happy to have a job any more; much of my curriculum isn’t “measurable” to a certain extent, and it certainly isn’t required for success in life. But I digress… Believe me, if Cromwell was going to be on the ACT, SAT, or AP History exams, you can bet he’d be talked about in schools. It’s all about competition, and everyone is fearing for jobs, funding, and students as we move to a market-based system of educating our next generations, and the members of that generation all want to get a 7.0 GPA and get into Harvard (starting as freshmen with 75 credits due to all of their AP test scores), and the way to do it is to excel on those tests. It’s fairly terrifying.
What does the internet have to do with all of this? Maybe less than I think, but I put it in my opening statement, so I better defend what I wrote. The explosion of information readily available at our fingertips over the last 20 years has made it more difficult to choose what topics we really value and should teach in schools. What are we supposed to pick among all of the important historical facts and figures? What has changed about some of those facts and figures that needs to be taken into account as we decide if they’re important? (This would be where the “those liberal teachers all hate white Europeans, so they would eliminate all of that history” argument would come in.)
Please also remember that we as teachers have virtually ZERO CONTROL over our curriculum. Even if we are allowed or encouraged to participate in selection of textbooks, those textbooks have been compiled not by teachers who have a stake in the success of the delivery of their content, but by panels of people controlled or influenced by profits, politics, and policy. If Texas doesn’t like a history book, it doesn’t get published. And the schools won’t allow us to branch out and teach our own content, because it might not be on the test, so that idea is out.
I also lament the loss of some of our old treasures. Last week I told my clarinet section that they sounded like a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs, and not only did they not get the reference, they couldn’t figure out why said cat would have a problem… After 31 years I will retire this spring, and I can tell you that the last 5-10 years have been the ones that have been the most difficult to reach kids. Things have changed; some for the better, some for the worse, but it’s definitely a different world in education than it was when I started, and I don’t know what I would do if I had 10 more years to go.