With the regularity of sunrise, editorials raise alarums over the sorry state of schooling in America, wondering year after year why students are so abysmally ignorant. Why the puzzlement? The reasons is that Americans don’t want education. They would rather have polio. If they saw education coming down the street, they would crawl into the storm sewers to avoid it, and epoxy the manhole covers down for a better seal.
They like the appearncce of schooling, yes. They pay exorbitantly for degrees, grades, titles. Substance be damned. This is why many seniors in high school can barely read, and graduates of universities do not know when WWI took place.
How did this come about? There are 26 letters in the alphabet, 52 if you count upper case. That comes to 5.2 a year for ten years. A parrot could learn them. Yet functional illiteracy flourishes in Amerca.
When my daughters were three, they could read Dr. Seuss and sound out words like “transportation,” which they had no idea what meant. Why could they do this? Because their daddy sat down with them and said, “C says “kuh,” A says “Aa,” and T says “Tuh.” Kuh-Aa-Tuh, cat. Ain’t them some apples?” They agreed about the apples, and were off and running. Mission accomplished, without a carrier to stand on. Age three.
How in God’s name can you keep kids in school for twelve years and prevent their learning to read? We’re talking genius here.
Schooling children was once thought routine. When I finished the fifth grade in Robert E. Lee Elementary School in the Virginia suburbs of Washington—this would have been about 1955—I could add, subtract, multiply, and divide fractions, do long division and multiplication, and knew grammar cold: direct and indirect objects, appositives, linking verbs, participles. I would like to attribute this to my incomparable brilliance. The problem with this laudable understanding is that all the other kids could do these things too. The teachers had taught us. It was what schools did.
Children learned because of a social consensus that they should do so. In those far-off days, the white population, then the only one that mattered, agreed on certain things. For example, parents believed that correct English was desirable, and that their little monsters should learn it. They believed that numeracy mattered. That grades should reflect performance, period. It worked.
Problems of discipline did not exist because of, again, consensus. Society thought, parents thought, the schools thought, and the children thought that children should be respectful of teachers and do as they were told. This was not authoritarian. There were always the class clowns—I may know somewhat of this—but everyone, including the children, knew where the limits lay.
The teachers participated in the consensus. They were mostly intelligent women not yet fem-libbed into being useless lawyers, and embodied the masculine focus on performance over feeling good about oneself. This allowed the passing on of civilization. The prinicpal was usually a man, and a fairly formidable one. He easily kept adolescent boys in line. Their fathers also bought the consensus, a point not lost on teens.
Then, roughly during the Sixties, consensus died. The reasons were race and the discovery by the young that they could demand what they found laborious to earn.
Forced integration was perhaps the first crack in the dike. The black children came from a culture utterly alien to that of whites, having very different academic expectations and speaking a dialect hardly a word of which resmebled standard English. They read and calculated grade levels below the whites, did not regard General Lee and Stonewall as quite the heroes the whites did, and had little interest in the literature and history of Europe, which after all was not where they came from. They sank instantly to the bottom of their classes. Explain this as you will, blame whom you will, but it happened.o much for consensus.
The chasm was too deep for solution. The difference in language was particularly grave. Yet, curiously, there was nothing inherently black about the degraded English now called Ebonics: Blacks in Mexico speak standard Spanish, in France, standard French, in England standard English. But not in America.
The choice was to flunk or accomodate. The latter was chosen. The consensus on academic standards was broken.
So was the consensus on courtesy and what constituted civilized behavior. The courts decided that foul language was a part of the culture of blacks, and consequenly legiitimate. So was horrendous grammar. Thus if a black student said to a teacher, “You be a muhfuggen bitch,” she could not respond, “No, William, you should say ‘You are a muhfuggen bitch.” It would be cultural imperialism.
This approach, intended to protect blacks, of course embodied a profound contempt, and in particular the observably false belief that they could not learn to read and speak English. Condescension and self-awareness seldom cohabit.
Concommitantly, the exodus of bright women into biochemistry left the schools in the hands of dull-witted and little-read women, often of recent blue-collar origin, who, having had no experience of either education or cultivation, fell into psychobabble and ploughed the fields of self-esteem. Teachers who had not read the classics, and in many cases had never heard of them, could have no idea why these things might matter. Masculine influence having evaporated, they turned the schools into hothouses of niceness, anti-violence, hostility to boys, and cloying political correctness.
The Sixties had triumphed, had instilled the idea that if mention of incompetence were forbidden, the effort of becoming competent could be avoided. These are not fevered imaginings. From a piece I wrote for Harper’s in 1981:
“The bald, statistically verifiable truth is that the teachers’ colleges, probably on ideological grounds, have produced an incredible proportion of incompetent black teachers. Evidence of this appears periodically, as, for example, in the results of a competency test given to applicants for teaching positions in Pinellas County, Florida (which includes St. Petersburg and Clearwater), cited in Time, June 16, 1980. To pass this grueling examination, an applicant had to be able to read at the tenth-grade level and do arithmetic at the eighth-grade level.Though they all held B.A.’s, 25 percent of the whites and 79 percent of the blacks failed. Similar statistics exist for other places.” l
Thus the student’s project on Italian Americans I saw on a wall in a middle school near Washington, honoring Enrico Fermi’s contributions to, so help me, “Nucler Phisicts.” On the wall. Uncorrected.
And so we now see rigorous study as an unreasonable imposition. The pretense is sufficient. A new consensus forms. Even in what were once universites almost everyone gets As, and students, if so they may be termed, graduate in a state of darkness, knowing nothing of history, geography, literature.
Of the standards of earlier times, only a blisterish sensitivity remais. To correct anyone’s English is to provoke fury and cries of “Elitism!” this being generally conceived as worse than pederasty or shoplifting.
And if you proposed to reinsitute the curricula of 1955, only Jews and Asians would abstain from the lynch mob. How far we have come.