Wednesday, September 02, 2009

"It's like weighing a calf twice a day, but never feeding it."

I recently realized that most of my posting of late isn’t really about politics. It’s about my continuing astonishment and anger about how stupid Americans are, as a people and as a society. Certainly, there are very large numbers of very intelligent and articulate people in the U.S., of all shapes and sizes, genders, and political persuasion.

Some people, including myself at times, might mistake my meanderings and rants at this blog to be against Republicans or conservatives in general. And I, no doubt, help confuse this issue with how I label those I am complaining about. Truthfully, I have absolutely no problem with people who have different opinions than I do. I may not understand why people don’t see things the same way I do, but I accept that this will always be true.

What I do demand, and what is at my heart of my discontent with today’s society, is that everyone start from an easily agreed to set of facts, and then they apply logic and deductive reasoning to those facts. And that is what is missing today. That is what I am really upset about. I don’t care if a Republican or a Democrat is being a dumbass. Anyone taking liberties with logic and coming to your (desired) conclusion first and then finding “facts” to support your decision is wrong. Just flat-out wrong.

So, with that, here is another aspect of our society that really has me worried. That is, our society is setting the latest generation of young people loose on the world without educating them. I mean, really educating them. Memorizing facts and learning to take tests is not education. Education is teaching young people to think logically and methodically to solve problems. That is true whether you are talking about a physics problem or figuring out how to lay out a term paper. Kids need to know what the scientific process is and how it works, not be made to memorize the periodic table. You will always have access to a periodic table if you need one. You will rarely have someone around who will help you walk through an exercise in problem solving. Kids need to have an understanding of history and why that history is relevant. They do not need to memorize a bunch of names and dates that have absolutely no relevance or even context in their lives.

Teachers have it tough. They are underpaid, underappreciated and overworked. I am not bashing teachers. Administrators, maybe, get some of the blame for the poor job, collectively, that schools do when they turn out masses of undereducated people who are not prepared for life in open society. Administrators can certainly make some bad decisions regarding priorities and staffing. Those in charge of setting policy, such as mandatory testing without understanding the reason behind that testing, are absolutely part of the problem. Those who control the purse strings are sometimes to blame, sometimes not. There is little that school administrations can do if the community they serve doesn’t fund the school adequately. There are many culprits, it seems. There is no one person in any single school district that you could point at and say, “This is all your fault!” It isn’t set up like that. Yet, the results are the same and they are getting worse.

Here is part of an article I found (h/t to part-time posting partner Philm Phan) on SFGate on this subject. The author explores this subject and comes to some very unsettling conclusions. I hope this guy’s friend he was talking with is just being really over-the-top about this, because I certainly am not happy with some of his observations.

I have this ongoing discussion with a longtime reader who also just so happens to be a longtime Oakland high school teacher, a wonderful guy who's seen generations of teens come and generations go and who has a delightful poetic sensibility and quirky outlook on his life and his family and his beloved teaching career.

And he often writes to me in response to something I might've written about the youth of today, anything where I comment on the various nefarious factors shaping their minds and their perspectives and whether or not, say, EMFs and junk food and cell phones are melting their brains and what can be done and just how bad it might all be.

His response: It is not bad at all. It's absolutely horrifying.

My friend often summarizes for me what he sees, firsthand, every day and every month, year in and year out, in his classroom. He speaks not merely of the sad decline in overall intellectual acumen among students over the years, not merely of the astonishing spread of lazy slackerhood, or the fact that cell phones and iPods and excess TV exposure are, absolutely and without reservation, short-circuiting the minds of the upcoming generations. Of this, he says, there is zero doubt.

Nor does he speak merely of the notion that kids these days are overprotected and wussified and don't spend enough time outdoors and don't get any real exercise and therefore can't, say, identify basic plants, or handle a tool, or build, well, anything at all. Again, these things are a given. Widely reported, tragically ignored, nothing new.

No, my friend takes it all a full step — or rather, leap — further. It is not merely a sad slide. It is not just a general dumbing down. It is far uglier than that.

We are, as far as urban public education is concerned, essentially at rock bottom. We are now at a point where we are essentially churning out ignorant teens who are becoming ignorant adults and society as a whole will pay dearly, very soon, and if you think the hordes of easily terrified, mindless fundamentalist evangelical Christian lemmings have been bad for the soul of this country, just wait.

It's gotten so bad that, as my friend nears retirement, he says he is very seriously considering moving out of the country so as to escape what he sees will be the surefire collapse of functioning American society in the next handful of years due to the absolutely irrefutable destruction, the shocking — and nearly hopeless — dumb-ification of the American brain. It is just that bad.

Now, you may think he's merely a curmudgeon, a tired old teacher who stopped caring long ago. Not true. Teaching is his life. He says he loves his students, loves education and learning and watching young minds awaken. Problem is, he is seeing much less of it. It's a bit like the melting of the polar ice caps. Sure, there's been alarmist data about it for years, but until you see it for yourself, the deep visceral dread doesn't really hit home.

He cites studies, reports, hard data, from the appalling effects of television on child brain development (i.e.; any TV exposure before 6 years old and your kid's basic cognitive wiring and spatial perceptions are pretty much scrambled for life), to the fact that, because of all the insidious mandatory testing teachers are now forced to incorporate into the curriculum, of the 182 school days in a year, there are 110 when such testing is going on somewhere at Oakland High. As one of his colleagues put it, "It's like weighing a calf twice a day, but never feeding it."

But most of all, he simply observes his students, year to year, noting all the obvious evidence of teens' decreasing abilities when confronted with even the most basic intellectual tasks, from understanding simple history to working through moderately complex ideas to even (in a couple recent examples that particularly distressed him) being able to define the words "agriculture," or even "democracy." Not a single student could do it.

It gets worse. My friend cites the fact that, of the 6,000 high school students he estimates he's taught over the span of his career, only a small fraction now make it to his grade with a functioning understanding of written English. They do not know how to form a sentence. They cannot write an intelligible paragraph. Recently, after giving an assignment that required drawing lines, he realized that not a single student actually knew how to use a ruler.

It is, in short, nothing less than a tidal wave of dumb, with once-passionate, increasingly exasperated teachers like my friend nearly powerless to stop it. The worst part: It's not the kids' fault. They're merely the victims of a horribly failed educational system.

Then our discussion often turns to the meat of it, the bigger picture, the ugly and unavoidable truism about the lack of need among the government and the power elite in this nation to create a truly effective educational system, one that actually generates intelligent, thoughtful, articulate citizens.

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