Education in America

Read this interesting Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub  post about censorship; it seems a gentleman was on a work break and was seen reading a book about the Ku Klux Klan (a book critical of the group, I might add), and several coworkers complained that this was racist.  The fellow was asked by his employer to not bring this book to work.  Ed continues in his post to ask some questions about censorship and the need to instruct as a means of preventing the same mistakes and wicked deeds being repeated in the future.

A schoolteacher commented on this post, stating that in her experience children’s minds are not fully developed and they are then incapable of processing such subtleties as irony.  She specifically stated that ‘Huckleberry Finn’ is an adult book, not something that children would understand – not even appropriate for children – and that satire can very easily be misconstrued.

My husband is an educator.  He works with grammar school children, many of whom have special needs.  I asked him whether he believes that Huckleberry Finn is a book that is meant for adult consumption; his reply was an emphatic ‘No.’  He said that he in fact often encourages children to read this book as a means of adding depth to their understanding of the world around them.  It is a way, he believes, that their little brains can grow and become aware that they are not the center of the universe.

While I agree that children’s minds may not understand subtlety, is it not the mission of education to explain and instruct?  In other words, we do not wake up one day suddenly knowing that Jonathon Swift wrote satire; someone teaches us, explains it, we (I hope) learn, and our minds grow as the brain rapidly forms new neuropathways enabling us to think in a different way, on a different level.  Without that instruction, we become a people incapable of distinguishing fact from fiction, irony from hatred.

When I was in school, I had access to a marvelous group of literature instructors.  I petitioned for, and was granted, British Literature two years earlier than most kids, as I was eager to learn from the well-respected teacher.  We learned wonderful background materials such as Beowulf, moved on to the confounding Canterbury Tales, traipsed through  poetry (I still recall To the virgins, to make the most of time!), dipped into Swift and on and on … until we landed in the wondrous adventure of Theatre of the Absurd.  Harold Pinter was quite a favorite for several years thereafter.

I started the course at fourteen, when my brain was certainly muddled by hormones.  I am sure I was no more capable of discerning subtlety than most others of that age.  But that year I learned more about history than I had learned the previous nine years.  I also learned sociology, psychology, religion, philosophy – the gamut!  The teacher was well-respected and effective because he provided context for the materials he taught.  Because of these efforts – which I maintain are the expectation we ought to have for a teacher – our little brains began to expand and we suddenly found ourselves alive for that hour, competing to provide our opinion, anxious to participate in the discussion, and disappointed when the hour ended.

We read Golding’s Lord of the Flies.  Did I then wish to go out and kill my peers?  Hell no!  We also read The Dumbwaiter.  Did this make me disdainful of persons with learning disabilities?  Absolutely not!  Was I offended when we read Swift’s recommendations about disposing of children?  No way!

There are many burdens placed on the schools that properly belong to parents and the community.  Schools are expected to feed children, report suspected child abuse, provide psychological counseling services, and handle disputes between children.  BUT, the one thing that teachers should absolutely do without question is to instruct and encourage intelligent discourse.  I was so troubled to find that an educator implies that this is not a part of her job.

This type of laissez-faire attitude, in fact, serves only to perpetuate the deficient state of intellectual discourse in the US.  If we throw up our hands and concede whenever a teenager challenges us, we have no place in the classroom – might as well pack it in and get a desk job for a corporation at that point.   The mission of education is to instill knowledge, and the means is to meet the challenges that as-yet unformed minds bring to the classroom. 

I agree with Ed’s post, that his approach with the child who repeatedly insisted that the work he was teaching was racist involved bringing the parents in for a meaningful discussion.  The most intransigent individuals require additional instruction, and involvement of the parents.  If the parents are not willing to, or capable of, engaging in a reasonably scholarly conversation, that is another story – a very sad one indeed.

By the way, I have a clear understanding that teachers are shockingly underpaid, and that parents are often absent, hostile and ill-educated.  My father was, in fact, a math teacher for 35 years, over 30 of which were spent with middle school children.  This was his life’s work, and though he felt underpaid and periodically persecuted unfairly by some quite bizarre parents, as a man of integrity he did not allow these facts to affect his work performance. 

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3 responses

  1. Outstanding post!!!!! Couldnt have been better said!

  2. Of course this has been going on for a while, Alan Bloom wrote a book upon it back in 1987. http://www.amazon.com/Closing-American-Mind-Allan-Bloom/dp/0671657151

  3. Yes that is true. It’s a good book.

    We are creating generations of Americans who feel like they are entitled to material wealth. We are creating generations of Americans who feel they deserve respect even when they behave in a disrespectful manner themselves.

    This makes me very sad.

    I think this is changing, but in a manner which increases the chasm between social classes. There are those who care about knowing and learning, and those who are content to live, work and speak as if they do not care for much of anything. I am interested and a little alarmed to observe this trend.

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