Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Educational Train Wreck

The question that was fluttering the pundits was “Who will win Ohio?”  I presume that the results of “Super Tuesday” mean that we can start waving  goodbye to Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, though we’ll have to wait until November to say goodbye to Mitt Romney.  It’s been a real squeaker, but the Republicans, against daunting odds, have managed to pluck defeat from the jaws of victory.  Mr. Santorum self-destructed just before the Michigan primary when a series of merely unusually bizarre statements encouraged the press to dig out some of his really bizarre statements of yesteryear.  It turns out there is no operative policy of Too Weird to Fail.  Who knew?

            One of his Parthian shots related to a subject I actually know something about, higher education.  Mr. Santorum, who has two postgraduate degrees, said that President Obama is a snob (indeed, “What a snob!”) for saying that all Americans should go to college.  President Obama never said that, but what people actually say has so little to do with the spirit of this campaign that the issue seldom arises.  The President has suggested, several times, that Higher Education is a good thing, and some of his followers are now talking about it as a “right”.  So the question is worth considering. Would universal higher education be good for America?  I don’t think so.

            Among the legends of bureaucratic inanity is the story of a European governmental commission tasked, early in the twentieth century, with investigating an alarming rise in railway accident deaths.   Statistical analysis revealed that most people killed in train accidents had been sitting in the last car of the train.  The recommendation of the commission was simplicity itself.  Just remove the last car from every train!

            Agitation for a “right” to universal higher education here is of similar inanity.  What do you do if the last car in the train of your public education system—that would be public high school, if you grasp my allegory—what do you do if this car keeps derailing?  I would respectfully suggest that what you do not do is add another car.

            Our high schools are a mess—not all of them, of course, but far too many.  The mess is not one that governmental policy has directly created, nor one the federal government can directly address effectively.  While American public education is a somewhat more relevant topic for discussion in a presidential race than contraception, it’s on the same continuum.  And before the educational crisis can be addressed, it has to be convincingly identified.  If secondary education is broken, we need to try to fix secondary education, not winch the problem up to higher ground.  A generic high school diploma that cannot guarantee so much as real literacy is worthless as a professional credential; but the diploma was not always worthless.

            The notion of universal public education financed by the public purse is based in a forgotten contract.  Citizens of the Republic have an obligation to become active contributors to its social health and vigor.  The Republic has the responsibility to provide its citizens with with the opportunity to gain certain fundamental skills of citizenship.  But that forgotten contract was itself founded on something yet more forgotten: the assumption that the young would be prepared for their state education and supported in its pursuit within the context of a wholesome and caring household.

            There is a good deal of outrage about what has followed in the wake of the Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” decision—to wit, torrents of fat-cat money mainly used to finance thirty-second political attack ads on television.  I share the outrage, but if we need to be protected against our own freedom I’d first look elsewhere.  I have heard no outrage, none, that even without the Supreme Court we seem content to have an electorate that casts its votes on the basis of an education gained in the commercial breaks of televised athletic matches.

            The latest in our endless series of school massacres was perpetrated by a certain T. J. Lane, aged 17, in the high school at Chardon, OH.  I don’t know what courses Mr. Lane or his victims had been pursuing.  Not long ago, however, I read the beautifully written memoirs of General William Tecumseh Sherman.  Sherman, who you will recall really won Georgia, was born in 1820 in Lancaster, near Columbus, when Ohio was still largely wilderness.  When he was five he entered the school there, a school like most in the early Republic entrepreneurially established by one educated man or woman who was often the entire faculty. 

             Sherman wrote: “I continued at the Academy in Lancaster, which was the best in the place, indeed as good as any school in Ohio.  We studied all the common branches of knowledge, including Latin, Greek, and French.”  That was when he was eleven or twelve years old.  At sixteen he left to become a cadet at the Military Academy.  “During the autumn of 1835 and the spring of 1836 I devoted myself chiefly to mathematics and French, which were known to be the chief requirements for admission to West Point.”  How many high school students today devote themselves “chiefly” to anything taxing and academic?  The relevant question about Ohio might be who lost it?