Wednesday, December 31, 2014
McGuffey's Eclectic Reader: Back to the future
Social scientists warn us to beware of “anecdotal evidence.” They prefer “data”—that is, a more or less sizable accumulation of anecdotes laid out in graphs and statistical charts. Despite my often serious discontents with various contemporary cultural trends, fundamental pessimism seems almost willfully perverse if you are surrounded on a daily basis with phalanxes of smart, energetic, capable, purposeful and optimistic young people.
Any college campus is bound to be a “bubble”. The campus of a “highly selective” institution, such as the one on which I spent my active career, can often seem an exotic preserve for Golden Youth and a laboratory of social opportunity. Of course an important part of that opportunity is the insistent invitation to look beyond the bubble and think about what you see there.
If you accept that invitation the relationship between fiscal and cultural capital becomes obvious, even if the question of cause and effect may be murky. Speaking in the most general terms, financially successful Americans are more likely than unsuccessful ones to know the distinction between its and it’s, there and their, and imply and infer. (I have about given up on the distinction between the verbs lie and lay.) Competence in one’s native language isn’t a finite resource that Smith will have less of if Jones has more. It requires no “redistributionist” mentality to imagine a literate citizenry. Why, then, are we incapable of imagining a school system that might create one?
For a time the proposed new national public educational standards gathered beneath the shorthand phrase of the “Common Core” seemed to be gaining the “momentum” so prized in various aspects of our national life. This momentum fell far short of a shared enthusiasm, but still appeared somewhat more powerful than mere grudging support. Words are generally more prolific than deeds, however, and as the moment for implementation arrives the pseudo-consensus is fraying.
I think this is a pity, but probably inevitable. It is a pity because the new “Core” aims at sensible goals that if achieved even partially would enrich the lives of millions of our young people and measurably strengthen the national cultural fabric and our national economic prospects. It is probably inevitable because we long ago surrendered our public education system to the untender mercies of the realm of the partisan political arena and to the dead hand of an intellectually moribund trade union mentality. We have created the circumstances least favorable to broadly supported educational reform and most favorable for its plausible rejection on overtly political grounds. In particular self-styled conservatives are framing it in such a way as to guarantee its unhelpful presence as an issue in the Republican Party presidential primary of 2016—which of course has already begun in late 2014.
There is no partisan political content in the Common Core reforms. This needs to be said because so many of its critics seem to think there is. The Common Core is supposed to improve, in concrete and objective terms, American students’ mastery of the skills of reading and of mathematics. Educational reform must therefore address two demonstrable problems with American public education. The first of course is that judged in the world context, which is the proper context for any sensible evaluation, American schools are on the whole pretty mediocre. There are places, lots of them, where things are worse. But there are also quite a few places where things are better. A second problem is that most American students think they—meaning both their individual selves and their own schools--are just fine. That is, actual objective surveys of the mathematical attainments of American high school juniors, say, place them well below the level of achievement of their contemporaries in numerous other countries. But if you ask an American high school student where American students rank in international surveys you are very likely to get the confident answer “Number one!”
It is probably not reasonable to hope that America, with its large pockets of social pathology unknown to many smaller and more culturally unified countries, is in fact going to be “number one”. But on this issue default American optimism is an instance of “the man who knows not, and knows not he knows not”. The proper response to the man who knows not, and knows not he knows not, as I recall, is—pity him. The first two steps toward doing better are acknowledging that we must and realizing that we can.