Modern Education

Not long ago, only the privileged were literate. History reveals that the literate minority could, and often did, use their literacy to take advantage of the illiterate masses. Stories abound of unlettered people who used Xs to attest to all manner of contractually binding agreements. Often, that illiterate signer later regretted his act after learning of the contents of the “fine print” to which he had agreed. It’s small wonder that illiterate adults in nearly every time and society have longed for their children to be taught to read and write; to be given the tools necessary to attain equal footing with their potential adversaries in life.

When the sturdy people who formed what is now The United States of America proclaimed that all people are created as equal in the eyes of the Lord, they distilled volumes of social comment regarding abuses of the common man into that one phrase. As it applies to literacy, our nation’s founders promoted the novel idea that everyone should be allowed to learn to read and write; to become literate. Everyone should have the same opportunity for advantage. No one should prevail simply because of birth or awarded privilege. This notion ultimately led to the public school system we enjoy today. A system some of us take for granted, others shun as an unnecessary ( and, perhaps immoral, if not illegal) imposition, while yet others criticize it as being inadequate in one way or another. Few have no opinion.

Today, we are embroiled in a national debate regarding public education. The necessity of universal public literacy to ensure the continued growth and success of our nation is not the question. What seems to be the debatable issue is the definition of “literate” and how to determine if indeed one is or is not. While reading (and to a lesser degree, writing) was the mark of literacy for many centuries, it now seems that conversational ability in the arts, sciences, politics and an ever growing list of increasingly more esoteric talents have been added to the necessary requirements. From the bare bones Readin’, ‘Ritin’ and ‘Rithmetic of yore, curricula have evolved to include subjects less basic and mundane and more interesting to the (already) literati. The contents of the publicly mandated (and financed) portion of public school curricula surely should be debated; What are the minimum requirements for earning a diploma attesting to the student’s level of understanding and ability to cope with and contribute to our modern society?

Do we truly wish to limit the education offered to a defined minimum or do we truly desire to offer more? If we answer “more”, how much more? And should we just offer it or should we impose it? Some societies differentiate between “Professional” and “Trade” careers; following ElHi, they offer the choice of higher education in either trade school or university. Trade school graduates are journeyman carpenters, mechanics and the like while university graduates are doctors, lawyers and that ilk. Is that a blueprint that would be useful for the U.S. education system to adopt? If the public system offers more than basic literacy, should the public financially underwrite all, part or none of the additional costs? If the answer is other than “all”, should the public underwrite grade/high school scholarships? Based on performance? Need?

In times past, a teacher was identified as a person with mastery of the subject at hand and who was skilled in the arts of presentation and explanation. More recently, teachers seem to have become lettered entertainers, capable by proclamation of successfully assuming any role thrust upon them by equally lettered “administrators”.

If the ability to read with comprehension is taken as the sole criterion for literacy, the data show (without question) that the stated goal of providing all students a useful and necessary education is not only not being now met but also has apparently not been met for scores of years. Adding additional requirements for the achievement of literacy to that of reading reveals data that is even more grim.

So what’s to be done?

Some would be content to place blame for the failure. Choices include: our children are stupid (or lazy), teachers are ill-prepared (or incompetent), our school systems have inadequate funding, there is insufficient means of measuring the quality of the education provided, there is too much emphasis placed on measuring the quality of the education provided, there is insufficient municipal, state or federal involvement in the system, there is too much municipal, state or federal involvement in the system, and on and on ad nauseum.

Others contend that the current system must be changed: It must revert to the proven style of our grandfathers, it must be modernized to include all of the technologies and devices available. You get the idea.

It would seem prudent to first agree on the definition of an “adequate education”. Trying to invent a system for delivering a phantom product is clearly an exercise in futility. The proponents of testing seem closer than most others to taking this first step. They, at least, must have some notion of what to expect students to know before they can determine if they know it or not. Detractors from testing observe that knowledge can’t be “tested” into the student, it must be taught. Seems about right on both sides: teachers should teach and students should learn – testing is about the success of the teachers, not the failure of the students. It is virtually impossible to rate teacher’s performances without testing their students.