More Thinking About Thinking.


One cold November morning I stood in line outside a classroom waiting for the previous class to end. Several students were lined up with me, including a young man and woman whom I learned from their conversation were education majors. They were discussing a project they had to do for one of their classes. The young man remarked that the professor had given then a choice of six topics. “I can’t decide,” he said, “whether to do the one that will be easiest or the one I already know the most about.”

Had that happened more recently I would have said, “Why don’t you do the one from which you will learn the most?” But back then I only thought it and didn’t say anything out loud. But I also thought, “And you want to teach my kids. I don’t think so.”

Unfortunately, the school of education actually encouraged that kind of thinking. While the academic departments snickered behind their hands, the school of education gave its students 95% “A” grades. I was a teaching assistant in a class where three education majors, for whom the class was required, approached the professor to apologize for their poor grades on the first exam. “We took nothing but education courses in the Fall,” they explained, “and we’re just getting used to studying again.” That particular professor despised the school of education, so the remark filled his heart with glee for weeks thereafter. Last month I remarked that our public schools have failed in their task of teaching students to think. Since then I have read three books that have helped refine my thinking on this subject; Dana Mack’s The Assault on Parenthood, Dinesh D’Souza’s The End of Racism, and David Frum’s critique of the failure of the Reagan administration to carry out conservative fiscal policies, Dead Right. Mack and D’Souza discuss the failures of our public schools in detail, while Frum gets in the best line on the subject.

America’s educational structure was given its form and purpose largely through the work of Horace Mann,, who served as the Massachusetts Superintendent of Public Education in the 1840s. Mann believed in a threefold purpose for education; the passing on of knowledge, the training of students in moral behavior and the development of love of country. The American educational system has lost its way because it has lost sight of all three goals.

Patriotism went first, a casualty of the Cold War. An increasingly leftist educational establishment blamed love of country for the “confrontation mentality” they feared would lead to neclear war. Relativism also played a role as students began to be taught that we weren’t really all that much better (indeed we may have been worse) than some of the countries and peoples we were contending with. It was also relativism that led the schools to discontinue real moral training. Young people, the educational establishment believed, should be free to make their own moral choices from the full range of options rather than being told which was best. Even if it can be proven that children thrive best in stable, two-parent heterosexual families, why should that limit the moral choices of the individual? So the schools left the teaching of right and wrong to the increasingly relativized churches, many of which had also lost their own moral way.

By the time he became a force in American education, Horace Mann had abandoned the Calvinism of his youth for a more typical New England Unitarianism. But he retained the Calvinist idea that “All truth is God’s truth,” and that, therefore, the chief moral good a young person could do was to gain knowledge. But as relativism swept the American educational scene the emphasis on attaining knowledge as a positive good has disappeared. Gaining knowledge is now seen as a means to an end, getting a good job, not as a moral endeavor. That is why students who want to go into one of the social sciences or humanities object to having to take math (“What am I ever going to use this for?”) while people interested in computers or the sciences don’t see why they should study History, English or a foreign language.

What has replaced the impartation of knowledge in the schools is, as Dana Mack does an admirable job of demonstrating? Therapy. She quotes everyone from federal education officials to the heads of several schools of education declaring that the teacher’s primary responsibility is helping the students improve their self image, helping them to feel positive about themselves. That is why teachers keep demanding smaller class size–therapy is best done in small groups. Indeed since Mack wrote, this model of education has evolved further. As John Owens declares in Confessions of a Bad Teacher, the current model of education seeks to have the students teach each other while the teacher is no more than a classroom manager. No wonder Jeopardy uses high school tournament-level clues in its annual teachers’ tournament!

Dinesh D’Souza describes the results of this kind of education. While American students underperform when compared with students from other industrialized countries, they consistently believe they are actually at or near the top in educational achievement. Their self-esteem is not backed up by the numbers. Worse, all studies show that the best way to build self-esteem among students is through academic achievement. As I said, David Frum gets in the best line. He describes William Bennett’s failure, during the Reagan years, to make an impact on American education, remarking that, “Bennett could blame this disappointment on an almost uniquely hostile Congress. The committees to which he reported are subservient almost to the point of humiliation to the teachers’ unions, those unions, in turn, are fervently committed to turning out the dumbest possible high school graduates at the greatest possible cost.”

The result of all this is that the colleges and universities, which are supposed to be bastions of reasoned discourse and intellectual discussion end up having both to teach many of their students what they ought to have learned in primary and secondary school as well as how to think and reason. Frum’s imagery is vivid: “America turns out students the way General Motors used to turn out cars: slovenly and stupid assembly workers bang the doors on any old way they feel like, counting on a highly-paid team of fixers at the end of the line to redo and repair their bungled work.” He also compares the task of the universities to people who add fruit to yogurt to make it less sour.

I suspect that some of you are really angry with me right now because, though you went to public school, you can name several teachers who were actually quite good. All of us have had teachers who impacted us positively; like Mr. Tom Hamilton who taught me to love History or Mrs. Henrietta Hobbs who, good Christian that she was, nursed me through Algebra and Geometry. But even they get steamrollered by the system, building relationships with and helping only those few students who are really interested in their subjects, or who come to them desperate for help. The mediocrity of our educational system is now so deeply ingrained that I think the only thing to do is junk the whole system and start over.

What can you, as a Christian and a student do? First, commit your mind to the process of learning. This means both learning to think logically (try reading the great political theorists of the past, Locke, Burke and the rest), so you can see how they drew conclusions from the data they had. Also, commit yourself to mastering your subject not just for the sake of gettng knowledge but for the glory off God. Then, either consider a career in education or, if already determined on such a career, prepare to fight the present system in every way and at every level. Next, prepare yourself to accept a citizen’s responsibility within our society, part of which is to promote quality education by becoming involved in your local schools in any way you can. Then, when the system either collapses (as I believe it must) or decides to reform itself, you’ll be in the best position to help create something that truly advances the proper aims of education. Even if you were blessed with a good private education or parents who taught you well at home, you are not free of your responsibility to help others who are less fortunate. Finally, since we have all been influenced in some measure by this world’s way of thinking, remember that one of the greatest needs each of us has is the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2).

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