October 4, 1999

The Gong Show

Catching a bit of National Public Radio the other day, I chanced to hear a rather blissed-out woman introduce a song she was about to sing as a homage to her teacher, her guru, her lama, her whatever. Of course, I'm well aware that this ritual thanking of the teacher for blessing one's lowly, ignorant self with infinite wisdom and patience is typical of a great many religious and secular traditions, not just those of the East. But my immediate, gut reaction is one of intense irritation. My modern, Western, Americanized ears scream "fool," "fraud," "charlatan," "cult," "slave," before I have the slightest chance to think about it.

We proud individualists are just not raised to feel that way about those who instruct us, including even or perhaps especially our own parents. Instead we tend to honor as our best teachers, from Socrates on, those who teach exactly the reverse: "Question all authority, including my own." Our fundamental understanding is that knowledge flows from ever-inquiring doubt rather than from unquestioning faith. So when one of "our own," such as this NPR woman, comes along ritually singing any teacher's perfection, we can't help feeling in some sense betrayed. We experience an almost instinctive revulsion at what seems the ancient error of idolatry. It matters little whether we be christian-bush.html">christian-bush.html">Christian, Jew, or Muslim, believer or non-believer. On any respectable twentieth-century ground, religious or secular, this order of teacher worship comes across as intellectual blasphemy.

But of what are we so proud? Where's the evidence that our attitude toward teachers, teaching methodology, or education as a whole has anything to recommend it? In America, we can't even teach a majority our children to read and write, let alone to understand basic mathematics. The latest government study by the National Assessment of Educational Progress concludes that "the typical American student is not a proficient writer." "Most Pupils Can't Write Well" reports the New York Times (September 29, 1999):

Just 1 percent of the nation's students scored in the "advanced" range, while 16 percent of 4th and 8th graders and 22 percent of 12th graders landed below "basic," unable to show even "partial mastery of the knowledge and skills" expected at their grade levels.

The bulk of students--61 percent of 4th graders, 57 percent of 8th graders and 56 percent of 12th graders--landed in the "basic" range, scoring from 115 to 175 out of 300.

Unfortunately, this is not news. These results are completely in line with those of prior reading skill studies conducted by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Its 1993 assessment of 1975-1990 reading skill data indicated that 60% of high school seniors could not read "most newspaper stories and popular novels" and that fewer than 10% were even halfway to the "advanced" skill level required to "read newspaper editorials at the New York Times level" (Earl Hunt, Will We Be Smart Enough?, Russell Sage Foundation: New York, 1995). Numerous comparative studies of the mathematics skills of U.S. students and their peers in other industrial nations have produced even more dismal results.

As if our failure to teach our students to read, write, and do math weren't bad enough, there is a growing movement among "educational experts" to rationalize our failure, providing reasons why we ought not measure institutional success or failure by the goal of teaching all students the skills that everyone admits are prerequisite to full political, social and economic participation in the 21st century. In public view, the ritual election campaign breast-beating about standards, assessment, and renewed commitment to education for all Americans goes on and on. But beneath the public rhetoric of crisis and crisis management, largely hidden in professional journals and publications aimed at education and labor policy makers, the more pessimistic, rationalization movement has been growing stronger every year.

On the more visible, conservative side of this movement of rationalized failure is the notorious The Bell Curve by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray (Simon & Schuster: New York, 1994). Herrnstein and Murray were roundly attacked for their "racist" propositions about IQ and their dismissal of programs designed to remedy performance gaps between whites and Asians, and blacks and Hispanics. But, conspicuously, the many rebuttals to their racial performance analysis steered clear of their more sweeping propositions. Few, apparently, wanted to address the general conclusions indicated by subtitle to The Bell Curve, which speaks not about race or ethnicity but sweepingly about "Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life." The ugly fact is that Herrnstein and Murray's prognosis for the vast majority of whites and Asians on "the bell curve" is so bleak that it hardly matters from a broad societal perspective that white and Asian prospects are a shade better than those of blacks and Hispanics. This no one wants to address, at least not publicly, because Herrnstein and Murray's generally bleak view of the future for all but the "best and brightest" regardless of race is a view also shared, albeit with greater hand-wringing, by their liberal policy-maker counterparts.

For example, Earl Hunt, an early and strong critic of The Bell Curve's methodology and conclusions with regard to race, nevertheless concludes his liberal Russell Sage Foundation study Will We Be Smart Enough? with the following reflections on the growing pessimistic consensus among policy makers:

The Times article was only one of many such reports that, taken together, raise a question that has to be faced. How many good jobs are there? Is it possible that we are wasting everyone's time by trying to provide lots of well-trained people when we only need a few?

Three technological changes--computers, communications, and transportation--have combined to produce a workplace where there is an increasingly sharp demarcation between a few good jobs and a large number of mediocre ones. What each of these technologies does is to multiply the effectiveness of a smart person. If one person has an idea about how to run something, and if that idea can be translated into a computer program, then the idea can be instantly transferred all over the world. The need for local reinvention of the wheel, together with the need for local wheel designers, disappears. What follows is a sharp redistribution of wealth, since we pay a few designers handsomely and dispense with the rest.

The situation is exacerbated by international competition (Hunt, 284).

In many ways, Hunt's liberal analysis is far more ominous than Herrnstein and Murray's heavy-handed pandering to anxious white business climbers, especially those who've only just cleared the glass ceiling. In contrast, liberal Hunt speaks directly to and for those who own that ceiling:

Unfortunately, there has been little change in the percentage of readers at the adept and advanced skill level. In fact, the percentage of readers at the advanced level has declined slightly. It is not clear whether or not this is a problem. As Carroll points out, we do not know what percentage of very good readers we need, because we do not have a good idea of how much essential reading (manuals, directions, legal instructions, and the like) is written at the adept level or above, nor do we know how many people we need to understand this material (Hunt, 28; emphasis added).

Who is this "we" for whom it may not be a problem that few American citizens are capable of reading "manuals, directions, legal instructions, and the like," and that even fewer are capable of reading the New York Times? The significance of the Times here and the reason it appears so frequently in discussions and measurements of literacy is that the New York Times is the nation's and to a great extent the world's "paper of record." Its reportage, its analyses, its editorial and opinion pages are our most visible and accessible forum for public policy issues. What appears or does not appear in the New York Times is a matter of great consequence not just with respect to memory of what has happened but, more importantly, with respect to what may or may not happen in response to major issues and events. Who, then, is this "we" who may not need most American citizens to understand the nation's and the world's paper of record?

The answer is clear enough from the context in which the Times is invoked as a standard of advanced literary. One doesn't have to be some kind of Marxist to figure out that "we" is about class, as even conservative Herrnstein and Murray are quite frank about it. "We" are those for whom the New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, etc. are written so that "we" and our "running dogs," as the Maoists used to call the most educated and privileged "white collar" servants of speculative capital, might be informed adequately about what is going on in the world and the choices "we" face. "We" are those for whom books based on "academic" and "non-profit" policy studies are funded, written and published, despite the fact that few Americans can or do read them. "We" are those able to call personally upon the nation's elected and appointed officials to address our issues seriously, not simply and cynically because "we" contribute directly and indirectly to their political campaigns, but because, as a matter of class, they already well know who and what "we" and our interests are. After all, they too are among the few who can and do read the New York Times. In sum, "we" are those who have the power to discover, to decide, and to advocate what is needed nationally and internationally to serve our interests.

And the rest of us? The rest of us, who don't even count as a "we" in education and labor policy analysis, are a long way from Jefferson's vision of a free, educated and independent electorate safe-guarding democracy and the rights of all from, as he put it, the narrow, selfish interests of an aristocracy of wealth.

So as the 2000 presidential election campaign heats up, it would be only prudent to remember this "we" whispering in the ears of every candidate as he or she promises the public tougher, higher standards and assessment, universal teacher testing, and ever-renewed commitment to educational excellence. Prudence requires remembering that this "we" only needs excellence from the top 1-2% and adequate performance from the next 10-20%, because computers, communications, and cheap, modern transportation can do the rest.

And prudence requires remembering that for the remaining 80% of the American population, this "we" only needs that it be kept off the streets: at home before the tube or at the movies silently watching advertisement and product placement; at work, at school or at the shopping mall dreaming endlessly of one day having more; or, if it comes down to it, safely locked away in prison, preferably a privately funded and profit-making one with government service contracts. And it helps this "we" no end that this residual, less productive 80% cannot effectively read the New York Times or any other serious publication where real policy is discussed. It helps that this 80% cannot write persuasively. It helps that this 80% is easily confused by the most basic mathematics of statistical and financial analysis.

Perhaps prudence also requires recalling the history of "educational crisis" in this country, specifically the extent to which every crisis has only led to a renewed and deeper pact of sorts between a scared and anxious public and an ever-increasing administrative apparatus of experts, commissions, and institutes promising to improve education by uprooting its traditions and making it more efficient, more cost-effective, more accountable, in short, more business-like. It may well be that we have been traveling down this road of making education more "business-like" for so long, with so little to show for it, that it's time to notice what's left out of this pact and what has been progressively undermined by it: the kind of ritual respect for teachers that seems so irritating in other and older systems of education.

Perhaps this ritual respect from students, parents, and the community at large is more essential than we have imagined or have been led to imagine. Could it be that the ritual itself, which in no way requires blindness to actual performance, is the only means of fostering in mere mortal human beings the degree of self-denying reverent care for students' progress and potential that is the hallmark of great teachers? Perhaps what we haven't noticed in our series of ever-deepening crisis pacts with administrators and experts is that once this ritual respect is gone, once its last vestiges have been thoroughly expunged from any educational system, nothing else in whatever measure can have any positive effect on educational quality.

Certainly, it is the experience of most teachers today, at every level of education, that "curriculum quality issues" have passed largely out of their hands, whatever they may be accomplishing individually in their own classrooms; that even tenure is no longer much of a protection from the most intrusive and disruptive forms of administrative harassment; and that, caught between the demands of paper and committee work designed to justify a burgeoning bureaucratic superstructure of administrators, experts and their unending "reforms" and, on the other side which is really the same side, "consumer-oriented" teaching assessments in which students are asked to sit judgment upon everything from their teachers' academic attainments to their ability to adjust classroom thermostats, the act of teaching itself has come to resemble participation in some kind of grand twisted Gong Show. If you could get teachers to speak honestly--something it no longer pays to do in teaching--you'd discover that, win or lose, performance in our on-going educational Gong Show demands showmanship over substance. "Great teachers," of course, manage both--as if that were an excuse for the system harm of false priorities. "Good" or "great," there is hardly a surviving, practicing teacher today who would not also make a fine improv comedian, used car salesman, real estate broker, or happy-talk newscaster, because a "good teacher" today is necessarily an ever-nervous, juggling, jumping court jester, a professional fool whose combined abilities are "(E) All of the above."

In retrospect, I think most of my irritation with that woman singing homage to her guru's infinite patience and wisdom on National Public Radio was not due to any deep cultural prejudice for Western critical intelligence, for the power and freedom of ever-inquiring doubt. I rather suspect that the primary source of my irritation was envy, simple envy and, of course, frustration. After eighteen years of teaching at institutions of higher education--and I was always very "well respected" by my students--I cannot imagine limits to the impossible feats of education and enlightenment I might have accomplished had I the leverage of the smallest fraction of that ritual respect accorded routinely in America to even the most sleazy New Age dream peddlers.

Sadly, change is not on the horizon. There is no public consensus or even widespread inkling that education might ideally accomplish more than certifying prospects for flexible global labor markets, aside, that is, from keeping kids from killing each other before they graduate. To judge by the rhetoric of our current presidential candidates, the Internet in every classroom, a metal detector at every door, and "we" may not have much of a problem with education as it is.

To teach today is to be assailed on all sides by such impossible, contradictory and demeaning demands that the only solution is to lie, to laugh, or to leave.

Posted by Raoul

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