July 21, 2003
The schools need money. Buildings crumble, class sizes inflate, school
budgets are defeated and slashed by city councils, and the intelligence
of the average American debilitates every year. Many people employ
scapegoats to explain why American children do not graduate with the
necessary skills to navigate the business world, let alone their own
life successfully. I have heard blame thrown upon administrators,
teachers, parents, students, the state bureaucracy, and the national
government. Well, the blame rests with all of us. I want to speak a
little, as a teacher at the largest by population high school in New
Jersey, and as a concerned citizen, to open a discourse on the
impoverished condition of education in America. The educational system
needs renovation, and we as a society need to re-examine our priorities
if we wish our children to look forward to tomorrow.
Entrepreneurs linked to the government like the Rockefellers' established the model of the schoolhouse and classroom during the 2nd Industrial Revolution to manufacture a semi-skilled, obedient, and patriotic laborer to man their machines on the factory floor. Frederick Gates, director of the Rockefeller Foundation wrote in 1913: "In our dream, we have limitless resources, and the people yield themselves with perfect docility to our molding hand. The present educational conventions fade from our minds; and, unhampered by tradition, we work our own good will upon a grateful and responsive folk. We shall not try to make these people or any of their children into philosophers or men of learning or science. We are not to raise up from among them authors, orators, poets, or men of letters. We shall not search to embryo great artists, painters, or musicians. Nor will we cherish even the humbler ambition to raise up from the lawyers, doctors, preachers, politicians, statesmen, of whom we now have ample supply."
Men like Gates, in coordination with the federal government, arranged schoolchildren in rows and moved them about by bells, and were always sure to discipline them strictly if they did not follow the rules. They wanted to train schoolchildren to do their job, and not to learn to think about, investigate, or god forbid, discuss political and societal issues. They aspired to program students to not only work obediently, but to understand almost nothing of the world outside that was sponsored by the mythology of the corporate state. Not much has changed, as the computer is a machine, class work and homework habitually focus on completion of often mundane tasks, and schoolchildren still meander lazily to classrooms arranged in rows on a schedule coordinated by an electronic bell.
The educational system in America drives capitalism. Capitalism, an economic viewpoint that believes everything that exists should be packaged and sold, both stratifies a bourgeoisie and a proletariat in society into tiers based on value of consumed commodities, and keeps at least a third of the population in poverty for the profit of the top five percent. Those that only earn a High School diploma do not often earn more than $12/hour, grossing $24,000/year. Many earn much less. But America needs cashiers and waiters and machine operators and telemarketers to run the system, and working through a BA and MA I wore many of their shoes. Since the poor do not have a powerful lobby like corporations, they become trapped in cycles of poverty of which ignorance often walks hand-in-hand.
Many that have the opportunity and the financial means now attend college, and take one hundred twenty credits to enter a world of corporate serfdom. Even many that graduate colleges with degrees in the humanities and social sciences are forced into the capitalist business world that does not provide enough fiscal sustenance for endeavors outside the realm of greed and profit. Saturated by hours of work behind desks in corporate hives or as industrial interchangeable parts, they often despise their jobs that steal their daylight hours. But trapped as cogs in a system that commands monetary survival at the expense of societal extinction, individuals continue to labor both mentally and emotionally fatigued by the anxiety of unemployment that looms as an ever-present severance from the comfort and security of existence.
Over the last ten years in the public school system, standardized test scores plummeted so strikingly that the educational system had to both lower the scores necessary to pass, and make the tests themselves easier, i.e., SAT II. Responding to this dilemma, the Bush Administration backed by a Republican Congress and a 5-4 Supreme Court vote, decided to act. The federal government's new No Child Left Behind (NCLB) program will administer to students a standardized test in reading and mathematics every year from grades 3-8, where teachers will limit content to teach to the test, and where students will see their academic futures determined by one bureaucratic examination. The NCLB establishes a myriad of mandated and ambiguously-worded academic goals that many public schools possess little chance of meeting. If the schools fail to improve over a short set period of 2-3 years, they must offer private tutoring and services from faith-based organizations, and present students with the option to attend faith-based schools in the district with the help of federal vouchers.
I imagine that we can all recognize how high-stakes testing does not improve student achievement; how a standardized test regulates narrow boundaries for intelligence and discriminates against both a plethora of students with various socio-economic-cultural-ethnic backgrounds, and special education students; how publishing companies of testing materials benefit while public schools lose; and how faith-based organizations means Christian schools whose ideology both stands in opposition to free thought and republicanism (not to mention subverting the separation of church and state), and preaches unquestioning obedience to authoritarian rulers.
But changes in government policy should not take all of the blame. Many students, in this age of technological wonder, prefer to entertain their senses with cable television and video games, and shun reading like it contained the Ebola virus. We claim to be a fully literate nation, yet if you sat in a classroom for one day you would realize that even though students can discern most words phonetically, comprehension of ideas and breadth of diction are extremely limited. This leads to a relatively narrow understanding of the world, and represents the large demographic that our mainstream press targets with narrow ideas. And by the way, did you know that many schools across the country broadcast Channel One every day, a ten-minute news show, half of which bombards the schoolchildren with corporate advertising?
Parents can also shoulder some of the responsibility, as many find it easier to plop their child down in front of the television than to read to them, or help them with their homework. And the business world that demands more and more time from salaried white collar employees, and forces many blue-collar employees into second and sometimes third jobs because of inadequate, unlivable wages, subtracts from the parents' oversight of their children's lives. What a vicious and tangled web we weave.
Do the American people wish their hard-earned money to be continually siphoned off to a military machine that already possesses thousands more of nuclear warheads, missiles, stealth bombers, and overall firepower than the combined world, or would they prefer their money to go to helping feed, clothe, and house the needy, provide health care, and better educate society? Do we want our hundreds of billions of dollars in taxes allocated for the production and maintenance of weapons of mass destruction and genocidal homicide, or for wars against poverty and ignorance? We have a choice, but we need to speak out. To start, we need to open a dialogue.
My parents used to read to me all kinds of stories from the time I could hear sounds. My father recalls that he was so excited the day that I took the book from his hands to read the words myself. I don't remember exactly what day that occurred, but I cherish it as the happiest day of my life.
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America the 'beautiful' on Swans
Scott Orlovsky is a World History & Cultures, and an American History teacher at Clifton High School in New Jersey. He has a BA in History from the Johns Hopkins University and a MA in History from the University of Colorado. Orlovsky's writing has appeared in the Greenwich Village Gazette and he regularly contributes his columns to Swans.
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