In a column published in The Ventura County Star newspaper under the title "Turning the page on textbook selection process" (28 April: B9), Beverly Kelly argues vigorously for trusting teachers to teach and to make their classes interesting, especially for the many intriguing stories of history.
Kelly wants to take the boring out of history teaching and, I would hope, US schooling more generally.
I strongly agree with her, but I more strongly believe that little will come of Kelly's call for reforms, nor, for that matter, calls for reform by a series of studies, commissions, and presidents of the United States.
To understand how desperate things are, you have to get back to basics and look at what Americans of significance want schooling to do, and you have to look at the systems of rewards and punishments for those who make our schools do what they actually do.
Thomas Jefferson was an American of significance, and he wanted the new American Republic to encourage public education for the good of the Republic: to educate citizens. The sovereign must be educated, and if the capital "P" People are to be sovereign, they need the education given to rulers, or at least the basics, which Jefferson knew to be the study of history.
Jefferson's theory still holds among people who expect their kids to function as important citizens, as people of consequence; but such expectations are limited almost by definition to elites (or to elites and to Richard Dreyfuss, an actor working to bring back old-fashioned Civics classes).
From what I've heard since the 1970s, what most Americans want for America's kids isn't particularly education but basic literacy and training for jobs. Few jobs really require an education generally, and even fewer require a liberal education centering on history; and in my experience many Americans would be suspicious of educational programs labeled "liberal."
If we actually educated US citizens in history and the other liberal arts and sciences, what would they do when they got out of school? They'd function as citizens, we can assume, and if truly educated they would continue learning; but what sort of jobs would they work at? The US economy seems incapable of producing enough jobs for all of our people period; it's not going to produce millions of good jobs, jobs requiring highly skilled, well-educated workers.
Without those jobs as a goal, few US students would feel the need for history or other parts of a liberal education. And without jobs suitable for the educated, it would destabilize American politics to have millions of unemployed, underemployed, and/or misemployed young Americans.
To reapply the old factory model of schooling, there's little pressure to retool our schools to turn out young workers as "products" with educations above any stations in life they are likely to get.
And if the old factory model offends you — one newer model has schools more like prisons.
I'm serious here.
Reporters casually talk about school "lockdowns," a term from handling prison riots. One guest-teaching gig I had was at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, and I was struck by how much this maximum-security prison looked like a high school.
And the newer school/prison model makes excellent sense when you look at the systems of rewards and punishments for the people who run the schools.
So long as the kids can more or less read and do some arithmetic and are mastering the most basis of basic skills, it's really unlikely Principal Skinner and Superintendent Chalmers — these are characters on The Simpsons — will be sued or fired if classes are boring and school is repressive. The first shooting or major drug bust, though, and they're in trouble.
Indeed, they're in trouble the first time they try to loosen up.
Picture those in charge saying, even where it's true, "Well, our town really isn't all that dangerous, so we're going over to an 'open-campus'/'trust the kids' system. And we're bringing back recess, PE, and field trips. We may have a dope deal now and then, and maybe a kid or teacher will get shot every decade or so, but that's a reasonable price to pay for a school kids can enjoy — and where they can learn to be free citizens."
Or picture school officials announcing that Springfield High will spend less time on "drill and kill" for the state exams and put more emphasis on history and the arts and pure science. They'll offer tutoring and try to help the kids who still haven't learned to read and work with numbers — but they'll educate as many kids as they can, and if a few children are left behind, well, that, too, is a reasonable social cost, one that can be reduced, but not brought to zero.
And after we've put the kids at risk of a little physical freedom and of failing, we can demand that they at least try to free their minds a bit and think for themselves: perhaps getting challenged as I was in US Military History (taught by a full-bird US Army colonel) to find contemptible the clichés that pass for US political debate on military preparedness.
Got the picture? The school-system life expectancy for administrators talking anything like that would be very short.
So, yeah, America's educational problems can be mostly solved. If we can produce a whole lot of not just jobs but very high-end jobs. We can get educated citizens if we value education for citizenship and pay for it. We can have mostly happy schools with many interesting courses if we have more towns that are safe and more parents who really want their kids to like school and get an education. We can succeed if we have a majority of Americans who value education enough to sacrifice and take some risks.
I don't regret working for such goals, but in my lifetime and probably that of Beverly Kelly, it's not going to happen.