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First Draft: Educational Afterword
Comments and critical reaction welcome (death threats rather less so.S8)

Afterword On Education

You are providing for your disciples a show of wisdom without the reality. For, acquiring by your means much information unaided by instruction, they will appear to possess much knowledge, while, in fact, they will, for the most part, know nothing at all; and, moreover, be disagreeable people to deal with, as having become wise in their own conceit, instead of truly wise.

It is customary for everyone from politicians to housemothers to give their opinions on education – and most of them are not worth the paper they are printed on. In order to make my credential (or lack thereof) clear, I will outline my own educational history first. You can then decide for yourself if I’m talking sense or if I have just wasted a few hundred thousand electrons.

I have never been a teacher. The closest I have come to serving as an educator was when I assisted other students at university. However, I have been a subject – I might say a victim – of the British educational establishment. I spent seven years at a primary school in Edinburgh, four years at a secondary (boarding) school in Fife and two years in another secondary school in Edinburgh. After that, I spent three years in Manchester in a university, after which I emerged with a BA (HONS) that was largely worthless. I confess that I understand little of the pressures facing British teachers. But I do not consider such pressures an acceptable excuse for the poor education I received at their hands.

I left university in 2003. My experience may be outdated.

I should add to the above note to explain that I am largely referring to British schools. The statements I have heard about American public schools suggest that they suffer from many similar problems to British schools, but I have no direct experience to draw on. Handle with care.

I did not enjoy my schooling. Being what is called a ‘special needs’ student (I suffer from an odd form of dyslexia), I required special treatment to move ahead. I did not receive that treatment from my primary school, at least until my final year there. As it was, they sent me to a boarding school for (in theory) such children. Many of them had far worse problems than I, others were (in my rather biased opinion) actually stupid rather than dyslexic. (To be fair, one of the worst bullies played a mean game of Chess.) By the time I left there, I had six Standard Grades (O-Levels) and was something of a nervous wreck. The two years I had at the next school were perhaps the best years of my education, although it was far too clear to me that I was quite some distance behind my classmates. Suffice it to say that I had real problems in staggering away with four Highers (A-Levels) and was quite surprised when I actually got into university. By then, much of my course had already been set.

Looking back at my education, certain things become clear. Those of us who were considered ‘special needs’ children were not really expected to do well. The real objective was to keep us out of the regular schools while getting us the minimum necessary to pass onwards to further education. We were not, for example, granted the resources necessary to learn about more than the basics. For example, there was no internet and only a handful of computers. For someone with poor handwriting, like myself, it was a nightmare.

In hindsight, the real marvel is that I did as well as I did.

And, compared to students who undertook a more regular course of study, my achievements were bloody pathetic.

If a foreign nation had imposed this system of education on the United States we would rightly consider it an act of war.
-Glenn T. Seaborg

So, what is wrong with British schools?

There are a multitude of problems. Some of them stem from being ‘good enough.’ Some of them are caused by poor educational policies, often flowing from political correctness. Some are problems of scale, caused by classes sizes; some are caused by badly-chosen educational material. I have decided to examine the most common problems; you can tell me, if you like, if these problems exist or existed in your schools.

-Mixed classes.

I’m not talking about mixing male and female pupils together. Nothing I have seen in my educational journey has left me with strong feelings one way or the other about mixing the sexes. I’m talking about mixing children of different educational ability or aptitude. In every class, there will be 10% fast children, 80% average children and 10% slow children. Not stupid (although some people are genuinely stupid), but pupils who require additional patience and time from the teacher to go over the material.

Several things will happen in this class, none of them good. The fast children will be bored because they are not being tested to the limits of their ability. The slow children will either drain the teacher’s time and energy or be left behind until they cannot really catch up. In the meantime, most of the average kids will be largely ignored by the teacher because he or she is busy tending to the fast or slow children.

It is verboten to suggest that children perform at different levels, even though it is self-evidently true. We sort classes by age because it provides an inarguable way to separate out different sets of children. But there are kids who could move a year or two ahead and kids who should be kept back, just to give them a chance to learn properly.

What do you think this does to both fast and slow kids? The fast kids will develop an exaggerated idea of their own capabilities. The slow kids will start to think of themselves as stupid. (I’ve been in both places.) And this tends to lead to other problems, such as ...

-Discipline (or lack thereof).

The educational process exists for two reasons, only one of which is broadly acknowledged. One is to ensure that children are taught the basic skills they need to know to get on it life; the other is to socialise children, to teach them how to fit in with other children and adults. Guess which one is acknowledged? It isn't the socialisation process, that’s for sure. Indeed, the boarding school I went to seemed to specialise in turning out little barbarians, rather than good-natured adults.

Put bluntly, teachers do not have the power to effectively discipline their pupils. They are often put into the position of bluffing their charges – and, when the bluff is called, find that they are unable to actually carry it out. For the average student, being excluded from school for a week or two isn't really a punishment. When that student suffers no real punishment from bullying his fellows (or her fellows, as bullies come in both sexes) he will happily carry on bullying them.

In my experience, male bullies tend to fall into three categories; the stupid, the over- privileged and the psychopath. The stupid hates the smarter kids (often, he’s from a poorer home) and since he can’t beat them academically, beats them with his fists instead. The over- privileged was granted too much too easily (either from his parents or on the sports field) and consequently sees himself immune to punishment. The psychopath is simply sick in the head; he gets his fun hurting and humiliating his fellows and everyone else he can reach.

These pupils need discipline. They rarely get it.

Their victims need protection. They rarely get it either.

Failing to provide discipline does neither the bullies nor their victims any favours. The bullies generally discover that adulthood is far less accepting of their idea of fun than the schoolyard. Adults go to jail for stunts bullies can pull and get away with it. Their victims, in the meantime, withdraw into themselves or snap completely.

-Poor work experience/vocational training.

One of the things I love about being a writer is that I am effectively being paid to enjoy my hobby. My previous career as a librarian did not offer that sense of fulfilment. People who want a particular kind of job want it because they believe they will enjoy it. When you’re a kid, making decisions that will affect your future, you rarely get a chance to really experience life in your chosen career.

I had precisely four weeks of work experience from my third school and another four weeks from university. As my luck would have it, I was ill for part of both courses. (In addition, there were a handful of visits to various places in primary school, which didn't even scratch the surface.) Neither of them was really enough for me to make a final choice, nor did they come in time for me to change my picked courses.

-Little Practical Work.

One of my pleasures when I was a child was playing with Lego bricks and building vast structures. As I grew older, I played with my father’s Meccano (the modern plastic stuff is generally disliked by anyone old enough to see how condescending it is to kids) and learned a great deal about how machines actually worked. I often had to work out ropes, clockwork and suchlike for myself.

I didn't get to do that at school.

Some of my readers will probably point out that playing with toys isn't actually schoolwork, is it? To which I would reply that such ‘toys’ taught me the basics of physics and how to solve problems and puzzles. Further, what practical work I did have at school was very limited and often involved being told to follow the instructions, rather than figuring out the how and why for myself.

It doesn't just involve toys and games. I was rarely told why certain kinds of maths were so important, or what practical use they had beyond tormenting me. Had I been told, had my work been linked to something practical, I believe that I would have done better at school.

-Poor Book Choices

Reading is one of my great pleasures ... but that was no thanks to school. The books I was expected to read were often too easy for me (I learned to read very quickly) or boring. My English course in particular insisted on us reading Sunset Song, which – although a genuinely important piece of Scottish literature – was quite boring to a young boy. I was lucky in that I was able to read books outside class, thus cutting my reading skills on books I actually liked.

I can understand why schools might frown on Harry Potter. The books are not great literature, but they serve an important purpose by shaping the reading muscles and encouraging future reading. One might move from Harry Potter to The Lord of the Rings and then to Sunset Song. It’s harder to do it the other way around.

-Political Correctness

Ah, political correctness. The fear that something, no matter how well-meaning, will be taken as offensive by someone. (It is contemptible at any time, but it is even more contemptible when measures are taken against it before someone has a chance to complain.) Anything can be taken as offensive, anything at all. In pursuit of the bland miasma of political correctness, schools have been forced into an endless series of ‘compromises’ and outright surrenders.

Let’s see now. Discussing the Holocaust is hard; it might offend someone. Discussing the Crusades, or Islam, or any other controversial subject? It might offend someone. Books like Huckleberry Finn? Barred on the grounds they might offend someone. Discussing racial, sexual or political issues? Someone might be offended.

Kids aren't stupid. They can tell when they’re been talked down to.

And believe me, there’s only so many politically-correct lectures (or sensitivity training) you can take before you start developing those undesirable traits.

“Treat kids like equals! They're people too! They're smarter than you think! They were smart enough to catch me!”
-Sideshow Bob, The Simpsons

As a kid, if I had been able to name my favourite TV show, it would have been Thunderbirds. Even by today’s standards, it stands up well ... and it was groundbreaking at the time. The magnificent machines (the true stars of the show), the tension of watching as everything that can go wrong did go wrong ... and the genuinely mature storylines. Thunderbirds treated kids as equals; the handful of episodes that did feature kids had them as kids, not mini-adults or kids who have to save the world after the adults bugger it all up.

And imagine my horror when I saw the live-action movie directed by Jonathon Frakes. It managed to fall right into the pitfalls that the original series evaded quite neatly. (Frakes really should have known better. There is a reason the most hatred regular character on Star Trek: The Next Generation was Wesley Crusher.) The adults are useless, the kids save the day ... and are rewarded with adult responsibilities that they are in no way prepared for.

Some people will say that this is a silly observation – or at least irrelevant. But I do have a point; if you treat kids as intelligent, capable humans, you will have kids learning how to think, question and develop into mature adults. On the other hand, if you talk down to kids and make it clear to them that you're doing so, the kids will act out. Why not? They’re not being treated with respect.

With that in mind, how might we fix education?

First, we need to bear in mind that kids need discipline and boundaries. Teachers should have the power to discipline kids and, at worst, remove the truly disruptive children from the classroom permanently. There is always someone who acts up, either because they haven't learned better or because they’re genuinely not right in the head. Tragic as that is, it would be better to remove him rather than let him drag down the rest of the class

Second, we need to organise classes by capability. Even separating out the fast kids from the slow kids will be genuinely helpful for both sides. The fast will not be held back and the slow will not be unable to catch up.

Third, we need to concentrate on core skills. Reading, writing, maths and (these days) information recovery. Teach kids to read, encourage them to choose their own books and actually think about the material. Maybe they’ll pick something lowbrow like Harry Potter or Superman. You can still get them to think about the material. Believe me, kids will do what they enjoy and if they enjoy reading, they’ll read. For maths, link the basics into daily living. Show them how to calculate their own incoming, spending and saving. (It’s all too easy to get into money trouble simply by not being able to calculate interest.)

Fourth, in addition to the third, give them puzzles and see how they solve them.

Fifth, and perhaps most important, be honest. Yes, some subjects are controversial; yes, some people will be offended. Instead of nagging kids and telling them that this is wrong, wrong, wrong, why not discuss why people are offended? Then you can point out that whatever the issue is, people can still discuss it rationally and there is room for disagreement.

There are people who will say that some material is too advanced for Small Children (note the capital letters.) But I disagree.

There’s a dirty little secret about politics that also applies to education and just about everything else. Only a handful of people care. For everyone who rants and raves about what the kids are being taught, there are thousands of people who don’t pay attention, let alone make a fuss. Special interest groups generally succeed because they look loud, while their opponents rarely organise.

If you’re a parent, take an interest in what your kids are learning. If you don’t like it, talk to the teachers, then get organised. One voice is crying alone in the wilderness, hundreds of voices will be heard. Get out there and push.

The child is the father of the man, as the old saying goes. What sort of fathers are we growing?

Christopher G. Nuttall
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Chris, here I am, along with millions more frustrated adults, lamenting the poor quality of education in the US. And then you come along and show me that the British system is no better. This is so depressing.

Let me give you a little background as to what one of my favorite journalists, and intellectual, H.L.Mencken, had to say about all of this. In his critique of Upton Sinclair's comments concerning public education in the US, he wrote the following, way back in the 1930s:

Quote:That erroneous assumption is to the effect that the aim of public education to fill the young of the species with knowledge and awaken their intelligence, and make them fit to discharge the duties citizenship in an enlightened and independent manner. Nothing could be from the truth.

The aim of public education is not to spread enlightenment at all; it is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed and train a standardized citizenry, to down dissent and originality. That is its aim in the United States, whatever pretensions of politicians, pedagogues other such mountebanks, and that is its aim everywhere else.

If any contrary theory is cherished among us it is simply because public schools are still new in America, and so their true character and purpose are but little understood. The notion that they were invented by American patriotism and ingenuity, and go back, in fact, to the first days of the New England Puritans --- this notion is, of course, only hollow nonsense.

Further, in Mencken's "Minority Report (publish by Alfred A. Knopf in 1956), no. 127, he stated the following:

Quote:The public schools of the United States were damaged very seriously when they were taken over by the State. So long as they were privately operated the persons in charge of them retained a certain amount of professional autonomy, and with it went a considerable dignity. But now they are all petty jobholders, and show the psychology that goes with the trade. They have invented a bogus science of pedagogy to salve their egos, but it remains hollow to any intelligent eye. What they may teach or not teach is not determined by themselves, or even by any exercise of sound reason, but by the interaction of politics on the one side and quack theorists on the other. Even savages have reached a better solution of the educational problem. Their boys are taught, not by puerile eunuchs, but by their best men, and the process of education among them really educates. This is certainly not true of ours. Many a boy of really fine mind is ruined in school. Along with a few sound values, many false ones are thrust into his thinking, and he inevitably acquires something of the attitude of mind of the petty bureaucrats told off to teach him. In college he may recover somewhat, for the college teacher is relatively more free than the pedagogue lower down the scale. But even in college education has become corrupted by buncombe, and so the boy on the border line of intelligence is apt to be damaged rather than benefited. Under proper care he might be pushed upward. As it is, he is shoved downward. Certainly everyday observation shows that the average college course produces no visible augmentation in the intellectual equipment and capacity of the student. Not long ago, in fact, an actual investigation in Pennsylvania demonstrated that students often regress so much during their four years that the average senior is less intelligent, by all know tests, than the average freshman. Part of this may be due to the fact that many really intelligent boys, as soon as they discover the vanity of the so-called education on tap, quit college in disgust, but in large part, I suspect, it is a product of the deadening effect of pedagogy.

What is interesting is that Mencken's "Minority Report" appeared the very same year as Philip K. Dick's "Minority Report". Is that a correlation, or just a pure coincidence? Just food for thought.

Here's another thing that made a huge difference regarding the US education system. Rather than use the Roman Catholic model, the brilliant politicians, using politics, chose to go with the Protestant education model. And the rest, they say, was all down hill from there on. Back in those days Catholics were eyed with deep suspicion, and the US was principally a Protestant nation.

One of the principle tenants of Catholic schools, along with uniforms, was iron strict discipline, which was sadly lacking in the approved system. And it has gotten only worse over time.

As for me, I was sent away to military high school, due to poor grades, and thankfully received an above average education, prior to attending the Citadel, which is one of the premium educational colleges in the South. And discipline is Not a problem there, believe me. S5

For the last thirty plus years I have been self-employed and work in the interiour design field. For a long time I was continually frustrated by clients, all with college degrees(ASID certified), and incapable of forming simple sentences. And these people were supposed to be educated? Give me strength.

I am convinced of the fact that the private sector needs to assume a greater role in education, because there is competition inherit within that system. And offering a form of voucher, for parents to shop around for the best schools would also give choice, allowing the best schools to thrive and the worst to wither on the vine. In other words, Free Enterprise of sorts. The Federal State really has no business being in education. Let the individual states assume responsibility and compete amongst the fifty states, just to see which one is doing the best job.

I'm not certain how all this is going to finally work out, but things may only get worse, before they begin to improve.

Yeah - Britain isn't much better, if at all.

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