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U. S. Education is not about Education

This Sunday’s paper had several stories about education. One was about the results of the state’s Benchmark exams. School districts were happy if 80% or more of their students achieved “proficiency” in a category labeled “literacy.” Overall, students seem to be scoring higher in “math” than in “literacy.”

Another story was about the necessity for remedial courses in college. According to the story, 50% of entering college freshmen must take remedial courses in high school level subjects. Of students entering with a grade average of A or B, 25% must take a remedial course in at least one subject.

Clearly there is a disconnect between the lower and upper grades of U.S. education.

Parents who want their children to be “educated” cannot leave it to public education.

For one thing, the U.S. education system is not geared to producing educated young people. It is geared to producing young people who can read at the instruction manual level. It is geared to the production of a work force. Education comes from familiarity with literature, history, and philosophy. Job training, however, does not require such studies.

Year by year, the literary canon is chipped away, not only in elementary and high school, but at the university level. English departments are paring their reading lists because of student complaints against such “hard” books as Moby Dick. Producers of reading materials recommend that children be given books below their grade level to read at home, so as to “enjoy” reading more since they will find it easy.

Nobody ever developed a furnished mind capable of independent thinking on a reading diet the intellectual equivalent of baby food.

The student who is truly proficient in “literacy” is able to read a broad variety of age-appropriate books with ease and understanding. I’m pretty sure that a grade of “proficient” on a state’s benchmark exam doesn’t mean that the fourth grader earning it can read a book like Black Beauty with ease and understanding. It means that the student is able to answer some obvious questions about a paragraph on some familiar topic.

That kind of literacy is sufficient for most types of employment, but it is not the kind of literacy that feeds the spirit. Students who read only textbooks and do a few written assignments here and there are not going to become educated adults. They will become adults who can get by, but they are not likely to become independent, creative thinkers. They will see the world narrowly, like a horse in blinkers. And they will be easily led.

American education is geared to providing an industrial society with a few bosses and a lot of workers. The minimal instruction provided in most U.S. public schools is sufficient for creating a workforce, but more is required to produce thinkers and leaders.

Generally speaking, children who manage to obtain more than a minimal education have at least one adult in their lives who takes an interest in what they are learning.

The most important boost that parents or other interested adults can provide for children is to steep them in reading. Read to them when they are young. Have them read to you when they are older. Make sure that they have time and space for reading. Insist that their reading include the best of the English canon, beginning with Peter Rabbit and Ping the Duck. Don’t rely on grades and benchmark exam results.  If you want to know how well the children in your life can read, have them read to you. Read the same books so you can tell if they have understood them. Standardized exams and percentiles are political tools. They are for the use of professional educators and professional politicians. Parents and grandparents should rely on the proof of their own eyes and ears.

Wide reading outside the schoolroom is fundamental to the production of an educated person. Reading doesn’t just provide a child with a store of vocabulary and cultural knowledge. The best books build a concept of morality and a sense of common humanity.

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