Posts Tagged ‘English’

Okay, I’ve been miserably long in posting this (and it’s still not complete) but here is the first installment of a look at U.S. education.

– – – – –

I recently finished the classic tale of The Brothers Karamazov, written by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (or Theodore Dostoevsky, as it’s sometimes anglicized). If the name didn’t tip you off, he’s Russian, and so are the brothers he writes about. The tale was written in the nineteenth century, about the scandals of nineteenth century life in a small Russian town … and yet I think it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. It is a masterpiece in every sense.

Once I came to that conclusion, I wondered why it was that my school-age self never got the chance to read him. Was, in fact, forced to slave through stories that were boring and verbose, like Last of the Mohicans, instead. How was Dostoyevsky dismissed (never even mentioned, actually) when Romeo and Juliet was crammed down our throats not twice but three times in high school alone? At least I heard about Tolstoy’s massive classic War and Peace, and Hugo’s Les Miserables, though neither ever had a place on our bookshelves nor in our library nor curriculum. So I began thinking about our education system. I began to wonder, what are students actually learning? When English class rolls around and pupils open their textbooks, what greets them?

From my own school days I recall curricula that rarely wavered from writings of the “Big Three” – the US, the UK, and Ancient Greece – with virtually nothing newer than the nineteenth century except for a handful of short fiction and poetry. It never really struck me at the time how little we read of international authors. Even my university literature classes – open to anything written anywhere, anytime – featured little outside the well-worn paths of American, English, and Greco-Roman classics. Just in case we missed them in high school, I guess. I recall only two exceptions: a piece by Voltaire, a Frenchman; and Metamorphosis, by German author Franz Kafka. For crossing borders, that’s a terribly poor selection. Not that those authors don’t have writings worthy of study, but they were the only representatives of the greater world. I had in fact read Kafka’s famous tale as a teenager without realizing he was not American, which seems an even poorer world lit choice. I expected a great deal more out of my “education.”

I expected my horizons to be stretched; I wanted to be introduced to all manner of thing new and exotic (to me, at least). Growing up in rural mid-America and attending a small public school, I understood they operated under certain limitations. There were few frills – no AP classes, no special college jump-start programs. It was a small school with only a handful of faculty and staff, with mostly older buildings and low district millage rates. It was considered a stretch of our horizons to read Antigone (the story of Oedipus was pretty scandalous for the youth of a town with one gas station, one bank, and five churches). But now our “small” public schools have budgets rivaling that of my university alma mater. So I wonder if the latest crop of students are more well-read than my antiquated little class.

I still live in a rural area, very much like the one I grew up in, and I’m going to use the nearest public school as my model. Its middle and high school sections (with adjoining campuses and shared buildings) serve less than 900 students with more than 100 faculty and major staff (not including higher school officials or secondary staff). The middle school includes thirty-five classrooms; the high school has more, though I’m not sure by what margin; and most of the buildings are less than ten years old. Students can compete in eight different sports and graduate with more than 20 college credit hours. Sounds good, right? So let’s see how they measure up via ye olde standardized testing (not the best judge but the most decent judge I have easy access to).

Let me pre-empt these numbers by noting that very little is available on post-8th grade rankings, and virtually nothing prior to 1998. So, for starters at least, I will have to settle for comparing the 8th graders of 2009 to the 8th graders of 1998 to get any picture of the system at all. Now, on with the show. Since we’re talking literature, tests in Reading and Writing seem the most relevant, and from 1998 to 2009, there was a whopping change in our 8th graders statewide. Writing showed an increase of 5% and Reading showed an astounding increase of … [drumroll, please] … 1%. Wow. Wait a second; let me pull my socks back on before plunging ahead. In 1998, 8th graders in the state ranked 29th nationwide in Reading; in 2009, they ranked 41st. In Writing, their ranking fell from 33rd to 36th. But those are statewide and nationwide numbers, not a representation of my model school. So let’s see what else we can find.

According to 2009 literacy test results, my local high school ranked 96 of 253; the middle school section ranked 102 of 299 – both solidly mediocre. Not bad, not good, but I find it very disappointing given the present funding. Compared to what my former high school worked with, this model school is rolling in money. For instance, my high school had unpaved parking lots, not ideal but certainly functional and low maintenance. The model local school recently spent $1,000,000 on one paved parking lot. Let me repeat that: they spent ONE MILLION DOLLARS to prepare and blacktop ONE LOT so visitors and employees could walk to the main building without getting dirt on their shoes. Never mind the curriculum, crushed rock is hell in heels. But maybe their test scores are fantastic and their budget is overflowing with surplus … which I’m presently researching and hope to include in the upcoming Part 2.

As an interesting aside, I checked the state requirements, and the language arts standards specifically mention only “American, British, and Greek/Latin” literature, with later mentions of “and/or other” literatures. No wonder our school featured nothing else; the Big Three were the only outside sources of literature specifically approved by the state.

– – – – –

What to look for in Part 2:

Local school results
Teachers’ pay versus test scores
State and National test scores
and anything else I run across that looks juicy

Stay tuned.

Read Full Post »

Mary Wollstonecraft, an acclaimed 19th century writer and activist, once said, “No man chooses evil because it is evil; he only mistakes it for happiness.” In everyday life, I believe this is largely true. We give in to the yearnings of either lust or money (and, really, there is very little difference) and Hell follows. A few years ago, one of the richest men in the United States was interviewed after throwing a magnificently overdone party which cost more than most Americans earn in a year. He was so wealthy, and had been for so long, that he had lost track of what he owned, forgetting cars, houses, jets, entire businesses… When asked what he could possibly still want, he answered simply, “More of everything.” Now, I don’t consider that evil – offensive and nauseating, but not evil per se – but I think it is that kind of runaway greed and self-indulgence that leads to evil things.

So why all this talk about evil? Well, I believe evil begets evil. The more bad stuff that’s going on the world, the easier it is for even more bad stuff to happen. A negative feedback loop, if you will, where the situation gets progressively worse with every trip around the loop. Or, say, sun. But it’s an intensely difficult system to change, not one you can easily knock off balance once it has some momentum. And momentum, unfortunately, has never been the problem.

Humans are easily manipulated, panicked, frenzied. A few well-placed hoorahs can put a man in power, or leave him dead in the street. We have quick tempers, long memories for grudges, and a lust for vengeance. But we are also quick to forget treacheries that did not involve us directly, and we easily swallow lies as long as our standard of living remains acceptable. We have the intelligence to fabricate fantastic weapons able to produce the heart of a star on the surface of our own planet … but not enough intelligence to accept peace. We are an interesting but dangerous species, classified as a mammal but with all the trademarks of a virus. What we need is a vaccine.

A vaccine does not kill a virus. Instead, it prepares the host for the potential of a battle with a virus. It posts guards and rallies the troops, if you will. Then, if the virus later infiltrates, the host is prepared and the virus is controlled before any damage is done. The battle is averted. The war is won, essentially, before it’s begun. And the trouble-making virus isn’t really destroyed. It is incorporated into the host, becomes a peaceful part of it, and its antibodies survive as long as the host lives. That way, if another faction of the virus invades, it can also be quelled before war breaks out. This is exactly what we need. The trouble, with humans and vaccines, is that they only succeed on one issue at a time.

As a species, I’m not sure where we’re headed. The utopian society envisioned in the early 20th century never materialized. The Jetsons are as far away as ever. As long as we keep focusing on material goods and indulgent comforts, it will probably stay that way. That’s not to say there is anything wrong with wanting a decent house, a reliable vehicle, or three squares a day. But it’s hard to work toward political stability, reduced international tensions, and peaceful resolutions when all you can think about is “more of everything.” It’s important that we not let the pursuit of perceived happiness lead us down the wrong road, toward decisions with irreversible consequences and no redeeming outcome in sight.

Read Full Post »