The Death Of The Schools

Plus Ca Change, Plus Ca Doesn't

Date

Sometimes a good-humored column is beyond me. This is one of those times. Sorry.

In the Washington Times for October 29, I found the following questions posed by Walter Williams, the conservative columnist.

First: "Which of the following is equal to a quarter of a million? (a) 40,000 (b) 250,000 (c) 2,500,000 (d) 1/4,000,000 or (d) 4/1,000,000?"

Second: "Martin Luther King Jr. (insert the correct choice) for the poor of all races. (a) spoke out passionately (b) spoke out passionate (c) did spoke out passionately (e) has spoke out passionately or (e) had spoken out passionate."

And where did Williams find these puzzlers? In the School Reform News for September first. They are questions to be asked of prospective teachers.

Ignoring the ideological freight of the second question, one asks: What do these questions do? Answer: They distinguish the marginally human from those who clearly need to evolve faster. These are not questions for grown-ups. They are pre-high-school questions. Anyone who can't answer them effortlessly is innumerate and semiliterate. When I was a fourth-grader diagramming sentences in the schools of Virginia, I doubt that any of the kids would have said, "has spoke out passionately." If you miss this question, you barely speak English. Rocks, mosses, and vegetables have better grammar.

Think about this. Prospective teachers are people who have college degrees. You shouldn't have to check to see whether they can pass a fourth-grade English test. Nor should you wonder whether they have a monkey's grasp of the number system.

Whenever I write that we are putting people into teaching who have barely achieved vertebracy, and that by far the worst are black, I get letters telling me that I've hurt people's feelings, and that I'm being unfair to the exceptions, and that I'm a racist, and no damn good. Exceptions exist, and have my gratitude and respect. As for the rest: Is it our duty to harm our children so as to help incompetents feel good? Or is it our duty to raise our children well? Racism? If the requirement that people be able to do their jobs is racist, I most assuredly am.

This has been going on for decades. The following is from a piece I wrote for Harper's in the early 1980s:

"The bald, statistically verifiable truth is that the teachers' colleges, probably on ideological grounds, have produced an incredible proportion of incompetent black teachers. Evidence of this appears periodically, as, for example, in the results of a competency test given to applicants for teaching positions in Pinellas County, Florida (which includes St. Petersburg and Clearwater), cited in Time, June 16, 1980. To pass this grueling examination, an applicant had to be able to read at the tenth-grade level and do arithmetic at the eighth-grade level. Though they all held B.A.'s, 25 percent of the whites and 79 percent of the blacks failed. Similar statistics exist for other places."

Similar statistics still exist for practically everywhere. (The author John Perazzo, in his book The Myths That Divide Us, in my view the best overview of the racial problem in America, details them on pages 227-228. Not a pleasant read, but worth the effort. Amazon has it.)

When 79 percent of a group fail a very easy test, how good do we think those are who did pass? The whites are better than the blacks, but remember that they, having graduated from college, are being asked to read at a tenth-grade level -- i.e., six years behind their formal training. This might be acceptable in a truck driver, unless he had to fill out forms. But for teachers?

Much of the problem is ideological. All societies have had serfs, peasants, rustics, or proletariats who have had no interest in education. We are no different. We are, however, perhaps the first society to put our peasantry in charge of the schools.

In the first half of this century, standards for teachers in America were not phenomenally high, but teachers agreed that literacy was desirable. They knew what fundamental schooling was, and imparted it.

Genius wasn't, and isn't, required. It does not take a mathematician to teach multiplication tables and percentages. It takes someone of somewhat superior intelligence who understands these things, and understands that they need to be learned, and will insist that the children learn them. A literate teacher of fair intelligence can teach the writing of a clear paragraph. A great deal of what one needs to master, at least through high school, is simply information.

But a powerful current in education holds that learning is elitist, and to be avoided. Our problem, aside from the fact that on average teachers are not smart enough, is the governing attitude that these things do not need to be learned. Recently a teacher in one of my daughter's schools was reproached for correcting her students' grammar -- because she wasn't an English teacher. To the administration of the school, speaking the language well is clearly not something that should be expected of all who graduate. Rather it is, like a jump shot, something that belongs only in its particular venue.

I don't think blacks are responsible for our peasantrification. When you get down to it, thirteen percent of the population cannot impose anything in which the majority is unwilling to acquiesce. Blacks, however, are being used. They have been a potent weapon for those who carry an inchoate hostility to civilization. Blacks documentably fall to the bottom in any academic setting. Thus any insistence on performance will be disproportionately burdensome to them.

Since their evident lack of enthusiasm for schooling parallels their lack of performance, they can be counted on to complain that they are victims of racism. Here we have the charm that never fails for those who want to lower standards -- who, more correctly, don't understand why standards existed in the first place. Blacks are not the inspiration, but the excuse. If teachers can't require them to learn grammar, neither can they require it of whites. Bingo.

Year after year, the dismal news bubbles to the surface of national consciousness. Every year it is ignored: Our fear of offending apparently exceeds our concern for our children. Or do we just not care?

So it seems. If I am wrong, show me how.