Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time.
A Psalm of Life. Longfellow
Eureka! I have ‘discovered’ the mediocrity factor that plagues most of our public schools. Of course, many of my colleagues have done the same quite frequently in the past as they struggle to educate students who resist being educated. So, as they say in the village, there is nothing new under the sun, just old concepts revisited. Before I am offered the Department of Education (thank you Mr. Duncan), very little of substance by the way was said during the first presidential debate on education, I would like to expose my views on the literacy issue, a problem that affects every subject in school and in real life.
Many years ago, while in college, I took a class on ‘Logic’ as part of the credits I needed in psychology. My teacher was a Jesuit, a famous order that was later banished from several countries, mainly because they asked their pupils to think for themselves. In any case, the man was a fountain of knowledge and certainly the best professor I ever had. He was quite intolerant when it came to absences, inattention, and above all questions that had not been researched beforehand. If a student did not show a previous independent effort in background information, the teacher would kindly but firmly ask him, or her, to go back to the library before asking a question. It was the calm rebuke that made us feel somewhat ashamed of not preparing properly for the class. This stands out in contrast with high school students who come to class, sit down and stare into space or initiate a vigorous discussion on last night’s party.
Cogito, Ergo Sum! said the magnificent Descartes when asked how we knew that we existed. If we developed such ability in all our pupils, perhaps things might improve. Or maybe our modern society has killed the thinking skill by giving us a steady fare of digested television shows, when 50 years ago we had to use our imagination to illustrate the books we read. I will advance a daring concept: Our students nowadays don’t read books, just phone texts, because they don’t perceive the need. An English teacher mentioned to me yesterday that the benchmark for sophomores is ridiculously difficult; it contain among other gems a poem by Longfellow that students must analyze and a doctoral critique of the same that they must strive to understand. We are talking about teens 15 to 16 years old. We, teachers and society in general, see a need for them to learn English, but we feed them while still in high school a diet of very complex and old American and English authors, when we should leave these to those who aim to pursue an academic career in college. Why waste time on teaching 200-year old Old English texts when we have such a rich trove of modern writers?
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
My Jesuit professor taught me more about intellectual discipline than about logics, though that wasn’t his intention. Today, I see kids who have spent 10 years in the public school system and still don’t know how to learn, for they lack the self discipline so valuable when making the learning process a lifelong goal. Their minds haven’t been trained properly, nor have they acquired a love for reading because images require less effort than words. As a modern society we have failed our children by giving them whatever they want as we fear the intervention of CPS if we spank them. Their bodies grow obese and their minds become conditioned by the ever present icons on their modern toys, iPhones, tablets, iPods, smart phones and laptops (their phones are smarter than they are?).
We need an educational reform from the ground up for there is no greater waste than a wasted mind.