Educational Options: Picking Through the Debris

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My recent article analyzing our nation’s educational maladies (American Education, R.I.P.) received occasionally disparaging emails for being long on denigration of the system and short on suggestions for improvement. Many correspondents noted that everyone agrees that the problem is severe…but they were critical about the lack of constructive ideas presented.

So…in that spirit:

First and foremost, for reasons well known to everyone and described in-depth in that earlier piece, parents need to keep their kids out of the public school system. The system is an utter failure at teaching the basic material that children need to survive and compete in our modern economy, and it is systematically brainwashing them with toxic doses of political correctness.

Barring some truly unusual circumstances, the government system should be out of the question.

When suggesting alternatives, I often detect a note of "fear of the unknown" in parents. The government system has managed to create the idea in our nation’s collective brain that the public school system is "how things have always been done." Other methods of education are looked upon as being "unusual" and "suspect."

In reality, it is the public school system which is the new and precarious method. The "school," as we have come to know it, has only been around for a little over a century. Its modern manifestation is largely the result of the centralizing mania that accompanied the industrial revolution, and it represents the application of the "factory method" to education. In the 19th century, the rise of the great factory economy created a mindset that spilled over into education. We were told that only centralized factories (school buildings) with masses of workers (students) overseen by shop floor managers (teachers) could produce the kind of mass results necessary for that era.

The rise of the Total State accompanied this centralization in economic production and education. Government leaders were quick to grasp the benefit of mass education controlled through government financing and regulation. The opinions of the masses could thus easily be formed and manipulated for the convenience of the ruling elites.

But the systemic failures of socialism doomed the public school system from the beginning. And if the system ever could be made to work, the era in which it arose has now passed by. The factory epoch is over. The Dickensian industrial revolution has given way to the information age.

Our public school system is like a giant 19th century coke-fired steel mill in the age of nanotechnology.

In hindsight, it was also a fairly goofy idea to bring huge numbers of youths together in one building with minimal adult supervision. This situation helped give rise to modern youth culture, which subsequently degenerated into its present-day Lord of the Flies manifestation. The purpose of "socialization" in education is to inculcate children with values and ideas which help them mature into adults (which can only be accomplished through close interaction with adults)…not to establish a primitive, primate-style system of hierarchical persecution and sexual competition (which is what happens when hundreds or thousands of teens are bussed into the same place to interact with one another without close oversight).

So…what are the other options?

Many private schools suffer from some of the same problems that infect the public ones. Most are still based on the factory method. Plus, the teacher training system is so thoroughly propagandized with political correctness that its political ideologies frequently spill over into the private schools as well. But even so, most of them generally are an improvement over the public system. Since private schools must function in the market-place, they are by and large more responsive to the needs of the parents and offer a better overall educational experience. They are also free from the legal constraints of the public system in teaching moral values, and are thus more able to maintain discipline.

So…in general…it is my opinion that private schools are usually an improvement over public ones, but are still not the optimal choice.

Home schooling has made a big splash in education over the past decade or so. If done correctly, this is an even better method than private schools. Home schooling offers an enormous amount of flexibility, especially with the numerous resources available on the Internet and through various support organizations. No one is generally more interested in the well being of children than their parents, and committed parents can certainly do the job better than the soulless cogs in the public system. Home-schooling is also free of the Lord of the Flies baggage that accompanies factory-style schools (public or private).

But, at the risk of offending the home schooling partisans, I do have some reservations.

First, is the issue of entangling professional pursuits with family relationships. For example, there is a longstanding principle in the practice of medicine that a physician should not treat his family and friends. This idea arose from the realization that the emotional bonds of family often interfere with the objective analysis and treatment of medical conditions. There is a certain detachment from these personal ties that is necessary for the optimal delivery of health care. This principle also applies to the practice of law. Being represented in court by a family member or close friend alters the relationship in intangible ways that can compromise the greater mission at hand.

Similarly, I believe that the role of educator often requires that the practitioner be removed from the personal ties of family and friendship. Issues of parental ego and familial relationship baggage can cause problems that might also compromise the overall educational goals.

Secondly, I consider education at the high school level and above to be a professional endeavor, rather than an amateur one. It is one of the great crimes of our government school system that teachers, who were once professionals on the level of physicians and lawyers, have been demoted into the ranks of clock-punching bureaucrats. I have concerns that many parents may not have the breadth of knowledge that is required for the optimal educational experience.(And by "professional," I do not mean a graduate of one of our "teacher colleges." Rather, I use the term to refer to anyone who is well-educated, has a wealth of life experience, and who desires to pursue the education of youths as an occupational endeavor.) While many parents may have these qualifications, many do not.

My solution to this dilemma harkens back to the traditional method of education in the Western world. In Classical Greece, Republican Rome, Colonial America, and Victorian England, education was generally the realm of "professional educators" who were hired by small groups of parents. Typically, men with similarly-aged children would seek out a well-known scholar as the instructor. They would hire a grizzled professor, a retired minister, or an aged military officer. The parents would pool their resources, and the group of six or seven students would meet in one of their homes for their lessons (and utilizing retired professionals has numerous practical benefits…they often have other sources of income and do not require benefit packages, making the expense surprisingly economical).

This educator was more than just a transmitter of facts, but would take an active role in the cultural and moral development of the youths. The instructor would meet with the fathers on a regular basis, and would schedule one-on-one sessions with his students as needed.

In using this system today, the curriculum, while taking advantage of modern technology such as computers and the Internet, should be classical in style. The mastery of basic reading, writing, and mathematics should of course be a given. The students should also become conversant in Latin or Greek. There should be a rigorous study of the history of Western governance, including the Greek polis, the Roman Republic, the Magna Carta, the English Parliamentary System, and the American Constitutional Republic.

A significant emphasis should also be placed on the development of character and ethics. A consistent philosophical and theological system should be interwoven into the overall curriculum…starting with Judaism, Mosaic Law, the development of early Christianity, Catholic theology, and the Protestant Reformation.

It would have seemed absurd to any previous generation of Westerners to have the education of their children separated by a "legal wall" from the inculcation of a coherent set of morals and ethics. The development of character is arguably the most important aspect of education…even more so than the particulars of math or science. The vacuum created by the removal of these values from our public schools is perhaps the greatest single cause of the cultural collapse that is evident everywhere in our society today.

This education should also emphasize culture. The students should master at least one musical instrument, and the educator should accompany the students regularly to the symphony, opera, and Shakespearean plays. The curriculum should include immersion in the "Great Books" of the Western tradition, from Homer and Plato to Dante and Hugo.

Perhaps even more importantly than any actual educational function, the educator should fill the role of a mentor…in the global sense of the term. It is this constant interaction with the teacher (and the resultant immersion in his wisdom, life experience and character) that is the most valuable commodity delivered to the students through this process (and it is because this role is subtly different from that of a parent that I believe this method is superior to parental home schooling).

And one further modification would also vastly improve this educational option. It concerns what is perhaps the most pernicious influence on the development of young people in America today.

Throw a brick through your TV set.

Pull its plug and haul it to the curb.

Spray it with a garden hose to permanently disable its electrical circuits.

Leave the carcass out there for a few days as a warning to other TV sets in the area about what will happen to them if they show up on your property.

(By way of confession, I should admit that I have not successfully pulled this off in my own house. My better half is strong-willed and quick-witted…and she has succeeded in thwarting numerous attempts on the life of her last remaining TV set. So this final recommendation is going to have to remain in the "do as I say, not as I do" category…at least until I can think of a more cunning plot.)

So, these are my general recommendations:

  1. Keep your kids out of the public school system.
  2. Destroy your television.
  3. Get together with 6 or 7 other parents and hire a professional instructor to educate your children along the classical tradition.
  4. If you can’t hire one, then home school them yourself.
  5. If you can’t do that either, carefully search for a good private school and send them there.

Steven LaTulippe [send him mail] is a physician currently practicing in Ohio. He was an officer in the United States Air Force for 13 years.

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