Things We've Always Done

I have, on a couple of occasions since I began writing for this website, protested — probably a little too vociferously — that I am not a conservative. And in so far that I am not a presidency-worshiping, war-mongering revolutionary "God n’ Country" statist, then I’m not. I suspect you aren’t either.

But I also know there are some things human beings have done — done for thousands of years, long enough to say we’ve always done them — that we learned how to do long ago, mastered long ago and probably ought never to change. Because most of the time, change is merely for the sake of change, to say one is doing something when one isn’t, is pointless, an attempt to justify a job or funding or existence when any one of those things is (or all of them are) somehow in question.

Take reading and writing, for example. In the 5,000 (or more?) years that men and women have pressed symbols into clay or scrawled them on vellum, papyrus and paper, we’ve pretty well figured out what it takes to teach others how to read. No great secret, this reading thing. Literacy does not appear that hard to cultivate and perpetuate, even in languages that don’t use an alphabet. All that matters, then, is who is allowed to read, understand and maybe even contribute to any society’s "sacred texts," whether they be holy writ, literature, laws or its ledgers. But that has little to do with the actual mechanics of teaching, or learning, how to read and write.

I don’t remember not being able to read. I remember books, but books were mostly what I read in my spare time, when I wasn’t in school itself. Mostly I read books on space (I read books about space exploration and about dinosaurs — I was either going to build stuff on the moon or I was going to go dig for bones in the Gobi Desert). In school (and this would be the early and mid-1970s), I remember SRA reading cards, colored books denoting reading levels, modules, stories with questions at the end (did we get whatever points the highly crafted texts were allegedly putting across?), and tests — endless tests of filling in bubbles and listening to teachers droning instructions about "stopping at stop signs" and resting my pencil on my desk when I was done with the test.

Yawn. I was bored a lot. School was boring. I don’t think I learned to read in school, not really, but then I don’t remember. I certainly didn’t cultivate a love of learning and a love of books in school. Our 19th century factory schools, with their obsession on discipline and order, have been coated with a veneer of 20th century, feel-good psychology. But they are little more than minimum-security prisons, and are certainly not places where the love of anything — save maybe cruelty and indifference — is cultivated. I had a few good teachers, but mostly it was marking time and trying to avoid getting bullied (and I was not that successful). I found what I loved outside of the classroom, way outside of school, and learned what I really needed to know there too.

For much of my life, I remember a constant "crisis" in education. Everyone worried about ‘Merican chilluns not knowing something, not being as good or smart or well-behaved as the Japanese, the Swedes or even Costa Ricans. I remember the perpetual insecurity of Reagan’s America, a country constantly under siege and threatened from both outside and inside, though I remember the greatest threats were from ruthless, conspiratorial commies, narcotics and Asia’s well-oiled, hive-mind factory workers. Mostly what this meant, aside from stupid and pointless rhetoric like "Back to Basics" and more nonsensical discipline, was more contracts for more reading cards from SRA and more graded readers from Houghton-Mifflin. Reagan Republicans always talked a good talk about government not being the answer and were always there to critique government spending when it came to handing out checks and groceries to poor folks, but their answers to the eternal "crises" of America were always: more government and more central control. Whether it was armaments contracts to keep the commies from sneaking under our beds, or tests — more tests, and yet even more tests — as well as centralized control and curricula to impose all those foolish "tougher standards" to keep the eee-vil workers of Japan and Taiwan at bay, more government was always the answer.

Still is, near as I can tell. And I heard recently talk of even more bubble tests. For university students. Where does this nonsense end?

It struck me as odd that in the 25 years or so since we became a perpetual Nation at Risk, we’ve never really asked ourselves what exactly we want education to accomplish. (Well, aside from keeping us rich, powerful and prosperous, I suppose.) In part, that’s because we’ve made education a national question when it really is an individual question — that is, education ought to be about what the individual seeking the education wants, and not about what is allegedly "good" for society or the country. People are not property and not resources to be directed and managed by others for some supposed common good, and no planner or policy maker can mandate the number of competent and motivated engineers, essay writers or paleontologists who graduate from university (or however people decide to train themselves).

Nor can any planner dictate just how well someone ought to learn a skill. Or even what skill is best for someone to learn. Or even that everyone can learn something useful. One of the things that bothers me most about the "conversation" we have about education in this country (Or should it be argument? Or food fight?) is that both the liberal/romanticist educrats and their conservative critics seem to believe in the same general principle — that everyone is equally educable, that all human beings can be taught to read, write and cipher, taught to do them well, and love all of them too.

This is a difficult point for me to make, in large part because I’m probably a lot more committed than some other writers at the web site to the idea of human equality, if for no other reason than it has been my experience that the most vociferous advocates of human inequality are also those most likely to insist the state has a right or obligation to do something about it. But the truth is that not everyone is equally educable. Not everyone can be taught to read, or read well. Not everyone can be taught to add, subtract, multiply, divide, or factor equations. No matter how back to basics you get. And it has been my experience, after a decade in journalism, that most people cannot be taught to write either. The basics of grammar and syntax can be taught, but writing is a real, God-given talent which, like the ability to paint or sculpt or play the saxophone with feeling, can only be cultivated. Just about anyone can be taught to play a musical instrument: the proper fingerings, the position of the mouth, how to breathe, which of those funny dots is a C and which is an F#. But playing with real feeling comes from inside, a gift of the ineffable and cannot be transmitted from teacher to student.

Some have talent, and most do not. It is the way of things.

Just as some people are smart, and some very smart, some are dumb, and some are very dumb. Life is tough enough for the dumb (it can be tough enough for the smart) without overly clever people designing and regulating a world that makes no sense to them and that they simply cannot function in. The key is: does the society or community make life unduly difficult for the dumb? Does it allow them to succeed at what they can succeed at? Or does it hobble them needlessly? I believe each of us owes mercy to the smart and the dumb, the beautiful and the ugly, the powerful and the powerless. A proper free market with little or no government regulation will allow just about everyone to provide whatever goods and services they can and maximize whatever talents and aptitudes they have, whether they are smart or dumb. The work may not be glamorous, but most things human beings do — even if they come attached with nifty titles, corner offices, giant salaries and endowed grants — arenu2018t. Most of what we do certainly isn’t important in a cosmic sense anyway. The world spins whether we are on it or not.

We do know this for a fact: the managerial state, with its minute laws, detailed regulations, over-engineered complexity and confiscatory taxes, tends to make life difficult for anyone who’s not a manager. (This is a point I wish more people had come away from The Bell Curve with…)

I did not inherit my father’s facility with numbers. He can add sums in his head, and calculate the tax, faster than most cash register clerks can do things on a machine. After years as an aerospace engineer, he now teaches high school math (and sometimes physics). He does trigonometry, calculus and statistics with relative ease. I never got farther than geometry in high school and never wanted to either. I’ve not suffered for this lack of knowledge much, though a book I got last year on the physics of cycling leaves me scratching my head most of the time. (And I have a nagging feeling I might be a better wheel builder if I had something more than a rudimentary understanding of the physics behind what I’m doing. Then again, I might just simply have the right feel for it.)

My father also did very well in sciences, while the "D—" I got in high school chemistry (a subject I truly did not understand) was a gift from an instructor who never wanted to see me again. (Physics was much more interesting, and I did better, because it dealt with something much more concrete in my mind, but I had trouble getting reliably repeatable results when I did the math, a problem that resurfaced at Georgetown during my one econometrics course there…) I can cipher, work out proportions and ratios and percentiles, read a basic balance sheet (all necessary skills for a financial journalist), but plotting trajectories or solving equations for multiple variables is more than I can do in a day. I’m not dumb, I just don’t "get" higher math. As far as I’m concerned, trigonometry and calculus might as well be Sumerian. Actually, given the facility I have with human languages (an aptitude neither of my parents has), Sumerian would probably be easier.

Human beings know how to learn, retain and impart skills. We do not need the enormous, costly and pointless edifice of the public schools to do this. We’ve even done a lot of scientific research without public universities (or gummint subsidized corporations), too. We’ve taught ourselves how to do things for a long time without schools, and for many thousands of years mastered arts and skills — baking, brewing, metallurgy, cultivating plants and animals, construction — in which we did not entirely understand how they worked, only that they did. Even without the intimate knowledge of the processes involved, we could repeat them. Over and over and over. And that’s how civilization was built.

But not all skills can be imparted to all people. It is foolish — and an utter waste of time, talent and resources — to think they can be. For all of us to be equally educated, people would all have to be equally dumb. And despite the best efforts of some of the managerial class to make us that way, we aren’t. Not yet.

This wouldn’t matter so much in a proper human community or society in which the state were not the keeper and distributor of so much opportunity, privilege, power and wealth. When we argue about discrimination, reverse discrimination, political correctness, affirmative action, equal opportunity, or anything else like that, we really are arguing about the allocation of scarce state resources, resources which cannot be allocated in any other way save through politics. And what is politics anyway but a means to gaining wealth by taking it, lawfully, from others? That’s why I don’t get worked up about such subjects one way or the other — don’t spend my days worrying much about "cultural Marxism" or religious conservatives and have become a deeply committed, non-belligerent in the "culture war" — because I’m not interested in telling the state how to use its power and resources, nor am I interested in taking some kind of "blocking" position to prevent the victory of the "forces of evil" (whichever forces those might be). I’m only interested in telling the state and those who want to use it "no."

It doesn’t matter whether majorities tyrannize minorities or minorities tyrannize majorities, the key word here is tyrannize. Someone is taxing someone else — taking their wealth at gunpoint — and forcing them to do something with it they don’t want. No one, not a "righteous" majority or a "victimized" minority, is entitled to take and use anyone’s wealth or wield power over others. For any reason. Period.

You’d think someone could teach that point in a public school. But you and I both know they won’t.

Charles H. Featherstone [send him mail] is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist specializing in energy, the Middle East, and Islam. He lives with his wife Jennifer in Alexandria, Virginia.