The Cultural Foundation of Education
Updated: Apr 28, 2020
Education is more of a cultural problem than a political one. I favor increasing teacher pay to be competitive with neighboring states, in order to attract and retain good teachers. Otherwise, however, I am very hesitant about educational reforms that require significant additional spending. We already spend more per capita on education than wealthier states like Colorado do, which indicates that we need to get more value for our dollars.
There is no end to education reform in this country: New Math, vouchers, No Child Left Behind, charter schools, merit pay, Teach for America, universal pre-kindergarten, Common Core, testing regimes without number, and now, third-grade retention for poor readers. There is no end to these reforms because none of them work. They don’t work because they are fundamentally political reforms. Education, however, is fundamentally a cultural problem, and cultural problems require cultural solutions.
Although schools and teachers could surely do better, it is mistaken to look to them as the primary solution to educational underachievement. The clay they are given has in large part already been fired.
What is needed is a cultural revolution, a deliberate attempt to change the fundamental attitudes of a large component of the population. Such revolutions are not easy or quick, but they are not impossible. The civil rights movement, for example, did not start with government. A growing number of people led, and the politicians eventually followed.
What components would such a revolution include?
First, there needs to be recognition that political “solutions” are largely a distraction. Granted, people are receptive to the idea that government is to blame, and are less keen on the proposition that the fault lies in themselves. And politicians universally recognize that telling the voters that the voters need to improve is rarely a successful strategy for winning elections. At some stage, however, the steady accumulation of failure, waste, and frustration must reach a tipping point. At some stage, a critical mass of people must realize that what we are doing is the popular definition of insanity.
Instead, adults in general, and parents in particular, need to be encouraged to lead by their good example. This means developing, and showing, a genuine interest in learning. It is good to read to children, and it is not bad, at least, to hector them to do their homework. But if students are being told to do their homework while Dad spends his time goggling at “America’s Silliest Videos”, that won’t work. It isn’t necessary to discuss Plato at the dinner table, but it is necessary is that adults show interest in the world around them, maintain an awareness of current events, and, particularly, read for pleasure. It doesn’t matter all that much what the reading matter is---science fiction, mysteries, bodice rippers---the important thing is that children regularly see their parents and grandparents absorbed in books. Paper books. Not video screens.
Second, there needs to be widespread public resistance to attacks on science. When I was young, only ignorant hillbillies publicly denied evolution. Nowadays, our public spaces, electronic and otherwise, are full of militant obscurantists, proud to bray any nonsense in support of their favorite ideology. They range from creationists and global warming deniers on the right to alternative medicine kooks on the left. Adding to this toxic stew of misinformation are the fossil fuel and tobacco industries, doggedly determined to continue their anti-social business models as long as possible.
Somehow, all this willful ignorance and fraud, a wealth of misdirection to weak minds, is no longer shameful. Shame is no longer a restraint. But it needs to be. Silence in such a situation is not good manners; it is dangerous and destructive. There needs to be much more vigorous public scorn directed towards ignorant views, similar to the recent pushback against the anti-vaccination crowd. (Long, long overdue.)
It is notable that many ideologues appear to believe that they can pick and choose which scientific concepts their children will learn: contempt for evolution, reverence for the laws of thermodynamics. Good luck with that. I fear that what students so taught will actually learn is a lifelong taste for hypocrisy.
The bottom line is, a society cannot tolerate an unlimited amount of public irrationality. If we want our children to learn, the adult population must show respect for learning.