Students Are More Than Future Employees

More predictions of doom last week, as a nationwide test found only a third of elementary and high-school age American students have a solid grasp of science. The report was released the day after Obama’s State of the Union, which included several passages about the economic necessity of stressing math and science in American education, and at the height of the furor over “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” author Amy Chua’s Wall Street Journal article titled “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior.” (Because they make their students study six hours a day and refuse to accept any grade less than A, Chua tells us.)

These events crystallized the central American anxiety of the moment: fear of economic decline at the expense of other countries. That improving math and science education is key to reversing this trend is taken for granted in the national conversation. Whenever this issue is raised, I always think of Mark Slouka’s article “Dehumanized: When Math and Science Rule the School” that appeared in the September 2009 issue of Harper’s Magazine, the essential rebuttal all humanities teachers should have on hand when the career applications of their subject are questioned. (“As if Johnny had agreed to have no existence outside his cubicle of choice. As if he wasn’t going to inherit the holy right of gun ownership and the power of the vote.”)

Couple this with state deficits ranging from troubling to crippling, and this is not a good time to be a teacher of English or history. Or, for that matter, to be a person who believes the national dialogue should reflect, at least in part, the acknowledgement that all schools are not vocational schools; that there is value in the study of thought, ideas, movements, reason, ethics, literature and the arts which cannot be converted into “human capital” and should be not be pressured to justify its existence in those terms.

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Actually, this is probably a tough time to be a K-12 teacher of any subject. As a public worker, governors blame your pensions for exacerbating state fiscal woes. As a union employee, you’re blamed for property tax increases by others in your community whose jobs are less secure, benefits less generous. Everyone seems to think firing bad teachers would solve everything.

I’m certainly not for making it impossible for “bad teachers” to be fired, but I don’t see these ideas revolutionizing American education. Most bad teachers have probably just given up, and I doubt there’s much of a supply of people out there who want to be teachers who wouldn’t also throw in the towel at equal rates. Teaching is exhausting. People start phoning it in at work in other careers, too. They’re just not being tested every six months and accused of poisoning America’s future with their sloth.

When I was in school, I never had an inspirational teacher. I had good teachers and bad ones. The good ones were able to keep the class under control and move logically from one lesson to another. The bad ones ran chaotic classrooms and seemed always to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

I think the difference was more a function of personality than what they learned at school. In the same way MBA programs attempt to make every student a leader, regardless of charisma, education schools try to make everyone who signs up into a teacher, perhaps an even more instinctual job.

Even so, I never had a teacher who wouldn’t respond enthusiastically if you demonstrated a genuine curiosity in the subject. They loved it when that day’s lesson found fertile soil; when their lesson made a student want to know more than what would be on the test, more even than they’d learn until college. As Emerson said, “The things taught in schools are not an education but the means of an education.” All the rest must have seemed at times like fruitless repetition.

But can we blame students for not being interested? That would be harsh. But we can assign due blame to a student culture that makes effort a dirty word. In American student culture, good grades aren’t a sin if you didn’t study. Skating by with natural writing ability then boasting about all the “B.S.” you packed into your paper is okay. But don’t get caught busting your ass.

A talented teacher is a natural performer, and she can make the class a relatively interesting experience. That can make a difference. But talented teachers are already in the profession, and you can’t make new ones in schools or with government incentive programs.

Can you change the culture of students? Perhaps. Do we have anyone who studies how cultures are formed?

Oh right. The humanities.

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