Education, politics and American culture

Phil Anderson

“The principal goal of education is to create men [and women] who are capable of doing new things not simply of repeating what other generations have done – men [and women] who are creative, inventive, and discoverers.” Jean Piaget, Swiss psychologist 1896-1980.

Professor Piaget was a pioneer in child cognitive development. He believed children were not just small adults and that children think differently than adults. From birth children are actively and continuously engaged in learning about their world. Infants are terrific learners.

This should be obvious when you consider children are completely helpless at birth, but within a few years have learned a complex language, motor skills, and social relationships. In fact many, in a short time, are masters at manipulating their parents!

So what happens to this curiosity when they enter school? What happens to this natural desire and ability to learn as they grow older?

Why do we have a large segment of the adult population with anti-intellectual attitudes and demonstrable deficiencies in knowledge and skills?

In the last two articles I offered my thoughts on education based on my experiences in life. I do not presume to be an expert on education. But I have 71 years of experience with learning. I have been on the receiving end of 12 years of public schools, a university degree, and many additional night classes, online courses, on-the-job training programs, and military training on many topics.

Along the way I have instructed and organized training in a variety of employment settings.
An Internet search on “fixing education” will turn up many articles, studies, and reports from a variety of sources. Many of these sources agree with my suggestions about reforming the school year, better teacher training, better teacher compensation, better school funding and using income instead of the property taxes.

These sources also offer additional recommendations:

• Ending the excessive emphasis on high stakes standardized testing.
• Reducing crowding and lowering class sizes.
• More parental involvement and better parent-teacher relationships.
• Dealing with the achievement gap for minority students.
• Ending the school to prison pipeline.
• Returning to offering vocational classes for students not going to college.
• Computers can enhance education but they are not a panacea.
• Limit student in-school use of cell phones.
• Give teachers more say in running schools.
• Get the politicians out of setting educational standard and policy.
The New York Times had a good article in 2019 quoting the thoughts of high school students on schools. Here are several quotes:
• “We need to learn about real life, things that can actually benefit us.”
• “Often, teachers will give me information and expect me to memorize it for a test without teaching me any real application.”
• “Learning needs to be more interesting. Not many people like to study from their textbooks because there’s not much to interact with.”
• “A textbook doesn’t answer all my questions, but a qualified teacher that takes their time does.”
• “Students today feel voiceless because they are punished when they criticize the school system and this is a problem because this allows the school to block out criticism that can be positive leaving it no room to grow.”
• “I personally think that there are many things wrong with the American education system... Everyone is so worried about grades and test scores...GPA doesn’t measure a students’ intelligence or ability to learn. At young ages students stop wanting to come to school and learn.”

All these recommendations have merit. Most of them have been discussed for decades and there have been many efforts to improve education with presidential commissions, legislation, charter schools, and new teaching methods.

At best, all of these have been marginally successful. Many have been short lived fads or political posturing. Why is good change so hard?

A Kentucky middle school teacher suggested a reason, “the greatest changes needed in the U.S. surrounding public education are cultural ones rather than policy ones. As a whole, Americans simply don’t properly value the public education systems they have, and that, first and foremost, is the greatest barrier to improving them.”

An article in American Conservative provided the usual canards from the right wing perspective. Problems with education could be solved with more parental control, more “choice,” vouchers for religious schools, more “competition” in providing education, and less government “bureaucracy” at all levels.

Republicans in Wisconsin advocate for all these non-solutions while continuing to inadequately fund public schools. While schools struggle they are busy opposing masks, requiring the teaching of cursive writing (which already happens), prohibiting teaching of Critical Race Theory (which doesn’t happen) and banning transgender students from sports (a non-problem).

None of these have anything to do with actually improving education.

In my Internet search, I found less support for my ideas about abolishing local school boards and having all schools be administered by the state. Supporters of local school boards feel they foster parental and community involvement.

But this is a strange argument. Until the recent turmoil over mask and immunization mandates, few parents ever darkened the door of a school board meeting.

Schools do need parental involvement. But we don’t need irrational, misinformed, angry mobs shutting down school board meetings because they disagree with sound medical advice.

We don’t need rage-fueled racists demanding the teaching of inaccurate history. And we certainly don’t need religious fundamentalists getting control of local school boards to promote religious dogma over accurate biology, sex education or other sciences.

Given the current political environment, these problems are likely to intensify.

We have known for a long time what needs to be done to improve education in this country. But we can’t find the cooperative spirit, or political will, to make it happen.

We can’t get beyond our selfish individualism to see the common good or the fact that the common good is better for everyone.

In 1934 Professor Piaget wrote, “only education is capable of saving our societies from possible collapse, whether violent, or gradual.”

I suspect he was talking about the rise of fascism in Europe. But he could have been describing America today.