Tuesday, December 30, 2003

The Culture: All Children Left Behind

Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal reported that the “No Child Left Behind” law has had an interesting (and for my money, predictable) consequence: States are cutting back on funds for gifted and talented programs to focus on making all students “proficient” in basic skills. NCLB doesn’t reward students for excelling, only for minimum competence. And because it’s a federal mandate, NCLB leaves little room for local variation or experimentation.

Now, the cuts to gifted and talented programs should not alarm or upset anyone. Such programs are inherently incompatible with public education, which must emphasize collective mediocrity over individual achievement in order to survive. Now if that concept upsets you, then you shouldn’t support government-run schools. But you can’t have it both ways: Demanding excellent achievement for some children while allowing others to languish. Government schools are about egalitarianism. Or, put another way, they’re about “socialization”.

The fundamental error in education policy is the confusion between socialization and education. The two are not coterminous. When men interact in a society, it is for two primary reasons: knowledge and trade. There are of course other purposes, such as friendship and love, but knowledge and trade form the foundation of social relationships. Young children, however, have not yet developed intellectually to the point where they can fully grasp those concepts.

The educators will tell you “socialization” helps children learn in a group setting. But this is a false identification. Nobody learns “in” a group. They can learn from a group, particularly those individual members with existing knowledge. But there is no group consciousness that can substitute for the work of an individual mind.

In a group, children do not form a society based on the exchange of knowledge and trade; they form a society based on peer pressure and force, such as bullying. William Alford, a student at George Mason University, recently offered these insights into this subject:
Children, Dr. Graham tells us, if left to devise their own society, would most likely come up with something resembling William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies. In other words, an 11-year-old’s social milieu is “crude… stupid… [and] savage.” Given the similar authority figure-to-inmate ratio and the detachment, it also resembles prison. G. Gordon Liddy, having spent five years in federal ‘correctional institutions,’ often says on his radio program that the prisons are actually run by the prisoners.

Children are not intrinsically this way, Dr. [Paul] Graham argues. Mongol teenagers or Renaissance apprentices probably did not engage in such bullying behavior because they were busy. Suburban teens are, he continues, instead warehoused in schools mostly for baby-sitting and being drilled information that is perceivably less and less relevant to anything applicable in the real world. Now that children are not working alongside adults as they learn their crafts, they have little identification with [or respect for] the adult world and thus devise their own:
“Since the group has no real purpose, there is no natural measure of performance for status to depend on. Instead of depending on some real test, one's rank ends up depending mostly on one’s ability to increase one's rank. It’s like the court of Louis XIV. There is no external opponent, so the kids become one another's opponents in an inexorable zero-sum competition.”
It is important to point out that the child specialists [in the cited and other researched materials] do not consider bullying to be ‘normal’ -- and certainly not acceptable. They almost universally characterize it as destructive unnecessary behavior that must be actively curbed – some even naming it as a disorder. Although the professional literature certainly demonstrates a clear grasp of what causes bullying, solutions are not as definitive. There are vague recommendations to mobilize parents and teachers to combat the problem. There is little evidence offered of any effective answers.
Bullying, like much of the drug abuse problem among teenagers, can be traced directly to the existence of government schools. This is an admission no government official will ever make. Even a Republican president like George Bush has no political interest in challenging the system’s fundamental premises. Instead he focuses on isolated concretes like raising test scores, themselves a somewhat arbitrary measure.

The biggest threat to the government education establishment is not any politician, but the people who’ve rejected the system—the home educators (I personally dislike the word “homeschooler,” since education and schooling are distinct concepts). Students taught at home by committed parents aren’t “left behind”; quite the contrary, they’re far ahead of their government-institutionalized peers. This is why in many states the establishment is trying to pass new laws to stunt the growth and success of home education. Again, we’re told these laws are necessary to ensure “socialization”. But as William Alford notes, both socialization and education prosper outside of the government’s watchful eye:
In this writer’s not-so-humble opinion, child socialization and education are in many ways incompatible, especially for juveniles. These should therefore be separate experiences, wherein the child is individually educated according to his/her abilities. Socialization should be carefully supervised, with the parents and other concerned adults deciding which children will be interacting with each other and under what circumstances -- not a government-run institution staffed by the likes of NEA members.
(Thanks to Daryl Cobranchi, a proud home educator, for pointing me to the Alford article.)

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