Thoughts on Education

Editor’s Note: Here is another ‘remembrance’ from Dr. Pournelle’s past posts, this one a short discussion of education from June 15, 2011, followed by his thoughts from December 2004. We leave it to Jerry’s readers to determine if things have improved since these writings.

We are allowing your comments below; as always, be respectful of other’s words and opinions. The Well-Wishing page is available for general remembrances, and you can use the Contact page to send us other thoughts.

Dr. Pournelle has published the The 1914 California Sixth Grade Reader, which includes classical stories and poems that every high school student studied in that era plus his commentary. We think it would be an excellent book for a student of any age. It was published in July, 2014, and is available in ebook (Kindle) form at the above link.

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June 15, 2011

The local radio station is asking random high school kids questions like “Where is Pearl Harbor?” and “Who fought in the American Revolution?” and “What was the American Revolution about?” The answers they are getting are not encouraging. Spokespeople for the education profession are saying that this neglect of American history is due to the school district’s concentration on reading and math and science. I haven’t noted any evidence of learning about reading and math and science, but perhaps I missed it. Oh — one of the questions that many of the kids could not answer was “Who fought in the Civil War?” But apparently all of them knew that the Civil War was about slavery. So was the American Revolution.

Education is now an entitlement, not an investment. You are to pay taxes to support the education establishment because the kids are entitled to an education. This really means that you must pay their teachers and administrators and other education workers no matter what they teach, or if they teach anything at all. The alternate notion, that we pay for this enormously expensive — and steadily increasingly expensive — education system because it is an investment in the future, making for better citizens and a better educated work force — is clearly no longer put forward: look at the results? Now it is a useful thing for a Republic to have its citizens be familiar with the national saga, and have well a developed sense of patriotism, but it is also hard to see that this is the result of all the money poured into the education system. I could develop that theme further, but it’s so depressing that I need to work myself up to it.

One thing is clear: we would lose nothing by abolishing the Federal Department of Education. Zero it out of the budget. We are not getting any return on that investment, and I don’t see how the kids are entitled to Federal money. Let the States handle this. Most won’t do it well, but perhaps one or two will. What we have now isn’t doing anything we would rationally want. Some of the States will do it worse — although it’s hard to figure out what could be worse than a system that is indistinguishable from an act of war against America — but some won’t do as bad, and heck, some might do things well.

For those who don’t know what that last paragraph refers to, a National Commission on Education done under Reagan concluded, in the words of Glen T. Seaborg (although drafted by Mrs. Annette Kirk who was on the commission) that “If a foreign government had imposed this system of education on the United States, we would consider it an act of war.” That was when things were a lot better than now.

Our increasingly undereducated work force is precisely what we don’t need in these economic times. Not only is technical knowledge down, but the knowledge of the way the Republic works, the way the world works, which can only come from history, is becoming non-existent. An uneducated electorate is far more likely to vote for entitlements and benefits from the government — which is of course what the unionized education establishment wants. Individual teachers want to teach. Educating the young is a rewarding experience. But Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy sees to it that the establishment is controlled by different goals.

And it’s lunch time.

Here’s some more thoughts on education, from a past ‘View’ – the Editor

Wednesday, December 1, 2004

I have had this forwarded to me several times:

Subject: Dumbing down: the proof

Dr Pournelle,

Dumbing down: the proof 

[quote] As a service to Spectator readers who still have any doubts about the decline in educational standards, we are printing these exam papers taken by 11-year-olds applying for places to King Edward¹s School in Birmingham in 1898.[end quote]

Read them, and weep.

(When you get to the Arithmetic questions, remember that there were no pocket calculators then. And also bear in mind that in those days, British currency consisted of pounds, shillings and pence, where one pound equaled twenty shillings and one shilling equaled twelve pence. The conventional abbreviations were ‘£’ for pound, ‘s’ for shilling & ‘d’ for penny–which came from the original Latin names for the coins, as everyone knew of course.)

Jim Mangles

We have similar articles regarding schools in the United States at about the same era; I quickly concede that the British exam was tougher than the American one of the same era, assuming both are authentic — there is a bit of controversy about the bona fides of the American 1890 school exam. Still, from my own memories of schools in the 1930’s, the content in schools has been lessened and what students are expected to know has been lowered, and this by a very great deal.

One can plausibly make the case that in 1898 in the US only about 80% of the children went to public school past 4th or 5th grade; there were many who were kept home to work, and many people who were never “in the system” at all. In the British case the number who went to the “Public Schools” (which we would call private schools in the US) was about all of the upper and middle classes, but didn’t include many from the working classes.

It may be instructive to contemplate what we lose by insisting on egalitarianism, equal treatment, and “no child left behind.” I could make the case that a society that has 40% or more people able to pass such examinations might be better off than one with “no child left behind” and only a very small percentage of the population, student or adult, able to handle such questions.

Democracy always drives toward egalitarianism, and toward cutting off the heads of the tallest poppies: that, according to Cicero, is the trouble with democracy and the reason Rome couldn’t stand it. He had equally valid criticisms of Monarchy and Aristocracy and argued for the “mixed form” of government which he called a Republic that incorporated elements of all three forms. The Framers of the US Constitution were all familiar with that view and most of them seem to have been persuaded of its truth.

But that was 1787 and we are ever so much wiser today.

The first words in the old McGuffy Reader were “No man can put off the Law of God.”  The first words in the Soviet first reader (and one presumes the present one, perhaps) were “For the joys of our childhood we thank our native land.” The first words in the most popular primer in the US at the time when most of our teachers went to school were “See Spot run, said Jane. Run Spot, run.”

It is probably time that we in the US seriously decide whether we want egalitarianism or to be able to compete in the world market since our masters seem determined that we shall have universal free trade at whatever cost to jobs and trade deficits. It is highly unlikely that we can survive without bankruptcy given the education system we have now. It is hardly too early to start reforming it. It is also highly unlikely that we will do anything at all: our schools will probably continue to move toward credential factories in which all thought of what we used to know as education has not merely vanished, but is no longer a memory.

We invite you to leave any comments below; as always, be respectful of other’s views. – the Editor

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One Response to Thoughts on Education

  1. Crispin Metzler says:

    I inherited many school books from the late 1800’s and can say that an 8th grader then knew more then than most BA’s and MA’s today :-\

    Fortunately, I had access to the books as a kid and took advantage.

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