||[Apr. 5th, 2010|09:09 am]
None of us are born knowing how to make good choices. We don't get to choose our parents, to start with, and so as babies we come into the world already subject to someone else's choices (good or bad); for years after that, we are legally constrained by the choices others make for us. Those choices open to us (if we have parents who allow children any choice--some don't) are, for a considerable time, trivial. They do give us a chance to experience ambivalence or express preference ("Do you want to wear the green or the yellow?") but when either T-shirt is acceptable, the choice has no consequences attached (except on St. Patrick's Day, of course.) Parents who want their children to be able, as adults, to discern good choices from bad have to let their kids make choices that have consequences attached, and then explain how the choice and the consequence were connected, and how to predict the consequences of choices, and then what to do when you've made a bad choice and the consequence bites. Just punishing a bad choice doesn't cut it...what's needed is education.
Punishment is easier for parents and those in authority than real education, and seems initially less risky as well, because education (real education) leads to the educated individual who can actually think and learn on his/her own. And who may choose the new smart choice over the traditional (now shown to be stupid) choice.
Although teachers don't have to know a lot more than those they teach (it's great if they do know a lot more, for several reasons) they do need to know thoroughly what they're teaching--a teacher cookbooking a lesson from a teacher's guide--a teacher who doesn't really understand the material--ensures that the student will not learn all the student could, and may well end up learning badly--confused at best, learning to fear and hate learning, at worst. "Teachers" here refers to all involved in sharing information with others: parents of children, family members with one another, instructors in the workplace or elsewhere, coaches...all of them, not just teachers/instructors/professors in formal educational institutions.
I bring this up now because Jaime Escalante, the brilliant math teacher who taught high school math--including calculus--to students believed to be incapable of learning more than 2 + 2, died this past week, and the difficulties he had, in teaching students not only math but how to make smart choices--difficulties that included the jealousy of other teachers and the resentment of parents--exist all over the country and have caused many of our adult population to choose stupid over smart.
On the face of it, you'd expect people to want to make smart choices, and seek out the information necessary to make smart choices, but...that's not what we see, looking at real people in real situations. A lot of people choose stupid. People who choose smart in some areas of their lives choose stupid in others (and that includes me--I'm not pretending that I make only smart choices.) We are taught to choose stupid, when we are taught by those who find it easier if we choose stupid, and even if we struggle out of those particular situations, we're still left not knowing how to choose smart over all.
Why would anyone want someone else to choose stupid? Why would educational institutions, which you'd think (if you didn't look) wanted to teach children and young adults to choose smart, continue to teach choosing stupid?
Because it's easier. It's easier moment by moment--in the home or in the classroom--to privilege docile, conforming behavior over learning either facts or how to make choices. It's easier to say "Because I said so," or "Because the Bible says so," than to explain how things work and why (as a result) this choice is smart and that choice is stupid. It's easier to throw a dismissive label on the child who isn't perfectly docile and conforming (deviant, disturbed, disruptive, "at-risk," attention-seeking, etc.) than to consider whether that child's comment, question, complaint has merit and convey to the child whether it does or not and why, in a way that empowers the child to make smart choices. It's easiest of all to keep children and adults from the information they need to make smart choices, and then punish them for stupid ones.
It's also less scary to those with control issues to have followers/citizens/students who know even less than they do, who do not challenge authority, who do not ask inconvenient questions or threaten to break out of the mold into which authority has put them. Those who have control over others usually don't want to lose that control--they want to stay on top, and they want those they control to stay safely subservient. Teaching their subjects to think means risking their own position. What if one of those kids really is smarter than the teacher, even knows more than the teacher? What if a member of the congregation finds out that the preacher doesn't actually understand the holy book?
Fear chooses stupid, eight times out of ten (at least.) Fear is a lousy guide to choosing smart. Once I went camping in early spring, expecting cold rain but nothing worse. However, I was camping a thousand feet higher than my home, where the prediction was for rain. So it snowed. I'd never camped in snow, at that point, and fear told me to get out of there, right then. In the dark, in the snow. The smart choice was to stay where I was until daylight, which I did, having an unrestful night as the snow bowed in the sides of the tent and I pushed them back out, but much safer than I'd have been thrashing around in the woods in the dark trying to find the trailhead and trying to drive down the mountain in the falling snow in the dark.
In that case, the consequences of choosing stupid would have hurt only a few people. But in the case of education overall, acting out of fear means choosing stupid for everyone. What seems easier at the time, in classrooms and congregations and offices across the nation, means steadily and inexorably teaching the population to choose stupid. And that's the stupidest choice of all--making a nation less and less capable of thinking, of choosing smart.
Has this actually happened? Yes. Take for instance the Texas State Board of Education and its effect on the nation's textbooks. Texas is a big market for textbook publishers, so if Texas wants changes in the textbooks, it usually gets them--and it wants those changes because of the Board of Education's textbook watchdogs, and the watchdogs want those changes because, to put it bluntly, they're cowardy custards when it comes to the facts of history, political science, and biology (in particular.) They're afraid that if kids learn what really happened, they won't be loyal and patriotic citizens (which means, thinking the way the textbook watchdogs want them to.) But before we sit back and sneer at the textbook watchdogs...how did they come into power? Oh, right, because that's what the governor appointed...and before we sneer at the governor (which, on balance, I'm willing to do in addition to analyze this mess), who elected him? Who supports the textbook watchdogs? A lot of parents, a lot of citizens. And before we sit back and sneer at stupid parents who don't want their kids to learn more than they did, how did those parents get those attitudes? Who taught the parents? Um...yes. Most of them were taught by the same kind of authoritarian fear-mongers who are (still) afraid of reality, afraid of change. Vicious circle indeed.
Texas has never led the nation in public education accomplishments. When I was a kid, I think we outranked Alabama and Georgia and maybe Lousiana, but that was about it. Unless parents had the resources and the will to provide their kids with books, magazines, and some guidance in using them, kids came out of Texas schools years behind those from states with a history of good education. (Our overseas exchange students often could not find courses in the high school that would give them any credits at all when they went back home.) In the late '50s, there was a brief and very transient interest in better education in my home town, largely due to Sputnik, but it fizzled as the US space program got going and local attention returned to football. Kids in some Houston-area districts (close enough to NASA) fared far better, but much of the state languished in sleepy complacency about its excellence and in fear of Communism and "godless humanism." We had, and have, several excellent universities, but they struggle yearly with incoming freshmen who have been kept ignorant of history and biology, and misinformed about politics (including what the Constitution actually says, as well as international affairs) and the nature of scientific inquiry. Texas politicians interfere, or try to, with teaching even at the university level (most recently closing down a play at one university, and fairly recently trying to get rid of a professor at another.)
I will get into the religious aspect of choosing stupid in another post (this one's already long and although fear and love of power in religious settings both strongly influence how parents think about education--how they're taught to choose stupid for their children in church as well as by their own schooling--this is more aimed at the educational side.) My point about education, both in Texas and across the country, is that when parents choose stupid for their children, they directly damage their children and the future of the country. When parents allow fear (their child might be smarter than they are, might come to know things they don't know, might make choices they would not make and those choices might prove smarter than their choices) to control their attitudes towards parenting and education, they're hurting their children. Whether parents cooperate with, or merely yield to, those who teach and preach fear and choosing stupid...the damage is done.