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Letter: Wanted: A Discussion Of Form In Educational Reform

The United States in 2013 possesses as system of public education that is demonstrably inferior to that of other developed nations and to the public education system it had enjoyed in 1910 when urban classrooms overcrowded with immigrant children nonetheless produced students who grew-up to become talented and highly-accomplished productive citizens. We can blame teachers, administrators, unions, school boards, the Board of Regents, the Department of Education, parents, too much TV, too many video games, and the Core Curriculum. Each, in their own manner, is less than guilt-free. Nevertheless, blaming them merely exonerates the culture from the fact that in 2013, all the lip-service and billion-dollar expenditures notwithstanding, education is not expected, rewarded, or respected the way it had hitherto been and still is in many other countries. And this distain for learning is no longer confined to the experiences of academically gifted students ostracized as nerds, geeks, and dweebs by their future minimum wage/drug rehab/correctional facility peers; in this nation where museums, art galleries, historical societies, churches, and civic organizations don’t enjoy as much funding or regard as the tobacco, gamboling, alcohol, professional sports, tattoo, pornography, and body-piercing industries. Children are growing up in households where there’s more passion and enthusiasm for celebrities, gadgets, and shopping than for math, science, books, and art. Adults, even college-educated adults, have joined what Isaac Asimov in 1980 called “the cult of ignorance” whereby tolerance, open-mindedness, and the egalitarian spirit is expressed in the notion that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge”.

On a social network site on the Internet, I recently advanced four suppositions and noted their respective responses:

1. That time travel, alternative universes, and faster-than-light travel are no more scientific theories than creationism or astrology because their inability to be subjected to empirical evidence renders them intrinsically unprovable; that the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence whilst theoretically possible, is highly improbable given the multitude of complex geophysical conditions necessary for life to originate, thrive, and evolve on a planet’s surface. Respondents to this ignored the very notion of empiricism and the universality of scientific laws -fundamental scientific concepts - and proclaimed that technology would eventually make time, travel, alternative universes, and hyper-light acceleration a reality and that the laws of physics are probably not the same on other planets. This is a belief in magic, not science; a view of science shaped entirely by Hollywood script-writers rather than centuries of scientific investigation.

2. That the craftsmanship, expressiveness, and cognitive sophistication of everyday English is in decline and said decline is observable in the diminishing length and punctuation usage in sentences, the growing use of “individualized” spellings and abbreviations, the popularity of grammatically incorrect phraseologies, and the shrinking of the American vocabulary as comparing 19th Century books, newspapers, and letters with contemporary ones would indicate. Respondents to this said that all that mattered is that they are free to say whatever they want to say; individualism trumped academic standards.

3. That the relationship between religion and science is far more complex than religious fundamentalist or militant atheists would have us believe; that history is full of men of science who were also men of faith. Here respondents bombarded me with clichés, aphorisms, shibboleths, and catchphrases: the atheists calling religion ignorance and superstition and the fundamentalists denouncing science.

4. That people are entitled to their own opinions but not their own facts: Rhode Island is not larger than California, 2+2 does not equal seven, and World War One did not begin in 1902. Whilst nobody stood up to claim Rhode Island larger than California, many did parrot post-modern nonsense that “truth” is subjective, “facts” merely interpretations of a situation, and one belief or theory or idea is just a good as another.

In each of these four cases, my endeavor to affirm that such fields of learning as science, social studies, and English arrive with documented facts, established methodologies, complex dialectics, universally adopted parameters, as well as nuances and a good track record for advancing human understanding, was sneered at and the insinuation was that such an apologia is elitist, snobbish, insulting, narrow-minded, intolerant, and condescending. Projected upon me was the underlying contempt for learning that Asimov called “the cult of ignorance”.

G.K. Chesterton wrote that “there can be no discussion of reform without discussion of form”. Indeed, we cannot begin to speak of educational reform when so many adults, including those with children in school, hold knowledge is such low esteem.

Paul Manton