Monday, June 06, 2005

Looking at education

Public Schools...private schools...home schooling...day care....NCLB....NEA....Headstart....religious instruction....ID and evolution....and now book lists, for crying out loud!
I'm sick to death of hearing so many ignorant voices claimng to know the path to wisdom. Talk shows use public schools as whipping boys when the news is slow. Preachers rail against Godless education now that they don't have Godless Communism to kick around any more. Otherwise respectable, well-meaning parents sniff and sigh because immigrant kids are invading their neighborhood schools, while real estate agents steer clients here or there depending on whether elementary or high schools are "good" or "not the best."

I have in the last couple of days found vivid examples of stellar achievement on the part of people whose formal education was anything but good. LINK LINK One could argue that these are "exceptions" but that "most" students aren't learning as much as they once did. I cannot argue with that, but I will argue that the shortcoming has more to do with family values than public policy. Yesterday's in-depth three-hour interview of Fr. Richard John Neuhaus on C-SPAN revealed, among other things, that this incredibly accomplished and erudite man was a self-described "goof-off...a high school dropout," who still went to college to become one of the most articulate and influential voices of our time. Children do not develop values in a vaccuum. Society, culture and public policy are important, but in the end the finished product, the adult who fails or succedes in life, reflects more about family background than culture. Thanks to cultural mobility, the offspring of disfunctional families need not be doomed to failure. Likewise, and unfortunately, there is no guarantee that ideal families will not produce kids who grow up to be weeds in an otherwise beautiful garden.

To illustrate my point, there are two timely reading assignments. It doesn't matter which one comes first, because both illustrate the same point. One is about the development of inner-city kids, the other is about Jews. In both cases the impact of family and social support (or lack of appropriate support) jumps off the page as the formative difference.

A paper by Gregory Cochran and others, entitled Natural History of Ashkenazi Intelligence advances the notion that a specific genetic component common to Jews of Ashkenazi origin, which includes most of Eastern Europe and North America, gives them a statistical advantage in intelligence. I have run across several references to this paper while surfing. I find it interesting, but not particularly surprising. The paper runs to forty pages, should anybody want to study it, but I have not. I want to get that on the table first off, because I don't like the eugenic implications. Even if it is scientifically sound, the conclusions, while compelling, will not lead me to change my thinking on the subject about which I am writing, the importance of family values on education. I mention the paper only to acknowledge the jumping off point of one horn of a two-horned discussion.

Having said that, I want to point to the brilliant and on-point comments of Judith Weiss of Kesher Talk.

But there is so much evidence that intelligence is malleable that I tend to favor nurture over nature arguments. I put forth a few of these in one comment thread:

Jews prize scholarship, but this goes beyond just subsidizing the studies and genes of the smartest young men.For centuries all male and some female children were taught to read, in places where the vast majority of the population was illiterate. All males were expected to study Torah and Talmud at least a bit. Talmud study is very intellectually demanding; it's like tort law, history, folk tales, homilies, and spiritual riddles all rolled into one. Often women would run small businesses so their husbands could study, so women had to know basic math and be able to read, even if they didn't go to yeshiva like the men. Also they would be very assertive (which gets stereotyped into "domineering" and "pushy.")

Children are encouraged to ask questions. Torah and Talmud study is traditionally done in "chevruta": pairs of students reading and discussing the text together. Any pedagogue will tell you this is an excellent method to get students to really engage with the material. Until recently almost all Jews spoke at least two and often more languages.

Also, a persecuted minority which wants to survive as a culture REALLY values its children. They are treated with great affection and concern. At an extreme, this is smothering, but in general it enhances the kid's self confidence and intelligence.Since the Enlightenment Jews encouraged their children to attend university, Jewish immigrants in Western countries have been similar to Asian immigrants in pressuring all the children to get good grades and advanced degrees, and sacrificing to support their children's academic and professional careers.

With this kind of culture you don't need genetics to explain intellectual achievement. In fact, somebody wrote a book about 10 yrs ago on "how to raise your kids the Jewish way." He went through all these cultural practices, which are not universal in Jewish families, but ARE pretty common. They are stereotypes which are for the most part true. His thesis wasa that "these child-rearing methods will produce self-confident smart kids and you don't have to be Jewish to use them." Talk about philo-semitic!

I browsed that book at a used book store in Austin about eight years ago; I regret that I didn't buy it, because I have not been able to track it down since. (Since she is quoting herself I didn't feel the need to treat the quote to indents as she did...)

There is nothing to add. She said it well.

Next, from the first comment left at this post we are directed to a very different, longer piece in City Journal by Kay S. Hymowitz. The article opens with the spotlight on Bill Cosby, whose unwelcome but cogent remarks are more like preaching at the choir than to it.

“The lower economic people are not holding up their end of the deal. These people are not parenting!” Or the litany he presented in a Paula Zahn interview: “You got to straighten up your house! Straighten up your apartment! Straighten up your child!” Wearing a sweatshirt with the motto “Parent Power!” he doubtless would have blasted the “poverty pimps and victim pimps” who blame their children’s plight on racial injustice. “Proper education has to begin at home. . . . We don’t need another federal commission to study the problem. . . . What we need now is parents sitting down with children, overseeing homework, sending children off to school in the morning, well fed, rested, and ready to learn.”

We can hope that his efforts prove to be more than Quixotic. He is speaking loud and clear but I see little evidence so far that his words are having much effect changing the course of the cultural aircraft carrier which includes most of America. The stigma and penalties of a sick culture of non-education shows most clearly among black kids but it is endemic to the whole country at all socio-economic levels. Even in the best of middle-class families parents often regard schools and teachers as an extension of daycare in loco parentis. The symptoms do not show on academic testing, but become apparent in different forms. Eating disorders, substance abuse, promiscuity, body piercing and a casual acceptance of profanity and just about any variant of lifestyle choices are not the result of educational failures but failures of the nuclear family.

Forty years after the War on Poverty began, about 30 percent of black children are still living in poverty. Those children face an even chance of dropping out of high school and, according to economist Thomas Hertz, a 42 percent chance of staying in the lowest income decile—far greater than the 17 percent of whites born at the bottom who stay there. After endless attempts at school reform and a gazillion dollars’ worth of what policymakers call “interventions,” just about everyone realizes—without minimizing the awfulness of ghetto schools—that the problem begins at home and begins early. Yet the assumption among black leaders and poverty experts has long been that you can’t expect uneducated, highly stressed parents, often themselves poorly reared, to do all that much about it. Cosby is saying that they can.
[...]
Head Start, with its annual budget of $6.8 billion, remains a sentimental favorite of the public and of Congress. But the truth is, from the first time they parsed the data, Head Start researchers found that while children sometimes enjoyed immediate gains in IQ and social competence, these improvements tended to fade by the time kids hit third grade. The failed promise of Head Start might best be captured by a visit I made several years ago to a Head Start program in a housing project on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a cheerful and orderly place that would satisfy anyone’s definition of quality child care. As I was leaving, an administrator introduced me to a young woman of 21 or so just arriving with her four-year-old. “This is Sonia,” he said proudly. “She went here when she was a little girl.” Not only had Head Start failed to prevent a poor child from becoming a teen mother, but a Head Start administrator didn’t even seem to think that it was supposed to. For him—and, one suspects, for many teachers and parents—Head Start had come to be nothing more than a nice neighborhood preschool; it wasn’t meant to change lives, and it boasted with institutional pride of what elite private schools and colleges call legacies.


A challenge that disproportionately affects black families is, in fact, trans-racial. We see it plainly where it stands out most clearly, making it tempting to dismiss the issue if you are not black. The City Journal article goes on to discuss several alternative programs, none of which has caught fire. Finally she comes right out and says


...poor parents raise their kids differently, because they see being parents differently. They are not simply middle-class parents manqué; they have their own culture of child rearing, and—not to mince words—that culture is a recipe for more poverty. Without addressing that fact head-on, not much will ever change.



The article is excellent. Recommended reading, by all means. There is a heart-breaking script of a two-year-old and her welfare mother interacting in a way that almost certainly insures what I would call scar-tissue on that child's development. My visceral reaction as I read was similar to what I feel when I see a child harshly disciplined for behavior that for him is normal, but embarrassing for the mother when it happens in public.

But as I was reading I couldn't help reflecting on an even larger picture of the family's role in educational and personal achievement. I have only the greatest respect for educational accomplishments, but I probably know more accomplished people who have done well due to perseverance and character traits than education. And my guess is that whoever is reading this post knows a serious number of people in their own circle whose successes in life -- whether economic, social or cultural -- have fallen far short of the promise of their educational accomplishments.

We need a nuclear option, alright. But the nuclear option I have in mind has nothing to do with Senate rules. The nuclear option I want to see is a nuclear family. That means a family that starts with two parents and stays that way until the child or children are grown. That means that the same two parents, God willing, will still be good role models for any grandchildren and great-grandchildren should they be blessed with any. Absent offspring, any two people who marry should become good role models for their neices and nephews, participating in their growth and development, again taking seriously their responsibilities as role models for any children in their lives, including those across the street, at the pool, or anyplace else that children and adults interact.

As long as there is going to be a public debate about education, it is only fair to start with the basics. By basics I don't mean the three R's. Illiterate families the world over rear children successfully. Education is about more than books. It is about values. Books, like calculators, are nothing but tools. In the same way that a skill saw can chop off a finger when not used safely, books, improperly understood, can corrupt and destroy a mind. But the problem is not with tools. Safety is taught by the teacher, the coach and the underpinnings of wise parenting.

2 comments:

Jim said...

Hoots, you have written a fine piece here. Among other things, you said Eating disorders, substance abuse, promiscuity, body piercing and a casual acceptance of profanity and just about any variant of lifestyle choices are not the result of educational failures but failures of the nuclear family.

I contend that putting one's children in a public school is precisely a "failure of the nuclear family." IMO, public schools only contribute to the problem; they do not solve it.

Blessings!

Hoots said...

Jim, thanks for wading through all that. And thanks for feedback.

My wife and I had four kids in both private and public schools at different times according to needs and means. At one point we had a child in private school for nearly two years with a monthly tuition higher than the house payment, but we did it somehow.

I suppose our attitudes about schools were shaped by background more than popular opinions. My wife's mother was a career teacher and I have already talked about my own background.

Our parents' objective was to rear us prepared to be among all kinds of peers...different religions, cultures,political and economic backgrounds, and social classes we would never be part of. The bad qualities of some (smoking, cussing, fighting, poor hygeine, whatever) were part of the landscape that we knew did not represent who we were.

Likewise, there were some who could travel abroad for vacations or fly to visit friends and family, stable horses, eat at private clubs, wear expensive fashionable clothes and act snooty toward others not of their station. We knew just as well that that was another part of life that we would never be part of.

Nothing of the up-close-and-personal understanding of these extremes would have been truly possible in a private setting, certainly not with home schooling. And the nuclear family was not failing in the deal, it was instead the rock of coherence that made it all work.

When our two youngest were in preschool we moved from urban to surburban environment.

The in-town preschool, associated with an old, respected university, was focused on creativity, play and getting along with others. Faculty and grad school parents were more interested in rearing well-adjusted kids who would know how to get along with others. They didn't worry they might not learn to read or do math like their academically accomplished parents.

In the suburbs, by contrast, the only good preschools we saw were bent on teaching numbers, alphabets, geometric shapes and using writing implements. Sandpiles and fingerpainting were not high on their lists of things to do. These were the kids of comepetitive, leadership-oriented boomers in the workplace, many of whom were already into their second families.

I am glad our kids had both experiences, but it was not a problem to see them both going to public schools to be among all sorts and conditions of kids. In the end I am convinced that their character was shaped more by my wife and me, together with their genetic deck of cards, than the rest of the world in competition. In retrospect (besides, it was not really an option) I don't think private education would have made a lot of difference.