Why can’t we as a whole, a whole country, including all of us, our politicians in and out of office, our media pundits, why can’t we accept that people are not equal, that outcomes, lives, will always be unequal, that inequality, more or less flagrant and unabashed, is here to stay, a principal ingredient of who and what we are, let alone the world we live in?
Instead we talk endlessly about inequalities, achievement gaps and the like, and how to diminish if not eliminate them. There are those, liberals, or better, progressives, who would eliminate the gaps, make us by enacting various government programs, more equal. And there are the conservatives, and even more so the libertarians, who mostly attribute inequalities to the failure of individuals, and groups, to behave responsibly and who deny in any case that it is within the power of government to eliminate them.
Liberals and progressives assume that governments can make people certainly more equal, if not whole. They not without reason point to successful government entitlement programs, including Medicaid, Medicare, and to a lesser extent Social Security (“lesser,” in that the program is funded in part by the workers themselves, with payments over their working lives) as being all examples of successful government actions to lessen some inequalities of conditions and incomes.
Conservatives, when they’re not afraid of being run out of office (which is hardly ever) and, much more convincingly, libertarians, will point to these same government programs as having in too many instances terminally weakened individual and family responsibilities in respect to providing temporary support as well as long term care for their own, thereby augmenting rather than diminishing inequality.
Now one of the very greatest sources of our giving too much importance to inequality, of growing the separations between us, is the schools. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The schools were supposed to bring us together.
The schools, rather than showing us how unlike, how interesting and, yes, how talented are all children, have mostly shown us, instead, how unequal children are. Indeed, one might trace the origins of inequality, of achievement gaps and all the rest, to the schools.
The schools while right about insisting that all children can learn have done irreparable harm in innumerable cases by insisting that all children can learn this particular subject matter and in this particular way.
One shouldn’t be surprised now by what we see, by what we are told about the schools, by the fact that only 6% of our high school students score at an advanced level in mathematics, by the fact that half of our high school graduates are reading at 8th grade levels, by the fact that nearly a third drop out of school before graduation, by the fact that well over half of those that do go on to some form of schooling after high school do not finish.
And the list of failures, inequalities, achievement gaps, all created by our educational system, could go on without end. And it didn’t have to be this way.
We might have seen schooling as our chance to guide young people into becoming what their needs, talents, and interests promised, and not have seen schooling as a time to make all kids learn, in spite of their differences, whatever skills and knowledge we held most in favor, such as today, the so-called STEM subjects, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
Here is an example of the sort of thing that the schools would impart to our young people, some of the skills they are expected to learn, a learning which, as Leon Botstein admits in the quote that follows, doesn’t often happen. And Botstein doesn’t even mention mathematics and the number skills, the source of the school’s greatest failures and making for the largest achievement gaps. And I quote:
“High school graduates — a rapidly dwindling elite — come to college entirely unaccustomed to close reading, habits of disciplined analysis, skills in writing reasoned arguments and a basic grasp of the conduct, methods and purposes of science.”
Now Botstein is not alone. Any number of commentators have pointed to the failure of our schools to transmit these and other such cognitive skills to many if not most of their students.
But why should these particular skills be singled out as being all that important? In fact, what we have most of all done by stressing these sorts of skills, has insured that large numbers of our students will fail, and even more important will begin to see themselves as failures.
How many adults, let alone children, do you know, who are accustomed to close reading, possess habits of disciplined analysis, skills in writing reasoned arguments, anything like a basic grasp of the conduct, methods and purposes of science. I don’t know any, or at least I’m not in close contact with any.
In any case, why should these skills, and others like them, in fact any ones in particular, any particular knowledge, be held up as being essential, and that if not acquired gaining for the unsuccessful student the failure label?
Well the answer is that we have a particular idea of schooling, and certainly one that is not, given the results up until now, appropriate for all, one that probably stems from the 19th. century and from people who were at least themselves deeply entrenched in a classical and academic education, probably people who were accustomed to Leon Botstein’s “close reading” and all the rest.
Now there is so much more to being human, than, say, the close reading of a text, disciplined analysis, the writing reasoned arguments. And, in fact, a close reading of the classics themselves ought to have told us this.
There is much else. There are the virtues, courage, loyalty and all the rest; there are the intelligences, spacial and verbal and the others; there are the varieties of music, and dance. There are sports, and crafts, and any number of vocations. There are the fine arts. There is no end of the things that children might be helped to learn, not all of them, but only those that correspond to their individual talents and interests.
And instead, what do we go on doing? We tell them that these particular school subjects will most enable them to go to a good college and eventually get a good paying job and all the rest. And of course these particular school subjects hold no attraction for most of them, and the gaps and the failures that result from lack of interest and/or lack of talent, and the real inequalities, all spring to the fore.
Real inequalities because there’s no possibility of every child learning, in a reasonable amount of time in class in school, the elements of, say, the pre-calculus, let alone the calculus. And I say this knowing full well what Jaime Escalante, who died just last year, accomplished at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles in the 1970s and 80s.
The truly amazing thing to me has always been that we see those young children settling down at their desks on their very first day of school as being somehow all of the same clay to be fashioned into something by us, its eventual form and nature to be determined by us, not by who they are (whom we don’t yet even know), not by what they bring with them to their first day of school.
Imagine a society when, at 5 or 6 years of age everyone had to attend a Chess Academy, for five or six hour days a week, 180 days or more a year. An Academy where everyone was to become a chess player. One had only to stay in school some 12 years, and throughout follow the instructions and directions of those in charge.
Well would you then be surprised at a high dropout rate? Would you be surprised at kids turning to drugs, alcohol, gang membership. Would you be surprised by the large numbers of pregnant teens? Would you be surprised by the multiple “failures.”
Of course not. And yet our schools for most kids are just as irrelevant to their own lives as the Chess Academy for these. There is something that every kid can do well, something that will engage his interest and effort. For too many, probably for most kids, the schools have done little or nothing to find out what these things are.
And that is the only gap that counts, the gap between what the kids with better guidance from a young age could be doing with their lives, and what instead too many of them are doing, or rather not doing right now.