Two Cultures in American Education

In Which Fred Endeavors To Get Himself Lynched

April 21, 2003

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I spoke recently to a gentleman, now getting on in years, who spent a career in the slum schools of a big American city. He was bright, tough, and realistic, one of the very few gringos hereabout who speaks good Spanish.

Though white, he had also grown up in a housing project and so knew well the culture of the bottom of society.

Most of what he said of his experience tracked with the descriptions of slum schools that are found everywhere-dropout rates in excess of fifty percent, unconcerned parents, the usual. We need not recapitulate them here.

He made the interesting point that most education has no purpose other than to prepare the student for further education. Algebra in high school, for example, readies the student for the study of chemistry in college, but is otherwise useless, as one never uses algebra in daily life.

Other examples may easily be imagined. Roman history has no relevance to anything that a black teenager in downtown Chicago may do in life; it does however prepare one for the study of further Roman history and of Shakespeare, which also have nothing to do with the teenager's future life.

He thought that instead of academic subjects, students should be taught to read, do arithmetic, balance checkbooks, be good parents, take out a mortgage, care for their health, and suchlike practical matters.

He had a point.

The majority of students don't need to know history, mathematics, physics, or literature, do not want to know them, and in fact do not know them.

Few are interested. Most children of the urban slums, if one can believe the studies, will pass their entire lives without reading a book. Why try to teach them what, for them, are hideously boring subjects they won't learn, and in any event will never think of again?

Why indeed? Much of the public, probably a majority, lacks either the capacity or the interest required for an academic education. Nor do they need the knowledge conveyed by a liberal studies. They do not need to know how to write clearly, since they never will.

Virtually everything they learn after graduation will come either through television or conversation. An eighth-grade vocabulary suffices.

They don't need to know the multiplication tables since, on rare occasions when they need to know the product of two numbers, a calculator will serve.

In fact they do not know these things. It is well documented that the schools teach little.

Poll after study after test shows that astonishing majorities of Americans cannot find England on an outline map, place the Civil War in the correct century, name the major countries involved in WWI, or recognize the Bill of Rights.

Poor teaching and dumbing-down account for some of this dark night of the mind. A lot, I think, springs from trying to teach people what they don't want to know.

Why waste their time and the public monies?

All of this strikes me as reasonable. Yet I find myself becoming annoyed when I think about it. I come from the minority culture that does not regard education as preparation for watching television and punching a time-clock.

I saw algebra as worth learning because, yes, it was necessary for chemistry and calculus later-but also because it was just plain interesting, and further because it is an important element in the intellectual development of mankind.

I'm glad I studied it. Later in life, when for mysterious reasons I became interested in differential geometry and classical mechanics, a fluency in algebra and calculus allowed me to read them.

For some, reasons exist for learning things beyond tying one's shoes and reading traffic signs. People who do not know history live in temporal isolation; those who do not read literature, in a small mental world.

The gentleman from the big city saw no purpose in diagramming sentences. For his students, no. But for others, there is a purpose:

Those who do not understand the mechanics of their language cannot appreciate such writers as Spenser and Milton and T.S. Eliot, as Twain and Mencken and Milne. Writing is an art as well as a means of communication. Art means imagination within rules. You have to know the rules.

Nor are the grammatically inept at all likely to be able to learn to read or speak another language. The reason is less that they have no idea what an indirect object or past subjunctive is than that they are incapable of seeing the language apart from its content.

It is true, as the gentleman suggested, that most people have no interest in languages or literature.

But I do. So do countless others from cultivated families. How do we reconcile the existence of the two cultures? Of people who want from the schools things almost diametrically opposed?

The beginning of wisdom would be to recognize that there are two cultures, and to let each study what it chooses. No?

I should not be allowed to impose algebra on people who will never do more than count on their fingers; they should not be allowed to enstupidate the schools to which I send my daughters. (Yes, they may be intelligent. But they are an enstupidating influence to the extent that they are uninterested.)

As far as I am concerned, the lower classes (which is largely what we're talking about) can study anything they want, or nothing at all. I don't care. It's their choice. But leave my schools, my language, and my civilization alone.

I'm not being heartless. Should the intellectually uninspired ask my advice, I would happily give it. If they wanted to study Sophocles or digital design, or bird-watching or golf-ball repair, I'd be delighted to supply the teachers. Anyone from any class with the ability and desire should be encouraged to learn. But if people choose not to, I don't care.

Why require anything of them beyond basic literacy and let them out after the eighth grade? They aren't going to learn anything else anyway. (Again, this is documented reality.)

For those who want an academic education, I say establish separate schools, and make attendance at all schools voluntary after the eighth grade. Those who wanted to learn nothing more would simply drop out, to the great benefit of serious students. The force of parental suasion would keep those students in attendance who ought to be in attendance.

Finally, decouple jobs from degrees. Hiring should be dependent on the results of a test, given by the prospective employer, of preparation for the particular job. This would empty the universities of students with no academic drive--a splendid idea.

How's that for PC?

Used by permission from Fred.