The ever-growing education industry stumbles from one ineffective morass into another, but there’s no mystery about what creates the conditions for serious learning.
Stellar facilities are nice but they aren’t among these basic conditions, as I had learned through teaching at an outstanding but always struggling prep school, and as we see in the high-flying but cramped Haas Hall in Fayetteville.
Another non-condition is government approval in the form of “credentials.” The hurdles that lead to a teaching credential may do some good, but they’re also a barrier to people with something to contribute. Consider the absurdity that, lacking a state credential, JBU faculty aren’t eligible to teach 10th graders at the local high school.
Another non-essential is kind-heartedness. It’s true, as we often hear, that schools are mission fields. But it’s also true that schools are primarily places of learning. If, for my own kids, I was given the choice between a first-rate math teacher who happened to be an atheist and an uninspiring but lovely “educator,” I wouldn’t hesitate: bring on the atheist. The emptiness of unbelief can be countered elsewhere; school time lost to touching hearts at the expense of stretching brains can’t.
Perhaps this seems harsh—and, obviously, the ideal is a teacher who reaches both minds and hearts—but it’s obvious by now that classroom kindness hasn’t helped people with college degrees who aren’t finding good jobs because they still can’t read well, write well, think well, communicate well or do basic math. The country has more bachelor’s degrees than ever, but employers tell us they can’t find qualified people, and so they look overseas. It turns out that all the classroom niceness isn’t so nice.
There are two basic things that create the conditions for deep and wide learning: (1) parents who care and (2) competent teachers who are committed heart and soul to the cause. When we see that American students rank behind about 26 other countries in reading, writing and math, we know that too few parents care and too few teachers are highly competent and soulfully committed. Thus another unhappy statistic: fewer than 40% of Americans with college degrees read even one book per month. And it’s hard to imagine the popular culture being as rancid as it is without the collaboration and support of a lot of “educated” people.
Of the two basic conditions—parents who care and competent, committed teachers—the first is certainly the most important. Over time, even highly devoted teachers will be worn down by the casual disregard of distracted, careless and electronically stupefied parents who say they care but prove by their actions that they don’t. Parents who don’t ensure that their kids are learning worthwhile things at a higher level don’t hold kids accountable, don’t model reading and intelligent conversation and don’t support and encourage good teachers. As addicted to “social media” as everyone else is, parents expect the government to handle everything, and life will magically work out.
But life won’t magically work out, and this country is deeply engaged in a decade-long act of self-sabotage. Economic consequences are mounting and will continue to build. So the education industry does what it can to raise standards and stir up accountability. Tests, forms, paperwork, energy-draining assessment, and interminable discussions about “pedagogy” driven by academic fads.
In the absence of parents who care — and in the absence of competent, committed teachers who are supported by engaged parents — none of these will have much effect. The gathering social calamity won’t be averted.
Jones is an associate professor of history at JBU. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.