When the education business gives you the business

When a society undergoes massive changes, folks may know those changes are taking place, but don’t know what they mean or where they’ll lead. This is the case today, with us and all the advances in computer technology.

Sure, we know everyone is wired up to everyone and everything else, getting instant and constant information on every little thing, thanks to the Internet, cellphones, TV and the rest.

But what we don’t know is how, exactly, this is changing us and our society.

Yeah, darn near everyone under the age of 35 is texting their pea-pickin’ hearts out as they’re walking, eating, driving and, for all I know, scuba diving. Further, when not glued to a TV, folks seem to be on their computers (or iPads or ipods) watching who knows what. But what long-term effects will this orgy of sensory overload have?

I can’t speak for society as a whole, of course, but based on my 41 years as a classroom teacher, I’ve got a good idea what’s happening to America’s students.

For one thing, they’ve got diminished attention spans. For another, basic reading, writing and understanding are real chores. Beyond that, because they can access all information anytime they want, they don’t have to remember where they got it from and they don’t.

Way back when, when you had to find all information in person, when asked where someone got their facts from, they could tell you. Now the answer I most often get is, “On the net.” In other words, they’ve no idea of the source, and probably not of its accuracy either.

Tabula rasa

A recent example? This week in one class we were going over a short story I’d assigned. It was written and set in the early ’60s, and I wanted them to get some sense of that time so they could better understand the characters and their behavior.

“OK,” I said. “So what sorts of things happened in the ’60s?”

At first no one spoke so I asked the question again. Finally a kid raised his hand.

“Uh, World War One?”

I looked for some sign of irony or mischievous from him. There was none. No one else seemed upset or even surprised by it.

I suddenly felt as if I had been in World War I. (Headline in the Adirondack Daily Enterprise: “WWI’s last surviving soldier found teaching at Paul Smith’s College!” I dunno how it happened,” Seidenstein said. “Seems like one day the boys and I were singing Mademoiselle from Armentieres and the next thing I knew I was correcting freshmen essays.”)

After that, another kid said The Depression. I got depressed.

Eventually, they did name some 60’s things -?hippies, civil rights, women’s lib – but none of them could name anything specific about them.

And here’s the thing: These young people are not disadvantaged in any way. They’re pretty typical American 18-year-olds. They graduated from high school and passed all their courses, including history. Beyond that, their verbal skills are fairly good -?they can read and write beyond average freshman level. But their ability to comprehend is sadly deficient. And their lack of historical perspective and awareness is neither unique nor anomalous. Nor would we expect it to be since ultimately, given our current mania of teaching to the test, we are actually teaching students to forget.

This is not to say all students are like this. But I’m afraid it’s similar to our having elite athletes. We have some of the world’s greatest athletes; however, the physical fitness of the average American is shabby, at best. And while our elite students are as good as the world’s best, our average students are nothing to text home about.

Ultimately, no matter how anyone cuts it, we are not educating our nation’s children. And given the current trends in education, almost none of which are regulated or endorsed by classroom teachers, combined with our continued (and continuous) attachment to The Great Cyber-Umbilicus, I don’t see how it’ll get better.

Oh yeah, the testing companies and the Great Pedagogical Potentates from Afar will proclaim A Whole New Day with their teaching-to-the-test mandates, and will present all sorts of data support it. Meanwhile, as more money and gizmos and rhetoric will pour into schools, real education that involves complex literacy and critical thinking will keep going down the tubes.

Instead, we’ll keep churning out whole schools of young people who will have their diploma in hand and very little knowledge in their heads. It is an Orwellian nightmare, but a politician’s and advertiser’s Dream Come True -?an entire population that don’t know nuthin’ about nuthin’.

Hoping against hope

To me, teaching was never a job, in the typical sense. I always looked forward to Monday; Friday often came too soon. There was an infinite learning curve, and I always felt challenged and often felt successful. I was evaluated, but I also had complete freedom about what I taught and how I taught it.

If I got suggestions with my courses, they came from my colleagues and my immediate bosses I didn’t have to work under the mandates of some six-figure office-bound generalissimo in the far reaches of Albany or D.C.

But I’m afraid those days are long gone, or soon will be. “Classroom teaching” to tomorrow’s teachers will bear little or no resemblance to the job I knew and loved.

Last year, my dear friend Kirk Peterson, with whom I taught for four decades, said to me, upon his retiring, “Well, we got in education and the right time and we’re getting out of it at the right time too.”

Kirk hasn’t been wrong about many things.

And as much as I hope he’s wrong about this one, I fear he’s not.