National Catholic Register


The History of Cluelessness

The Cluelessness Crisis, Part 3

BY Melinda Selmys

February 10-16, 2008 Issue | Posted 2/5/08 at 3:02 PM


About 2,500 years ago, Plato came up with the idea that class systems could be imposed through education; that people could be taught that some are “copper,” others “silver” and a small elite are “gold.”

The idea didn’t catch on until the 1700s, when the Prussians realized that public education could allow them to create a large class of pliant and obedient soldiers and factory workers, with a small professional class, and a minute intellectual elite.

The Prussian experiment in kindergarten — literally, a garden for growing children like vegetables — was immensely successful. It radically improved the Prussian economy and it provided the iron military discipline that allowed Blücher to march his wounded and exhausted troupes to the aid of Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo. The world took notice.

Prussia’s education system was to provide the paradigm for public school systems throughout the world.

Unfortunately, when it arrived in America, it found a country with a high level of practical education, and unheard-of rates of popular literacy. This flew in the face of the assumption that literacy and critical thought could be taught only to a very tiny percentage of students.

The theory was that “reading leads to unrest and confusion” and that low-grade students are incapable of handling complex ideas without upsetting their internal equilibrium.

Something had to be done, and it was.

Slowly, the responsibility for education was shifted from the family and community to the state; schooling became compulsory at an earlier age, ended at a later age, and took up more of the year; the curriculum was slowly devolved to de-emphasize literacy, eliminate classics, and replace history and geography with “social science.”

Children were explicitly divided into intellectual classes — a practice which was justified by the emergence of social Darwinism and the assumption that intellectual achievement had a primarily hereditary basis.

It is a practice that continues today.

Consider a typical Grade 10 English course designed for students who are expected to go on and work as low-level corporate employees. Students are expected to read three books. They don’t need to be real books: Goosebumps and Nancy Drew will suffice.

At the teacher’s discretion, the actual reading may be dropped to two books and one magazine article. The “culminating” achievement is a “multi-media display” — i.e. a piece of Bristol board with some pictures glued onto it.

What takes up the rest of course time? Out of five units, four are given titles such as “voices” and “diversity.” The time that is not being spent teaching students to read and interpret meaningful texts or compose grammatically correct English sentences is being spent instead on indoctrination — values clarification, self-esteem, bias-examination and so forth.

The other subjects do not fare much better.

One teacher that I interviewed described the Grade 11 geography textbook as “a course of indoctrination in population control and global warming.” Mathematics texts may involve as much ruminating on the fate of aboriginal peoples as actual problem solving.

History, when it is covered at all, is generally taught as a series of disconnected events in which the American Revolution happens without reference to the French, and the War of 1812 doesn’t relate to Napoleon.

Throughout, there run a number of predictable threads: Human beings are destroying the world and killing off species. Western civilization is sinister and all aboriginal cultures are good. Religion is an outdated superstition that has been superseded by science. Western civilization is the culmination of human progress. The older generations are backward and out-of-date, and their ideals can safely be ignored.

Accepting all of this obviously involves double-think, but modern students (me, 10 years ago, included) find it surprisingly easy to put two and two together to arrive at five.

What is problematic here is not that students are being taught a series of values, but that parents, students, teachers and often even local school boards are shut out of the process. The decisions are made by specialists: men and women who lie far out of the influence of parents’ concerns, teachers’ wisdom, students’ needs and basic common sense.

Parents send their children to school hoping that they will learn to be good citizens, complete human beings, imbued with a sense of purpose and ready to enter whatever field of human endeavor best accords with their needs and talents.

Instead, students emerge confused and uncertain, morally disoriented, unable to manage money or handle debt but perfectly formed to operate as servile corporate employees and irresponsible consumers.

All of which makes the situation sound hopeless. Fortunately, it is not: The solution does not lie in the mysterious ivory towers and corporate backrooms where the course of official education is determined.

It lies in the home. Next segment, we’ll take a look at how.

Melinda Selmys is a staff writer