Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Education and the Divinity of Knowledge

The First Bell of Desire
It was cold. The streets were deserted. Smoke rose from the chimneys of the shuttered houses.  The sun shone bright.

It was a cold winter’s day. My fingers were numb with hurt. The bare trees stood motionless in the bright sunlight. Not much of nature moved. The streets were quiet and the doors shuttered to the elements in the neighborhood made it look like a ghost town but for the wisps of smoke and steam that rose from the chimney tops.

Both paragraphs shed the light. But which one puts an image in your head?

It got me thinking. What has happened to the descriptive wonderland that the authors conspired to invoke in our mind. Where is that snippet of evoked thought from a well-crafted sentence? Where is the joy of play on words that Shakespeare or Byron or Wadsworth crafted to the squeal and wonderment of delight? When did it all end?

I have been told to write so that the masses can understand. Twenty years ago an author friend said speak to the 9th and 10th graders. The masses want to get to the storyline. They do not want to revel in words. They want to know what happens next. They want to finish the book. They want to find out who did what to whom and how. It was a revelation in itself, that the man who had written several books had made this preemptive decision that had launched his career as one of the preeminent authors. He was of course right. He kept stressing to “Keep it simple stupid.” And obviously he was right about that too for his career blossomed.

But, for that little resistant bug in my ear, I thought what of the art and craft of writing? What of the joy of discovering the meaning behind the Captain’s words; “See what a scourge is laid upon your hate that heaven finds means to kill your joys with love.” (Spoken by Escalus, Prince of Verona, in William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, Act V, Scene III) 
Prince Esculus in Romeo and Juliet

Even a simple statement as this, “Romeo and Juliet died to quell the thirst for blood between the two households of Verona,”  feels wanting. And if we were to dumb-it-down to something less charitable would it have the same impact if the Captain had said, “ Capulets and Montegues, see how your hatred of each other has caused your children’s death?” Or “your children have died because of your hatred for each other.” Oh what a travesty! There is a reflection, a dream-like manifestation in Shakespeare's words of an inner feeling that kindles thoughts in one’s mind when confronted with the art of expressing. 

Not everyone loves Shakespeare but his words are enduring since the 16th century for a reason.

Then the other day, quite by chance, a different friend dropped another bombshell in my lap. I have been scurrying around the house trying to rid of it. I don’t really know when the fuse was lit or how long the fuse is. This bombshell was in a short descriptor that simply said, “I find it interesting but to have the average person read it and understand it you must write for the 5th grade level.” Oh! Oh! Ouch!

“OMG, I thought. Gr8! What should I do?” Are we then relegated to the crunching compaction of the modern currency of communication? Is there no art of expression and must we advocate to the reduced level of understanding? Or should we raise the bar by forcing the young minds to bubble-up to the level where they may enjoy the fruits of the real meaning of the words. If we have slid from the 9th grade to the 5th grade in the past two decades, then what would happen in another twenty years? Will we end up communicating with “mama and dada” and sign language?

There is a historical trend that underscores the veracity of this dilemma:
In 1945, Henry Rinsland pioneered a work on evaluating the vocabulary of students between first through eight-grade level. He found after reviewing 100,000 compositions with six million words that the maximum vocabulary of the children was around 25,632 words.

Almost forty years later in 1984 Gary Ingersoll and Carl Smith did a similar study of 5000 students between ages of 6 and 14 years and a compiled total of 500,000 words, they found the maximum vocabulary of 10,000 words. This revealed a 61%  drop in a 39 year period. Of course the educators, stakeholders and philosophers all tried to dispel the obvious ramification by denigrating the study and finding mathematical models that would help their cause. But the stark reality remains. Reading and writing has deteriorated. The politically correct atmosphere does not lend itself nor to anyone else to scrutiny. It points the finger but deflects any directed to itself.

A report in the Education supplement of the New York Times in August, 30 of 2006 revealed that the SAT Reading and Math scores showed a decline. Excuses in that article abound, from, the students are under stress, the students are tired or because the tests take too long. The officials pointed out that the decline represented “one-half of one question” (What does that mean?) Other excuses included. “the students were unfamiliar with the questions.” (The student is supposed to know the subject not the question?) You get the drift. Rather then to gnaw at the tattered fabric of blame and irresponsibility, it is time to weave the golden braid of love of reading, understanding and expressing our thoughts. Education is not about the educators, nor the monetary benefits they derive, nor the briefcase of their portfolios. It is about imparting passion, creating the desire and the joys of seeing the light and wonder in a student’s eye. Education is the first bell of desire and the ultimate ring of truths weaved within it composed of history, mathematics, arts, sciences and philosophy.

So it comes back to who is at fault? Is it the student or the teacher? Or is it more in the lap of the society as a whole? I think it is all of the above. It is society’s ills that are preyed upon its inhabitants; the indulgence, the lack of responsibility, the finding of blame, the herd mentality and the notion to belong with the “cool people.”

There are some provocative and legitimate questions that we ask within the confines of a small gathering but never in the open forum. Why is it that all students graduate when some cannot even write or spell their own names? Why are athletes given priority in a college over a scholar? Is it because the athlete brings monetary rewards through the college team sports? Why can’t children be reprimanded for delinquency in their homework, schoolwork and their action? Is it for fear of a legal reprimand from the inattentive parents? Why is every bad behavior given a pass and every good behavior not recognized? Why is a child allowed to graduate to the next class even if he has failed his or her exams and/or not completed the curriculum? And speaking of the curriculum, why is the curriculum modified to suit the “current” standards? Who makes the “current standards?” Is it therefore the spineless capitulation to this thoughtless majority that is sinking the ship of critical thought and understanding in our children?
So at the end, I come back to my original premise, why must I or for that matter anyone else dumb down the youth of today?
Burrhus Frederic Skinner

There are few historical figures who have been instrumental in the decay of the human mind; Burrhus Frederic Skinner (March 20, 1904 – August 18, 1990) Professor B.F. Skinner was best known for his philosophy of “Radical Behaviorism.” This behaviorism essentially was based on his “operand conditioning,” whereby a continuum of reinforcing stimuli would change the behavior of an individual. He believed that freedom and dignity were examples of “mentalistic constructs” which are unobservable and thus useless for scientific psychology. B.F. Skinner said, “ Give me child and I’ll shape him into anything” and “Society attacks early, when the individual is helpless.” If you are still following along understand the seriousness of these two quotations and know that Mr. Skinner was and is still a very powerful name in Education.
George Sylvester Counts

 On the heels of Skinner was another notable worth drawing attention to by the name of George Sylvester Counts (1889–1974). He furthered the cause in education and societal change with his statement, "cannot evade the responsibility of participating actively in the task of reconstituting the democratic tradition and of thus working positively toward a new society."
Among others, author H.G. Wells took exception to this desire of Social Reconstruction by stating, "the complete ideological sterilization of the common schools of the Republic is demonstrated beyond question. The sterilization was deliberate." Mr. Counts also espoused the concept of “sink or swim together.” The idea being that if one student showed independent thinking from the herd mentality, the entire student body would be penalized for one’s action. This then was and is the attempt to suppress independent thought and minority opinion.
Theodore Ryland Sizer

The third character famous in educational reform in the United States is Theodore Ryland Sizer (June 23, 1932 – October 21, 2009). His premise although slightly different was still manifestly a behavior modification approach: He suggested that the students agree to generally behave in exchange for the schools agreeing not to push them too hard or challenge them too severely. He emphasized the depth of knowledge to the breadth and expanse of it. He believed not in the “electives” to broaden the student’s mind but in the mastery of limited core subjects in vocational tradition.

Again on the surface these appear benign but a deeper layer of this has steadily transformed the American Society. From a slow one step modification to a two-step modification of the educational school system a “gradualism” has led to a multi-step general belief that the mandates held today are for the betterment of a child’s education. If that is true then what about the literacy rate and the expanse and breadth of knowledge that seems so deficient. Where are the artists of today. Why is there a general decline in the scientific thought and a narrow but uncomfortable phase of plagiarism, sabotage and vilification to gain a higher perch on the ladder of success? Even in medicine such behaviorism techniques are being adopted to “teach” the students empathy and sympathy for the patients. While it is a noble attempt it is fraught with conflict about basic learning. Removed from such environment the person reverts back to the mean of his or her behavior. Such basic behavior comes from morals, ethics and logic incorporated through early childhood nurturing by the parents. Unfortunately the nuclear family is in a state of decline and thus…

The eternal spring of hope lies in the visions of a single individual with a broader sense of understanding of what is and what will be. It is to this child of man that our hopes cry out to. It is to this free mind with a defined moral and ethical compass that we ascribe our future. May he or she live long and prosper.
Personally, I wish to explore the universe of all its hidden secrets and I wish to play the words for those willing to read and allow them to take the journey through my mind into a realm distinct from theirs. I wish to captain the ship of passengers that have the want and desire. I wish to educate without prejudice. I wish to teach without reference to a simplified mindset. I wish to hurt the senses so that the hurt of not understanding will make the reader want to learn, to make them embark on their own journey of learning, so they too can pay forward the divinity of knowledge. Of all the wishes that I have, I wish you the joy of reading and learning!

The foregoing paragraph is a testimony to a solitary individual little known but with words turgid with profound meaning:

“Where once it was the responsibility of the schools to foster the intellectual development of the child by providing essential basic skills, by cultivating the mind of each child to seek the systematic knowledge produced through centuries of academic endeavor, and by instilling our heritage and our. culture, the purpose of education today is to use the child as a means by which society can be changed. Education is now defined as a "change of behavior," and "to educate" means "to modify behavior." The question is "change to what?" ~ Jo-Ann Abrigg president of the Committee for Positive Education 1978

A copy of an Eight Grade School Exam in 1954:

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed your article...it's pathetic that authors have to "dumb down" literature so that the masses can enjoy it. It is simply feeding the ignorance and stupidity of American's.