and Five Educational Reforms
I'd Like to See but Won't
Lying in front of me is a card that arrived recently in the mail. On its front are several children, carefully selected to reflect multicultural America, flanked by the question (all caps, large font, red ink): “Is your child fully protected?” (Thoughtfully translated into Spanish as well—also to reflect multicultural America.) Now the only correct answer to that question is, obviously, no. But I am, of course, curious to know just what danger it is this time against which my children may be less than fully protected. Fortunately, the inside of the card enlightens me: “Dear parent/guardian: Records show that your child may have missed a vaccine shot. Please contact your child’s doctor or health clinic to find out if you need to schedule an appointment.”
It is difficult to know whether to be more irritated or unnerved at receiving such a notice. One is irritated by the unwanted advice (to say nothing of the implicit “You don’t know what you’re doing, you poor excuse for a parent”), unnerved by the general Big-Brother-Is-Watching-You sensation. Accentuating the latter is the notice’s general aura of vague, mysterious knowledge. “Records show....” What records? Nobody’s telling. “...that your child....” Umm, which child? I have five. “...may have missed....” Talk about hedging your bets. C’mon, did we miss one, or not? You’re the one with the records, after all. “...a vaccine shot.” Which one? Is it a secret?
After irritation and unease, my third reaction is mild incredulity. Are there, in fact, any records at all? It occurs to me that the card’s claim is necessarily true for every child, every age, everywhere—“your child may have missed a vaccine shot.” Well, duh. Perhaps the very opposite of the Big Brother thing is at work here—maybe they (whoever) just mailed out one of these cards to every single parent they could find.
But who? And why? The small print at the bottom of the card proves revelatory: “Financial support for this communication has been provided by Wyeth Pharmaceuticals.” That pretty much clears things up. Wyeth, a quick internet search reveals, is now part of Pfizer; and, yes, though I’m not sufficiently interested to invest a great deal of time exploring it, they appear to produce various vaccines. So evidently the vaccine producer paid the insurance company a bunch of money to send these postcards out to anyone who has deviated from the recommended immunization schedule.
For, I admit, we have deviated from it. Not widely, and not out of a disbelief in the importance of vaccines in combating serious illnesses such as polio or tetanus. Mainly, in fact, we have simply delayed certain shots so that our children wouldn’t receive multiple vaccines simultaneously. It is true, though, that we don’t regard vaccines as terribly important in fighting less serious diseases, and I don’t think I’m divulging too much personal medical information if I reveal that we have not vaccinated our children against chickenpox, now a required immunization in New York State for children attending school (we homeschool). (Although I tell you, with everyone vaccinating, it’s getting harder and harder for your kids just to catch chickenpox and get it over with the old-fashioned way.) It’s a little hard to see why it’s necessary to vaccinate against an illness of only moderate severity that everyone always just got and scratched his way through.
Which raises the interesting question of why states require something like the chickenpox vaccine. For New York is not alone, as it happens—according to the CDC, over forty-five states now require it for entry into school. The answer, I suggest—without pretending to any special evidence, so you may think of this as simply a sociological observation, or perhaps a sociological suspicion—has two elements, neither of them having much to do with children’s health. The first is the powerful economic and political interest of pharmaceutical companies in promoting the adoption of new vaccines (which will inevitably be aimed at less serious illnesses, the more serious ones having already been dealt with). The second element is less obvious, though its influence may be even more pervasive: The increase in the number of dual working couples means that fewer families have a parent at home to care for a sick child who must miss school, so that parents themselves now have an unspoken economic (though not merely economic) interest in taking additional precautions to prevent any possibly preventable illnesses in their children. (That the feminist revolution might help explain even something like the search for new immunizations is only one indication, I think, that feminism is the most influential and least adequately understood social force of the last several decades.)
This, of course, implies what everyone knows anyway, namely, that our schools are now expected to serve a range of purposes having little to do with education, not least among them the provision of childcare. Education reform has been in the news again recently, as President Obama and his Education Secretary Arne Duncan have been promoting revisions to the No Child Left Behind Act. The proposed reforms focus less on sanctions against schools that fail to meet an annual performance target and more on tracking and rewarding progress over a number of years, and they encourage states to adopt more rigorous standards, with appropriate assessments, preparing students for college or a career. These revisions respond to common criticisms of NCLB and are probably perfectly fine ideas. Yet I doubt that they will actually accomplish very much.
The reason they won’t is lurking behind that fine print in my mysterious immunization card. Schools that are to educate successfully must focus on education. When they become the battleground for other issues—healthcare, childcare, or anything else—their ability to serve their proper function will always decline. And by now American schools are so overwhelmed by the detritus of other social problems—an unceasing wave of legal and illegal immigration, battles over political correctness and cultural values, and especially family breakdown—that we should not expect additional legislative tinkering from Washington to make much of a difference. Indeed, the impulse to nationalize this problem, seeking federal solutions, is precisely the wrong one. Although it may seem counterintuitive, complex national problems do not call for complex national solutions. National solutions will address the generic problem case—which, unfortunately, will differ in various ways from almost every actual and particular problem case. Complex national solutions thus call for a network of particularized local solutions.
Nevertheless, given my skepticism towards the usual recipes, it is entertaining to consider what sorts of education reforms I might propose—apart from eliminating required chickenpox immunizations—as alternatives more likely to make a real difference in the lives of students. (Not that anyone is going to ask me.) So herewith five education reforms that I would like to see but are not likely to happen:
1. Mandatory Latin instruction. Nothing would do more to improve children’s education. Everyone knows that Latin helps students learn English vocabulary and grammar. But even more, the logic and analytical rigor required to learn Latin are of great value in training the mind. Reading Latin poetry, especially, is like a puzzle, as one sorts out word endings and word order. Furthermore, a serious encounter with ancient Rome (or Greece) would be more valuable than most of what passes for multicultural exposure these days. Both Rome and Greece are familiar enough for students to grasp hold of and different enough to give them something to think about—the combination one wants in order to encourage cultural humility but not cultural relativism. So several years of Latin, at least, for every student. Instead of “No child left behind,” we might propose, “No child graduates from high school without having read Book II of the Aeneid in the original.”
2. No computers before middle school. The fetish for ensuring that all students have computer access from a very early age is pure silliness. What do they need them for? All subjects can be taught through the early grades without the assistance of computers. Nor do students need to acquire any special computer skills this early. Computers these days have become so user-friendly that they practically teach their own use, especially for kids surrounded by gadgets, for whom navigating the electronic world is second nature. No student who has received a decent education will have trouble learning to use the internet. So give them a book, or a paintbrush, or a magnifying glass, and put them to work. We can introduce the computers in middle school—when students take a mandatory typing course to get them ready for the papers they’ll soon be writing.
3. Every student learns a musical instrument and a foreign language. A spoken foreign language, that is, in addition to Latin. Here the basic rule to remember is Chesterton’s dictum that if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing poorly. An education should train the mind to think in unaccustomed ways. Playing a musical instrument does this. So does learning to speak a foreign language. Much the same rationale justifies art instruction, or a nice program of intramural sports for slightly older children, or even a class in home economics. In different ways, all of these things contribute to a culturally well-rounded education. Perhaps one could even generalize this rule into something like, “Have kids do all the things that are the first to be cut (along with Latin!) when funding is scarce.” We can pay for them with the money saved by eliminating computers—not to mention recommendation number five below.
4. By the end of fourth grade, every boy should have read at least thirty Hardy Boys books, every girl at least thirty Nancy Drews. I know, such a gendered rule is inadmissible these days. But when you saw the first recommendation for mandatory Latin, you knew that likelihood of adoption was not the prime criterion behind these proposals. Besides, we can probably assume that most boys will prefer to read Hardy Boys, most girls Nancy Drew. The point, however, is not the gender stereotype, and if a boy student really wanted to read Nancy Drew, or a girl the Hardy Boys, I would certainly let them. The point, rather, is to get kids reading at all, by giving them some good, fast-paced stories of action and intrigue, “good literature” as opposed to “great literature.” But the real purpose is deeper still: to support children’s early moral formation by giving them action stories with an unambiguous moral framework, with good guys and bad guys, where the good guys win, and where virtues such as persistence, honesty, and effort pay off. We could find substitutes for the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew: the sports stories of John Tunis, various series by Enid Blyton, Albert Payson Terhune’s dog stories. My sisters devoured the Bobbsey Twins. Batman served a similar purpose for me, though his most recent incarnations may have become too grim. But read, read a lot, and read about a world with moral meaning.
5. Shorten the school day, week, and year. One of the few good things to result from the current recession is that many school districts, strapped for cash, are being forced to experiment with four-day school weeks. This is all to the good. What’s the point of more school when kids aren’t learning much there anyway? So: a school day that goes from 8:00 am to 12:30 pm; a four-day week of Monday through Thursday; and a school year that begins after Labor Day and ends by May, including week-long breaks both in fall and spring, and about four weeks off around Christmas. That is, to be honest, enough time to teach what needs to be taught. More and more we hear calls for longer school days, Saturday school, and a longer school year. But the reason for these proposals—apart, that is, from parents’ childcare needs—is not that the current time-frame is too short to provide an adequate education. It is simply that we are not providing an adequate education. But ineffective education does not become more effective by being extended for an additional month. So instead of tormenting the children by providing them a poor education for a larger chunk of their year, we should instead say with Moses, Set my people free!
And, finally, a sixth observation: A world in which we could implement these reforms would also be a world in which parents would have no trouble remembering the adage that was formerly commonplace: when one of the neighborhood kids gets chickenpox, everyone goes and plays at his house.
Peter Meilaender is Associate Professor of Political Science at Houghton College.
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