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American Education on the Decline – so Goes the Nation

January 20, 2014 1 comment

Parents make the rules and set the boundaries for their children. They set them up for success or failure.

All children are required to attend school in the USA. Our schools are the recipients of the children who these parents raise. They enter our classrooms either prepared to Launch into the Future or Dead on Arrival. I could go on about the teachers and their unions; the ways in which they block innovation and change, the ways in which they game the system for their benefit with the children left in their care losing ground internationally. But this is a rehashing of the obvious. What is important to know is that the American public educational system is now ranked 37 in the PISA (The Program for International Student Assessment). More than half a million 15-year-olds around the world took the PISA in 2012. The test, which is administered every three years and focuses largely on math, but includes minor sections in science and reading, is often used as a snapshot of the global state of education. The results, published in December, 2013, show the U.S. trailing behind educational powerhouses like Korea and Finland.

It is useless to ask, “Who is to blame?” All are to blame; Parents for their irresponsible parenting and inability to have a vision for their children who are undisciplined and chaotic; Teachers for their unique capacity to remain mediocre in times that demand innovative change and diversity of thought; Unions who force every American teacher to pay dues to an organization that enslaves their members to an ethic of unexceptional performance; and Politicians who squander the promise of the youth of this nation as they waste time and opportunities to transform and revolutionize our educational practices in America. ALL are to blame.

Not much has changed since 2000, when the U.S. scored along the OECD (Organization for Co-operation and Development) average in every subject: This year, the U.S. scores below average in math and ranks 17th among the 34 OECD countries. It scores close to the OECD average in science and reading, ranks 21st in science, and 17th in reading. The U.S. scored below the PISA math mean and ranks 26th out of the 34 OECD countries. Fifty-five percent of students in Shanghai-China were considered top performers, while only nine percent of American students were.

One in four U.S. students did not reach the PISA baseline level 2 of mathematics proficiency. At this level, “students begin to demonstrate the skills that will enable them to participate effectively and productively in life,” according to the PISA report. Even the top students in the United States are behind: This year, the PISA report offered regional scores for Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Florida. Massachusetts, which is a high-achieving U.S. state and which averaged above the national PISA score, is still two years of formal schooling behind Shanghai.

Why is this important and why should we pay attention to this? Because, as parents, educators, and politicians we should be extremely concerned about how well our children are learning and retaining knowledge; how well they transfer their  knowledge to their life experiences; and how well they implement their dreams and visions using their knowledge. It is statistical fact that a rising PISA score for a country is a good indicator that the economy of that country will grow as well.

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

Nelson Mandela

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Education, e-ducare, A leading Out and Leading into the Light…

September 1, 2012 1 comment

Why do we educate?

We educate for a change in the human mind, like a birth is to a newborn. It is to change the student and bring him from darkness into light, from small mind to large mind, from ignorance to knowledge, but most importantly from Stupidity to Wisdom. It is not primarily, as most think, for a job, for making money, for a change in class status, for a veneer of culture, or for success.

Education’s principal foundation is for making humans more human and for making them larger inside. Education is the only vehicle we have in any society that allows us to elevate humans from shouting, screaming, primitive creatures, who are unable to reason and think, to enlightened humans with differing life views who participate in a discourse of civility.

The goal is to have the student arrive at a moment in time where they experience in their life a flourishing power of the mind. In this intellectual maturity they reach their exhilarating human power where they see clearly, are not influenced by deceivers or influenced by power. They are the ones who are filled with the power that only knowledge brings. They arrive at decisions of value for their lives. Their power affords them the ability to spurn the false ones and move into the light of clarity with vision. This is what Teachers do. This is the goal of e-ducare.

The primary end in education is the student. The teacher’s function is to bring to life for the student the historical scientific, literary and mystical knowledge that history has left in our timeless records. The teacher is the link to this human power for each student that crosses his path. If teachers are to “raise the dead” for their students, then it should not be the “dead” who are changed. It should be the students who are changed by experiencing these authors, sages, mathematicians, scientists, and inventors from our past and present knowledge. The student is then able to ask the right questions.

The student develops a discourse based upon logic, not emotion; a discourse of reason supported by knowledge. The student becomes the power in his life. He is not dependent upon outside false prophets. The student is free because he thinks and reasons.

  “It is easier to build strong children than it is to repair broken men.”   Fredrick Douglass

What is Classical Education?

I was preparing to write a post on Classical Education when I went back and looked at “The Well Trained Mind”, published first edition in 1999. I then went to the Word Press blog called “The Well Trained Mind“, and read a piece by Susan Wise Bauer. I have copied it in its entirety for my readers as it is the most thought provoking discussion available on the subject of What is Classical Education?

This will alter the way you perceive education in our American public school systems. It will stop you in your tracks, make you turn and reflect upon your education and that of your children. It will bring an understanding of where we went wrong and why American schools are failing to produce literate, articulate, creative, lateral thinkers in this highly competitive global economy.

BEHOLD THIS ENLIGHTENING SUMMARY BY SUSAN WISE BAUER:
Classical education depends on a three-part process of training the mind. The early years of school are spent in absorbing facts, systematically laying the foundations for advanced study. In the middle grades, students learn to think through arguments. In the high school years, they learn to express themselves. This classical pattern is called the trivium.

The first years of schooling are called the “grammar stage” — not because you spend four years doing English, but because these are the years in which the building blocks for all other learning are laid, just as grammar is the foundation for language. In the elementary school years — what we commonly think of as grades one through four — the mind is ready to absorb information. Children at this age actually find memorization fun. So during this period, education involves not self-expression and self-discovery, but rather the learning of facts. Rules of phonics and spelling, rules of grammar, poems, the vocabulary of foreign languages, the stories of history and literature, descriptions of plants and animals and the human body, the facts of mathematics — the list goes on. This information makes up the “grammar,” or the basic building blocks, for the second stage of education.

By fifth grade, a child’s mind begins to think more analytically. Middle-school students are less interested in finding out facts than in asking “Why?” The second phase of the classical education, the “Logic Stage,” is a time when the child begins to pay attention to cause and effect, to the relationships between different fields of knowledge relate, to the way facts fit together into a logical framework.

A student is ready for the Logic Stage when the capacity for abstract thought begins to mature. During these years, the student begins algebra and the study of logic, and begins to apply logic to all academic subjects. The logic of writing, for example, includes paragraph construction and learning to support a thesis; the logic of reading involves the criticism and analysis of texts, not simple absorption of information; the logic of history demands that the student find out why the War of 1812 was fought, rather than simply reading its story; the logic of science requires that the child learn the scientific method.

The final phase of a classical education, the “Rhetoric Stage,” builds on the first two. At this point, the high school student learns to write and speak with force and originality. The student of rhetoric applies the rules of logic learned in middle school to the foundational information learned in the early grades and expresses his conclusions in clear, forceful, elegant language. Students also begin to specialize in whatever branch of knowledge attracts them; these are the years for art camps, college courses, foreign travel, apprenticeships, and other forms of specialized training.

A classical education is more than simply a pattern of learning, though. Classical education is language-focused; learning is accomplished through words, written and spoken, rather than through images (pictures, videos, and television).

Why is this important? Language-learning and image-learning require very different habits of thought. Language requires the mind to work harder; in reading, the brain is forced to translate a symbol (words on the page) into a concept. Images, such as those on videos and television, allow the mind to be passive. In front of a video screen, the brain can “sit back” and relax; faced with the written page, the mind is required to roll its sleeves up and get back to work.

A classical education, then, has two important aspects. It is language-focused. And it follows a specific three-part pattern: the mind must be first supplied with facts and images, then given the logical tools for organization of facts, and finally equipped to express conclusions.

But that isn’t all. To the classical mind, all knowledge is interrelated. Astronomy (for example) isn’t studied in isolation; it’s learned along with the history of scientific discovery, which leads into the church’s relationship to science and from there to the intricacies of medieval church history. The reading of the Odyssey leads the student into the consideration of Greek history, the nature of heroism, the development of the epic, and man’s understanding of the divine.

This is easier said than done. The world is full of knowledge, and finding the links between fields of study can be a mind-twisting task. A classical education meets this challenge by taking history as its organizing outline — beginning with the ancients and progressing forward to the moderns in history, science, literature, art and music.

We suggest that the twelve years of education consist of three repetitions of the same four-year pattern: Ancients, Middle Ages, Renaissance and Reformation, and Modern Times. The child studies these four time periods at varying levels — simple for grades 1-4, more difficult in grades 5-8 (when the student begins to read original sources), and taking an even more complex approach in grades 9-12, when the student works through these time periods using original sources (from Homer to Hitler) and also has the opportunity to pursue a particular interest (music, dance, technology, medicine, biology, creative writing) in depth.

The other subject areas of the curriculum are linked to history studies. The student who is working on ancient history will read Greek and Roman mythology, the tales of the Iliad and Odyssey, early medieval writings, Chinese and Japanese fairy tales, and (for the older student) the classical texts of Plato, Herodotus, Virgil, Aristotle. She’ll read Beowulf, Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare the following year, when she’s studying medieval and early Renaissance history. When the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are studied, she starts with Swift (Gulliver’s Travels) and ends with Dickens; finally, she reads modern literature as she is studying modern history.

The sciences are studied in a four-year pattern that roughly corresponds to the periods of scientific discovery: biology, classification and the human body (subjects known to the ancients); earth science and basic astronomy (which flowered during the early Renaissance); chemistry (which came into its own during the early modern period); and then basic physics and computer science (very modern subjects).

This pattern lends coherence to the study of history, science, and literature — subjects that are too often fragmented and confusing. The pattern widens and deepens as the student progresses in maturity and learning. For example, a first grader listens to you read the story of the Iliad from one of the picture book versions available at any public library. Four years later, the fifth grader reads one of the popular middle-grade adaptations — Olivia Coolidge’s The Trojan War, or Roger Lancelyn Greene’s Tales of Troy. Four more years go by, and the ninth grader — faced with the Iliad itself — plunges right in, undaunted.

The classical education is, above all, systematic — in direct contrast to the scattered, unorganized nature of so much secondary education. This systematic, rigorous study has two purposes.

Rigorous study develops virtue in the student. Aristotle defined virtue as the ability to act in accordance to what one knows to be right. The virtuous man (or woman) can force himself to do what he knows to be right, even when it runs against his inclinations. The classical education continually asks a student to work against his baser inclinations (laziness, or the desire to watch another half hour of TV) in order to reach a goal — mastery of a subject.

Systematic study also allows the student to join what Mortimer Adler calls the “Great Conversation” — the ongoing conversation of great minds down through the ages. Much modern education is so eclectic that the student has little opportunity to make connections between past events and the flood of current information. “The beauty of the classical curriculum,” writes classical schoolmaster David Hicks, “is that it dwells on one problem, one author, or one epoch long enough to allow even the youngest student a chance to exercise his mind in a scholarly way: to make connections and to trace developments, lines of reasoning, patterns of action, recurring symbolism, plots, and motifs.”

Brilliant, thought provoking analysis! I could never had said it better!

And, if you have not seen “Akeelah and the Bee” please rent it for its amazing discourse on the power of language, its origins, and structure.

An Argument for Classical Education

July 6, 2012 1 comment

“One of the functions of a teacher is to raise the dead.”
Peter Kreeft, Author, Professor of Philosophy, Boston College

Great leaders from our past were men of unyielding convictions in their beliefs, values, and ideals. They fought a war and crafted the Declaration of Independence; they framed the Constitution and formed a nation. They were giants on the world’s stage whose intellect was highly developed and whose thoughts and spoken language reached an uncommon level of eloquence.

What made them different? What grounded their thoughts and determination? With all the technological advances and easy access to the world’s knowledge, why are our leaders today, who are more “educated”, so obviously less literate and  uncommonly inelegant than our Founding Fathers? Could it be that our Founding Fathers were the result of a Classical Education, something our leaders do not have today?

Mike Myatt, managing director and chief strategy officer at N2growth, eloquently states, “Nations rise and fall with the quality of their leaders, and their leaders succeed and fail based upon who they are at their core – what they believe, how they think, and what they do. Nothing shapes a leader or a society like their education or lack thereof. Let me be clear: when I refer to an education, I’m not referencing earning a degree, I’m talking about developing a rich intellect – they are not always one in the same.” He asserts that we have lowered our standards and expect too little of our children. Go to the local Mall after school and see what the children of our nations parents are doing to increase their intellect and satiate their natural creative curiosity.

How is it that the Colonists in the 1770’s, who had little formal education, had an expansive vocabulary, a wider range of literacy, and a mastery of many subjects than our students have today? How is it that the graduates of these one room school houses produced these intellectually literate men and women who became the bedrock entrepreneurs of our society? I am reminded of a film I saw that illustrates this point, TRUE GRIT with Jeff Bridges. I was stunned by the vocabulary of Matty Ross the 14 year old girl, played by Hailee Steinfeld. Her character is the product of a one room school house education. If you haven’t seen the film, rent it and listen to her dialogue. Point made!

We spend more money and award more degrees to students who spend more time in school than ever before, most of whom are unable to read and comprehend the language of many of our historical documents or classic books. We are a one dimensional nation with a one dimensional educational system turning out test takers who are unable to have intellectually civil discourse. Should we return to the Classical studies?

Could you pass this 1895 eighth grade exam administered to the the one room schoolhouse students in Kansas? Point Made!

  The following quote by Leigh A. Bortins sums up the crossroads we currently face as a nation:
“…the current culture of education has displaced parents as the primary instructors of children in favor of professionals who try their best to recreate the home environment at school; has the federal government rather than the community determining the structure of equal educational opportunity; has deserted the idea that memorization trains the brain; has fostered a loss of literacy by replacing the study of original writings with abridged textbooks; and has created a populace unable to engage in reasonable discourse. We have rejected the historically successful model of rigorous, classical education in favor of entertainment and job training.”

Studying grammar, memorizing multiplication tables and historical events and reading original sources is no longer politically correct. Instead our students read from abridged textbooks and write their thoughts in 140 characters or less. We are a nation who believes education should be “entertaining and fun”. It should not be hard work. We are less literate and less educated than our global competitors. To succeed we need to start again to develop our greatest national treasure, the intellect of our children, who are the future of our nation.

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