Monthly Archives: April 2017

Teaching Magic: Why I Am No Longer A Liberal

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The other day, my sister, a staunch Democrat, asked me why I became conservative. I started as a liberal Democrat. Lyndon Johnson was the first presidential candidate I voted for, followed by Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern, Walter Mondale, and Jimmy Carter (twice). The first Republican I voted for was George H. W. Bush, and I have voted for Republican candidates in every election since. I admit that I found it very difficult to vote for Trump, but I could not vote for Hillary, not so much because of her long history of lying and deceit; rather, because of what the Democratic Party has become as a result of the Obama administration and the candidacy of Bernie Sanders – a far left European-style social democratic party.

In addition to voting Democratic until Bush ran against Dukakis, I was strongly against the Vietnam War and “marched” in a number of anti-war demonstrations. Even though I was a “child of the 1950’s,” I bought the entire 60’s ideology of drugs, sex and rock’n roll, although my actual participation in these activities was moderate.

Getting back to my sister’s question of why I became a conservative, I would say the primary reason is because after college I started teaching school (frankly) to dodge the draft and avoid Vietnam.

In college, I read a number of books written by former teachers and education professors. The only one I remember is Death at an Early Age by Jonathan Kozol who described what, he said, were his experiences teaching public school in a poor section of Boston. What he found was a school of eager-to-learn young students and racist teachers and administrators, who not only failed to teach their enthusiastic pupils, but sought also to destroy their spirits.

What I found when I taught in a neighborhood similar to the one where Kozol taught was 180 degrees different from what he described. Far from being eager to learn, the students I first encountered seemed to be in a perpetual state of hysteria. Most appeared incapable of talking to each other in a normal tone of voice; instead, they yelled, and much of what they yelled was profanity. The idea of behaving with respect for teachers  the principal, or other students was alien to them.

At the same time, the teachers and administrators were nothing like those Kozol described. Everyone I encountered in my first school (and every school thereafter) was either a dyed-in-the-wool liberal or radical leftist. They would do anything to make the students, parents and the many school activists happy. Very slowly, over a number of years, I grew to distrust the left. If Kozol and most of the left could be so wrong or dishonest about the schools, what other aspects of society could they be wrong or dishonest about?

I taught high school English for thirty-five years in the Philadelphia public schools. When I began teaching in the mid-1960’s, a movement to radically change teaching methods dominated teacher education and revolutionized teaching practices. Traditional teaching methods like lecture and teacher-led discussion were deemed a waste of time as well as harmful to students.

The radical educationists of the 60’s started the ball rolling with the belief that promoting a student’s “self-esteem” should be the purpose of education. They derided what they referred to as “mere knowledge.” From the 60s on, teaching became a form of cognitive therapy.  Teachers evaluated student work by searching for anything “positive” to praise and by never mentioning anything that was incorrect or incomprehensible, for that would be destructive of self-esteem. I attended many “workshops” where education professors would tell us, for example, not to bother teaching students how to read and write.  English grammar, punctuation, usage, and organization only frustrated students and made them unhappy. If a teacher couldn’t find anything positive to say about a student’s work, he or she should praise the student for “effort.” Student grades were thus based on effort and anything the teacher could find that could be considered positive in a student’s work. The students would learn “mere knowledge” on their own once they had high self-esteem.

It was understandable that radical ideas in education took hold in the 60’s. The students in urban schools, in particular, came from much less stable environments than their predecessors. Many had only a single woman in their homes: a mother, aunt or grandmother who could not (or would not) control children or teenagers.

Those who ran the schools and the education professors in universities searched for some new way to effectively teach these difficult students, a search for what the late Columbia professor Jacques Barzun called a “‘teaching magic’ that relieved the student of the burden of wanting to be taught.”

The quest for a teaching magic produced one change in educational methodology after another. When it was discovered that the self-esteem movement produced the phenomenon of the illiterate high school graduate, the educational establishment proclaimed a “back to basics” movement. But back to basics turned out to be more talk than reality.

The powerful educational ideology of the sixties was overwhelmingly seductive. But the word self-esteem had to go when moderate and conservative critics  began to make fun of it. So it was “re-branded” as the “student-centered classroom,” not unlike, in politics, the reincarnation of liberals into “progressives.”

Child-centered education meant that the students sat in groups, and each group worked on a project. Any teacher who employed traditional methods was likely to receive a reprimand from an administrator, who, was always happy to see a classroom of students in groups. Ultimately, the goal was to reduce and eventually eliminate the teacher’s role in learning. Usually, one or two students in the group actually worked on the project, but everyone in the group received the same grade. Although I haven’t been in a classroom in years, I believe that teachers are still expected to arrange their classes into groups in which students, it is hoped, “teach each other.”

Another 60’s influenced theory that gained prominence was that students had different “learning styles” ( supported by “research”). The learning style theory required that lessons should be directed towards each of the senses – sight, sound, touch, and even smell and taste. Again many moderate and conservative education critics considered the whole idea and its “research” to be fraudulent. I don’t know whether that theory is still considered gospel in the schools, but I haven’t read or seen anything about it in the media recently, so I assume that learning styles is less fashionable than it used to be.

The most recent educational fad might be labelled the computer-centered classroom.  A friend of mine who retired a few years after I did regularly substitutes in the Philadelphia schools. He often used to do long-term work where he would cover a teacher’s class who was on sabbatical or out on some other leave for half a year. He tells me that now he is not able to take those jobs because he isn’t sufficiently “computer literate.” Teaching nowadays requires a relatively high level of computer skill. I am told that there are many things you can do with a computer and a “smart board” that are amazingly entertaining, but I have not heard that the technology has improved student performance. Hardly anyone these days, for example, knows the difference between its and it’s or your and you’re or therethey’re, and their. And how many college graduates know how to use lie and lay?

An acquaintance recently asked me to read and edit a long essay he has been writing. I found that almost all of his writing was awkward and incomprehensible, and it wasn’t because he was using jargon specific to a particular profession. What was really shocking is that he graduated with honors from a prestigious Ivy League university and received a Phd. from what is reputedly the most demanding university in the country. How could he get through these schools, with honors and a doctorate no less, without being able to write clearly? I mentioned this to a professional writer and editor I know, and he said that he wasn’t surprised because “They don’t teach students how to write anymore.”

Some say it all started with John Dewey in the 19th Century with his “progressive education” theories that gave birth to the education fads of the past fifty or more years.  The schools will never abandon the quest for a teaching magic.. And it has now infected higher education:  Another acquaintance who teaches history at a well known liberal arts college explained to me recently that “you just can’t teach today’s students the way we were taught.” That and the widespread use of student evaluation of professors in decisions concerning tenure and promotion have resulted in the grade inflation that has so trivialized much of American higher education.

So how did a once liberal (progressive) become a conservative? It slowly became clear to me that the schools weren’t working and that liberals were responsible. As I said in the beginning: If they are so wrong about education, they must be wrong about and responsible for many other failures. When it comes to politicians, I am a bi-partisan skeptic, but I am much more skeptical of those on the left. My experience in the schools made me think about and question the ideas I had grown up with. I have found that most people never think about the validity of their political views. As someone once said, perhaps Jonathan Swift:  “You cannot reason people out of something they were not reasoned into.”

 

 

 

EXTREME VETTING

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The Trump Administration is considering instituting extreme vetting of all foreigners entering the United States. According to the Wall Street Journal:

Visitors to the U.S. could be forced to provide cellphone contacts and social-media passwords and answer questions about their ideology, according to Trump administration officials, measures that could intrude into the lives of millions of foreigners.

The changes being considered could apply to visitors from America’s closest allies as well as other nations and include subjecting more visa applicants to intense security reviews. Together, they would amount to the “extreme vetting” President Donald Trump promised as a candidate to guard against possible terror attacks.

I don’t think this plan will fly, so to speak. Why the Trump administration thinks it will is a mystery. It is apparent that no broad plan to vet all foreigners will work. The visitors’ countries would complain bitterly and would certainly retaliate against American travelers. Even a somewhat more aggressive plan than the current one targeting those from Muslim countries with a history of terrorism would be considered “profiling” and discriminatory. Even more “Hate Doesn’t Live Here” lawn signs would pop up, and either program would be shot down by the courts and condemned by many in Congress and most of the news media.

The assertion that hate is Trump’s motive in dealing with illegal immigration and visiting foreigners is the usual partisan rhetoric.  A couple of years ago, I talked with a young Israeli woman who was selling skin products at the King of Prussia Mall. She said that the mall was the perfect setting for a terrorist attack, and she couldn’t believe the lack of security there. She also noted that the size of the place made it very easy for terrorists to get lost in the crowd and avoid the police.

Many have noted that all of the terrorist attacks here have been carried out by those who are “home grown.”  That may be true, but even those with signs on their lawns wouldn’t want to be the first victims of a “refugee” terrorist.

I think it crucial that we get illegal immigration under control. As Mark Steyn wrote, A country that has no control over its borders is not sovereign.” And we must prevent terrorists from traveling to the U.S. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like it will happen, at least under this president.

 

 

Trump Nervous Disorder

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With apologies to the late Art Linkletter (Who remembers him?), people say and write the funniest things. The funniest are those that are unintentionally funny. A couple of articles, one in the magazine of The Jewish Telegraphic Agency and the other an op-ed piece in the New York Times assert that the election of Donald Trump to the presidency is causing major, clinical depression with anxiety among at least half of the U.S. population. If that isn’t unintentionally funny, I don’t know what is. The Times’s weighing in on the idea of mass depression and anxiety over Trump guarantees that the rest of the media will follow up with front page pieces of their own; tv news, talk tv and radio will follow. Thus a “crisis” is born.

The source for the idea of what might be called Trump Nervous Disorder is the mental health community. The members of that profession at least can’t say that Trump didn’t do anything for them; business must be booming, which usually makes for a sense of well being, not depression. So I doubt that they are suffering from Trump Nervous Disorder. They must sleep very well at night with Mr. Trump in the White House.

The JTA article begins with “The text messages started pouring in at 6:30 a.m., as Tracey Rubenstein was getting her kids ready for school. By the end of the day, the Boca Raton, Florida-based social worker had spoken to most of her clients…They were shocked, disappointed, sad and scared.” The reason:  It was the morning after the election. Rubenstein claimed that “This is anxiety on a national level, on a level of existential crisis [My emphasis] for some people of national identity.” It’s an apocalypse!

Seriously, isn’t that a bit much? After all, Ms. Rubenstein practices social work in one of the richest neighborhoods in the country, where most of the residents are retired. They thus have a great deal of time on their hands, after their daily round of golf, to think about such things. In addition, research on retirees has found that retirement greatly increases one’s risk of clinical depression and anxiety, by as much as forty percent. Now that’s a crisis, at least for those who suffer from depression as well as the medical system that must treat the ever- growing number of elderly people.

The article goes on citing the opinions of various “mental health workers” and victims of Trump disorder, as well as well as a novelist. It ends where it began, with the Boca-Raton social worker who says, “I think there’s something very extraordinary going on with this president, and I don’t want to normalize erratic behavior, or behavior that’s not grounded in reality, or policies that are openly discriminatory or harmful [My emphasis].” Ms Rubenstein’s last phrase is partisan, not scientific. Rather than taking these complaints seriously, Rubenstein should advise her patients to join the club: Those who are politically engaged are always unhappy when their candidate loses; they may even experience some very mild depression for a while. Besides anyone being treated by a “mental health professional” has “issues” that pre-date an election.

The New York Times op-ed says pretty much the same as the one cited above: “‘So much is coming at us,’ said Sue Elias, a psychotherapist in New York City. ‘There’s a chronic sense of anxiety among my patients that I have never seen before.'” One psychiatrist cited, “A couple of patients…[who] were incredibly stressed and embarrassed to tell friends they had voted for Trump, as they felt they would lose their friendship…”  So this is a bi-partisan crisis, although the mental illness, unsurprisingly, afflicts more Democrats than Republicans, 26 percent of Republicans and 72 percent of Democrats.

Personally, I am concerned about Trump for many of the same reasons that trouble the people suffering from Trump Nervous Disorder. But I have never been depressed and anxious over who is president. I didn’t vote for Barack Obama and consider him to be devious, nasty, untruthful, and intellectually overrated; but he never made me feel depressed because I believe that whoever is president usually doesn’t matter that much. The President of the United States is often called “the most powerful man in the world,” but all that really means is that the United States is the most militarily powerful nation in the world. In reality, the president’s powers are relatively weak when it comes to domestic policy because both Congress and the courts have the power to thwart the president’s policies. The only time a president has domestic power is when his or her party controls Congress with a veto-proof majority, and even then he can be stymied by factions within his party, as we have recently seen when the so-called Freedom Caucus of Republicans killed the Republican health care bill. The real power of the Presidency is in foreign affairs, but even that is limited, as we have seen, when an unelected judge halted Trump’s immigration policy despite the fact that immigration policy has always been considered an executive branch responsibility. Although Congress has the constitutional power to declare war, that power has not been used for a long time. Still there is always tremendous pressure on the President to get a vote of approval from the Senate when he commits troops to battle.

To be sure, there have been times when the occupant of the White House had a powerful emotional impact on people, and it is always during or immediately after catastrophic events. The country was lucky to have Franklin Roosevelt during the Depression and World War II.  His sunny disposition and self-confidence made people feel that better times were on the way, even during the war. We were also lucky to have Eisenhower in office after the Depression, World War II, and Korea. His even temperament and low-keyed manner made it possible for the country to return to normality after the terrible events that preceded his administration.

Most historians revere Abraham Lincoln, but I have always felt ambivalent about him. Undoubtedly he was a brilliant speech writer and politician, but I find it hard to accept the idea that the Civil War was necessary. I find it hard to believe that slavery in America would have continued into the 20th century. All of the civilized Western nations had pretty much banned slavery and the slave trade before the Civil War. The South must have realized that slavery’s days were numbered because of anti-slavery public opinion among the Western nations as well as the advent of new technology. The South’s stubbornness was based on their strong aversion to being dictated to by Washington. Given that, I often wonder whether the deaths of more than 600,000 young men was worth it (6 million in today’s population). Regardless of whom one voted for in that election, I think it would have been completely normal to have been very anxious about the Lincoln presidency.

Finally, there were other popular presidents about whom we should have been anxious and worried, but weren’t. John F. Kennedy’s  recklessness and indecisiveness in the Bay of Pigs invasion set off a series of events that eventually led to both the brink of nuclear war over Cuba and the Vietnam War. And we now know that he was a very sick man, and a philanderer. However, the only time Kennedy made me anxious was during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and that had more to do with the fear of nuclear war, not Kennedy himself.

You can certainly make a case against Nixon, Bill Clinton, George W, Bush, and Barack Obama. We knew that Nixon was an angry, perhaps unstable man, that Bill Clinton was a womanizer (making him a prime target for blackmail), that Bush was perhaps not that smart, and that Obama was inexperienced. Still, there were no reports of mass depression over their elections and during the controversies of their administrations.

Many have strongly criticized Trump’s reference to what he calls “fake news.” The media characterized that as a major part of what they portentously called Trump’s effort to undermine the news media. That may be so, but the media’s attention paid to claims of a wave of mass clinical depression sweeping the country is a good example of either media gullibility or, yes, fake news. Still, it’s pretty amusing.