Bowling For Brains


Anson Burlingame, who has actual experience teaching in the Joplin school system, has once again questioned the quality of American education and bravely challenged school board applicants to address problems realistically.   I too have addressed the topic in previous blogs, “Skinning Cats”, and “What’s A Sheepskin Worth, Any Way?”.  They got some interesting comments, but I thought it significant that none appeared to be from any member of the educational establishment.  I wondered, does the establishment consider criticism to be unworthy of comment, or do they themselves have no credible defense?

Like Anson I have often pondered the significance of academic grades.  People like him and me who have traversed the American education system from kindergarten to graduate level know that grades always have an element of subjectivity.  I would suggest

that math grades would be low on the subjectivity scale, there being only one right answer (except in calculus) and perhaps English composition might be high, but that still begs the question:  what does an “A” or a “D” grade really mean?

2007 graduating class of Erskine College

Image via Wikipedia

Back in the early days of TV there was a program that pitted teams of students against one another in a contest of knowledge.  It was called “College Bowl”.   What made it interesting in my opinion was that it involved not just interesting questions and answers but that it involved competition.  That was the measure of success, not any absolute standard.  I believe there is a strong lesson in this example.  Just as capitalism outperforms any other economic system, so perhaps should competition win the day in education.

There may have been a time when grades really did mean something, when a child was actually held back a grade if she didn’t pass.  I understand that is unthinkable now.  I also perceive that grade inflation is rampant, as is computer-aided cheating.  The Dean’s list

Mr. Garrison Keillor

Garrison Keillor, via Wikipedia

for Missouri Southern and the Honors list for Joplin High each fill more than half a newspaper page of fine print, leaving me wondering just how bad a student’s performance must be NOT to be on the list.  With apologies to Garrison Keillor, not all children are above average.

My grandchildren attend public school in Joplin and I was struck by an educational statistic today.  After missing nine days of school because of bad weather I was informed by my son that they would be missing a half day today as well.  But, I said, the weather’s great now!  Why?  “Well, Dad, it’s Valentine’s day.”  Wow.  Our educational system sure does have its priorities, doesn’t it?  My son also tells me that Missouri law stipulates that ten days of lost school time is the maximum that must be made up elsewhere in the schedule.  (Cue the music:  “Let it snow, let it snow, let . . . “)

Having thought about the subject at length over the years I have come to the conclusion that American education has descended into hopeless mediocrity, a condition which is apparently defended by teacher’s unions in the interest of controlling their shared ownership of a societal monopoly, a monopoly powered by the social meme that an advanced degree is an essential ticket-punch for entry into “success”.  Our government supports that flawed notion by subsidizing college education through low-interest loan programs and outright grants (Pell, et. al.).  And, I can’t help thinking that the more government tries to take ownership of education, the less incentive parents have to feel responsible for doing so themselves.


Consider, please, a philosophical aside.  When everyone has the “right” to “everything”, what happens to quality? The answer is left as an exercise for the student.

While I consider myself politically moderate, when it comes to education I seem to have become a libertarian.  I can not conceive how the schools could be any worse if government got completely out of the business.  Yes, I know there is the occasional bright spot – charter schools or the occasional talented and dedicated teacher.  I believe those occur not because of the government system but in spite of it.  I would very much like to see a voucher system, along with well-publicized data on an independent system of knowledge competitions.  In other words, real competition.  And wouldn’t it be interesting if vocational schools engaged in similar competitions?  Professional educators could compete for places on judging panels.  I can even envision a Super Bowl of Education.  (If you read the link for the College Bowl you saw that there was a great upset between colleges in 1966.)

Children in Singapore, Finland, China and elsewhere are metaphorically eating our lunch on education.  It is long past time when some brave (or suicidal) politician declares that it is time America fought back, and to do so competitively.

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
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5 Responses to Bowling For Brains

  1. You sure that you didn’t get comments from professional educators because they don’t read much, including blogs.


  2. ansonburlingame says:


    Excellent blog and thank you for ” joining the parade” to improve education, even if for now the “parade” is only made up of Don Quixote-like old men.

    I responded to your comment on my own blog that seemingly prompted yours. I repeat that comment herein to explain at least why I write from time to time on this subject and what ultimately I believe is needed to improve education. Here it is:

    “To all,

    I have not read Jim’s blog yet. But seeing the lead in paragraph above, I make one observation as to my motives and experience in educational matters.

    Yes, I was a substitute teacher in Henry and Jasper Counties in MIssiouri for a few years. But that is not where I am “coming from” in my blogs and columns related to education.

    Rather I write based on my own experiences over a lifetime with education, mine and others around me. And it has indeed been a lifetime journey as it should for everyone, in my view.

    What worked for ME and my classmates during the 40’s and 50’s in a small, decidedly Southern town in Kentucky? What worked for me and my 1250 classmates in a tough and rigorous university? What worked for me, my peers, my subordinates and my superiors in both civilian and military professional carrers? And what works for me today, still trying to learn and understand the problems in America and the world around us today?

    Ultimately, what worked for me and those that I have observed around me that have achieved some level of success and respect is a lifetime quest for knowledge and hard work, intellectual effort, to achieve that knowledge.

    At age 68 I don’t remember that many teachers from the past or even many of the various courses that I undertook in all schools. It is now all sort of a blur of experiences at the specific level.

    But one slogan, yes, a Rickover slogan, stands out in my mind throughout all those various experiences. He said, “The smartest must work as hard in this school as those who must struggle to pass”.

    THAT to me is the key to good education. EVERYONE must work hard to achieve to become and remain “educated”. And I don’t care if the level of education is grade school, middle school, high school, college, graduate school, or the professional environment of a CEO, Fleet Commander, a sailor in the engineroom or a worker on an assembly line. Or a “ditch digger” as well.

    My father always told me, “Son I don’t care what you do when you grow up. You can be a ditich digger if you like. But just be sure you are the best GD ditch digger you can be”.

    Boy was he right. And Admiral Rickover figured out how to do it for the thousands of men, tens of thousands of men and now women, in his rigorous technical program.

    I write on this subject to encourage others to follow those leads as well as my own experiences as applicable in their daily lives.



    • Jim Wheeler says:


      Amen, amen and amen. And, allow me if you will to add to Anson’s appeal.

      In my opinion one of the great satisfactions of life here in the twenty-first century is the opportunity to be autodidactic. That is a word that is not a part of most peoples vocabulary, neither active nor passive. But, it ought to be. It means of course, self-taught, and I have always taken the context of the word as implying a continuing process, not one that ends at graduation.

      The principal enabling mechanism for learning has historically been the written word, originally tightly controlled by elite scribes, royalty, and then the Roman Catholic church. The invention of the printing press of course enabled the reformation and access to written wisdom by everyone. It is now all there, a vast smorgasbord of information now in such quantity that the challenge has become not access but choice, and therein lies the challenge to the educational establishment. Google has even undertaken to make all written knowledge available on the internet. How does one choose?

      Anson points the way when he extolls the work-ethic of Admiral Rickover, a singular example of self-made success. It is the responsibility of professional educators to teach not only knowledge, but the exemplars of wisdom. Our founding fathers, people like Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and Benjamin Franklin were such. Thomas Jefferson was so enamored of books that he verged on personal bankruptcy from adding to his library. Now of course with the internet and easy access to libraries the volume of information can easily overwhelm one’s capacity for intake and that makes it all the more imperative to be able to select wisely.

      At one time it was part of America’s culture to emphasize the study of “Western Civilization”, including the literary icons of that culture. This was part and parcel of a basic education and was intended as a basis for a lifetime of learning. As I mentioned in previous blogs, that meme appears to have been lost at all levels of American education. There are few reliable standards left for fundamentals. That needs to change and, as I said in my posts, the mechanism is not government. In choosing sources of wisdom government has an inherent conflict of interest. Freedom of information is the answer, in my opinion, and a return to basic competition for teaching the fundamentals, a competition that must involve parents. And what amazing tools we have now to do that. Who would have imagined that something like Wikipedia could thrive as it has? The tools now are the internet, the libraries and journalism. The opportunity to be autodidactic is available to everyone. Abraham Lincoln studied by the light of candles and the fireplace. How much more fortunate are we than he!

      Anson is right. Work hard, whatever you do. If you do not succeed you need look for the problem no farther than the nearest mirror.

      Jim W.


  3. ansonburlingame says:

    To all,

    In response to Bruce’s view of public educators not reading much, I disagree. They just read the wrong things OR do read criticism BUT refuse to “join the fray”.

    Everytime I blog on education I send a copy of it to three leaders in our local public education “system”. I leave the names anonymous but assure you that all three have the positions to “make a difference”.

    I finally, after almost two years of doing such, got a “bite”. I emailed Carol after last Sunday’s editorial page containing quite a bit on education and called for a REAL public debate for the upcoming BOE elections. Other than resumes published in the Globe for such elections I have never seen, read of heard such a debate for 12 years (my time in Joplin) for a BOE election.

    Shortly after that email “hit” (I had CCed some anonymous folks as well) I received an invitation to “lunch”. That lunch will be held with anonymity (offered and accepted) and for sure I will not name, names or positions involved.

    But would not it be exceptional to read these ideas (and others) in blogs in the much more public Globe opinion pages for a month or so before a BOE election.



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