A recent blog post by Anson Burlingame discussed how our public schools are doing a poor job of teaching children the fundamentals of reading, writing and arithmetic. He is well qualified to address the issue because he has done substitute teaching in Joplin schools. His post inspires me to comment on my own experiences in that regard.
Despite my many absences from family in my Navy years I well recall helping my sons with their homework from time to time and I can truthfully say that in almost every case, especially in math, the textbooks were poorly written. In fact, the books seemed to actually try to make the simple into something abstruse and arcane. While it gave me pleasure to “see the light bulb come on” when I explained things, I always marveled at the seemingly perverse nature of the textbook system. I particularly recall taking pleasure in explaining the simple nature of fractions. What a basic and useful thing that is, to understand fractions, and yet the textbook actually made it hard. The concept of fractions has been well-understood for two millennia and guess what? It hasn’t changed in all that time. So why, please someone tell me, why do we have to keep re-writing basic arithmetic textbooks? Wouldn’t you think that all the people with PhD’s in Education would have settled on the best way to do that by now?
I know that there is big money in the textbook business and it only took me a few minutes with a search engine to find a revealing article by an insider in the industry. “A Textbook Example of What’s Wrong with Education” spells it out in spades. Clearly written, it shows just what I expected. Textbooks in America consist of knowledge routinely recycled for profit while being purged of anything controversial. Even worse, they are funneled through a committee system which limits and sometimes distorts them for political and religious reasons. Little wonder then that history textbooks especially are dull as dishwater. If you haven’t already heard of the disproportionate influence of the Texas School Board on national textbooks, the link explains it well.
As Anson’s post explains very well, teaching the fundamentals should be pretty-much common sense for a skilled and motivated teacher, but it isn’t happening in too many cases. I believe all this makes an excellent case for separating all government from the business of education. I firmly believe that education should not be a political service, but rather a free-wheeling process without politically-defined limits. Just as processed food is bad for health, processed knowledge is unhealthy for mental abilities.
From the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century many schools used McGuffey Readers. I don’t recall if my basic books were McGuffey’s, but if not they were similar. I still recall reading about Dick, Jane and Spot, the dog. Simple stuff, but the magic was all in learning the wonderment of the written word. The appreciation of that gift came principally from my mother who had been a schoolmarm in a one-room rural school where she taught all eight grades.
From the link I perceive that the McGuffey series of textbooks was very good because it was tailored in a common-sense way to mastering basic skills at increasing levels. That the books contains moralistic material likely benefitted greatly because they stressed the benefits of the protestant work ethic and personal responsibility. But even better, they were simple enough that good teachers were likely encouraged to add their own spin to the lessons. We could do worse than to return to such material. Better yet, let’s let teachers select their own textbooks and then have their students vie in open competition as I urged in “Bowling for Brains”. That’s the only way I can see breaking out of the death-spiral that our public schools now seem to be in.
With the current evolution of e-readers I don’t see why such varietal selection of textbooks should not be a pure capitalistic free-for-all, an educational revolution that banishes the Texas School Board to the dust-heap of history. Wouldn’t that be ironic?