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« The “Blagosphere” | Main | The Insanity of Predestination »

“Don’t Learn Me That”

It’s an old family story that has circulated for years. Something about a babysitting job with a boy who didn’t want to learn to change. Pretty well sums up the warped learning experience of grade school and secondary education in modern America. “Don’t learn me how things really work. Let me be ignorant.That way you can control me better and make me a predictable little citizen…not one of them “right-winger types.”

Here’s the way I was taught to think: Present me a question. Point me in the direction of my primary resources. Show me how to do research. Let me draw my own conclusions. Ask me some penetrating questions about my work and see if I can defend it. Grade me on how well I did on the process and how well I substantiated my answers. Remain neutral about my values. Concentrate on my understanding of the process, not the particular answers at which I arrived. If those conclusions were wrong, then I would find out as I matured and had the experiences in life that taught me. If the conclusions were right, then I learned to be self-reliant and confident.

Here’s the way today’s kids are taught to think: Present me with a question. Hint at the conclusion I am supposed to produce. Select the material I am supposed to study. Monitor my progress to see if I am staying on track. Ask me some questions calculated to channel me into the right answers. Grade me on how well I did on the assigned conclusions. The process is nice, but the most important thing is that I come up with the correct answers. If I get the answers you think are right, reward me with a good grade. If I get the wrong answers, punish me with a bad grade. Or, just ridicule and shame me until I line up with the rest of the class.

Do I think teachers are doing their job? Yes. But, that’s not the right question. The teachers are doing what they were taught to do. They were taught to teach how to get the “right” answers. They were not taught to teach how to think…I mean really think. To say that they are blind, leaders of the blind may be too insulting, but that’s the only way to express it. I am inclined to think of John Godfrey Saxe’s ( 1816-1887) version of the famous Indian legend.

It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.

The First approach’d the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
“God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!”

The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, -“Ho! what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me ‘tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!”

The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a snake!”

The Fourth reached out his eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
“What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain,” quoth he,
“‘Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!”

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!”

The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Then, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a rope!”

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!


So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!

Here are some questions I would like teachers to answer:

  • How does the economy really work?
  • How does public education sector of the economy work?
  • Do I pay you?
  • Who determines your salary?
  • Do you produce a product or a service?
  • Do I have a choice whether or not I like your product or service?
  • Can I choose not to purchase your product or service?
  • What guarantees do you issue that back up your product or service?
  • Can I get the same product or service from your competitor?
  • Does the teachers union tell you what to believe?
  • Does the teachers union punish you if you don’t do what they say?
  • Do you invite independent research groups to evaluate your job?
  • As the end user of the product or service, do I get a say in the matter?
  • Who are you accountable to other than the teachers union?
  • If I get an inferior education, who do I blame?
  • Are parents always to blame?
  • Is more money always the answer?

These questions are just for starters. Here are some answers that I find unacceptable.

  • Trivializing the question.
  • Ridiculing me for asking the question.
  • Launching an ad hominem attack.
  • Twisting the question around.
  • Answering the question with a question.
  • Changing the subject.
  • Blaming someone else for the problem.

At some point, the educational process in this country will collapse upon itself. The same argument will apply to education as it does to the American automakers. When they produce a product that no one wants to buy, when their labor costs are unsustainable and when their competition is too formidable, then it will change.

Teachers have the benefit of an immense amount of goodwill because the teacher-child bond is traditional and nostalgic. The turnaround will also take longer because public education is mandated, but people will not be sold a bill of goods forever. The union mindset, especially in the public sector, is incestuous, self-perpetuating, arrogant and unaccountable. Despite their soaring rhetoric to the contrary and their bottom-line thuggish tactics to hold the public’s feet to the fire, things will change. Teaching jobs may not be outsourced, but teachers can be replaced through competition. Once we find a way to do this—and we will—then a new day will dawn for America.


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