New York Times’ op-edifier Frank Bruni wrote a column the other day wondering What’s the matter with kids today? Because no one else has ever looked into the issue before.
The subtext, I swear, is When I was your age I had to walk to school barefoot, in the snow, uphill, both ways!
I’d have thought that at forty-nine Bruni was too young to be this old, but there he is on the op-ed page of America’s Paper of Record telling us how spoiled, coddled, and soft our children are.
Well, their children, maybe.
Our kids are hardworking, overachieving go-getters. But I’ll get to that in a bit.
The occasion of Bruni’s column was Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s impolitic swipe at critics and opponents of the Common Core Curriculum and the concomitant increased standardized testing that measures schools’ and teachers’ effectiveness, dismissing them as “white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — [are finding out] their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were…”
Bruni sides with Duncan. But he sees the opposition coming mainly from over-indulgent parents, presumably of all colors and living in towns and cities as well as in suburbs, and sentimental teachers fretting about putting too much stress on little Tyler and Taylor.
Then there’s the outcry, equally reflective of the times, from adults who assert that kids aren’t enjoying school as much; feel a level of stress that they shouldn’t have to; are being judged too narrowly; and doubt their own mettle.
Aren’t aspects of school supposed to be relatively mirthless? Isn’t stress an acceptable byproduct of reaching higher and digging deeper? Aren’t certain fixed judgments inevitable? And isn’t mettle established through hard work?
I think Bruni must have written that paragraph while watching a football game and was subconsciously influenced by the vapid commentary and Gatorade ads. “Reaching higher and digging deeper?” “Mettle?” Clichés don’t stop being clichés because you rephrase them as rhetorical questions.
There are serious pedagogical, political, economic, and moral objections to the elitist-driven, backed, and financed efforts to “reform” public schools.
Standardized tests measure the ability to take standardized tests and that puts the pressure on schools to teach students how to take the tests as opposed to teaching them the subjects mastery of which the tests supposedly measure.
The agenda of the test them from the moment they can pick up a pencil crowd includes closing neighborhood schools, busting unions, reducing teachers from professionals to employees, and, ultimately dismantling the public school system and replacing it with privatized academies for the chosen few---children of the elite and children the testing has revealed to be good candidates for joining the elite---and learning factories for everyone else run by the same greedy sociopaths who run just about every other industry.
And proponents of longer school days, longer school years, more homework, more tests, more rigorous curriculums have a telling habit of framing their arguments in purely economic terms. A good education is one that makes you marketable; the ideal is a form of vocational training for the elite. It’s there as part of what Bruni thinks is his final convincing argument:
“And they’ll be ready to compete globally”
As though the only reason we have schools is to manufacture knowledge workers who will help the U.S. leave China in our dust and an individual’s life has meaning and worth only to the degree he or she contributes to the GDP.
Bruni, who apparently has never heard of Michelle Rhee or if he has likes what he’s heard, acknowledges all that only to sneer it away. The problem as he sees it is the trend of rewarding kids for the wonderfulness that arises from their just being themselves instead of demanding they earn success in school and in life through hard work and real achievement. Instead of learning life is sorrow and toil, they’re being taught it’s all rainbows and ponies.
If children are unraveling to this extent, it’s a grave problem. But before we beat a hasty retreat from potentially crucial education reforms, we need to ask ourselves how much panic is trickling down to kids from their parents and whether we’re paying the price of having insulated kids from blows to their egos and from the realization that not everyone’s a winner in every activity on every day.
There are sports teams and leagues in which no kid is allowed too much more playing time than another and in which excessive victory margins are outlawed. Losing is looked upon as pure trauma, to be doled out gingerly. After one Texas high school football team beat another last month by a lopsided score of 91-0, the parent of a losing player filed a formal complaint of bullying against the winning team’s coach.
It used to be that trophies went to victors; now, in many leagues, they go to everybody — for participation. Some teams no longer have one or two captains, elected by the other players, but a rotating cast, so that nobody’s left out.
Yes, because children are dumb and don't know the difference between a trophy that says Champions and a souvenir that says Thanks for participating.
Now here’s where I let my own elitism show. If I was going to pick on parents for the failure of schools to produce the kind of diligent, tough-skinned, tough-minded future meritocrats Bruni appears to think it’s the job of schools to produce, I wouldn’t blame the ones who expect a gold star on all their kids’ papers and ribbons on all their fingerpaintings. I’d blame the ones who seem to think that the only point of high school is football and prom, the ones who don’t care about gold stars and ribbons because they don’t care about what their kids are learning or not learning because fundamentally they don’t value learning at all and are in fact suspicious and hostile towards it, the ones who aren’t protecting their kids from the knowledge that life is hard, but are protecting them from an education.
We are a nation that on the whole despises what schools do---teach. All the nations we’re competing with “globally” revere their teachers. We mock ours and are currently engaged in a state by state effort to beggar them, and we’re doing it because we don’t think what they do is worth paying for.
We’re proud of our anti-intellectualism, boast of thinking with our gut and not our head. We despise experts, especially those with advanced degrees, and prize street smarts, savvy, and (all too) common sense to the point that we’d rather persist in being wrong than accept correction from the experts.
Bruni is a contributor to this anti-culture through his affiliation with the National Press Corps and its many adherents of the Church of the Savvy who are still looking for ways to prove that their guts were right about the 2012 election and Nate Silver with his math and numbers was wrong, and he catered to it when he was covering the 2000 Presidential election by writing love letters to that intellectual slacker and proud ignoramus George W. Bush while his colleagues in the press corps were telling us not to trust Al Gore because he was too smart for his and our own good.
Bruni is also complicit in his championing the “reformers” who can’t seem to find any other reason for improving schools than that it will help us to better “compete globally.” Learning, education, the whole idea of schools only matter only to the degree they make students marketable. Under these circumstances, students’ (or as they should be called, the paying customers’) rational response to any assignment is “Will this help get me a job?” and honest teachers will almost always have to answer “Probably not.”
I’m a skeptic when it comes to standardized tests, obviously, but I’m generally in favor of introducing a more rigorous curriculum. I believe kids should be taught early that life is sorrow and toil and full of disappointment, unfairness, and downright nastiness, although my rhetoric is more influenced by Ecclesiastes than by ESPN:
Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.
I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
And the point isn’t just to get them used to pain and heartbreak, but to help them appreciate their own good luck as just that, luck, so they feel compassion for those whose luck fails and want to help them as they will need help when, inevitably, their own luck fails.
The object isn’t to scare them into buckling down and turning themselves into little workaholics and pathological overachievers.
The hope is to get them thinking there might be more to life than worldly success.
At any rate, I could blame those parents, in fact I’m more or less did that, but there are problems with it, starting with my not actually knowing those parents are there or there as a force. I’m just going by what my gut tells me. But it’s also reductive. I’m doing what I really don’t like about Bruni’s column.
I see him doing what I see being done too much everywhere these days: identifying an Other to scapegoat.
The problem with our schools isn’t systemic. It isn’t political. It isn’t economic. It isn’t cultural. The problem is…
How many of Bruni’s readers you figure recognized themselves in his indictments of those coddling parents?
My bet would be none.
Readers of the New York Times op-ed page know better. They demand better. They set standards. They expect real results. Meritocrats themselves, they’re not about to let their progeny slack off.
No, that’s not us.
We’re not the problem.
A tale of "reform" in action. NYC Art Teacher: How Reform Destroyed My School and My Career.