by Ursula Stange
I'm a mad-as-hell parent. I'm also a concerned citizen of a country whose future will soon be in the hands of the young people sitting today in thousands of classrooms; classrooms in which far too much time is wasted, far too much curiosity is thwarted, far too much potential is squandered, far too much intelligence is misled, far too much creativity is inhibited, and far too much brightness is dimmed.  

At a time when the economy everywhere is in the doldrums, education remains a growth industry. It continues to provide lucrative careers to a veritable army of teachers, teachers of teachers, administrators, consultants, civil servants, educators, and textbook publishers, all of whom grow fat while their consumers, conveniently small and powerless, starve. Everyone understands there are many well-intentioned and competent teachers, perhaps even some such administrators, but hardly anyone (except those making a profit from it) thinks that the system works. The almost one in three young people who drop out of Canadian schools each year are mute but irrefutable testimony to that failure. 

 At the risk of seeming to approve of the rest of the system, I want to single out three aspects of education which are singularly worrisome. First is the subject of reading instruction, because the ability and desire to read for information and for pleasure would provide students with some of the tools to undo the other damages inflicted on them by the school system. Second and third are the matters of content in the classroom and attitude education. 

 Whole language advocates insist that children, if immersed in a reading culture, will absorb meaning from reading as naturally as they absorbed language from their infant and toddler surroundings. No one, after all, sits down with babies and "teaches" them to speak. They learn by doing. And so, children are expected to learn to read by reading. We are told that reading skills, such as phonics, taught in isolation will result in children who cannot read for meaning; that they will only mouth the words. The fallacy in this reasoning is that reading is not a language, it is a code. Children already know the language; they come to school with a vocabulary numbering thousands of words. What they need to learn is precisely mouthing the words. They need to learn how to get the words up off the page and into their mouths where they can say them and "hear" them and recognize them. They already know the meaning. It is precisely when they stumble labouriously over each syllable, because they have not learned the rules of phonics, that the meaning gets lost; there's such a long time between the beginning and the end of a sentence and it's such a tedious process that the meaning is the last thing on the child's mind. While immersion works best in learning a new language, instruction and repetition work best in deciphering and learning to use a code.  

Consider for a moment the generations of children who have taught themselves Morse Code for the purpose of writing secret messages, operating a ham radio, or for the simple pleasure of knowing something new. One and all, they did it by getting a copy of the symbols and then practising. If they worked at it they became fairly proficient in a week, surely in a month.  

Now imagine, for a moment, that the schools were required to teach Morse Code. We would soon have Whole Language Morse Code. The students would be immersed in dots and dashes. Dots and dashes on the blackboard; dots and dashes on their homework; dots and dashes in their textbooks. And no one anywhere to tell them that each combination of dots and dashes represents one thing, and that if they learn twenty-six of those things they can decipher all the dots and dashes they will ever come across. Instead teachers would be instructed not to teach symbols in isolation. They would be required to teach words and sentences in context. How long will it take for their students to "read" Morse Code? A Year? Two Years? Three Years? Some of them will never get it.  

That seems to me exactly what our educators have done to reading: taken something basically simple and turned it into such a complicated process that very few can be expected to accomplish it without years of specialized instruction capped by intervention by special educators armed with special remedies and special tests. If none of this succeeds they do some more tests which they then use to label their failures "learning disabled." Talk about blaming the victim. Certainly, some children do have perceptual or attentional problems which make reading difficult and thus have a genuine "learning disability," but a far larger number are hampered and harmed by the system's "teaching disability." They take years to learn to read and some of them never get it. 

 We don't like the illiterate world around us, easily led, easily entertained, easily aroused, easily mollified, but it is the world we have made. Even if all our talk about creating problem solvers and critical thinkers had somehow created such (and there is much evidence against it) we have provided them nothing to think about. John Dewey warned many years ago that "We can have facts without thinking, but we cannot have thinking without facts." Yet, in far too many classes, content is sacrificed in favour of some fuzzy notions about creativity and self-actualization and self-esteem. Dressing up in togas and eating "Roman" food (fine adjuncts to a study of Rome) are mistaken for the whole program. And children are persuaded that this sort of superficiality is knowledge or (even more dangerous) just as good as knowledge.  

If the schools were really promoting creativity and self-actualization and self-esteem, the deception might even be worth it. But these things are not theirs to give. Self-esteem, respect for others, and integrity are by-products of good education. If approached directly, they disappear like the black dots in the interstices of a checkerboard. Self-esteem comes from knowledge and proficiency; respect for others from knowledge and understanding; and integrity from knowledge and introspection. Real knowledge, understanding and introspection can only flourish in an atmosphere of caring and respect, but if caring and respect are made the focus, the schools fail to provide students with any sustenance on which to grow. They provide the healthful environment which could support growth, but they fail to provide any nutrition. In actual fact, even the healthful environment is a risky business given the great number of teachers and schools where lip service only is paid to caring and respect. How many students have endured hours, days and years filled with meaningless activity designed to occupy their brains and hands, but not engage their hearts and minds? 

 We herd our children, often against their will, into our schools and there provide them nothing. Sometimes worse than nothing. Rousseau said: "Do you not know...that a child badly taught is farther from being wise than one not taught at all?" The schools train them to the same sort of shallow, platitudinous thinking which passes for introspection in the larger world. The ones that acquiesce easily are labelled successes. Those that don't are sent to guidance counsellors and psychologists in the hope that they can be brought around, and to absolve the schools from any suspicion of neglect or failure. The failure must be seen to be the student's, not the school's. A fine line that: the difference between failure to teach and failure to learn. If fully one third of Canada's children see no value in finishing school, there is something wrong. And the fault cannot be all theirs. 

 Another dangerous trend is the giving of marks for "attitude" and "growth" rather than for concrete accomplishment. We are told that this sort of evaluation is an important part of every learning experience. It all sounds so good and caring and perhaps in the hands of kind- hearted and fair teachers would not be harmful. But think how much harm is already done by the comments which accumulate on some students' record cards. When children receive a failing mark for work sloppily done or missing, it does not damage their self-esteem. They know they messed up in some way: they didn't study or they didn't get the work in on time. But now we want to give them a mark on their "attitude" and "growth" and "sociability." What defense is there against that? We have told them not that their work doesn't measure up, but that they don't measure up. It's like a parent saying, instead of "I don't like what you've done," "I don't like you."  

Add to this the problem of stupid, vindictive, insensitive and careless teachers. Are we so naive as to imagine that this system would not be used against those that do not fit someone else's conception of what the right "attitude" is? What kind of mark in "social development" would Nelson Mandela have received from his teachers had he attended Law School in Johannesburg? Or Jesus Christ, then or now? It is too powerful a weapon, and whatever use it may have as an educational tool is overshadowed by its destructiveness. The wrong hands are everywhere in education. 

 Everyone actively interested in education has heard these arguments before. They are often dismissed as the results of outmoded and even prehistoric thinking. I do not lightly consent to being called a dinosaur and do not agree with those who mindlessly advocate a return to the 'basics.' Years of observation and reflection, however, have convinced me that we are shortchanging our children. The schools' rhetoric is all so difficult to argue against: child centered teaching, active learning classrooms, language across the curriculum. They have the sound of apple pie and motherhood. But I feel in my heart it is not right. (And so, apparently, do all those parents who, voting with their feet, pull their children out of public schools in favour of private academic high schools.) We do ourselves and the students a grievous wrong. Even worse perhaps is the wrong we do the future, theirs and ours. 

 Who to blame for all this? In looking for the perpetrator of a crime (and the word crime is not an exaggeration in this context), we are well advised to examine who benefits from this state of affairs. Certainly not the students, who risk their image of themselves as competent learners and indeed their very future. Certainly not the parents, who, although many are happy to pass off the responsibility for their children's education to someone else, are constantly reassured, even pointedly reminded, that the schools know best what is required. Certainly not the business leaders, who complain louder every year that they cannot find competent employees. Certainly not the teachers, who by and large do their best with inadequate training, minimal resources and less guidance. Who then? The only candidate left is the education industry, comprised of textbook publishers, consultants, advisers, teachers of teachers, administrators, ministry civil servants and perhaps even Royal Commissioners. For a generation they have reaped a bonanza of prestige, power and wealth from the reading crisis. They have built their companies, their reputations and their fortunes from the ruins of our children's education. We are all the losers. We should all be mad as hell.