America's public schools are failing. Douglas Wilson advocates a return to classical Christian education with its discipline, hard work, and recovery of the ancient division of learning geared to child development stages.
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About the Author
Douglas Wilson (MA, University of Idaho) is a pastor, a popular speaker, and the author of numerous books. He helped to found Logos School in Moscow, Idaho, and is currently a senior fellow of theology at New St. Andrews College. He blogs regularly at DougWils.com.
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A Mess That Just Won't Quit
IN ONE SENSE, a good book on education ought to be timeless. God's Word applies equally in all generations, the parents of every age face the same basic task, and children always have the same basic needs. But we live in an era that has been captured by a mind-set that glorifies perpetual revolution — ongoing change merely for the sake of change. Being a progressive is good, even though no one knows what we are progressing to. So advocates of classical and Christian education must not only defend their traveling of the old paths, but they must also regularly modify their critique of modern education. Nothing is stranger than a thirty-year-old education fad. Revolutionary education is protean, constantly shifting its external form. But despite the shape-shifting, underneath the surface are the same errors. However, the changes do have the effect of causing the critic's footnotes to become outdated.
When Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning was published in 1991, the government school system was in crisis. Some thought that it could not get any worse, but in the time since then, the unthinkable (even for then) has become commonplace. Still many Christians have not yet come to grips with the foundational nature of this crisis. They shake their heads in dismay when they read the newspapers, just as they did in 1991 and 1981 and 1971, but they have not yet realized that the fruit we are seeing is directly related to the nature of the tree. Christian reformers of the government school system labor on, trying to get this crabapple tree to grow oranges. But despite all our advances in genetic engineering, our Lord's words remain — a tree is still known by its fruit. As I said in my book The Paideia of God:
A great deal of energy could be preserved if in our reforms we would spend more time trying to identify the genuine point of departure. In the '60s, prayer was banished from the government school system, and the Beatles came to America. Traditional conservatives proved themselves masters of the post hoc fallacy and have spent a considerable amount of time, money, and energy trying to get back to the way we were before all that.
We have not yet gotten back to the status quo ante, and so it is still necessary to point to the fruit recently produced even though the footnotes on that fruit will be outdated quickly enough. The statistics on education presented here will grow old, but the battle they represent is still part of the perpetual conflict between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman. All of this extends back to Eden, and all of it points forward to the future. It is our responsibility as Christian parents and educators to take note of the contemporary details but always to see them in the light of eternity. We live in the present, but are not to be bound to it. We obey (or not) in the present, but our understanding should be captive to the Scriptures, which means that our understanding extends far beyond the immediate crisis. A battle is more than just one sword stroke.
Speaking of battle, school shootings and other forms of violence are increasingly common at government schools around the nation. "During 1998 students aged 12 through 18 were victims of more than 2.7 million crimes at school, including about 253,000 serious violent crimes (rape, sexual assault, robbery and aggravated assault)."
The violence threatens everyone, not just the students. It is ongoing and involves far more than just the high-profile murder cases at school. "According to the U.S. Department of Education, from 1994 through 1998, teachers were the victims of approximately 668,000 violent crimes, which include rape or sexual assault, robbery, aggravated assault and simple assault. About 80,000 of those were serious violent crimes."
And while the violence goes far beyond the well-publicized incidents, like the one at Columbine, it certainly includes them. The stories recur with a macabre monotony. After a time it gets harder and harder to distinguish them.
May 21, 1998 — Two teenagers are fatally shot, and more than 20 people are hurt when 15-year-old boy allegedly opens fire at a high school in Springfield, Oregon. His parents are found slain at their home....
March 24, 1998 — Four girls and a teacher are shot to death, and 10 people are wounded during false fire alarm at a middle school in Jonesboro, Arkansas, when two boys, 11 and 13, open fire from the woods. Both are convicted in juvenile court of murder and can be held up to age 21.
The natural reaction by the general public thus far has been a combination of revulsion and a quick willingness to blame the guns involved. And not surprisingly, the gun issue has become a political football. Among conservative Christians, the defensive response to the uproar over guns has frequently been just as superficial as the attacks — we don't want our guns confiscated, and so we argue that we don't want our guns confiscated.
But we have to do better than this. Who or what is responsible? This radical breakdown of civil order among our children is coming from somewhere, and we need to learn the source of it before it overtakes us as well. We are circling the drain, experiencing the downward cycle of sin — and it will do no good to simply find our way back to the previous moment in the cycle. We must be true radicals; the word comes from the Latin radix, meaning "root." We need to get to the root of the matter. When we discover the source of the problem, we must deal with it thoroughly.
In the nineteenth century, our nation established a socialistic system of education, telling parents that they did not have to exercise the same degree of responsibility for their children that they used to. Lo, and behold, over time parents began to relinquish more and more of their parental duties, assuming that "they" out there somewhere would pick up the slack. Children became increasingly unloved, uncared for, and undisciplined. As the resultant lack of self-control became more evident in schoolchildren, people began to look for alternative means of keeping order. One of the means our modern technocratic society discovered was the ability to hit kids on the head with a chemical rock. As a whole, the government school system has said yes to drugs, and students by the thousands found themselves on Ritalin, Prozac, Luvox, Paxil, or other related drugs. In many government school systems, such drugs are actively promoted by the administration as a means of keeping order in the classroom. It is not uncommon for the school to help administer dosages, making sure the kids stay medicated.
But the problem is in one of the potential side effects of many of these drugs. Virtually all of the recent school shootings have been perpetrated by kids on officially sanctioned drugs. Of course, these drugs do not turn every user violent, but they appear to have this effect on a significant number. Kip Kinkel of the Oregon shooting was using Prozac. Eric Harris of the Columbine shooting was taking Luvox, which causes mania in one out of every twenty-five taking it.
Couple this use of drugs with the fact that God and His law are officially and formally ignored in all these educational proceedings. The kids are taught that they evolved from some primordial goo and that their lives have no transcendent meaning. Everything is vanity, everything is worthless. Morality is what you, the student, want it to be. And then when some of the kids, natural inhibitions loosened by the drugs, take this curricular lesson out to the logical practicum and start blowing fellow students away, bits of protoplasm every one of them, those in authority wonder where this behavior is coming from.
The kids who turn violent are called "monsters" by the school system that made them what they are. Instead of shrinking back from the logic of the conclusion, schools should give these kids honorary diplomas. These students, at least, have understood what they were being taught.
We had plenty of guns long before these shootings started. Our civil disintegration in the schools is the clear result of two principal factors: Our children are under-disciplined and overmedicated.
So the problem is obvious. But it is equally obvious that those in authority have no intention of seeing the obvious. The solution, they solemnly maintain with a straight face, is trigger locks and other forms of gun control. But we do not need gun control; we need self- control. And we cannot have self-control, a fruit of the Spirit, without the Gospel.
Christian parents therefore have a broad responsibility to our civil order. There are a number of specific things that can be done, and the purpose of this book is to encourage Christian parents already engaged in the task and to motivate other Christian parents to begin their involvement, particularly as it concerns our children.
Under our current circumstances, the first action to take, if it applies, is for parents to pull their own children out of the government school system and never think about putting them back in. The first motive for doing this is the protection (spiritual, covenantal, academic, etc.) of the children. The second motive is the protection of those children who remain behind. The sooner the current government school system collapses, the better it will be for everyone, including those who were enrolled at the time the schools fell apart.
The second course of action is to talk at every opportunity about the spiritual and cultural malaise that pervades the culture our young people are growing up in and how the entrenched education establishment is trying to hide this rapidly escalating problem by inducing brain fog in any children who act up. In private conversation, in letters to the editor, and anywhere else we have the opportunity, we need to be wondering loudly about this gross dereliction of public responsibility. The broad responsibility for school shootings has to be laid squarely at the feet of our modern educrats. But we ought not to wait for them to get our point and change.
The third action people can take is to build an alternative educational subculture. This means planting and building schools. Children in our classical Christian academies are not aliens; they are modern American kids. And as outsiders see what it is possible for a modern American kid to be and do, they will start to see the lie they have been sold. But it is important that the private schools we start not imitate in any fundamental way the pedagogy of the government school system, the god that failed.
JUST SAY YES TO DRUGS
Our much hooplahed "war on drugs" has actually been what might be called a war on free-market drug use. Regulated and officially administered drugs are a different matter. The Drug-Free Zone sign outside many of our government schools is laughable once we consider the facts.
Despite decades of official warnings and supporting research confirming the similarities of methylphenidate (Ritalin) and cocaine, tens of millions of children in the United States have been prescribed this psychotropic drug for a widely accepted yet scientifically unproved mental condition: Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Now a recently concluded study at the Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) not only confirms the similarities of cocaine and Ritalin, but finds that Ritalin is more potent than cocaine in its effect on the dopamine system, which many doctors believe is one of the areas of the brain most affected by drugs such as Ritalin and cocaine. The outcome of the research was so surprising that team leader Nora Volkow, a psychiatrist who is associate laboratory director for life sciences at BNL, told the media that she and the team were "shocked as ____" at the results.
Such is our condition that more Christian parents are likely to be shocked at the researcher's use of profanity than they are at the fact of this massive use of chemical discipline. How massive? The story continues: "The most recent figures available reveal that in 1998 there were approximately 46 million children in kindergarten through grade 12. Twenty percent — one of every five children in school — have been doped with the mind-altering drug." Twenty percent. We have a way to go before we get to Huxley's Brave New World, but "better living" through chemistry nevertheless appears to be one of our driving principles.
And this situation illustrates the nature of our dilemma. Suppose for a moment that some prophet had come out of the wilderness in 1958 and predicted that within a generation one-fifth of the children enrolled in our schools would be doped into docility. The prophet would, of course, have been laughed back to his cave. Yet the spiritual nature of our disease is such that when these things do come to pass, precisely because they have come to pass, it is impossible to see them. Before they happen, we cannot see them because they have not yet happened. After they happen, we cannot see them because we let them happen, and seeing would now require repentance.
In another context, William Bennett has written about the death of outrage in our culture. But the spiritual malaise in which we find ourselves has more than one symptom. Our inability to get angry at what is being done to our children is not an intellectual problem. At bottom the massive abdication of responsibility is a spiritual issue. But because we have accepted the propaganda of pluralism, we think that all we need to do is maintain our opinions and simply state them as such, and we are therefore exempted from all negative consequences. We think that in a pluralistic society it is possible for a person to reap something other than what he or she has sown. Our ready acceptance of the excuses offered by the government school establishment reminds me of the title of one of Dilbert's insightful books — When Did Ignorance Become a Point of View?
But, we are told, the children have to receive these drugs in order to deal with their learning disabilities. And so this brings us to consider the academic state of the schools. Such is the state of our education system that before we could offer a critique of actual learning in the schools, we had to first deal with the possibilities of children getting shot and with students being drugged by the school nurse — employed full time for that purpose.
HOW IT IS THAT JOHNNY STILL DOESN'T LEARN
No one should be surprised to hear that the academic state of the government schools remains dismal. In the last presidential campaign, George Bush ran on a pledge to help "every child learn to read by third grade." As he put it: "There's too many of our kids in America who can't read today. ... Now it's time to wage war on illiteracy for the young and to whip this problem early."
Early? Literacy by third grade is early? As the ongoing problem with illiteracy in the schools continues to plague us, politicians will continue to call for more programs to fight it. Of course, some of us are a bit slow about these things. We thought that schools were supposed to be the program to fight illiteracy.
According to "The Nation's Report Card," "In 2000, the percentage of fourth-grade students performing at or above the Basic level of reading achievement was 63 percent. Performance at or above the Proficient level — the level identified by NAGB as the level that all students should reach — was achieved by 32 percent of fourth-graders." In simple English, when it comes to literacy, one-third of fourth graders were at the place where all fourth graders should be.
Not surprisingly, our problems are not limited to reading. ABC News reported that nationally "only 23 percent of eighth graders tested 'proficient' in math. Thirty-nine percent tested below even the 'basic' level." "American 12th graders came in 19th out of 21 countries in mathematics on the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), besting only Cyprus and South Africa. The U.S. came in last in advanced mathematics. In physics, 12th graders did equally as poorly."
Our academic decline is not limited to what we would consider poor students. The decline affects our top students as well. The Washington Post comments: "Even the scores of academically elite American students — those who take either physics or advanced math courses in high school — were a disappointment. They also finished below the international average and lagged behind many other nations on the latest test."
A recent report from the Department of Education — the 2001 History Report Card — was genuinely alarming. This report, coming from a source hardly hostile to the idea of public education, detailed "truly abysmal scores" from U.S. high school seniors. Fifty-seven percent of the seniors could not perform at the most basic level. Thirty-two percent were at the basic level. Ten percent performed at grade level on the test, and one percent were advanced or superior. George Washington? Who's that?(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Case for Classical Christian Education"
Copyright © 2003 Douglas Wilson.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
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Table of Contents
ANOTHER BRICK IN THE WALL,
1 A MESS THAT JUST WON'T QUIT,
2 THE RISE AND FALL OF SECULAR EDUCATION IN AMERICA,
3 HEALING THE WOUND LIGHTLY,
4 THE NATURE OF MAN,
5 THE CASE AGAINST GOVERNMENT SCHOOLS,
6 THE CENTRALITY OF WORSHIP,
7 WHAT IS EDUCATION?,
8 DEMOCRACY AND EGALITARIANISM,
TEN YEARS AFTER,
9 WHAT IS CLASSICAL EDUCATION?,
10 LOGOS SCHOOL, ACCS, AND NEW ST. ANDREWS,
11 THE CHRISTIAN HEART AND MIND,
12 THE PEERS PROBLEM,
13 THE PAIDEIA OF GOD,
THE CLASSICAL CHRISTIAN ANSWER,
14 THE SEVEN LIBERAL ARTS,
15 THE TRIVIUM,
16 A CASE FOR LATIN,
17 WHAT CLASSICAL IS NOT,
18 EDUCATING THE IMAGINATION,
19 CLASSICAL ATHLETICS,
LIFE IN THE CHRISTIAN SCHOOL,
20 PERSONAL HOLINESS,
22 SCHOOL CLOTHES,
23 THE SEVEN LAWS OF TEACHING,
24 ALTERNATIVES TO SCHOOL,
25 THE THREAT OF STATE ENTANGLEMENT,
A PROPOSED CURRICULUM,
26 TURNING IT AROUND: A THOUGHT EXPERIMENT,
27 CANONICAL BOOKS,
THE DAWN OF EVERLASTING RESULTS,
28 AND UNTO CHILDREN'S CHILDREN,
29 A PEDAGOGIC CREED,
30 A CALL FOR TEACHERS,