More on vouchers, history and creationism

Mark Olson is a veteran blogger on issues of concern to conservatives and to Christians, at Pseudo-Polymath. He’s responded to my earlier post on vouchers. Marks calls it ‘a bit of a quibble.’

His first complaint goes to history: I wrote that once we had a broad consensus on the value of education. Mark wrote:

In colonial (and I presume probably pre-Civil War Virginia) the Chesapeake bay/plantation folkway had a … hegemonic attitude toward education. In fact, while the plantation “masters” were 100% literate, the servants and other classes in the society (white) were some 70% illiterate. It was something of a point of pride that public education was not generally available. Literacy and education as well, was not emphasised in the backcountry as well (which continues (I think) today in Appalachia for example). So of the four folkways which made up our early nation, only two held that education was of value.

That official policy prevented education as a mark of oppression and/or racism only makes the point. Infamously, some states and localities at various times had laws against teaching slaves to read, or to educate slaves formally in other ways. Denying education is a traditional form of oppression. This does not change the consensus that education is valuable, but instead is a dramatic demonstration that the policy makers regarded education as valuable and as a political tool for change. At the same time that these governments forbade educating slaves, they established schools for other people.

Such bans on education are exceptions, and I hope without looking for evidence that they were — are — rare in American history. More commonly related in a history of education in America are the laws that required some villages to establish schools, and more importantly, the establishment of schools itself. By the time of the American Revolution the notion that education was valuable had already taken hold, and heroes of the Revolution itself demonstrated the potential, in people like George Washington, Nathanael Green, Alexander Hamilton, Henry Knox, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Knowledge and the education to get it were key drivers in the lives of all of these men. Green’s military acumen was entirely acquired from books, books he sometimes purchased from Knox. We see the consensus on education demonstrated in the series of laws to “dispose” of the lands west of the Appalachians, the Northwest Territories. From the earliest of the Northwest Ordinances, in 1784 (before the republic), education was provided for by setting aside a few sections of land to finance a school or other educational endeavor.

Education has been seen as a tool against tyranny for hundreds of years. It is such a powerful tool that slave states prohibited giving such tools to slaves, who, once educated, might rise up against their masters or the system itself. Frederick Douglass’s story of learning to read despite the law only confirms the consensus.

I wrote earlier of the civic value of education:

One thing we know from our brief history as the United States. The moral issues do not get easier the more we know. To function as a free, democratic republic, and as a free society, we need good information, and our kids need that information and the reasoning tools to use it to make good policy.

Among other things, I was referring here to the theory of evolution. It’s one of the great ideas of western civilization, and understanding it immediately helps one to understand wildlife management, agriculture and animal husbandry, and a great amount of medical practice, especially public health. Because each of these areas is important to public policy, and because every citizen plays a role in public policy, I find it essential that citizens understand how evolution works, even if they choose do “disbelieve” it.

I think Mark thinks I’m simply defending ‘leaving things as they are.’ He wrote:

However, this certainly does not mean that the status quo is preferred. We have both an astounding lack of both diversity in methods in our public schools (with a fairly uniform curriculum) and a astoundingly poor result given our outlay of cash.

No, we need to dramatically improve teaching in evolution, and in several other areas. Generally, I’m for tougher academics across the board. Kids are more sophisticated today than they were 200 years ago, but we live in a vastly more sophisticated and complex world. More and better education is what we need. And while I tend to agree on the lack of diversity in delivery methods, I think we’ve gotten a stupendously good deal for our outlays of cash to support education. Our educational system brought us through two world wars on the victorious side, and was a key contributor to the west’s “victory” in the Cold War. Products of U.S. public schools have won and will continue to win the largest portion of Nobel Prizes, often the majority. American education is still the model for the world, and a key reason people struggle to bring their families to the U.S. By almost any measure, our educational system is a success. That is not to say we cannot do much better, or should not.

Mark then lays out a specific education plan, and to avoid errors in summary I quote the rest of his post:

But I think he has partially hit it on the head. Our kids need good learning skills (”reasoning tools”) and this in important for our society from a pragmatic and moral standpoint. However, what is the best way of getting this? In the past, I’ve proposed the following, and I’ll invite Mr Darrell to tell me why it’s wrong.

As Mr Darrell points out we need our kids to become good … well … at learning. But that means we don’t test their improvement in their ability to learn, but just in their mastery of a (shrinking) set of skills and facts. It doesn’t, as Mr McCulskey indicates mean that our non-insistence on Creationism vs Darwinian evolution is “to be decided” by consensus. What it means, is from the point of view of our state, what is important is how good our kids are at learning new things.

Thus our schools need is not standardization on curriculum and method, besides a very small core curriculum of basic skills. By this I mean English and I’d like us ala the Classical Greeks and Homer to have us all in this country to have a common set of story/saga from which we might draw on. But, that part, and picking of the core texts is not the main point. What the main thing the state needs from its schools is the development of good students. There are four main skills which a good student needs

  1. Memorization – To remember what is presented.
  2. Reasoning – To be able to make connections within (and outside) of that material and to utilize that which is memorized.
  3. Diligence – To be able to take care in your work.
  4. Perseverence – To be able to finish what is started and to follow through with your work.

My contention is these skills are all a student needs and it matters much much less the particulars of what subject matter he studied in order to develop them.

If a student arrives in college with these skills well developed, he will do well no matter what curriculum was presented. To put it in a more pointed manner, it doesn’t matter if a student has never heard of Darwin or evolution for his developmental/evolutionary biology class. If he remembers what he is taught, works hard, is careful, and can make connections he will do well and in fact better than a student who does not have these skills but has had a two week “module” taught in a high school science class on evolution. College classes these days depend on very little material to have been presented prior to arriving in the introductory classes.

What this would entail is that a “voucher” system can free up our schools to teach by whatever methods and whatever material that those schools chose to teach is fine. But the “vouchers” and how much federal, state, or local support might be offered be contingent on demonstrating improvement in each of its students in those four skills mentioned above. More improvement should yield more money. Less yields less. This also lets the “magic of markets” back into our classrooms and perhaps, if we concentrate on what we need (good students) we might get what we desire. Specificing “how to do it” is not the way. Specify what you want. This also would have the beneficial result of not “teaching to the test” because the “test” doesn’t test mastery of particular fact sets or material but uses a metric to measure how much each student has improved in the four skills since the last test.

First, an educated person has more than just the ability to learn. By the four skills Mark notes, some people could be considered educated by the age of 8 or 9 — but no one would seriously claim most of those people are ready for college. There is a substantial body of knowledge required for citizenship, and most of that should be in place by the time of high school graduation. The older consensus held that schools needed to teach reading, writing, solid basic mathematics skills, a core of world history and national history, a core of geography including understanding of the world, a core of literature, and a core of science. One delightful presentation of some of these skills is laid out by Mark Twain in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Sent back a few centuries, the mechanically-minded American survives and thrives on his wits, and what he learned in public schools and on the job.

Kids need to learn not only how to memorize the Gettysburg address, they should understand the circumstances of the address, and especially its effect on expanding the promise of the Declaration of Independence, and how that expansion drove the expansion of rights up to the civil rights movement, how it drove the civil rights movement, and how it affects our concepts of human rights on the larger international stage today. In order to do that, kids need to have a core mastery of history, geography and literature, beyond the ability to acquire such mastery.

It’s not enough to know how to learn, in other words. High school graduates should have learned something worthwhile. Here in Texas, our state examinations are skewed towards the skills Mark mentions, though they require mastery of the subject matter, too. In my view the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) is skewed too far to Mark’s idea; my experience is that the skills Mark notes are best learned and best demonstrated in the acquisition of the core knowledge. It is in that core knowledge that the consensus about schools breaks down, alas. That is a key part of the problem. There is great disputes about teaching kids the facts of science, the facts of history and government, and even the “facts of life.” Those disputes damage our ability to thrive as a nation.

Second, we need to understand that many citizens will not “arrive at college” right out of high school, but instead will be applying what they have already learned. Most successful people will get education beyond high school. Often that will occur years after graduation. People are full citizens almost from the time they graduate — they need to be able to function with the core knowledge citizens need, for public policy and business reasons. Arriving at college ready to learn is a great ideal. It does not adequately serve those who do not arrive at college freshly out of high school.

And, for that matter, I disagree that college courses depend little on what has been presented before. I teach at a rather technically-oriented university locally. Most of my students are already working, and many have their own businesses. I teach business law. These students do better in class, and they do better in their business, if they have solid understanding of how our government works, and why we have many of the laws we have. I do not have the time to give them the full background.

Third, I reject the argument that we need to insert “competition” into education, or that a voucher system would do that. Not all free marketry depends on competition, and not all competition is fair. I especially dislike vampire vouchers, those proposed systems that take money from struggling public schools and give it to less-regulated, less-rigorous private entities. Propose a system of vouchers that gives kids real choice, that allows them to choose to increase the investment in their public schools, and we’ll be talking. Most voucher systems are choice-restrictive — a kid may not choose to use it at his neighborhood school, for example. Why not? Recent studies raise questions about the ability of private schools to produce any significant increase in student performance, as voucher advocates argue. It is clear from the structures of the proposals that most voucher advocates fear the success of the public schools, and so they propose to hobble public school finance in order to hobble the schools.

But beyond that, we have no evidence that competition produces better education — none. I know Milton Friedman is hot on the idea, but we have in history no successful private system that produces quality education on any scale comparable to the success of U.S. public schools. It is important to recall that we have public education to fill a need, and that our current public education system was created because private education did not provide the goods. Private schools existed in colonial America, but as Mark notes, they were highly discriminatory in their good effects. The success of private schooling in America today is dependent largely on their ability to cherry-pick students. The success of America is dependent on NOT cherry-picking students. I believe that the drive against public schooling is not only damaging to the public schools, but damaging to our nation’s intellectual and moral infrastructure, too. Our democratic ideals are promoted by public schooling, and they are frustrated by any failure of public schools.

There are some enterprises where competition is not the answer: Foreign affairs, defense, many public health areas, and education, are a few of those enterprises.

Finally, I reject the idea that vouchers lead to a broader education, or a more useful education. Voucher advocacy groups include those who want to restrict science knowledge in biology (evolution) and physics and chemistry (Big Bang), those who want to restrict and distort history for propaganda gain in politics (dominionists and others who arge against the Constitution’s separation of church and state), and those who want to sacrifice public health for unproven ideas vaguely related to a misapprehension of morality (sex education, especially prophylactics). Big Bang may not be essential for making public policy decisions (though I suspect it helps, especially in defense and industry). In sex education and evolution, the issue is a desire to stop the spread of knowledge, in a rather Stalinesque way, solely for propaganda purposes.

And that was my complaint about the earlier posts on vouchers, from McCulskey especially. He was arguing to allow parents to censor their kids knowledge, to avoid a fight about what is important to know, and what is true. While I think parents should have great sway in the religious upbringing of their kids, at some points those kids become citizens, and it is a disservice to the rest of us to have those kids propagandized and fed bad information even for religious reasons. Creationism can do nothing but cripple our national drive to elminate the cotton boll weevil, for example, and it totally misses out on the foundations of the campaign against HIV/AIDS. As we have discovered with recent measles epidemics, there are real public health consequences to ignorance about how and why good public health occurs. We shouldn’t have a voucher system that promotes such ignorance. To create such a system to avoid the debates on these issues seems doubly damaging — kids given misinformation cannot participate in the real debates about how to apply the knowledge they missed to public policy. And for what it’s worth, if they lack the information to even get in on the debate, they cannot possibly tell when the debates go awry due to bad information or bad reasoning.

Students need knowledge, as well as the skills to acquire it, when they graduate from high school. Vouchers to allow kids to miss out on that knowledge is bad public policy.

5 Responses to More on vouchers, history and creationism

  1. […] Ed Darrel was kind enough to write a response to my “quibble” of his contribution to a discussion on educatin. My previous post is here, his is here. his original post was here. In his second essay, Mr Darrell perhaps has misunderstood my essay … and we have a disagreement running as well over the value of education in America in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Two things are confused in my remarks on education. What I call “vouchers” is quite different than what is commonly touted as a voucher system. I contend that given skills in the four areas I mentioned, memorization, dilligence, perserverence, and reasoning and contra Mr Darrell’s commenter Jim Benton I don’t raise memorization above the other four or propose testing the memorization and “vomiting” of particular facts for tests. But the ability to remember and facility at recalling facts when learning new material speeds the learning process immensely. Modern students and teaching, it seems, favor learning “concepts” over facts and I think that practice has swung too far the wrong way. Memorization has a place. However, I digress. The point is, and I think Mr Darrell would not contest this, that given two students one exelling in these four areas and the other while behind in those skills but having a head start in background material the student who learns better will surpass the one with the “head start”. In the mid-1980s I recall reading (in Science News I think), that there was a study of a set of students in Israel. These students had come from a strict religious community and had until their mid-high school years studided nothing but memorization of Torah and discourse and rhetoric from Talmud. Then, at that late age, they were put into mainline High school curricula. How did they do? To the surprise of the investigators, they did very well. It seems that the greater skills at reasoning (rhetoric), their far greater memorization, patience, and dilligence and perseverance come from long hours memorizing Torah chapter and verse translated quite well to quickly learning trigonometry, calculus and modern science. From this we learn, that prior to college curricula is less important that subject matter. What is important to the state and to the health of our nation is not that our students in the elementary and middle schools (and perhaps high school) are taught what is currently believed to be true by the intellectual elite. What is imporant is that they learn to memorize, perservere, practice dilligence, and learn to reason. Now, Mr Darrell repeatedly warns against “Creationism” in our schools contra evolution. However this is at best a red herring. Unlike a disciplined schooling in Torah & Talmud, “Creationism” is based largely on one chapter of Genesis, which might be memorized in an afternoon or two. To pass muster and teach students to improve and excell at all four of these disciplines hard and interesting topics must be taught carefully and in depth. But my point is that the choice of these topics is not as important. If instead of Torah/Talmud our young Creationists had to learn Greek/Latin, Roman and early history, and follow carefully arguments from Plato, Aristotle followed by close and careful readings of the corpus of the works of Augustine and Aquinas (in the original languages naturally) I’d contend these young “creationists” will do ok in the modern marketplace of ideas or in any forum where smark people are required. Show me a curricula you fear, Mr Darell and demonstrate that it will also teach our student to excell at all four of my “disciplines” of education and then I’ll submit you might be right. But I think that many of the private schools which engage in the kind of education which Mr Darrell fears also don’t teach students to learn either. […]


  2. Apologies for the length of this reply, — which I may split up into two or more — but I feel that Mark Olsen’s prescription for education is one of the scariest posts I’ve seen in the blogosphere. Overall, his description of the ideals of education made me think of the statements made, back in Watergate, explaining why the Nixon Administration chose Mormons for key posts, because they were hard-working, didn’t complain, were disciplined. and followed orders. Sadly, the prime example was Haldeman.
    The stress on memorization, sadly, leads to the ‘vomitorium’ idea of ezaminations. You struggle to swallow a whole bunch of facts, keep them down until the paper is in front of you, and vomit them onto the paper, where they are gone from your system forever, but you wind up with good marks. (This is why, despite the fact that most people have passed exams on 4th Grade math, I keep on being shocked at people who can’t add three small numbers at once, who are amazed that I can add a column of figures in my head, and worst of all, need a calculator to figure out ‘if one item costs $.69, how much do ten items cost.’)

    Both of you talk about ‘better learners,’ but what does that mean. I’d suggest that the key skills schools SHOULD teach are:
    a): the realization that ALL the subjects a student learns are about ‘the Real World.’ Okay, maybe an individual student will never need to know a particular topic — as someone who has never driven a car in my 60 years, I didn’t need the drivers’ ed course I took briefly — but neither the student, teacher, or parent knows which these are. But realizing that history is about people, and the way they act, that math is involved in everything, etc avoids that vomitorium method. and is crucial to the other parts below.

    b): curiosity. I have occasionally said — it is an exaggeration, but not much of one — that “‘teaching’ does not exist, that all a teacher can do is get a student interested in a particular topic, and the student will do the rest.’ If this seems dubious, realize that most students, by the time they reach the 6th Grade, have the equivalent of a college-level education in SOMETHING. Baseball, playing or from a fan/statistics viewpoint, music, fashion, television, writing (i.e. blogging, for example), computer skills (the cliche of ‘I don’t know how to operate my computer, but I asked my 10 year old nephew who knows all about it) maybe even an academic subject. They weren’t ‘taught’ these things — they may have been ‘coached’ (I use that to mean honing and showing how to use certain skills) — they learned them because they wanted to do so. If a teacher makes history or math or science or geography interesting to the students (without condescending to the students, without trying some new ‘rote’ procedure that he learned in his post-grad brush-up in education, but by realizing that the student is an individual and that the subject, in fact IS interesting — something that even too many teachers don’t understand — and maybe, in many cases, by talking about the people who ‘do’ that subject or who created it) that is enough.

    c): and most crucial “Critical Thinking” A student HAS to learn how to take what he is told, and check it against ‘real-world facts,’ whether the ‘teller’ is his parents, his teacher, his preacher, or even the schoolbooks (or, for that matter the sacred-texts of whatever religion he belongs to.) A simple demonstration here is the question of evolution. A good many people who are, in fact, creationists or evolution-doubters have probably taken courses in evolution at some time — it is only recently that they have once again come under attack. But once they’ve finished th4e subject, they are in a position where they go “Teacher says this” and “Preacher says that” and they don’t have the faintest idea how to judge between them, except by whichever one is the more eloquent speaker, or which one can condemn you to hell, or which one Daddy believes.
    This has been a problem for much of my life, but the past ten years in particular have made it worse. Previously most political commentators would ‘slant’ their statements, making the ‘best case’ for their position — nothing wrong with that, certainly. But recently, more and more we are seeing commentators flat-out lying, the Coulters, Malkings, both Goldbergs, etc — and yes, there are some on my side of the fence, but nowheres near as many or as blatant. (A prime example I came across was a WSJ article condemning a report by a group called ‘Code Pink” for ignoring Saddam’s actions against women while it blasted the current treatment of women by the post-Saddam Iraq. The trouble was that in almost every case THE POINTS THE WSJ ACCUSED ‘CODE PINK’ OF IGNORING WERE MENTIONED PROMINENTLY IN THE REPORT.) Similarly, the claims that the TIMES was acting treasonably in revealing counter-terrorism programs that any terrorist knew was in place, the claims that Bill Clinton was an extreme ‘radical leftist’ when his position was closer to that of a ‘moderate Republican’ (remember them?)
    But it isn’t just politics and evolution and religion that need ‘critical thinking.’ It needs to be applied in every aspect of life (think of the dangers of medical quackery and alternative medicine absurdities).

    Finally — yes, I do eventually ‘run down’ — students need to learn that the world is ‘multi-ordinal’ that in most cases there are MORE than two sides to every question, that there ISN’T always a ‘right answer’ that they have to find, that the answer to a question may not be ‘A’ or ‘B’ but it might be ‘both’ or ‘neither.’

    I’ll talk about vouchers in a future post, after I find out what domestic necessities or emergencies have popped up while I’ve been writing this one.


  3. edarrell says:

    Mark, I’m not arguing that the colonies had a full-blown program of public schools — that was not the case. There was, prior to the revolution, a solid consensus on the value of education for all. Jefferson’s plan for public schools was outlined in Notes on the State of Virginia, was written down in 1781, but he had practiced some of what he preached earlier as a member of the Board of Visitors at the College of William and Mary, in Williamsburg. The New England school “system” was slightly better developed, Boston Latin (Franklin’s alma mater, such as it is) having been around since nearly the founding of Boston (still there), and the “Old Deluder Satan” bill out of the Massachusetts legislature more expressed the desire for schools than spurred their establishment. Patrick Henry, whom you cite, was proposing that Virginia use Anglican (and perhaps other) preachers to teach kids, and pay them for it, in 1785 (this proposal prompted Madison’s petition known as the Memorial and Remonstrance, and led to the adoption of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom instead — Henry’s side disagreeing with Jefferson and Madison over who should be the teachers and how much sway they should have to teach religion — Henry lost).

    We didn’t get anything like the modern high school, really, until after 1820; it wasn’t until the 1880s and 1890s that mass education really began to bite the cultural waters, and then largely in support of industrialization. But there was a broad consensus that education of any sort was good, and that all Americans needed it. Backwoods people emphasized education, too. Illiteracy was not an intentional results among poor whites — it was a simple result of a lack of schools and other opportunity. For that matter, the ending of child labor in the early part of the 20th century helped boost education, too — if kids couldn’t work in the factories and mines, they may as well go to school. There was no group that encouraged the poor to avoid school — in fact philanthropists like Stephen Girard and Andrew Carnegie, supported schools especially for the poor.

    The push was for kids to get as much education as possible. This consensus, that our kids should have even more opportunity than their parents, began to break down as near as I can figure sometime after the Vietnam War. It was gathering steam in the middle 1980s, when I heard people say for the first time that they didn’t want their kids to have to go to school to learn more than they did: “I didn’t get much out of high school, and I’m doing okay — I don’t see why my kid should know [pick one: world history, U.S. history, evolution, sex education, Shakespeare, Mark Twain, the Bill of Rights, Algebra, geometry, chemistry, geography]!”

    My complaint about the original debate that sparked this discussion still remains: Vouchers are generally a bad idea, and to propose as an argument that it gives us a way to get around the discussion of what kids need to know simply by not having the discussion is a poor way to defend the republic.


  4. Mark Olson says:

    On the first point, education in early America. It wasn’t just the slaves that were not educated but there was no public education system at all. The wealthy plantation owners, like those gentlemen you mention, were all privatelyl tutored. At the time of the revolution, the white indentured/poor servants outnumbered slaves and it was those people who were 70% illiterate. As well, another influential speaker in the revolutionary period, Patrick Henry (from the “backwoods folkway” was “almost illiterate”. He was a powerful speaker but was pointedly not well educated. His “folkway”, the backwoods, certainly did not put the same value on education as you claim and didn’t view it as oppression unlike Mr Berkeley’s class conscious planataion Virginia.

    Children at 8 or 9 are also definietly not “good learners” no matter how intelligent they are. Use of Abstract reasoning for example develops later. On your other points, I will expound in more detail on my site. I’m afraid you miss the point partially on what I term vouchers. I’m not offering compensation to schools, i.e., vouchers, based on anything but that schools demonstrated performance in getting kids to become better learners. This is very different from the standard voucher approach. And to your example of students who learn better because they have a background in the material because of exposure to “real world experience”, I wonder if that is not that they make better students because that same real world has made them better students (more serious, dillegent, and so on) rather than some slightly greater familiarity with the material.


  5. elbogz says:

    I think you hit on a point I didn’t learn until I was almost completed College. That is, the most important thing we learn in school is how to learn, how to reason, how to judge truth from non-truth. All the facts and figures and the year this happened and that happened all slip from us quickly. But the ability to distinguish the truth from non-truth, the ability to solve problems and to come to a rational conclusion, are the basic fundamentals of a good education.


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