"You'll never get ahead if you don't take care of what you have." - Doris Waddell, RIP

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn
The multi-ethnic building was the original home of the music department at UMM. (B.W. photo)

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

We only pretend we want school to be rigorous

I remember many years ago when the U of M president, C. Peter Magrath, came to Morris to speak. It was at Sunwood Inn which today has a different name. Today it's Motel 200 or Hotel 2000 or something like that. "Sunwood" was a nice name. Remember the "Back Door?"
It's a pretty big deal when the U of M president comes to Morris, naturally. Historically we're sort of a company town with our campus. So C. Peter Magrath wrapped up his presentation and then opened it up for questions. Our public school superintendent rose to ask a question. You could tell immediately that the U president was irritated. The question was about the "downgrading" of textbooks, an item that had been in the news. The trend apparently was for books not to be as complicated and dull as before. I would say the books were becoming more user-friendly. Let's have more pictures!
Magrath began his answer by stating he was merely obligated to answer and wasn't doing so enthusiastically. He simply denied that studies were being made any less rigorous. How could he suggest otherwise?
For a long time we had impressions of college that it was terribly difficult, with young people forced to wade through piles of books. It wasn't supposed to be fun. Our society didn't seem set up to facilitate much fun at all. The Viet Nam war wasn't fun, was it. Our society was plagued by economic inflation. But the science of economics reveals that there is a solution for inflation. Why wasn't it harnessed sooner? Instead we eventually got Paul Volcker who raised interest rates one whole point at a time.
Inflation and the Viet Nam war vanished. I was stunned. Those two problems had been implanted for so long.
Trends seem to be sweeping aside the concept of "rigorous academics." Young people needn't be made to feel miserable in school, whether it's college or high school. As I look back, I can see that my grades K-6 education was quite purposeful and had enjoyment much of the time. It is essential to master basic reading, writing and arithmetic. Beyond that I'm not so sure about the value of education.
Cliches and trends always abound in education. In the 1970s if you talked about the primacy of "reading, writing and arithmetic" you'd be pooh-poohed as old-fashioned in your thinking. In the digital world of today, with so many of our day-to-day processes made vastly simpler than before, the old model of "advanced" education seems less valuable.
There will always be a sliver of the population - kids destined to do great things and reach great heights - who will take to those advanced studies. Many other kids would not be suited, IMHO.
Skepticism toward classroom grades
I am writing this post because of the news last week that a consortium of prep schools has decided to abandon the traditional grading system completely. So much for "grade inflation." I remember when the term "grade inflation" crept into the news, maybe in the mid-1980s. The suggestion was that it was a bad thing. We needed to make our courses "challenging" for kids. We wouldn't want to suggest that coursework was being made easier, would we?
Realistically our kids were going to benefit from a less heavy, onerous classroom environment. We just didn't want to publicly admit it. So grade inflation took hold over time. The honor roll list at our Morris school is so much more inclusive and generous than it used to be. The 'A' honor roll was totally rarefied air when I was a kid.
Educational systems respond to societal pressures. I was a kid when the Cold War hovered like a big stinking cloud. We had to "beat the Soviets" in everything. All these years later, it is steadily being revealed that the Cold War was really a big ruse, a ruse used by both powers to suck wealth from the citizenry and pump into government and defense, with the idea of being competitive vs. the other major power. Our whole space program grew out of that. Remember the fears generated by "Sputnik?" Remember our "hero" astronauts of the 1960s? Remember the movie "The Right Stuff?"
Our poor schoolkids got dragged through an educational process in those days that was unpleasant in so many ways. Everything was fine through the sixth grade. We had "mother hen" teachers through the sixth grade, almost all women, who guided kids along in a practical and loving way. Why did that have to change in the seventh grade? School beginning in the seventh grade had qualities almost like prison. The "bell" would ring which would give you permission to go out in the hallway. The hallway could be like a no-man's land if you were there at an unauthorized time. Simply being there might bring the wrath of God down on you.
We took courses that we knew would have no relevance to anything practical the rest of our lives. We have since learned that the only way to learn a foreign language is "immersion." I sat through pointless French classes where we conjugated verbs. We conjugated those (expletive) verbs. Kids didn't learn to "speak French" this way, not even close. Courses like that were like being a slave rowing a boat.
Look around you. You see people doing all sorts of jobs in our community that realistically only would require mastery of reading, writing and arithmetic. In other words, a sixth grade education. I learned "penmanship" in the second grade from Miss Firstnow. Most of these common main street jobs simply require a disciplined and organized mind. It doesn't matter that you didn't take a course in Medieval literature in college.
We entertain these notions that somehow, difficult coursework makes us better human beings. It's rhetoric. It's political correctness. C. Peter Magrath gave the answer to Supt. Fred Switzer that he had to give, that books were full of rigor like always. But it was clear he didn't want to answer it.
To heck with schoolteachers who'd bellow out "take out a sheet of paper" for a pop quiz. I'm not willing to keep on rowing like that.
Now I'll keep your attention
What about sex education? People of a conservative political stripe bristle at this of course. They would want kids to behave as if sex doesn't exist. The parents of boomers were quite Victorian about all that.
We hear the joking references to how kids learn about sex "on the schoolyard." If this is true, is it something we should accept? I should think not. Sex is a profound thing for kids to have to confront. It can lead to anxiety that profoundly distracts them. And yet those conservative parents would prefer it not be addressed at all, as if it didn't exist.
I went through the schoolyard process and ended up very distressed about it all. We have learned that my generation reached puberty at a younger age than previous generations. We benefited from basic health advances. Our sexual urges, not properly guided, led to a lot of undesirable behavior and even catastrophic outcomes. I'd fear going to church because I might go up for communion with an erection showing under my pants. I have thought countless times that I would have benefited from a pill that would simply erase sexual thoughts. Away from procreation, how much value do these thoughts have? God created us in such a strange way.
My generation could be so wild and undisciplined in our behavior. In some critical ways, we just weren't getting the proper guidance. Our parents were clueless about some of our essential needs. We partied, drank, smoked dope and sought illicit sex. We wore "grubby" clothes lest we suggest we came from an affluent background which would be a source of shame in those days of the "New Left." (Jim Morrison once told me "The New Left is now the Old Left.")
Sex was not to be broached in our household, and if somehow it surfaced like through a conversation on TV, we would be afflicted with shame, instantly, and cower for a while. And heaven absolutely help you if you, as a male, had your Playboy magazine discovered. Shame beyond words. But why? Why oh why? The Tom Cruise character in "Born on the Fourth of July" had this happen to him. The movie was a template for what boomers went through.
You know what? If you allow a male young person access to unlimited porn for just a couple days, he will tire of it and become oblivious to it. Isn't that what we want? Let our boys get all this out of their system. The mystery and taboo of sex was so fascinating to us young boys, we'd get ahold of a National Geographic magazine because we might get to see female breasts on a primitive woman.
Why couldn't our society be more relaxed and enlightened? Like it or not, sex is something we all have to grapple with. School can be helpful.
Footnote regarding the "Back Door," part of the old Sunwood Inn: If you want to re-create the atmosphere in your mind, just imagine the Doobie Brothers' tune "Long Train Running" which included: "Without love, where would you be now." It seemed all the visiting bands played that there. I am not proud to note that I was an occasional patron. None of us benefited from our time there.
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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