What I Said

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.

On vouchers themselves. I think all schools “public” and private should receive compensation from the state, both local, state, and federal based on their effectiveness at teaching students to learn not on the material they choose to teach. I think that effectiveness should be a matter of public record to assist parents in selecting the school of their choice. Method and curricula are not imporant to the state, but may be to parents and detailed discussion of same is up to the school and its desire to attract students. This however, is very different from the standard “voucher” terminolgy and perhaps I misname it. But, in general it is only government contracts which specify “how” a job must be done as well as what need be done and it is government contracts which are also the least effective in getting a job done well or without lots of waste of manpower and money. Why must education use this the worst way of doing things? There is some point in a common core curricula but I think it is that core is far smaler than Mr Darrell might have it be. Beyond skill in English and a small core set of texts (I’d think a half dozen or so books might do) there is no need to insist on more uniformity. What half dozen or 10 books might do? Now that might make an interesting discussion. 🙂

On the final (historical) issue, the importance of education Mr Darrell holds that education was wildely valued in America in the aforemetioned time period. In the four folkways Mr Fischer discusses in the early American colonies (Albion’s Seed):

  • In Puritan New England, Town schools were the norm, common education (literacy rates) where high/strong, higher education was strong and common enrollment in any education averaged 4-5 years. In Massachusetts Puritan culture, more than the other folkways, these were people of the Book. Hence literacy was important, so as to read said Book. Literacy in New England was (on average) the highest in the Americas. Before the American Revolution four colleges were founded in New England which was unique in the folkways in that it strongly supported common and higher education.
  • In the patrician Virgianian folkway, Parish schools were found, common education was weak (recall white literacy rates among the non-privilleged patriarchal elite was 70%), but higher education (again of the elite) was strong and average enrollment in education was 1-3 years. In the 17th century for example, most adult Virginians were unable to sign their own name. The colony was most heavily influenced by the policies and personal stamp of William Berkely, who famously is quoted as saying

    I think God there are no free schools nor printing, and I hope we shall not have these [for a] hundred years; for learning has brought disobedience, and heresy, and sects into the world, and printing has divulged them, and libels against the best government. God keep us from both

    This remark, as Mr Fischer notes, has brough Governor Berekely a dark place in the history of eduation, but is important to note, this was not a dissenting opinion but one shared by his peers. More importantly one should note that this was not specifically a strategy of supression but one which coincided with their heirarchical view of freedom and society.

  • In the Delaware valley Quaker folkway Meeting schools (centered around the Quaker meeting halls) were the norm, common education was valued and strong, but higher education was weak (few colleges) and enrollment in any schools averaged 3-4 years. The Delaware valley Quakers were, Mr Fischer informs us “culturally ambivalent” about education. On the one hand, Quakers followed an “inner light”, of which reason was an important part. However, William Penn warned that too much education (reading) is an oppression of the mind. Penn advised people to have fiew books, but choose them well and ponder them deeply. However, in context, William Penn in striking out against “reading” did so by writing a book to express that idea. Against the Puritan stress on education, and the Virginian stress on higher education but a repression of common eduction, the Quakers stressed common education (reading and writing) but had misgivings about higher education.
  • In the Backwoods folkway, education was private, both common and higher education was weak and enrollment averaged 1-2 years. Schools in this very libertarian society were privately enrolled by small communities for families. Education (with one type of exception) was spotty and rare, as followed the practice in the English borderlands. In Ayershire for example, half of the parishes (counties) had no schools and those that did, the primary purpose was to seek out the exceptionally bright young men and send them to places of higher learning rather than to provide mass education. Patrick Henry, a leading spokesman and powerful orator, from the backcountry. Thomas Jefferson remarked of Patrick Henry that “he read nothing, and had no books” (which was not much of an exaggeration). A biographer of Mr Henry wrote, “Of the science of law he knew almost nothing; of the practical law he was so wholly ignorant that he was not only unable to draw a declaration or a plea, but incapable, it is said, of the most common or simple business of his profession, even the mode of ordering a suit, giving a notice, or making am otion in court.” Education was not a backcountry emphasis to say the least.

What can we make of this? Well, roughly only a quarter of colonial society had strong feelings that public education was good, that is New England. The rest of the country was far less enthusiastic. Given the above, I think the thesis that early America strongly favored common or strong education is just plainly not true. By the end of the 19th that might be the case, but a century eariler it was not.

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2 comments

  1. Ed Darrell says:

    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 smart 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.

    If one got the kids versed in Plato, Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas, by definition they would not be creationists. My objection to teaching creationism is that the only way that works is to avoid the academic rigor you suggest here. You and I agree on academic rigor; now we’re quibbling over whether it is possible to achieve that within a framework that “teaches” creationism, and I do not think it possible. The interpretations of scripture necessary for creationism do not withstand a thorough understanding of Aquinas, nor of Aristotle and his errors.

    More later, maybe back on my blog.

  2. Mark says:

    Ed,
    But, in “my scheme” those unrigorous schools teaching creationism the students would fail to improve in my “disciplines” and would be elligble for not state (local/state/federal) money. This in turn would encourage rigor … in which case we are in agreement (atsome level).

    On the other hand, as Aquinas was seen as reconciling Biblical theology with Aristotle, I’d imagine that a rigorous creationist is possible. Just not what we normally find in those who push Creationism today.