Welcome to the circus

March 11th, 2013

In an earlier article, I mentioned that these days, it’s fashionable to blame all the failings in our school systems on teachers.

And in this regard, I’ve been disappointed with the actions of our foremost education administrator, our esteemed President (who I voted for twice) and who I think is greatly misguided in his education policy by jumping on the bandwagon of teacher bashing.

Of all people, he should be the first one to understand that good students are not the result of good teaching but of good parenting.

Does he attribute his own success to the mentoring he received from his grandparents and the personal interest his mother took in his education getting him up personally at 5 am to do his homework, or to some ‘super teacher’ in his life?


In the article above, he himself said that “she seemed intent on raising a combination of “Einstein, Gandhi, and Harry Belafonte.”

In his infinite wisdom, how could he fail to recognize that this was the secret to his success and not some imaginary ‘teacher-of-the-year’ in his life?

But these days, it seems to be the trend to blame all the problems in our schools on teachers.

And even worse, to apply workplace standards and business practices to the task of educating our children.

In other words, to equate the education of our children with manufacturing products and running a business.

It is true, in most industries, if the products are not up to par, you can often lay the blame squarely on the workers.

For example, if you’re building cars and you’re getting recall after recall of those cars for defective workmanship, it’s not unreasonable to blame the workers in the factory for those defects.

But can we apply those same standards to teachers?

Can we apply factory floor manufacturing standards and expectations to schools and the task of educating our young?

On the factory floor, if you assemble a car, the results are predictable. When you put in a screw, the screw stays there. When you install a part, the part stays there. In other words, you’re working in an environment of predictable outcomes. What you put in is what you get out.

Teaching, however, exists in quite a different environment.

You’re dealing with unpredictables, because you’re not dealing with inanimate objects that are completely under your control, you’re dealing with thinking human beings.

(If you don’t know what a thinking human being is, try asking a teenager to take out the trash and you’ll soon find out.)

And here’s the crux of the problem.

The student is not some inanimate object that is completely subject to your will and control. It’s not a product rolling off a factory floor that you have 100 % control over. It’s a live thinking human being with a mind of their own.

Imagine if you will, a car manufacturing plant.

Cars are rolling down the conveyor belts, and you’re a worker on the floor installing, let’s say, the headlights.

Only this is no ordinary factory – in this factory, every automobile part is a live thing with a mind of their own.

So you try to put in the first headlight, but instead of going into its designated space, it decides to roll onto the floor.

You chase after it, and after some effort, you manage to get it into the space but now the screws refuse to go in. So there you are trying to persuade them to be good and allow you to tighten them, when the manager comes along and asks why you’re not doing your job.

It sounds like a crazy world but that’s the world of education.

You’re trying to do the best you can, but you’re constantly being sabotaged by students and administrators.

Truly a thankless task.

First, you have to try to persuade your typical facebooked-texted-friend-me-twittered-video-gamed-to-the-eyeballs distracted student – trying to persuade them that perhaps they should do their homework besides these other great ‘priorities’ in their lives.

Or on the other side of the coin, trying to persuade children who have no strong and involved adults in their lives, children who have been indoctrinated by popular culture that being cool is better than getting good grades.

And doing all this while having to justify your job by writing countless ‘learning outcomes’ reports, and undergoing endless evaluations to determine your dedication to your profession.

And on top of that, an unsympathetic President and other opportunistic politicians and administrators who would use teachers as scapegoats for all the failings in our society.

Welcome to the circus, otherwise known as the wonderful world of education in America.

15 Responses to “Welcome to the circus”

  1. Bob Says:

    Phil, have you ever heard of John Taylor Gatto? I encourage to take a look at some of his work. His book, “The Underground History of Education” is available for free:

  2. Philip Hii Says:

    Thanks for the link, Bob. Been reading the book. What a writer! But wish it’s a little shorter. Can’t say I agree with all his views but definitely worth reading.

  3. MdM Says:

    I own the hardcopy of Gatto’s book 🙂 Alfie Kohn writes well on this topic, with a liberal rather than libertarian viewpoint: http://alfiekohn.org/articles.htm

    It’s hard, Philip, and I sympathize. It’s easy to blame the teachers because they are the ones with the least political power. So the politicians can write legislation mandating higher “standards”, and you get a culture of teaching to the test where little real learning can occur. If the test scores go up, you (the politician) get the credit; if they don’t, you can blame the teachers. A scheme that hurts the children, the family, and the teachers.

    As a parent, I would also point out that we live in an environment that makes it hard to get the “right” things we all want. Work ethic, learning for its own sake, and family values are constantly undermined by American popular culture. The contrast is especially noticable upon observing first generation immigrants and how the act. George Leonard wrote that it was almost as if there was a conspiracy against mastery!

  4. Philip Hii Says:

    Thanks for the link Michael. Went to the site and you’re right, he does have a liberal slant. Strangely enough, and maybe this reflects a latent conservatism in my views, but I find myself disagreeing with him on the first article I read, on grading. I actually think grading is good, because there’s really no other way of assessing students. It’s the general scapegoating of teachers that I have a problem with. And the inability of bureaucrats and education ‘experts’ to recognize that teaching is not the same as manufacturing a bunch of inanimate products. We’re dealing with human beings who have to be receptive first before we can fill them with knowledge. And no amount of teaching gimmickry or innovation or ‘teacher-of-the-year’ awards will substitute for parental guidance. It’s such a simple and obvious fact I’m amazed no one has ever brought out this point.

  5. Alphonsus Jr. Says:

    I propose that the teacher-student relationship is fundamentally about justice. That is, each side owes the other certain things.

    Much today is spoken about what teachers owe students. Little is said about what students owe teachers. Such is today’s soft discrimination of low expectations born of a collective guilty conscience.

    Before a fruitful teacher-student relationship can occur, students must first be taught 1) THAT they owe teachers, and 2) WHAT they owe teachers. This instruction is akin to the prepolitical moral foundations of any polity. This “prepolitical” instruction of the future student occurs in the family (in the strictest sense of that word). Today’s breakdown of the family is thus inextricably tied to the breakdown of today’s students.

    On a related note, I recommend that all google for this essay:

    What A Student Owes His Teacher by James V. Schall, S.J.

  6. Philip Hii Says:

    You’ve hit it right on the nail. It’s the breakdown of the family unit that’s at the root of all our educational problems. But if you’re a politician, it’s much more convenient to blame teachers. I agree we should start a discussion about how and what students owe teachers. Perhaps that will shift the focus to the other side of the equation — the student.

  7. Alphonsus Jr. Says:

    More convenient indeed for politicians to blame teachers.

    I’d say that one of the fundamental things students owe teachers is docility. That is, a student must be teachable. This requires that a student step into the relationship with the conviction that the teacher knows more than he does and thus has things to teach him.

    Yet at least interrelated six factors now radically militate against this.

    First, from the very beginning children are now taught to feel good about themselves independently of any demonstrated merits. Original virtue is the order of the day. Such is today’s diabolical inversion.

    Second, today’s training in radical egalitarianism cultivates militant mediocrity, which is of course hardly conducive to fruitful learning.

    Third, today’s radical individualism – indeed, solipsism – and resulting lust for “authenticity,” for “keepin’ it real,” leads to a “I gotta be me I gotta be free!” attitude which in turn breeds a hatred for authority – not just bad authority, but for authority as such. This solipsism thus collapses into the base antinomianism we see everywhere today.

    Fourth, the age of Rousseau is still very much with us, therefore primitivism is – in various masked ways – extolled as virtuous. This is related to the original virtue mentioned above. Those possessed of original virtue rather than original sin have, they think, little need for instruction.

    Fifth, the corrosive of radical subjectivism has eroded the very belief that a teacher has anything to teach at all. All is now “opinion,” “interpretation,” and “relative.” This radical subjectivism additionally teaches(!) that no opinion or any interpretation is any better or worse than another. Thus militant mediocrity isn’t a problem, but just another “interpretation.”

    Sixth, today’s lowered metaphysical horizons generally don’t cultivate any great thirst for knowledge and excellence. When one is tacitly trained from the beginning that the summit of man’s horizons should consist of football, the nightly tv lineup, and lawn care, well then…. one isn’t exactly a fitting receptacle for more elevated instruction.

    Such is our brave new world. Progress? Is somebody kidding?

  8. Philip Hii Says:

    That last point is especially pertinent here in South Texas, where the local newspaper will skip a concert by a world-renowned concert artist to cover a high school football game. Very insightful comments. I find myself agreeing with much of what you said and I like that phrase — diabolical inversion. That seems to be the order of the day.

  9. Alphonsus Jr. Says:

    I see I stuck “interrelated” in the wrong spot. Yoda I am. hehehe…

  10. Alphonsus Jr. Says:

    To clarify that sixth point, we obviously see much thirst for knowledge and excellence today. But I argue that this thirst is now rooted not in transcendence or contact with the divine, but most often in depravity – for example, envy, the lust for fame and riches, and so on. The explanatory power of the seven deadly sins is today vastly underrated. If we only knew how powerful are pride and envy, for example. But speaking in such terms is of course now anathema to our blessed cognoscenti.

  11. Philip Hii Says:

    I actually don’t see much thirst for knowledge or excellence today, mostly lust for fame and riches, and doing it any way you can, by screwing the poor, by scamming the sick, by selling whatever you have for a few bucks, with no sense of shame or self respect.

  12. Alphonsus Jr. Says:

    Football! One of neopaganism’s supreme substitutes for religion. The lowered horizons of neopaganism are really appalling. Were I a neopagan I’d thirst for the comparative nobility, however disordered, of ancient paganism.

    Philip, though I suspect you won’t agree with everything in it, since you’re a man of ideas I think you’ll nevertheless find the following short analysis of the trajectory of the last 700 or so years most interesting:


  13. Alphonsus Jr. Says:

    “I actually don’t see much thirst for knowledge or excellence today….”

    Yes, I fear I may have been too optimistic above.

    But look at us! We sound like cranks. Better put on the smiley faces! 😉

  14. Lawrence Says:

    Philip, I do agreed that a good education must have a good integrated system. Everyone has a role to play when ones has to learn something useful or knowledge.

    Ultimately, it is the attitude and responsibility of a learner or student to be blamed. Some famous innovator or “genius” business figure like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates are school or college dropout, but they earned billion dollar in their life whereas those professor or researcher or scientist earn peanuts compared to successful businessmen.

    Of course, if we compared their earning power using their own unique creativity and innovative ideas and turned them into a useful and friendly user products.
    What we need actually to inculcate creativity, innovation and change into a person, so that one day the student or learner can catch fish by themselves rather than buying fishes from the market. (Spoon feeding system in education must be the problem as everything fall into a system or criteria set by the Education Ministry or the government. I personally think grading system still can be used but only as guidelines and it helps the educators and parents to know their children learning progress.

    Well I possibly don’t know much about US education system, in Malaysia , we are a British colonial education system and today the system needs to be revamped to fit in a more political motivated system rather than looking into the current problem in the policy and long term benefits. Other issues are mastery of languages (Malay , and English) and we have this poor English teachers in Malaysia. You wouldn’t be surprised if you found a Minister can’t write or read English in the future because the government is emphasized so much on Malay language.

  15. Philip Hii Says:

    Education is always a problem. What is the best way to teach? Trouble is, everybody has their own idea and many times, they’re not the ones who are teaching. It’s like having someone who don’t play the guitar trying to teach you how to play. The blind leading the blind.

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