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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    All children left behind

    A “”rebellion”” is underway, as Arizona Daily Star columnist Ernesto Portillo Jr. described it last Friday, “”supported by conservatives and liberals, Democrats and Republicans, and public school administrators and teachers.””

    The focus of the rebellion is President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act, passed through a bipartisan Congress back in 2001. Now, a Republican, Rep. Pete Hoekstra, has introduced a bill allowing states to opt out of the law’s mandates.

    Why would a conservative Republican like Hoekstra, a firm supporter of the Iraq war, rebel against his already-besieged president? Because the issue transcends party affiliations: It is about the single-most important issue in America at any time – the education of our citizens.

    Under NCLB, schools must subject their students to one exam after another, encouraging already harried teachers to turn their lessons into mere preparation for those exams. Independent thinking is replaced by memorization.

    The Act also demands that students’ names and phone numbers be handed over to military recruiters. At the same time, the president supports vouchers for private schools. That is what passes for education: rote learning and military recruiting for the masses and quality education for the privileged.

    What NCLB proves is that federal policies to “”improve”” education do nothing of the kind. What they do is corrupt and degrade an already-tottering system, and Hoekstra is right to challenge it.

    But throwing off the shackles of NCLB won’t save public education. The problems have been there for decades, and the 2001 act only made them more entrenched.

    Indeed, no one seems to agree on why Americans spend 12 years in public schools. Republicans blather about teaching our children “”decent values,”” and we all know what that means: God, guns and federally mandated abstinence.

    Democrats, meanwhile, prattle on about preparing our children for the job market. Students have been taught for years in our schools that the only reason they are there is to get a good job.

    This was the point of last year’s Proposition 400, which set up a special board to oversee vocational and technical training for high school students – as one Tucson Unified School District bureaucrat told the Tucson Weekly, “”to build a work force for Southern Arizona that is heavily tied to academics, and that’s what local industries are looking for.””

    Is that why we spend 12 years of our lives in school? To live up to the standards of “”local industries””?

    Social scientists, meanwhile, tell us that the purpose of school is “”socialization””; the young must be taught to co-exist with others. It would be more accurate to say that the young must be taught their place, that their natural independence must be pummeled out of them and replaced with unconscious, automatic habits of obedience.

    My own high school was surrounded by a heavily guarded fence; even students with cars couldn’t leave during lunch break. An odd lesson to teach future citizens, but a smart one to teach a future “”work force.””

    Small wonder that many call for dismantling the public school system and handing education over to the marketplace. But Thomas Jefferson told us long ago what the real purpose of a public school system should be.

    Future citizens, Jefferson believed, must study, above all, political history. They must learn to detect “”ambition under all its shapes,”” to allow every citizen “”to judge for himself what will secure or endanger his freedom.”” Education for citizenship is the sole reason for public education.

    “”Americans do not go to school in order to increase the social efficiency or economic prosperity of the country, but to become informed, critical citizens,”” wrote political critic Walter Karp. “”A citizen is not a worker. The Soviet Union has workers; the American republic has citizens.””

    Whatever else our schools do, they do not do this. They do well enough at teaching our children math and science (the “”useful”” subjects), but history is ground up and served to them as “”social studies,”” a sickening stew of half-digested homily and dull sociology.

    Textbooks meant to instill patriotism instead inspire cynicism. I suspect more students learn that Abraham Lincoln “”didn’t really free the slaves”” than could recite a single line of the Gettysburg Address. Our schools teach political apathy, not citizenship.

    The result of this is that most of our country’s young citizens remain ignorant of history – and, therefore, unable to make heads or tails of politics. They view elections as “”popularity contests”” and stay home on Election Day.

    Talk show hosts regularly ridicule them for this ignorance, but they are hardly to blame. The blame rests firmly with our deeply corrupted school system – and with politicians who dream of deeper corruption still.

    Of course, certain students get a slightly better education. We segregate the most precocious students from the rest early on, and shuttle them off to “”gifted”” programs, while the students who need the most help are relegated to the dismal “”common”” classrooms, where they will eventually be targeted by the military and the “”work force.””

    What is the solution to this dark state of affairs? Take our schools out of the hands of the federal bureaucrats and put them back where they belong: in the hands of local communities.

    Yes, some schools will probably fall below standards. But parents, unlike bureaucrats, are unlikely to see their children as nothing more than fodder for the job market.

    Justyn Dillingham is copy chief for the Arizona Daily Wildcat and is a junior majoring in political science and history. He can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu

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