By Lawrence M. Ludlow
Part 1: The Current Status of Government Monopoly Schools
This is the story of a former teacher who – after a 35-year absence – returned to the classroom to help a local high school overcome a temporary emergency. Why tell this tale? It’s not to reiterate facts about the bloated budgets and dismal performance of government schools. Better researchers than me have done that job, most recently Professor Bryan Caplan in his devastating book, The Case Against Education. Moreover, I won’t address the important topic of alternative-learning methods such as homeschooling, unschooling (self-directed learning), and internships.
Instead, I speak as someone with business experience. I was not an “education major” or teacher who hasn’t left the classroom since first setting foot there in Kindergarten. I took an advanced interdisciplinary academic degree in medieval studies nearly 40 years ago and subsequently enrolled in courses to obtain a secondary-school teaching certification in Latin, history, and social studies. After teaching in the Detroit Public Schools for a couple of years in the early 1980s, I worked as a freelance writer and senior corporate editor and manager for international business consulting, architectural, marketing, technology, and healthcare firms. Meanwhile, I continued to study economics, medieval thought, manuscripts, and early printing.
As a final introductory note, this is not an attack on the teachers, who are caught in the machinery of factory-style government-monopoly schools. Many of them are knowledgeable, sincere, and hard working. The unhappiness, anger, and resentment they have disclosed to me can only reveal them as co-victims alongside the children. Both are ground up in the misery-making gears of this self-perpetuating institution. I confess that I disliked school as a child, and after my recent experience teaching, I was left – more than ever – with a suspicion that government schools bear a closer resemblance to a trawler’s gillnet than anything else. Sure, about one third of enrolled children seem to suffer no ill effects and even enjoy it. Another third merely tolerate the experience. But for the remainder, it is a soulless grind. At different ages, children may shift from one of these three broad categories to another, but it would be a massive error to think that this institution is a solution to the question of how children learn.
The New Political Agenda
Late in 2017, I was semi-retired, and during a weekly meeting of my economics discussion group, I was asked to teach Latin at a remotely located Catholic school in suburban Detroit. I turned it down, but it got me thinking that I might enjoy teaching again. So I renewed my Michigan teaching certification in 2018. That was my first encounter with a system that was even more politically charged than in the past. My 1982 certification document, for example, was simple. It had a title, a list of courses that I was certified to teach, and some signature boxes. Period. But the September 2018 version contained nearly 300 additional words that amounted to a profession of faith in politically defined collectivism and diversity. It was disguised as a “Professional Educator’s Code of Ethics,” but there was little about ethics beyond the label. Instead, it committed the signatory to the following:
- Service toward [a] common good
- …[a] primary goal…of creating…a democratic society
- …advocate the practice of equity…[and] for equal access to educational opportunities for each individual
- Diversity…to ensure that instruction reflects the realities and diversity of the world
- …acceptable social practices…
These seemingly benign concepts have been re-defined over the past few decades. They no longer mean voluntary cooperation to achieve a valued goal, even-handedness in dealing with children, recognition of the unique character of each child, and behaviors that are appropriate to respond to the competing demands made by large groups of children.
They now mean political collectivism, radical egalitarianism, a politically charged recognition of skin color and gender identities, and conformity to cultural fads and wish lists promoted by teachers’ unions.
But if I held these reservations, why continue to the next step? My answer was simple: I couldn’t make matters worse. My personal belief is that unschooling and homeschooling work better for some children all of the time and for some children part of the time. This doesn’t mean I thought I could “change the system from the inside.” You can’t fix something as sclerotic as a government school. But I could expose students to ways of thinking that they are unlikely to encounter from teachers who have never strayed beyond the hothouse classroom environment.
We Need a Latin Teacher
I moved to the city of Grosse Pointe Park, Michigan, about four years ago, and I have been a volunteer at a nearby literacy center, some local parishes, and in my property owners’ association. So I got to know quite a few people for a newcomer. And since my home is located on a corner, I have opportunities to meet many passersby. Early in October 2018, a neighbor approached me about an urgent need for a Latin teacher at Grosse Pointe South High School, where his children attended school. An instructor had just resigned, and it was difficult to find a replacement in the middle of a semester. The school is architecturally interesting, built about 100 years ago of stone and brick in the Georgian Revival style. It sits in a community with a relatively high median income and is viewed as a good school by conventional measures. I agreed to an interview the very next day, a Friday afternoon. Afterward, I was asked to teach three “test” classes for Latin I and Latin II students on Monday morning, October 15. Things were moving fast.
I reviewed what the children had been studying and prepared two lectures and some handouts corresponding to their lessons in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The vice principal, department head, and another Latin teacher sat in on my “test” classes. Two days later I received an offer, and by Friday I was teaching both classes at no charge since the hire date (with me on the payroll) was set for the following Monday. I stepped in early because I wanted to minimize the disruption for the students. For readers who are unfamiliar with the poet Ovid, his classic myths carry messages about humility, pride, wrath, and the sexual peccadillos of the gods. Because I had training in medieval history and literature, however, I hoped to bring a dimension that most classicists don’t.
Hoodwinked Taxpayers and My Advance Resignation
Within a few days, it was clear that many students did not understand even English grammar, much less the fundamentals of Latin. So I retraced some basics, and I attempted to minimize their anxiety by sharing my dislike for school and learning foreign languages when I was their age. I also related a list of my worst failures to demonstrate that even if they were struggling, it should not demoralize them. Moreover, since completion of a foreign language was a graduation requirement at the school, I outlined how they could pass my course with a “C” or “D” and not have to take it again. How? By simply learning the vocabulary for each lesson. That, along with credit for homework and class participation, would guarantee that they could pass the course with a moderate effort. It is true that there were some really excellent students enrolled in my classes, but there was no bell curve. The scores were heavily clumped into two groups: a large number who did poorly and a smaller number in the A and B range. This made me curious, so I quietly began to pose questions to other teachers and to some students. Their answers were surprising – a topic I’ll explore more fully in a while. But first I want to relate what happened during my third week as a teacher. The passage of a $111 million school bond on November 6, 2018 (55% in favor) changed everything.
It is important to understand that the student population of the Grosse Pointe Public School System has been dropping since 1975, when there were 11,145 students. There currently are 7,620 students enrolled, a figure expected to fall to 7,155 by 2022 (a 36% reduction since 1975). Citing water leaks at some locations, a few school board members stampeded voters into believing that the sky would fall if they did not pass the massive bond sale. Some board members disagreed, and a building contractor advised the district to close and sell its underutilized properties to pay for upgrades. Public school per-pupil spending is at least twice as high in the U.S. as it was 30 years ago, but the results are dismal – especially in Michigan. Residents who voted in favor of this bond sale and tax really believe that the money is not wasted! In fact, they must believe it! Why? Because if they realized they were paying astronomical taxes for nothing, they would have to admit that they had been duped. And nobody wants to feel that way. They would rather put a good face on it and pretend that the local money pit “made a difference.” I’ve even formulated a “law of bamboozlement”: The higher the perceived goodness of one’s school district, the more willing a taxpayer is to be duped. And the level of bamboozlement rises in direct proportion to the taxes mulcted. It’s a case of fiscal Stockholm syndrome: unable to escape the situation, the taxpayer becomes part of the victimization to regain a sense of autonomy, however false.
I was stunned by the passage of this bond measure, and as a resident taxpayer, I was alarmed by the behavior of my fellow teachers when the results were announced at an all-hands training event. During the victory announcement, a bit of humility would have been appropriate – not the raucous display in the crowded auditorium. If Bugsy Siegel’s gang had looted Fort Knox, the celebration would have been more subdued. It is understandable that teachers will favor school taxes, but voters in the district were sharply divided. Taxes are high in the district, and the local newspapers and school board had played a one-sided game to promote the measure. So after careful consideration, I submitted a delayed-action resignation four days later, on November 10.
To prevent disruption to the students’ curriculum, I promised to remain in the classroom until a replacement was found. Once word got out, however, my students seemed unaware of that concession, and many thought I had abandoned them. I never received a copy of the announcement – which was typical of this school. When a student reporter from the school paper subsequently asked me why I resigned, I told her that the recent passage of seven taxes induced me to re-open my business. I also said that I couldn’t prevent the school from taking my tax money, but I wouldn’t also let them have my talents. I also explained that taxation is a form of theft – the old story about two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner. Not surprisingly, the interview never made it into print. But during the interview, the reporter divulged something else. I was the third, not the second, Latin teacher to resign in a six-month period. This was news to me, and it corroborated what I had been hearing about low standards at the school.
Low Expectations, Helicopter Moms, and Time Preference
In addition to poor test scores, I noted other problems: the failure of many students to bring books to class, resentment about homework, and student expectations of high grades in spite of no proficiency or effort. Children told me that they had to get good grades and were accustomed to obtaining them. They expected great results no matter what. The mother of a second-year student even telephoned me about her son. When I pointed out that he rarely studied, did homework, or showed mastery, she was unfazed. Attempts to bargain for higher scores were endemic. And when I asked other teachers and students about this, I was told the following:
- Latin class was a dumping ground for students who already had failed in another language.
- Many teachers expect little and give higher grades. Students were thrown into the Latin courses so that they could merely “pick up a few phrases and pass the language requirement.”
- Students are subjected to lots of parental pressure to get good grades (regardless of how they are obtained).
- A department head had been demoted because he taught his classes to prepare students for college-level work and refused to lower his standards.
- Senior-level teachers had been quitting for some time – disgusted by the increasingly low standards accepted at the school. Mid-career and young teachers accepted the prevailing trend because they had no options.
- The word “entitlement” arose constantly in discussions about the situation.
One of the more bizarre initiatives at this school was a real bellwether. The principal was establishing a process to prevent students from having to take more than one test on the same day! Why? To placate complaining parents. If these children expected to be successful at a university, they would soon discover how far their high school had led them down the garden path. The need for remedial classes at institutions of higher learning is a clear indicator that grade schools are not doing the job. The point is that – with a few outspoken parents leading the charge – the school was abandoning the concept of merit in favor of grade inflation. How do such parents come to dominate school policies? It’s a bit like Gresham’s law, but with a difference: Instead of “bad money” driving out “good money,” inflationary grading practices drive out rigorous ones.
- The parents of genuinely high-performing students are typical “satisfied customers.” Their children study, and they bring home good grades. So these parents have every reason to believe they are getting their money’s worth from high school taxes. But they don’t realize that there is no correlation between per-pupil spending and student performance.
- Parents of low-performing students also want good “results” for their children. They listen to a child’s tale of woe and complain about teachers who dispense poor grades “unfairly.” The pressure is on, and it only pushes in one direction – against high standards and in favor of grade inflation. Since the parents of nonperforming students are more likely to complain, administrators receive one-sided feedback and respond accordingly – by pressuring teachers to lower standards.
In effect, schools imitate the Dodo in Lewis Carroll’s story, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: “…everybody has won, and all must have prizes.”
A principle of human action called “high time preference” also explains this phenomenon. A concept of the Austrian School of economics, high time preference refers to the human tendency to place a higher value on receiving something sooner rather than later – in other words, “wanting it now.” It is the opposite of “delayed gratification” (low time preference), which includes the idea of making sacrifices in the present to obtain a benefit in the future. As I look back on what I witnessed at Grosse Pointe South High School, I realize that the concept of high time preference is a valuable lens by which to understand the drift toward low standards and grade inflation there.
Please understand, however, that there were many exceptions to this trend, and I enjoyed cordial relationships with the staff, students, and parents. I liked and respected most of these people and still do. Many teachers were very helpful to me, and many confided their deep concerns – partly because they knew I was not as enmeshed in the permanent structure of the institution. But these dedicated people are caught in a stifling system that responds to distorted signals and dysfunctional pressures. There is no real “market.” There are no genuine customers paying with their own money. Everyone is forced to pay regardless of whether they use the system or not. For parents who want good results with little effort, I’d wager that they pay more attention to their choice of wide-screen TVs than their children’s education. And I heard from more than one teacher that talk of “high standards” was mere window dressing – just talk.
Once word got out that I was resigning, teachers quietly approached me to say that they “understood why” I was quitting. They related stories about other senior-level teachers who were disgusted and were simply hanging on because they had no place else to go. And it wasn’t just teachers employed at the school who confided in me. Because I converse with so many people in my neighborhood, they tell me about friends and acquaintances who had previously taught. I even heard about one teacher who had resigned from a Roman Catholic school to accept a position at Grosse Pointe North High School; he resigned after only a few weeks because it was “chaos.” The point is that attempts to save feelings and subvert meritocracy in favor of egalitarianism always lead to the same thing: a “downward” levelling instead of an “upward” lifting. As a result, the performance levels in Grosse Pointe South are now below what I encountered in some public schools in Detroit back in the early 1980s. Sadly, overprotective parents inculcate a habit of running away from challenges. They also prevent children from experiencing the rewarding feeling of achievement. As a result, children remain infantile and dependent – always seeking bailouts from the kind of person who likes to dispense unearned largesse.
Part 2: The Political Byproduct of Government-Controlled Schools
Big Brother and Political Fads
The ascendancy of political fads and surveillance in public schools is undeniable. When I was a child, you were on your own after the bell rang and were released from school. Afternoons, evenings, weekends, and vacations were free from the watchful eye of the school bureaucracy. And student performance was better than it is now. Today, government schools seem to take their cues directly from the CIA and TSA. Big Brother is always watching. Having failed to instill even the most basic facts about the world, schools now monitor children at home, at play, and on social media. Their excuse? “If it has an impact on what happens in school, it’s school business.” Today’s children will never learn the sense of outrage that healthy individuals feel in the presence of Peeping Toms. Instead, they’re learning to love Big Brother. Everything is political:
- Resistance to unapproved facts. On the day before the Thanksgiving break, I treated my students to a slide-show about the invention of moveable-type printing in Europe. For more than a decade, I have delivered this presentation to book clubs and at library fundraisers. The illustrated presentation includes a short segment about the growth of literacy that followed Gutenberg’s invention in 1454/1455. One student was rather upset when I mentioned that literacy already had increased to high levels in the West before public schools became mandatory. Like most people, he had been told another story, making him resistant to new information.
- Progressive political bias. I did not vote for President Trump, but anti-Trump derangement syndrome was widespread among the teachers. I never initiated political conversations with my peers, but this didn’t stop them – both in and out of the classroom. Then, on one of my last days teaching, I caved in to the relentless requests of my students to divulge my politics. They had a hard time grasping the concept of voluntary behavior and libertarianism. It was simply too new to them after a highly restricted diet of conventional opinions. Likewise, when a school counselor asked me about my politics at a private holiday party, he showed that his understanding of libertarianism was of the comic-book variety. The unsolicited avalanche of hostility that poured out of him was a good indication of the prevailing mindset.
- Fascination with socialism and Antifa. On the day I revealed my political philosophy, I noted that a few students had imbibed some very selective beliefs about socialism and fascism. They were unaware that Mussolini had viewed himself as a socialist, which was the springboard of his fascist movement. One student seemed particularly fascinated by Antifa. To provide a context, I explained the central component of fascism buried within Antifa’s violent practices by exploring the etymology of the word fascism and its roots in the Latin language (the Roman fasces was a bundle of sticks with an axe buried in the center, a symbol of the violent threat behind obedience to the Roman state). I also mentioned that the Nazis and Hitler himself were examples of socialism – that “socialist” was part the official name of the Nazi party itself. This was “news” to the student, who entered a state of denial, but I felt I had made a good start in debunking a false one-sided narrative.
- Ahistorical views of slavery. During our class discussions of Latin vocabulary, it became clear that most of my students had never integrated an understanding of the historically widespread practice of slavery. Their view was dominated by its practice in America. They were surprised – even resistant – to knowledge about the etymological basis of the word slave in the word Slav. Moreover, they had somehow absorbed an understanding that Western Europeans were the most enthusiastic practitioners of slavery instead of the first to abandon that practice. I do not champion collective guilt or pride. As individuals, we are responsible for our own behavior, and we inherit neither the virtues nor vices of those who have lived before us. But the instinct toward collective pride and guilt is so strong that it shouldn’t be a surprise that my students showed signs of its influence.
- Overdependence on technology. School blackboards have been replaced in every classroom with blurry projection devices, which slow down the learning process to a crawl. Language classes, in particular, include the writing of sentences in which a verb or noun changes form. Homework assignments displaying these changes have to be reviewed as a group, and electronic displays permit only one student at a time to write out the material for class discussion. A blackboard is much more efficient because several students can simultaneously write out their homework answers on the boards while the teacher takes attendance. Then, after asking children to exchange their homework assignments, a teacher can quickly correct the examples written out on the blackboard in front of the class so that students can understand how the homework should have been completed and correct the exchanged homework at the same time. This is only possible, however, if students can write on a blackboard. This is no longer the case. Blackboards are covered up or removed. Moreover, although most students can type, few can write legibly – another failure of the system.
- Anti-2nd Amendment walkout. In March, 2018, Grosse Pointe students walked out of classes to “protest” the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. This took place before it was revealed that the FBI failed to act on tips about the shooter, that school “security” failed to act, that Broward County Public School’s disciplinary practices played a key role leading to the shootings, and that the school district tried to cover up its deeds by suing the South Florida Sun-Sentinel newspaper for publishing documents that revealed these facts. Fortunately the Sun-Sentinel prevailed in the lawsuit. The long and short of it is that this school-approved Children’s Crusade was based on ignorance and superstitions about guns.
- Quest for gender dysphoria. The new frontier in virtue signaling is the recognition of gender dysphoria. Everyone wants to be au courant in the diversity wars. What could possibly go wrong? Young people typically experiment with different “identities,” trying them on for size. They rapidly adopt and discard career possibilities, hobbies, and interests. But the gender dysphoria fad requires rigid adherence to a stereotyped view that certain behaviors are only for boys and some for girls. By encouraging children to entertain a diagnosis of gender dysphoria, school counselors are taking unnecessary risks. Some children have a powerful need for attention and seek it out by jumping on the latest bandwagon. Others have a strong desire to engage in behaviors that will please “important” adults and lead to emotional rewards from these adults. And the media buzz over gender identity primes the pump for adults who are eager to “prove” they are sensitive to the latest thing. But the consequences can be severe if a “diagnosis” leads to medical treatment with permanent consequences. It also can lead to absurd requests. Shortly after being hired, I was contacted by a counselor who asked me to address one student with “plural” pronouns to acknowledge her/his chosen gender identity – all without any evidence that a mental health professional was involved. This would not have been an issue for me if the student were an adult. I try to treat people respectfully regardless of personal differences. But why impose a straight-jacket of gender roles on a student just so he/she can be stereotyped according to the latest political fad? And I had other objections. First, this student was too young to be making this choice. Second, he/she may have been responding to the trendiness of this issue; he/she had demonstrated more than once an interest in fringe politics and behaviors – typical teenage stuff. I believed he/she was attempting to manipulate adults into “playing along” – another teenage pastime. Third, he/she was a bright individual who did not do her homework or study. He/she didn’t even understand what a pronoun was in the first place! Latin is a highly inflected language in which the word endings of nouns, pronouns, and adjectives change depending upon the gender and number of the noun or person involved. This request would only muddy the learning process. Finally, it was completely unnecessary since I always referred to my students by name. No pronouns were needed. So the request was unnecessary. My explanation did not please the counselor or student, but I nonetheless made sure that he/she was treated respectfully in my class.
Resentfulness and Groupthink
The most dangerous byproduct of government schools is not ignorance. We are all born with it, and it is easily cured. No. The most fundamental danger is the petty-minded, ethically unmoored, and emotionally infantile children they produce. And like all creatures condemned to an infantilized existence, they resent it. Even worse, since they have abandoned defensible concepts such as individual rights and accountability in favor of fictitious group rights, group punishments, and social justice, they cannot even appreciate the comparative safety and abundance that they currently enjoy. To illustrate, I will relate two incidents.
Case #1: The parsing devotion to petty rules was evident at a “mother’s luncheon” that took place on December 7, 2018. This annual event showcases members of the Mother’s Club, who prepare lunch for the teachers. It is hosted in beautiful Cleminson Hall, originally the school’s library, which had been decorated for the holiday season. Like other teachers who attended, I enjoyed the relaxation and was about to start on dessert. Suddenly our attention was drawn by the behavior of the school principal. In disbelief, we watched as he waded through the tables of dining teachers, like a buzz-kill angel of death, gleefully plucking tiny half-shots of amaretto – one by one – from the top of each dessert. The reason? A minuscule quantity of alcohol. Never mind that it would sooner trigger diabetes than drunkenness – even if one person were to drink them all. But Grosse Pointe South is an “alcohol-free zone.” After purging the room of deadly amaretto, his mission accomplished, our dear leader folded his leathery wings and sat down only two chairs down from me.
I debated within myself. Surely someone must say something! I looked around me. My fellow teachers sat with eyes downcast, surveying their ravaged plates. They were embarrassed and afraid to speak. But I had nothing to lose. So I turned in my chair and said: “Moussa, if you absolutely had to do this, I would have liked you so much more if you had taken all of the amaretto vials behind a partition and drunk them down yourself instead of throwing them in the trash in front of the ladies who made the dessert.” This occurred on a Friday afternoon. About a half-hour later, as I was about to leave the school building, I saw the principal in the main hallway. We were walking toward each other. But when he spotted me, he averted his eyes and scuttled off to the side to avoid me.
On Monday, the vice principal called me into his office. He said that my resignation would be accepted at the end of the semester, in about a month. Assuming they had found a replacement for me, I was pleased and said so. But he told me that there was no replacement. The classes would be canceled. Had my criticism only days before led to this? The students, who would soon complete five months of work toward the language requirement, would receive only a general credit unless they could be placed in one of the surviving Latin classes for the final semester. Were they paying the price for my comment to the principal?
Case #2: The second incident demonstrated a danger posed by the political drift. I previously related that one of my students was favorably inclined toward Antifa. For those who are unfamiliar with Antifa, they physically attack people whose politics differ from their own, frequently calling their opponents Nazis and fascists. But unapproved thoughts and hurtful words are not illegal in the United States, despite attempts to hollow-out the 1st Amendment. As psychologist Jordan Peterson has pointed out, if you are not free to speak, you cannot learn. It is only by hearing error and hearing it corrected that we learn. I would go further. The snuffing out of free speech brings the silence of the tomb. And the vapid concept of “hate speech” has so consumed the wielders of rule books, that hurt feelings have replaced bodily injury in the hierarchy of wrongdoing in the minds of many people.
The Antifa fan was a perfect example of this upside-down hierarchy of values. On one hand, she was outraged by the idea of hurt feelings as a result of free speech. On the other, she herself was a victim of physical violence in one of the school’s stairwells, and she did not report it. Instead, she shrugged it off. I discovered this in a roundabout way. There had been an incident on the street outside the school in which a male student supposedly brandished a firearm after bothering a female student. When I mentioned the incident to my pro-Antifa student, she said that she knew the boy who had brandished the weapon. She said he had once pushed her down the stairs. Upset, I asked if she had reported the incident. She said “no” and shrugged her shoulders – indicating that she had no strong feelings about it. I told her that if she had reported this incident when it occurred, it may have prevented the brandishing incident. She shrugged again, and the conversation ended. My translation? A physical attack is unimportant according to the new rules, but hurt feelings are crimes that deserve attacks by thugs. Two generations ago, a common phrase about the difference between words and violence was “sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” There is wisdom in it:
- The source of hurt feelings lies within the control of each person. Any cognitive therapist will tell you that we have the freedom to choose how we react – emotionally or otherwise – to errors, falsehoods, and antagonistic speech. Our choice is to exercise control over our interior dialog or act as children do by blaming others for our thoughts, feelings, and actions. In other words, when we blame others for our thoughts, feelings, and actions, we are admitting that we are their slaves – allowing others to control us like sock puppets. It’s a key differentiator between infants and adults. Are schools helping to shape adults, or not?
- The initiation of violence – properly called aggression – can inflict irreparable physical damage. This is much more serious than hurt feelings or the ignorance caused by internalizing erroneous opinions. These can be remedied, but broken bones and torn flesh leave permanent scars, and some wounds are fatal or debilitating.
The world of political correctness is now dominated by thought crimes, hate speech, hurt feelings, and intersectionality. Moreover, the rules of political correctness – in the minds of many young people – grant tacit permission to the face-punching, bat-swinging, broken-glass-wielding fists of the balaclava-masked Antifa mobs. With police standing by, they execute their program with the same anonymity and fervor as the white-hooded Ku Klux Klan members of whom they are the mirror image. They have jettisoned their identities as individuals responsible for their actions. Choosing the anonymity of the group, they have been subsumed into a faceless mob that acts not with the incisive thought of a single human soul, but with a shrieking thought-substitute. They have replaced syllogisms with the latest bumper-sticker slogan repeated dutifully in public schools.
Strictly speaking, groups have no physical existence. They are mental constructs that refer to more than one individual for convenience. These concepts bear some relationship to reality, but a “group” does not have the same independent existential presence as an individual person. A person bleeds; concepts don’t. A group is merely a reference to the pre-existing members of which it consists. By acquiescing to identity politics and the primacy of groups, people avoid accountability for their own lives. They hide behind labels, and they often learn this in government schools. In such a condition, they accept group rewards and punishments. This collectivist groupthink is the source of racism, white supremacy, the quest for affirmative action programs, and every other group-centered outlook that denigrates the individual – whether it emphasizes ethnic background, income disparities, age and sex differences, or gender identity. And government schools increasingly are exchanging the concept of individual merit for “equitable outcomes” based on superficial characteristics such as skin color, sex, and gender identify.
Is it any wonder that today’s high school children, when they attend universities, cannot tolerate free speech? Instead, they demand trigger warnings and safe spaces to recuperate from the “trauma” of exposure ideas with which they disagree? Is it surprising that they attack guest speakers, cancel events, and act like cretins at the University of Michigan? The behavior of mobs at the University of California’s Berkeley campus, Evergreen State, Middlebury College, and at the University of Michigan is telling us a story about what government schools are doing to children. They graduate as resentful slaves to their feelings – fit only to compete in the Victim Olympics, where their status as self-identified victims becomes the focus of their lives instead of their achievements.
The Rearview Mirror
Looking back on my recent experience, I’ve concluded that too many schools stand in the way of meeting the individual needs of each student, and they de-nature the art of teaching. They stigmatize the “personal stamp” a teacher can bring to the learning process. This fractures the interpersonal bond between teacher and student, and it introduces a faceless, soulless substitute. For example, each day, I had a habit of introducing legal and philosophical concepts embodied in Latin phrases such as malum in se (evil in itself), malum prohibitum (evil by prohibition), ex nihilo (out of nothing), essentia (essence), and ens (being), etc. These terms communicate a world view that is at odds with current trends. Nonetheless, they provide a rich field of exploration because they are an entryway for understanding what it means to be a human being and have meaning in one’s life – something that is sadly lacking for many people. But explorations of this kind border on politics and are contrary to the vapid and relativistic environment now dominating public schools.
Likewise, individual eccentricities in teaching style and student conduct simply don’t fit into the straightjacket that government factory schools enforce. It is easy to run afoul of an accusation of being “unprofessional” simply because your personal interests show through in nonstandard ways. A vegan student, for example, recoiled in horror when I brought in a 13th-century manuscript written on the hide of a newborn calf. There were similar frowns when – in addition to my one-hour availability in school each day – I mentioned that I often could be found at a convenient neighborhood brew-house. This kind of fastidious pearl-clutching narrows the range of “acceptable” interaction to something that pleases crossing-guard “scolds” whose chief joy in life is to reprimand anyone caught stepping outside the lines of the crosswalk. And it smothers the learning process with a pillow made of small-minded rules. As a result, instead of being a life-affirming experience, government schools become joyless for too many students and teachers. Yes, teachers are just as much victims of this process as the children. At one private event, I listened to teachers venting their frustrations and fantasizing about what they would do and say on the day they retired. These were otherwise talented, engaged, and humorous teachers. But they felt cornered and muzzled. Can you really blame them for feeling frustrated and resentful?
It is true that the learning process can impose psychological and cognitive burdens on students. It sometimes requires an effort to master a subject. I don’t expect the learning process to be effortless or not to require some “sacrifice” for a future goal. It is much like other challenges imposed on humans by gravity or the need to transform energy and matter from one form to another in order to sustain life. We may not like it, but we don’t live in a world where apple pies dangle from trees. Life-sustaining things require effort. And that truth is something that a segment of the “unschooling” community does not always acknowledge. But political demands and straightjackets really do suck the joy out of personal interaction between students and teachers – interactions that can make the sacrifices of learning more worthwhile. And that’s just one of the tragedies imposed by the government’s monopoly schools.
Fortunately increasing numbers of parents are waking up and rescuing their children. They are embracing alternatives that include online courses, unschooling, and homeschooling. The Ron Paul Curriculum and Tom Woods Liberty Classroom are just a couple of examples. In effect, they are discovering what countless millions worldwide have learned: collectivist systems fail. From food production to manufacturing to technological innovation, markets always outperform top-down government systems of control. Collectivist systems condemn people to lousy mail service, starvation, shortages, pothole-filled roads, economic stagnation, obedience, and income extraction through taxation. The opposite happens with markets. There, people control their own money and purchase exactly what they want in the quantity they desire. Unfortunately, most parents, students, and teachers continue to cling to a system inculcated at an early age by special-interest propagandists. And they are getting exactly what they pay for.
Lawrence M. Ludlow provides international location analyses, technical writing, and marketing services to corporate clients. He holds an M.A. in medieval studies from the University of Toronto’s Centre for Medieval Studies and has lectured on manuscripts, early printing, and art history at the Newberry Library in Chicago and at the San Diego Public Library. He also has taught in Detroit and in Grosse Pointe, Michigan.