When Alberta Hunter sang her lament—I got a mind to ramble, but I don't know where to go—she did so probably without the knowledge that a high school classroom would have accommodated her needs. Of course, Hunter came from an era when the classroom wasn't a soapbox for any teacher lacking enough scruples to use it as one. For many who have had the misfortune to imbibe the stale, liberal education of this age, however, our lament reads a little differently.
When presented with an opportunity to address the decline of education by David Horowitz, I could not help but take a brief nostalgic trip back to my high school education along with all the leftist indoctrination I had to endure. Actually, Horowitz recently found himself in a position nearly identical to one I was in about two years ago: debating the Iraq War in front of a captive audience of several hundred students at Palisades Charter High, weeks after an equally captive audience was held for a propaganda "Peace Teach-In" during school hours. Thoroughly enjoyable, while done in response, the debate typified my feelings toward the political nature of the high school experience.
Such shenanigans are more commonly associated with college than with secondary education. That a teacher may have a political poster on the wall is not nearly as troubling to the public eye as the notion that many of her students can't read it, let alone understand it. In this, public education has failed the young. However, the failure of our teachers to teach successfully has no closer relative than politics, and it is in relation to this kinship that I begin my reminiscence of my Pali Hi education.
The "integrated science" curriculum, for the two years prior to chemistry and biology course offerings, was one massive serving of mixed Green salad: global warming, overpopulation, ecological disaster, the evils of DDT, pollution, Alaskan oil drilling, species "endangerment," and American consumption were all served up as scientific fact. Never was it mentioned that these are subjects of profound debate within the scientific community. Academically dishonest versions of political events, such as the woeful effects of George Bush's "withdrawal" from the sacred Kyoto Treaty, were taught instead.
And the bias was not confined to any one class. It seemed all our teachers had taken leave of their obligation to teach us in favor of political indoctrination. English class themes (to borrow Dorothy Parker's classic phrase) "ran the gamut from A to B"—A being anti-Semitism, B being blaxpoitation. A doggedly superficial treatment of racism—"stereotyping is bad"—was rammed down our throats from sixth grade on, through a stream of repetitively third-rate literature heavy in cultural relativism and light on any intellectual analysis. No wonder my teachers couldn't realize that their own relativistic dogma forbade repudiation of the most virulent source of current anti-Semitism. (Not to mention how their anti-business bigotry promoted one of the most significant sources of time-tested anti-Semitism: the caricature of the rich Jewish monopolist.) Even their interpretations of classic texts strained for these one-dimensional perspectives.
Naturally, the teaching of history was skewed. The widely-taken Advanced Placement U.S. History course was based on the textbook American Pageant, by old-fashioned liberal historian Thomas A. Bailey. A culmination of years of excessive emphases on the evils of America's past, Bailey's text offered a standard leftist interpretation of American events and political conflicts. In this version, a sentence that began, "the economy was even worse in 1939 than after the initial crash in 1929," would still manage to conclude, "FDR saved us from the Great Depression." Repeatedly, the left-wing interpretation was propounded without indicating these were topics of hot scholarly debate. Snide insinuation is Bailey's preferred method of dealing with positions he does not comprehend, from Grover Cleveland to Ronald Reagan. And, of course, students never get to read the Constitution, the greatest shaper of our history.
One might think it healthy to assign an additional book providing a more libertarian perspective on American history - something alternative, something, say, in the ideological eyes of the Founding Fathers. Instead we got the mendacious tract A People's History of The United States by Howard Zinn as our "alternative" assigned text. Not to suggest there isn't a substantial difference between the anachronistic liberalism of Bailey and the socialist revisionism of Zinn, but in this context, focusing on this difference is like providing an inside look at an editorial board in-fight at Mother Jones. The only duality here is a good cop-bad cop approach to criminal America.
Given this script, and given the characters likely to be found in any public school of a large district, unsavory improvisation is inevitable.
One science teacher, Dr. H, notifies her students that every time they use a cell phone a monkey dies in Africa—among numerous similar bons mots with which she supplements her lectures. One of many mawkish films we watched in my much tamer science class was a doltish Disney story about a man who goes to Alaska to become one with the wolves. A teacher of U.S. Government spent 90 percent of every single class ranting his far left opinions about the news, while another teacher of the same subject tells everyone he only teaches for the money.
Headlining these loony tunes is Ms. R, a senior-level English teacher, who spends her class time stating that the chair in front of her doesn't really exist, conjecturing that the president could really be a gorilla, and pondering that the U.S. government is an illusion. She decorates her classroom walls with political posters. ("Iraq is Arabic for Vietnam," etc.)
These are only politically-dressed examples of a certain category of teachers you probably recognize. Their tactic is to use their eccentricities to intimidate students into awe. Of those at my school, maybe one was a "character" in the genuine and interesting sense.
What all of this very briefly summarizes is a queasy combination of revolting incompetence, base insidiousness, anti-intellectualism, and ignorance. As this concerns dereliction, the most obvious and acknowledged problem is the policy of tenure. In public education as in academia, a teacher can't get fired for anything short of rape. It almost happened—except when a math teacher impregnated one of his students during my freshman year, it was consensual. In my time there, governing bodies at PCH had their hands full with basket-cases, most notoriously a pony-tailed science teacher who rode his skateboard to class to spend his students' time ordering pizza and cell-phoning his girlfriend. Unable to get fired, he got years of paid leave and psychological counseling.
Tenure belongs to a heavy stew of bureaucratic inefficiencies that only the specially-interested could possibly defend. It is clearly a political issue, if no longer an ideological one, and the only heavy-duty argument involved is on how to correct it. Yet a much deeper level of politics is responsible for the fundamental affliction. Self-defeating shallowness, contradicting the very purpose of education, is not some unfortunate partisan political effect, although it does have a political cause.
The doctrines used in teaching the subjects described above are the true opposites, not of clashing doctrines, but of basic learning in those subjects, as phony self-esteem (an infamous staple of primary education) and not self-hatred, is the true opposite of authentic self-esteem. In this context, the opposite of political correctness isn't political incorrectness, but an objective quest for knowledge. Political correctness deems anything offensive as off-limits, no matter how true or important, which in principle and in reality is an explicit rejection of the primary function of education.
Equally self-evident are the "values-oriented" courses that teach moral equivalency, rendering value-seeking meaningless. Not far behind, cultural relativism in English courses has produced the ubiquitous notion that a book's value to a reader is somehow influenced by the color of the author. To say that is to deny the power of ideas in literature. Once again, the goal of knowledge and understanding is replaced with sympathy and sanctimony.
History, though a trickier matter, is in no less degenerate a state. Historical fact alone is nothing more than names, dates, and invasions. Its importance, advertised in the phrase "history repeats itself," comes from the existence of cause-and-effect forces surrounding those facts. Implied in all of this is the timeless and universal nature of causal ideas and that history should be studied as an ongoing conflict of those ideas and the actions they motivated. Further implied is the priority of presenting the various sides and ideologies with maximum fairness and accuracy.
Because politics and history are inseparable, debate becomes a cornerstone of understanding, and the danger of some practices is emphasized: 1) indoctrination or any one-sidedness is worse than oblivion (i.e., teaching students that two and two make five is worse than ignoring addition completely), 2) there should be no unproven "standard" assumptions, and 3) no conflicts should be concealed, sugarcoated with faux moral conclusions.
Yet, all of these practices exist in abundance. Surprisingly little is taught in terms of cause-and-effect, as opposed to a mere collection of facts. Comparisons made between major events and figures emphasize the what and not the why. Significant but idea-based connections, such as the fundamental agreement between the federalists and anti-federalists, or the fundamental disagreement between both and the New Deal, are routinely overlooked.
And in case you see in Howard Zinn's A People's History (which I bring up again only because it's so widely assigned) a potential to inspire real debate, here is what historian Michael Kazin wrote in a trashing review of the book:
Perhaps the greatest flaw of his book is that Zinn encourages readers to view so formidable a force [as the American system] as just a pack of lying bullies…So there's no point in debating conservatives who prescribe libertarian economics, Victorian moral values, and preemptive interventions for what ails the United States and the world. All right-wingers really care about is keeping all the resources and power for themselves.
Kazin, it must be noted, is an adamant leftist whose forthcoming book, William Jennings Bryan: A Godly Hero, promises to be foremost in the Unintended Satire genre. But as he points out—bemoaning its self-destructive effect on leftism—Zinn's book is full of lies and exclusions and has the depth of a frying-pan.
Confront any guilty teacher with the gravity of classroom political bias and you're likely to hear a denial of influence followed by a comment on how there is no shortage of Republicans in Washington and that many students will end up voting conservative anyway once they start making money and wanting to keep it. "Yeah, we may be devious, sniveling little cretins," these teachers seem to say, "but what does it matter?"
Forgetting the obvious conflict between education and indoctrination, there are other reasons this left-wing seed planting matters. Since when was politics supposed to be about narrow, momentary self-interest rather than comprehensive principles? Since when is that attitude to be encouraged by educators of all people?
The tribalistic myopia that logically results from multiculturalism shows how the doctrine of identity-thought taps into the worst of a person's selfish collectivist instincts. I remember one day in class, my senior year, when the name of W.E.B Dubois came up and a black classmate sitting beside me said, "I like Dubois."
"Why?" I asked.
"Because he's my ancestor."
"Yeah, but so is Thomas Jefferson," I said, and he agreed.
One's methods are just as vulnerable to influence as one's conclusions. In forming political convictions, the dichotomy of method is primarily between reason and reasonlessness. The one and only role educators should have in the area of politics is to influence students toward the former. Instead, through the promotion of identity-thought, politics is eagerly reduced from an extension of philosophy to a mindless inheritance.
Nevertheless, I had a grand time at Palisades Charter High, a 2,700-student public school of dwindling prestige, fledgling stability, and a beautiful open-air campus near the Pacific Ocean. There are the little events that stimulate the memory, as when my freshman English teacher got a four million dollar after an underground student newspaper speculated she had an early career in porn. Certainly, PCH had its little excitements like this to keep it going—including an honorable and ultimately successful effort to become independent from the Los Angeles school district monolith.
There were the sincere and passionate teachers who withstood student indifference and their colleagues' incompetence with admirable tenacity. I had at least one such teacher in each relevant subject, and I appreciated their efforts and openness (not least because one of them looked like a young Brian Lamb). Although every one of them was a tragic victim of their own curriculum, they allowed me to occupy a large percentage of class time with constant cathartic challenges. Many of the questions the courses were supposed to ask but didn't, I was allowed to ask and did.
When I was a sophomore, a conservative Spanish teacher encouraged me to write my first editorial. I'd become politically aware in response to the 2000 presidential election and, more directly, the conspicuous corruption of the educational system, combined with unbearable shrieks for more taxpayer funding. I remember the exhilarating rush I experienced while writing that first editorial. What's black and white and purple all over? The prose of a sixteen year old who has just discovered polemical invective. I realized I could enter a business that treated anger as currency.
In short, high school agitated me into a political mindset which it then allowed me to exercise. What's more, high school has a unique charm that cannot be corrupted by the classroom, because it has nothing to do with the classroom. It has to do with the fact that it's the one place where the free-yet-confined environment allows waning childhood to meet the first ambitions of adulthood. I suspect this is what invites both heavy nostalgia and bitter revulsion, the two most common reactions that surely explain why the high school setting has maintained its prominence in popular entertainment, even as just about everyone now goes to college.
My views of my would-be high school indoctrination are fatalistic. I believe that so long as public education exists, the "public" (read: political) aspect will supersede the educational, and any inquisitive look at the ideological roots of public education in America will show that this was meant to be. (The openly stated purpose was never to produce independent thinkers, but submissive state subjects.) Only a radical overhaul of the system will lead to any substantial or comprehensive improvement.
This still leaves the question of what to do for the very long time being. To that extent, secondary schools have a partially saving grace. They are local. Unlike insular academia, they are accessible to parents who have a mind to make an impact. Parental abrasiveness, student impertinence and similar forms of pressure in response to gross intellectual abuse in the classroom should be encouraged. Propaganda can be consumed in three ways. The consumer can understand it enough to reject it—a category into which few students will fall. Assuring they do is a task left only to parents and the subversive influence of talk radio, the Internet, and groups like Students for Academic Freedom. The disturbing irony here is that the long-term advantage is to those who pay less attention in class and take less heed of their teachers' bias. In the politically-interwoven mess of our educational system, apathy has become a practical "only hope." It should not be so.
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