More of the same

November 15, 1990|By Robin J. Holt

THE EXORCISTS, it appears, never weary of the battle.

First, the Anne Arundel school board makes certain that the several thousands of schoolchildren in its care will not be exposed to the dangerously subversive singer/songwriter, Barry Louis Polisar.

On the heels of this folly, the school board in Howard County considered banning the innocuous "Curses, Hexes and Spells" by Daniel Cohen. The yahoos also targeted "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," the first volume of the classic Chronicles of Narnia by the eminent Christian writer, C. S. Lewis. Fortunately, these attempts were not successful.

The attacks on these books, together with another Howard County effort to ban a book on the perils of teen-age pregnancy, reveal the true agenda of the book-burners: They are not against "dirty books"; their objective is to censor ideas. These self-appointed moralists want control of information, regardless of its "morality."

Subversive is the operative word here. Listen to Polisar:

I never talk out of turn

Whenever I'm in school

I'm quiet in class

'Cause I want to pass

Besides, I ain't no fool

No one ever talks in class

Not even a peep

That's because my teacher

Always puts me to sleep . . .

The Maryland legislature is considering an extension of the school year by 20 days. Regardless of concerns about staffing and cost, we should first recognize that this proposal is entirely consistent with our long-standing quantitative approach toward school reform: more money, more teachers, more computers -- all questions of how, but not of what or why. These solutions never address the values or purpose of education. Indeed, education has long been divorced from its original Latin root: to lead out -- a far cry from our current practice of stuffing it in.

Consider: There is no evidence that drills in spelling and grammar improve even the mechanics of students' writing, let alone the quality of their thought.

Consider: There is no evidence that quickness of response is correlated to depth of learning. There is no connection between a student's understanding and the speed of his answer.

Consider: There is no evidence that children or even adults learn more efficiently or thoroughly by filling in blanks, picking among multiple choices or memorizing rote answers to a standardized test.

From kindergarten through graduate school, we teach that which we can easily and quickly test and grade, a fact which largely explains why so many of my students arrive in college with minimal experience in writing, in critical thinking or in forming independent judgments. It seems no accident to me that most of the worst papers I receive in my college classes were executed on word processors. We hand youngsters expensive hardware and software before they have learned to read and write and think with any facility, and we fail to instruct them on the first rule of all machinery: Garbage in; garbage out.

A machine cannot think or teach or create. We ask nothing more of students than that they move information along. Our schools value obedience, conformity and the memorization of disconnected spoon-fed facts to be regurgitated at regular intervals. The only discipline we associate with education is physical; so it is that 31 states still permit corporal punishment, making schoolchildren the only class of American citizens who can be legally beaten.

There has been much student-bashing in the past few years and the truth is, a great many members of the next generation are skilless and ignorant. They are the products of a system that does not reward intellectual curiosity or freedom of inquiry. My students have long since learned that the only thing worth knowing in school is what is going to be on the test. Whatever our failings, we teachers have successfully taught them that much. Yet, my students' unwillingness to see the value of a liberal arts education should come as no surprise to a profession that has long valued research and publication over classroom teaching.

The bigots and the bluenoses rightly deserve our scorn, but they are only exaggerations of the moral and intellectual corruption, indeed, the anti-intellectualism that pervades American education at every level. The fearful and narrow-minded school boards which are in the news of late will graduate another generation of safe, unquestioning pupils for whom education is nothing more than job training. It is a new definition of brain death.

I am highly skeptical that more of the same numbing and `D mindless school days will produce a better "educated" student. Until we change the basic premises upon which our schools and curricula are built, I do not expect much in the way of improvement. Perhaps Polisar was right:

You'll find out after

They don't like laughter

Nor do they approve . . .

Watch for their sneer

Run if they're near

Avoid their reprimand . . .

Their ways are subtle

But you'll still be in trouble

'Til they become extinct.

Robin J. Holt teaches speech and communication at Towson State University.

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