Teach 'em While They're Young

September 27, 1994|By RODNEY D. SMITH

PIEDMONT, CALIFORNIA — Piedmont, California. -- Today's public high schools are graduating well-trained consumers instead of critical thinkers. As a teacher, I am alarmed to see how making money off young people has replaced educating them. My students spend more time exercising their wallets than their minds.

Proof is in the increasing amount of class time that is devoted to fund-raising. Members of athletic teams, choirs and yearbook staffs sell T-shirts, candy bars and beefsticks throughout the school day.

Every few weeks, I stop teaching for the delivery of flowergrams: flowers sold for $1 and personally delivered with a message to students during class.

With money and candy and flowers passed back and forth, and shouts (''How much are the blowpops?'' or ''Does anyone have change for a five?'') my class isn't a marketplace of ideas. It's a marketplace.

To anyone who dares sell candy in my class, I shout: ''No money changers in the temple!''

After my mock outburst, I let my class know that American students spend the least amount of time in school compared with students in all other industrialized countries. Therefore, it's critical that they spend class time thinking and learning, not buying and selling.

Of course, I'm assuming my students are not mindlessly staring at the mini-billboards.

That's correct. I have taught next to brightly colored advertisements for candy bars, soda and cosmetics. Many public schools sell wall space, both in and out of classrooms, for advertising.

Turning students into consumers doesn't stop there. Tootsie Roll math lessons and other company-produced curricula are the only materials most elementary school teachers receive without spending their own money. Consequently, kids today learn to read and write, add and subtract, using the brand names of hamburgers and sneakers.

With many students working at part-time jobs five to six hours on school nights, many teachers no longer assign homework. They know it won't get done.

I won't deny that young people learn valuable skills while working. I'll even admit that most students feel far more wanted and useful on the job than they do in many high schools. Nevertheless, when I assign a project that entails real responsibility and makes them feel useful, very few of my students have the time.

When we read F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel ''The Great Gatsby,'' I try to help students understand how rampant materialism can ruin their lives and educations. At their age of 17, I point out, Jay Gatsby devoted his entire life to making money -- an obsession that kept him from maturing into a complete person.

One of the 11th-graders exclaims, ''He was rich and powerful, Mr. Smith. What more do you want?''

''Yes, but sacrificing your education now, just to make and spend money, is a decision you will later regret.''

Unfortunately, this perspective doesn't fit with my school's student bribery program. Students who earn certain grade-point averages receive cards that grant them discounts and free products at selected stores.

I admit, good students deserve rewards. They appreciate the 20 percent discount at Jack-in-the-Box. But the underlying message of this reward program is that learning for its own sake is a myth.

If we continue to allow fund-raising, advertising and profiteering to interfere with educating our young people, we are destined to become a nation of consumers -- and not much else.

Rodney J. Smith, a high school teacher, wrote this commentary for the San Francisco Examiner.

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