Three scariest words: `Advocates for children

September 05, 1999|By Phil Greenfield

AS A TEACHER, it is my lot in life to suffer the hard-core idiocies foisted on me by others.

"All disciplinary problems stem from bad teaching."

"The `Dimensions of Learning' paradigm is an essential ingredient for student success.

"Knowledge doesn't matter. It's critical thinking that counts."

Sigh.

But of all the annoying catchwords and cliches that rang in my ears last week as I entered the schoolhouse for my 21st opening day, none rankled me more than this innocent-sounding statement:

"I consider myself an advocate for children."

Advocates. We are awash in such people these days. Superintendents, principals, board of education members, community leaders and other souls with a burning desire to show the world how much they care, all cloak themselves in the mantle of child advocacy.

I love my students, too

Folks, I love my students. (Well, most of them anyway.) I do my best to teach them with energy and style. Few have typed more college recommendations for them during the past two decades than I.

I've laughed with them, dried their tears, danced at their weddings, and smiled beatifically as their babies have upchucked all over me.

I've tried my damnedest to extract a measure of good out of some of the biggest pains in the neck you could possibly imagine. And when I hear a sentient adult conclude that what our cosmically distracted, hopelessly non-academic, profanity-spewing, caps-on-backward, Springerized-to-the-max little darlings of the '90s need above all else is more "advocacy," I don't know whether to laugh or cry.

Has any group been "advocated for" as relentlessly and with more disastrous results than the American student?

Discipline a child and you've got Mom, Dad, Grandma, four lawyers in Cleveland and the U.S. Civil Rights Commission itching to get at you for your lack of forbearance.

Ask that your child be held back a year because he can't add or read and you've got principals, coordinators, child psychologists and an armada of self-esteem sissies crawling out of the woodwork to "advocate" the proposition that such an honest, realistic assessment will prove fatal to your kid's sense of self.

Icky basics

And if students are having a tough time mastering basic skills, well, hey, their "advocates" at the State Department of Education are on the job, ready to spend untold millions designing a grand new epistemology of education that kicks all those icky basics (you know, writing, spelling, grammar, factual knowledge) right out of the curriculum. (It's called MSPAP, folks, and you're paying through the nose for it.)

Such advocacy is destructive because, in truth, it isn't advocacy at all.

It quickly crosses the line into full-blown enabling; a droning adult chorus of endless rationalizations designed to absolve youngsters from any responsibility for the dysfunctional decision-making that is ruining their academic lives.

Most galling of all are the administrative types who jump so totally into the child's frame of empathy that they view strong, demanding teachers as adversaries instead of allies.

When these higher-ups pull rank in order to lighten the pressure of a teacher's foot on student behinds, high standards and staff morale quickly fall victim to their dewey-eyed fealty to "equity," "self-esteem" and the other sissy phrases emblematic of misplaced advocacy.

What we need these days are fewer "advocates for children" and more advocates for education. We need leaders who will speak academic truth, both to kids and their adult apologists.

Smart is better than dumb

These folks need to hear that knowledge matters; that smart is better than dumb; that mastery of a body of knowledge demands rigor; that not all answers are right, and not everybody gets As; that academics must be prioritized to the hilt to mean anything; that the lazy and unwilling are free to go right on failing until their rotten attitudes change; that merely showing up physically in a classroom buys you nothing; that "self-esteem" is a privilege to be earned, not a right to be extended on demand; that mastery of basic skills is a sacred calling; that disruptive, foul-mouthed behavior is intolerable thuggery; and that principled teachers who brook no nonsense and don't wimp out on their standards are the best friends a young person could have.

In the meantime, we're stuck with these other advocates shilling for mediocrity and indolence.

With each whine, wheedle and whimper, they confirm the flip side of Hillary Clinton's maxim: It takes a whole village to screw up a single child.

The writer teaches social studies at Annapolis High School and is a music critic for The Sun.

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