A longtime friend of mine, the former chairman of the political science department at the University of Illinois, Robert Weissberg, has published a devastating book on the educational industry. In Bad Students, Not Bad Schools (Transaction Publishers, 2010), Weissberg takes apart so many misconceptions about mass education that the reader’s head may be spinning by the end. What keep this work from becoming a mere policy critique are Weissberg’s spirited prose and personal anecdotes. Starting with a personal account of how he had been sent as a teenager in Manhattan to Booker T. Washington Junior High, a school then endowed with state-of-the-art technology and well-paid teachers, the author began thinking even then about the theme of this book. Many students in his junior high had no desire to be in school. They showed neither aptitude nor anything resembling a work ethic, and Weissberg couldn’t figure out why they were allowed to disrupt classes, while learning nothing of value.
This was the beginning of his lifetime reflections on education, a process that has led him to the bold conclusions that he documents with the fruits of extensive research. Among his findings are that there are critical cognitive and cultural differences among groups and individuals and that no educational innovation or expensive equipment has been able to lessen these realities significantly. Not everyone is cut out for serious high school work, let alone college. Higher education requires mental exertions that most adolescents are neither willing nor able to provide.
Egalitarians and environmental determinists have prevented Americans from recognizing these hard truths, and the problem has been worsened by the demagoguery of politicians and self-interested unions, who won’t face the facts of life. Much of what goes on in public and even private education is a mismatch between abundant resources and spotty student performance, a situation that is likely to remain as it is, given the variables that school systems can’t master.
Weissberg quotes with searing contempt former Florida governor Jed Bush, who would not rest content until all high school graduates in his state were in college. Weissberg asks what these students will be doing in college, when their level of mathematical and writing competency is often no higher than that of competent elementary school students. He also makes fun of teachers’ unions demanding that fewer students be put into individual classes and that costlier equipment be purchased for inner city students. Such measures have had no demonstrable impact on improving the performance of students. And mixing in disruptive, low-performing students with high achievers has minimal positive effect on the low achievers but usually creates a less friendly environment for the better students.
Weissberg cautions about throwing more good money after what has already been misspent. Let those who want to drop out of high schools go; and let’s try to educate students who are willing and able to learn to become even better. Weissberg does not belittle the uninterested student. He is simply trying to be realistic about what schools can do. And if there is anyone he singles out for perpetuating the empty and indeed dishonest promise of “equal education for everyone,” it is grasping unions and politicians running at the mouth.
Needless to say, I agree with his brief and think Weissberg is targeting the appropriate villains. But there is another problem that needs to be addressed, and a book by the former director of the Deutsche Bundesbank Thilo Sarrazin Deutschland schafft sich ab (Germany Abolishes Itself) focuses on this issue more specifically. Sarrazin points to the fact that the majority of immigrants now coming into Germany are not Europeans but Muslims from Third World countries. They do not integrate well into the host society and exhibit little interest in finishing school or apprenticeships. This problem is not resolving itself. In fact after two generations, the immigrant families are continuing to fall farther behind the native Germans.
Sarrazin underlines the difficulty of trying to fit into a modern, high-tech society people with few marketable skills and with insufficient discipline to pick up more. These people leave school as soon as they can but continue to produce social disruption and high crime rates. What exactly does one do about such populations, except to limit their further immigration into Europe? And what can one do about the ones who are already there, except to cut off their generous welfare allowances and to make them look for jobs?
Although our situation is not exactly the same as the one described by Sarrazin, we too have lots of adolescents who refuse to be educated. Keeping them in high schools against their will, at the cost of harming other students, is pointless. And blaming everyone else for their condition is stupid and immoral. Nonetheless, I’m not sure about a workable alternative to what Weissberg so ably dissects.