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Education Isn’t for Everyone

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 [1] (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.

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#1 Comment By Oskar Chomicki On December 1, 2010 @ 10:49 am

Perhaps we should be looking for ideas across the pond. It is a strange fact that our educational system is in fact far more egalitarian than our supposedly socialistic friends in Europe. They have kept the concept of vocational schools alive, while we in America are enthralled with the idea that everyone should participate in our information economy.

Students display an aptitude for academics or lack thereof relatively early. As proper (lower-case “d”) democrats, we are appalled by the thought of consigning a 13 year-old to a blue-collar future. Yet if that child takes several years of carpentry classes, by the time he is 18, he may be an employable adult, whereas he would have probably drained resources, wasted his time, and ended up unemployable if forced to sit through the standard high-school curriculum.

It seems that the best thing educational elites can do for those in lower socio-economic groups is that there is dignity in blue-collar professions rather than pretend that we can somehow shoehorn everyone into the utopia of our information-age economy.

#2 Comment By TomT On December 1, 2010 @ 11:18 am

What an excellent and important article. Thanks for this.

#3 Comment By supton On December 1, 2010 @ 11:54 am

The notion of kicking out the bad kids who don’t want to be there is appealing. Let the “good” kids get more attention. But at the same time I wonder if the cost would be worse if they weren’t in school. Unemployable, would they be able to stay out of trouble? At the same time, I know I saw some kids who got some (or all) of their act together as the years went by; maturity can and does occur. At the least, they do pick up some skills by being forced to finish high school. In some ways, I’d curious if one or two states did just that: kick the bad apples out, for at least a few years, and see what the experiment yields. Maybe these bad kids will learn quickly.

But mandatory college is over the top. This would force some to get expensive degrees that may take years to pay off (despite eventually getting a low paying job, regardless of education), and/or force colleges to dumb down requirements so as to either accept or graduate said students. Thereby reducing the value of the college degree (and the college experience for again those who want to be there to learn). I’m not sure how society would get by without lower wage earners; even if we were to boost their wages, many jobs exist that require very little schooling (refuse pickup being one). College education for everyone is great; college debt for everyone is ludicrous.

IMO, this is related to family issues, and not just school/government issues. Perhaps more the fault of the family than others. The popular notion is that someone else always knows better than ourselves; it’s best for the school to take care of our kids for us. And, heaven forbid that we hurt our kids feelings–no, their “self image”–by not accepting certain behaviors or achievements. We are so in love with ourselves as individuals that we’ve forgotten how to love our own kids, and how we ourselves fit into society. There may not be value in sacrificing of ourselves for the state; but there is value in sacrificing of ourselves for the upcoming generation, and in making sacrifices in order to fit into our society. But how you get individuals to look past themselves and see themselves as part of something larger, yet still retain value as an individual, is not something that any government can teach: it is solely the responsibility of the family unit.

#4 Comment By paul gottfried On December 1, 2010 @ 1:11 pm

I think the gentleman who asks why American education is more obsessively egalitarian than its communist and (at least in the past) socialist counterparts has raised a profound question. The answer is that egalitarianism is particularly strong in the US-and in ways it has not been until recently in Europe and elswhere. Moreover, Americans have enough disposible income to buy “higher education” as a consumer commodity. This means it’s a service for which they pay and which providers try to get them to take. One doesn’t buy a particular education package, if the provider tells you that your Ashley orTiffany is a lowgrade moron.

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#6 Comment By tz On December 1, 2010 @ 7:13 pm

I find the labeling disturbing. If you don’t “stay in school” and undergo the indoctrination in the precise ISO-9000 quality controlled robotic fashion, you are “useless”, “unemployable”, and “bad” – I assume in the sense of “evil”.

I do agree that those who do not wish to be in these dumbing down chambers ought not to stay. Yet I don’t think they would necessarily continue the disruption. You have them in a communist, KGB, zero-freedom system while talking about freedom. I think many are far more capitalist and entrepreneurial than you give them credit for.

Instead of learning how every white man has oppressed women, blacks, hispanics, native americans, etc. and how to put a condom on a cucumber, and being subjected to a process akin to how geese are fattened to make their livers into pate de frois gras (excuse any misspelling) to learn math, they might actually go out into the world and pick up a useful skill. We need auto mechanics, carpenters, electricians and plumbers. And others.

Even now, a degree is not merely overrated, most college graduates are dysfunctional from a career standpoint (even when they study something supposedly marketable instead of say, english literature). They aren’t ready for the high-tech world. But a high-tech world is supposed to make things easier and more accessible, not less, much like you don’t require extra strength to drive an automobile, or even a 500 HP SUV. That will happen to brainpower as it did to muscle power.

It is bad when employable means to be a compliant drone.

I would rather all the kids be kicked out of the public schools and forced to do something that is actually of value and useful.

#7 Comment By Libertarian Jerry On December 2, 2010 @ 4:04 am

The Prussian educational model has been foisted on the American society. The object of this system is not to educate but to indoctrinate the American population into becoming good,obedient,tax paying citizens who will not question authority and do as they are told. 2 of the 10 planks of the communist manifesto have been folded into the American societal structure. One plank seeks to control information through communication such as newspapers,TV, the main stream media etc. Another plank is the establishment of a public education system. Both of these planks are designed to control the masses so that they won’t rebel and accept the status quo of the elites that try to control the nation.Another plank that was in place but was later discarded was the military draft system, which often would take up the task of,again, molding obedient citizens. The only answer,for liberty minded Americans, is to organize and work for the goal of abolishing all “public”education in America. .

#8 Comment By Jennifer On December 2, 2010 @ 10:32 am

The problem with your argument about “good” and “bad” students is that you, like others, are confusing achievement with access. There are many reasons a student might not excel in school and many of them relate to access rather than motivation. Do you realize that there are massive discrepancies between the average “education” that a rich and poor student will receive in our country, between what a student of color and a white student will likely have access to? Would you be motivated to learn in a crappy classroom from a teacher that expects nothing of you? I don’t think so. I also have trouble with the idea that these students should drop out and get blue collar jobs, as many of the jobs you are speaking of either don’t exist in this country or actually do require high school plus several years of vocational training. Furthermore, your citing of the German text is ridiculous — the book’s suppositions are racist and offensive. Is it any wonder Muslim students supposedly aren’t doing well in Germany when the culture is this adversarial toward them? Get a clue.

#9 Comment By NY Teacher On December 2, 2010 @ 10:48 am

There has never been a report in the American Conservative that is farther from the truth than this one! As an experienced teacher seasoned in three different continents and four states — in all socio-economic communities, this report is awash in the typical liberal hogwash.

Of course, relying on my personal experiences, solo, would be “anecdotal” and hardly qualify as research. But there is cross-sectional and longitudinal research that concludes that, while indeed a small percentage of students could benefit from vocational institutions, the vast majority need the structural and fundamental education that a school building provides.

Having said that, it is obvious that 95% of our public schools are failing by any objective interpretation. (67% of American schools graduate, in six years — with 75% of these “graduates” unable to pass math and reading remedial courses at the college level; of course only 40% of PS graduates try out college — 23% graduate). But the failures of our public schools is not the subject of this article.

To suggest that all students are not deserving of schools — or are to blame — is akin to saying that all patients are not deserving of a doctor’s treatment; or all citizens not deserving of 911 services… Furthermore, to cite the “immigrant” experience as corroboration of such is fraudulent research: Catholic schools in American inner-cities produce scholars (99% enrolling in college) not only in the African-American communities but also among Hispanic, Chinese and other Asian communities (Muslim, Buddhist & Hindu) — all at one-third the dollar cost of public schools, and with No computers or other techno gimmicks, often on the same residentail block!

Our public schools are allowed to fail, indeed encouraged to fail: this provides a “dumbed-down” populace where inner-city fatherless youngsters are convinced of the need to buy $140 sneakers, 86% of our prison inmates are high-school dropouts, and suburban college star-athletes fight the neocon wars for oil in the name of “patriotism.”

Any refutation of this data is pure Bah Humbug.

#10 Comment By Bill On December 31, 2010 @ 8:21 am

Brave article? Not brave enough, still political correctness,even in those that abhor P.C., prevents mention of the I- word. The I- word is the really scary word. The N-word is horrible ,
but the I-word is dangerous
I.Q. ,the I-word ,banned in Boston and everywhere else where flies The Stars and Stripes.People are tall,short or average .People run fast,slow or are of average speed.Likewise,people are smart,stupid or of average intelligence.Statistically and literally speaking ,half of all ten year olds are of below average intelligence by definition.That should be written on the walls of every ED school in America.