All Commentary
Wednesday, January 4, 2012

State-Mandated Thinking

Is this statement true? “If SpongeBob SquarePants is the mayor of Minneapolis, then Napoleon lost the Battle of Waterloo.”

It is. On the other hand, this is not: “If Napoleon lost the Battle of Waterloo, then Spongebob Squarepants is the Mayor of Minneapolis.”

Confused? Welcome to our government-school curricula.

In the July/August 2011 issue of The Freeman, Neal McClusky warned of the efforts of the U.S. Department of Education to establish a national curriculum in our schools (“Coming Soon: The Federal Department of Standardized Minds”). As a teacher, I agree this would be a serious mistake. A monolithic school system would eliminate what little opportunity for innovation educators still possess and would force students into cookie-cutter courses, regardless of the students’ needs and abilities. It would lower our disgraceful levels of academic performance even further and, most ominously, it could facilitate the establishment of a national system of propaganda masquerading as education.

To understand why a national curriculum would lead to these consequences, we need only to look at the consequences of curricula already established by state and local governments.

The SpongeBob example is indicative. It illustrates a topic from the logic section of the high school mathematics curricula of several states, including New York and California. It is based on Bertrand Russell’s formal-logic convention known as material implication, the explanation of which could easily run to the length of a book and confuse most highly educated adults. If you examine any series of high school mathematics textbooks published in the United States within the last 30 years, you are certain to find material implication along with abstruse aspects of number theory, non-Euclidian geometries, and a host of other unrelated, obscure topics. This constitutes the knowledge of mathematics that state bureaucrats require our children to learn.

Before becoming a teacher I spent 26 years as an executive managing departments that specialized in the use of applied mathematics for a major bank. In 1998 I established a unit responsible for guiding the development of quantitative tools for a franchise that boasted 125 million customers spread out over 102 countries. Given the scope of the assignment, I had carte blanche to employ the best analytical talent available. I hired half a dozen scientists and mathematicians from the National Laboratory System, the National Institutes of Health, and an Ivy League faculty. One of my analysts was described by a Nobel laureate as the “best research scientist under 40 in the world,” another as “the best thing to come out of Los Alamos since the bomb.” As much as I like bragging about my unit, there is a reason I’m bringing this up: Not a single one of these exceptionally talented individuals was an American citizen. With one exception, though, they all held doctorates from leading American universities. This absence of qualified American analysts was not a coincidence: Americans were systematically underrepresented in the bank’s several other analytical units, as well as in the analytical units of our competitors.

Incoherent Curriculum

I began teaching mathematics and social studies at the high school level in February 2003. By June of that year I understood clearly why there were relatively few qualified Americans in quantitative analytical positions in banking. Our state curricula have rendered the subject of mathematics both incomprehensible and largely irrelevant. The blueprint for the last half-century of U.S. instruction in quantitative skills was developed primarily by two groups: professors of abstract mathematics and progressive professors of education. A striking characteristic of the mathematicians was their limited knowledge of the practical applications of their discipline. A striking characteristic of the educators was their willingness to accept any content from the mathematicians, regardless of how arcane it was. The result was “the new math,” a disintegrated hodgepodge that has caused mathematics to become unfathomable to young minds.

The nature of the government school curriculum development process militates against the creation of an integrated, hierarchical presentation of any subject matter. State curricula are developed by large committees of experts who often have their own pet themes and topics they wish to insert into our schools. The result invariably becomes a laundry list of unconnected information. Once assessment criteria are established, the “knowledge by fiat” process is complete and these curricula become impervious to revision, regardless of whether they are relevant to students’ future adult lives.

This process has generated curricula that make it extremely difficult for students to develop a coherent knowledge of mathematics. Teachers are required to introduce topics seemingly at random, and in many instances it is impossible for teachers to tie these topics to other information the student has encountered. The quadratic formula, which is indispensable in the design of objects from flashlights to the Golden Gate Bridge, typically is introduced well before most students are capable of understanding its derivation or even its purpose. Since students are required to know this formula, they often “learn” it by singing it to the tune of “Pop Goes the Weasel.” In geometry we require adolescents to learn excruciatingly complex definitions and terms in order to prove the simplest theorems. Euclid’s Elements was devised about 300 BC and until the nineteenth century was regarded as the standard of geometric proof. Only after the widespread acceptance of non-Euclidian geometries did mathematicians realize Euclid’s system relied on more fundamental axioms than he stated. As mathematics professor Morris Klein has pointed out, for 22 centuries mathematicians failed to detect Euclid’s lack of rigor, yet today we expect adolescents not only to see this but also to grasp the need for proof that involves axioms that are more difficult to understand than the theorems they support. No justification or motivation is provided for this approach to geometry.

What is the effect of these state curricula? Students come to view mathematics as a senseless game unrelated to reality. They have to memorize procedures and then spit them back so they can test well enough to move on to memorize higher level, mind-numbing procedures that they will spit back at some later date. Mathematics has enabled man to grasp everything from the nature of subatomic particles to the shape of the universe. It is now almost universally regarded by American students simply as a series of “floating abstractions,” with no ties to anything relevant or real, on the same metaphysical level as Santa Claus.

One of the most disconcerting phenomena I have encountered since I have become a teacher is that by the time they reach high school, large numbers of students do not want to understand the basis of mathematics. They are actually resistant to any attempts to show how the material we are covering comes from the real world. I have lost track of the number of times students have said, in effect, “Don’t explain this topic to me. Just give me the formula and let me memorize it.” This should frighten anyone involved in education. Our schools are producing students who have reached the stage where they have given up any attempt to grasp the conceptual foundation of mathematics. To them, learning mathematics is simply a matter of learning how to manipulate a series of strange little symbols whose meanings defy comprehension. Thanks to our state mathematics curricula, young men and women are declaring nakedly that they have the learning processes of parrots.

There are several improvements to our mathematics curricula that could be made immediately if state involvement were ended. The most obvious would involve a complete overhaul of content and a careful ordering of topics so that students can obtain a hierarchical understanding of this subject. Additionally, to provide students with an appreciation of the practical necessity of mathematics, its instruction should be coordinated carefully with instruction in science. Basic mathematics is about measurement. Students need something to measure to make this subject relevant and to motivate an awareness of its enormous power. Coordinating it with science would achieve both of these ends. Unfortunately the lockstep approach to knowledge transmission dictated by state departments of education makes any of these improvements impossible.

The most disturbing consequences of government control of curricula, however, occur within the social sciences. These courses typically are developed by individuals who either have no experience with free markets or who are openly hostile to them. As a result the distinction between education and indoctrination is often ignored. These beliefs are rarely questioned.

A review of the various states’ performance standards in the social sciences discloses little evidence of anti-market bias. Instead the aversion comes primarily from two sources: a tendency of people who are attracted to employment in the government sector to embrace statist politics, combined with the acceptance by many teachers of fallacies regarding the nature of a free society.

Anti-Market Proselytizing

There are strong incentives for government school employees to favor the expansion of government, and teachers’ unions don’t even pretend to be evenhanded ideologically. The political orientation of most teachers has been demonstrated recently by their reaction to our current economic malaise. Any attempts to rein in government spending, especially on education, are met with harsh condemnations within the government school community. National Education Association president Dennis Van Roekel has described the attempts of various state governments to confront ballooning pension liabilities as “blistering attacks on working families” and has characterized the actions of lawmakers as “fitting for comic book arch-villains.” American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten likewise has greeted any efforts to improve school efficiency with denunciations that border on allegations of child abuse. Every discussion of the causes of the cutbacks in education, within any government school forum, has been overwhelmingly one-sided, with teachers blaming everyone who favors limited government.

Anti-market proselytizing is the most dangerous consequence of entrusting the education of our children to a government-run monopoly. If schools presented the ethical and political justifications of a free society fairly, there would be no reason to fear the introduction of any other viewpoints, regardless of how cogently they were argued. The problem is our system is rigged against this. As Isabel Paterson pointed out in The God of the Machine, “[E]very politically controlled educational system will inculcate the doctrine of state supremacy sooner or later. . . . Once that doctrine has been accepted, it becomes an almost superhuman task to break the stranglehold of the political power over the life of the citizen.” We have not yet reached this point, but it is clearly where we are headed. Avoiding it will require profound changes in the structure of our schools. Contrary to the aspirations of the U.S. Department of Education, ending the State’s role in curriculum determination is an excellent place to start making these changes.

Ridiculous Fads

Educators have been remarkably unscathed by the consequences of their teaching methodologies. This has led to the adoption of ridiculous fads, primarily at the local level, that have generated significant cognitive damage. In The War Against Grammar, classics professor David Mulroy describes how many school districts effectively no longer require instruction in formal grammar. The “invented spelling” movement likewise has resulted in the relaxation of the requirement that beginning readers learn to spell correctly. Instruction in handwriting may be on the chopping block presently. In reading, the abandonment of phonics in favor of “whole-word recognition” has led to a generation of nearly illiterate Americans. This occurred despite overwhelming evidence of the inadequacy of the whole-word approach. None of these developments could have transpired if there had been a genuine marketplace for ideas in instructional methods.

The latest fad, surely to be incorporated into any set of national standards, is the call for a “21st-Century Curriculum.” Although inchoate, it portends to be the next step in the abdication of the responsibility to train students’ conceptual faculties. It focuses on the development of skills in the use of multimedia, technology, and “collaborative problem solving,” but there is no mention of students’ glaring deficiencies in mastering the rudiments of learning. It incorporates Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences that, although not Professor Gardner’s fault, has given rise to the romantic notion that every student can excel at something. This will likely lead to a distorted emphasis placed on music, art, dance, and athletics despite the limited career opportunities associated with these skills. This curriculum will replace the vestiges of a rational, structured approach to education with less content, an emphasis on “life skills,” and the practice of plunging the intellectually nascent into “real-world contexts” wherein they engage in “problem-based learning.” Our 12-year-olds may no longer be able to read, but maybe they will finally resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The only students who currently receive any benefits from improved curricula are high-achieving high school students. The competition among Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, and college-extension courses provides the academically elite with several options to meet their requirements that are far better than their government school alternatives. The institutions that provide these courses devote a great deal of time and resources to assuring they are appropriately structured, accurately graded, and competently taught. Unlike their state counterparts, these purveyors do not have a captive market. They must strive constantly to improve their quality while minimizing expenses. This is what students of every caliber in every grade desperately need: expanded, high-quality curriculum choices. Sadly, in the absence of the State releasing its grip on course contents, all we can look forward to is the possibility of another level of federal interference.

Most of the attention of educational reformers has focused on teacher quality and parental choice. Although these concerns certainly are legitimate, they pale in comparison to the problems caused by government control of curricula. Incomprehensible courses taught by skilled teachers in charter schools are still incomprehensible. Moreover, it is dangerous to invest any entity—government or private—with the sole authority to determine the information to be taught to our children. We have unelected officials determining what constitutes appropriate knowledge. This is too close to the State determining the Truth.

If we want genuine educational reform, we must get the bureaucrat out of the classroom.