This time of year marks an amazing transformation for the nation’s Wal-Marts and Targets and some of the grocery stores. Aisles upon aisles are taken up with the most necessary implements of the American public school: not dictionaries and maps of the world, not chronological tables and periodic charts, not even so much writing paper and pencils and pens. Rather, parents are busily buying glue by the gallon and crayons by the cart. In fact, if a Martian—or even a careful observer from abroad—came to this country right about now and were told that Americans were doing their back-to-school shopping, the visitor might be under the impression that the schools were captive markets of the Elmer’s Glue and Crayola Crayon companies.
We never think twice about it. It happens year after year. Therefore, it’s supposed to be this way. Yet let’s consider the national back-to-school spree in light of a little-read but vital passage in one of America’s favorite novels:
The remainder of my schooldays were no more auspicious than the first. Indeed, they were an endless Project that slowly evolved into a Unit, in which miles of construction paper and wax crayon were expended by the State of Alabama in its well-meaning but fruitless efforts to teach me Group Dynamics. What Jem called the Dewey Decimal System was school-wide by the end of my first year, so I had no chance to compare it with other techniques. I could only look around me: Atticus and my uncle, who went to school at home, knew everything—at least, what one didn’t know the other did. Furthermore, I couldn’t help noticing that my father had served for years in the state legislature, elected each time without opposition, innocent of the adjustments my teachers thought essential to the development of Good Citizenship. . . . As for me, I knew nothing except what I gathered from Time magazine and reading everything I could lay hands on at home, but as I inched sluggishly along the treadmill of the Maycomb County school system, I could not help receiving the impression that I was being cheated out of something. Out of what I knew not, yet I did not believe that twelve years of unrelieved boredom was exactly what the state had in mind for me.
That’s Harper Lee writing in 1960, presumably reflecting back upon her own schooling during the Depression when progressive political policies were taking over the economy and progressive educational policies were taking over the schools. Neither has ever fully recovered, but, believe it or not, the schools have fared much, much worse.
There is a great deal of truth to unpack in this passage, perhaps the most succinct and accurate critique of the public schools in existence. The central assumption is that schools were originally intended for a very specific purpose: to teach children how to read, write, and calculate and to introduce them to the higher branches of learning. That’s it—quite a lot, no doubt, and yet not everything. The schools were not created for children to do activities and to socialize. Children, after all, could color and glue and chat and play games together a lot more cheaply and with far greater freedom at home and in their own neighborhoods than they can in an institutional setting—and probably with a lot more enjoyment. Nor do taxpaying citizens have any stake whatsoever in whether a child learns to color or to cut out pretty patterns. They do have a stake in whether a child learns to read.
The confusion over aims in public education is only one of the factors contributing to the failure of billions of dollars of taxpayer money invested annually to yield anything but marginal returns. Yet it may be the leading factor. Consider this scenario. If schools were to stop all the Mickey Mouse projects and crafts—and their equivalents at the high-school level—how long would a school day actually last? How much time in a given school day does a teacher spend imparting knowledge to students? And what portion of the day has students coloring? My guess is that the time given to instruction would turn out to be no more than two hours, leaving aside the quality of instruction during that two hours. I do not mean that the school day should be two hours, but that is what it would be—if even that long—were all the fluff taken out.
“Two hours! What? My kids dropped off at eight and picked up at ten?” Shhhh. That’s the secret every unionized teacher and every parent looking for subsidized day care doesn’t want us to know.