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I often find, usually in breathless headlines, that public education is absolutely worthless. It’s broken! It’s child abuse!  Teachers only care about themselves!  Readers of my weekly education article might think I share that opinion, as I often write about problems rather than the daily good happening in most of America’s classrooms.

Very well.  Mea Culpa, and sic transit Gloria mundi.

Let me be clear: Education–K-12 and higher–does have substantial problems, some systemic, some self-inflicted, but for the most part, local. The problems of the Los Angeles schools are generally not the problems of schools in Oklahoma or Wyoming.  The bizarre and unethical leftist indoctrination in some blue state schools is localized to those schools and does not take place in most schools.  Most teachers are good and dedicated people, most of who shell out hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars of their own money for their students.  Mrs. Manor and I spend in the area of two thousand a year.

We hear about the outrageous, the incompetent, the malicious, the willfully stupid.  As with everything else in life, we rarely hear about the very good and decent, the highly competent and caring, or just the solid, capable teachers giving of themselves every day, doing their utmost to provide the best educational opportunity they can for their kids.  Some are better than others.  We are limited to recruiting teachers exclusively from the human race, with all its weaknesses and glories.

So, gentle readers, when I hear people decrying the generalized horrors of public schools, I ask them to be specific.  Where, exactly is this problem occurring?  How do you know?  What have you done to address the problem?  Perhaps, in the future, you could do the same?

Onward to this article’s point.

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I chanced to overhear an argument the other day, which went something like this: if a student doesn’t do his work–homework, in-class work, etc.–but can pass a final exam, or a state mandated exam in that subject, shouldn’t that student pass the class?  Hasn’t he demonstrated he has mastered the material?

As an exercise in incomplete, shallow reasoning, it might, on first reading, seem reasonable.  If that student is smart enough to pass the mandatory test the state claims proves mastery of the subject, that is used to compare kids to kids, schools to schools, and school districts to school districts, that forms the very backbone of supposed, accept-it-on-faith-because-we’re-the-state-and-we-say-so “accountability,” why not pass them, despite the fact they have done nothing else in the class?  Even absent a state test, if they can pass semester exams, or six-week exams, or quarter exams, why shouldn’t they pass the class?

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This issue goes directly to the heart of education.  What is its purpose?  Why do we require a diverse curriculum that includes English, mathematics, history, science, the fine arts, and various electives, a modern Trivium and Quadrivium, if you will?  If a student is smart enough, let them take some tests, and award a bachelor’s degree, a masters, even a doctorate.  There will be no need for a messy and expensive college experience.  Think of all the money we could save for high speed rail and mandatory solar power.

For any proposition to be valid, one must follow it to its logical conclusion and consider the consequences, foreseeable and unintended. If this concept is valid, all we need do at the beginning of each school year is administer the various six-week, quarter or semester tests.  If they pass, they’re done.  Head on home; see you next year!  Actually, let them take the tests for every high school class, and if they pass, off they go to College, where they can take the tests there, and onward to fame and fortune.

It’s more complex, of course, if for no other reason than politics.  Kids can’t be sent home because state laws require “X” number of days, hours, or in the case of Texas, minutes (?!) of instruction per year.  Complex funding formulae are dependent upon attendance. Attendance is dependent on the number of time units students spend in class, etc.

The proposition makes any kind of sense only if the point of education is “learning”–actually, temporarily storing–a given body of knowledge long enough to pass a test.  Even that lame contention ignores that some tests may be passed merely within the boundaries of the law of averages or mere chance.  Some kids have a relatively large, or narrowly specific, base of information that might allow them to pass some tests without taking an entire class–which does not reflect understanding or actual intellectual development–or they might simply get lucky with a given test on a given day.

What a shallow, politically expedient view of education this is.

Credit: National Geographic

As I once again meet new classes of students in a week, I am reminded that the purpose of education is building bigger, better brains.  The human brain is not “fully” grown until around the age of 22, so the K-12 process is designed, if properly working, to provide the best possible education opportunity to attain the maximum possible growth, down to the cellular level.  Making neural connections is the point, connections that make the brain more powerful and flexible, more able to understand, make connections, be creative and imagine the unimaginable.  This is why we study English.  That field of study builds the brain in ways that studying math does not. That’s why we study music, which builds the brain in ways nothing else can.

Surely, we study many disciplines for distinctly practical reasons.  If we can’t read, we can’t reason.  If we can’t do basic math, we’re severely handicapped.  If we don’t understand elementary biology and other sciences, we’re in real physical danger.  And of course, there is the issue of employability.  We want to produce citizens capable of supporting each aging generation in succession, and capable of supporting themselves.

We also need to produce decent, responsible, kind, capable, and rational human beings.  We want to inculcate the habits and practices that make it possible to succeed, and to interact with others in useful and moral ways.  People with no idea of alphabetical or chronological order are of little use in any field of work.  The same is true of people who can’t show up on time–or at all–or people that cannot concentrate on anything for more than mere seconds.

But ultimately, it’s about bigger, better brains, which we build, just as we build muscles, with proper, focused, professionally guided effort over time.  We do it by reading, thinking, writing, discussing, thinking and writing again. We learn from the insights of others, from the greatest minds mankind has produced.  We learn what is good and true and what is destructive and false. And in that process of practice, all of those assignments, and yes, even the occasional test, we develop our mental muscles.

So no.  The student who passes the test, but fails to do much of anything else should fail, because he has failed to learn most of the lessons available, but most importantly, he has failed to develop a bigger, better brain.  Animal cunning and luck are one thing; real intellect and usefulness to oneself and a democratic republic is quite another.