August 2, 1996
Lake Wobegon, Minnesota, where all the women are strong, the men are good looking and the children are above average.
Lu gets a number of educational journals and I usually read some of the articles in them. I also listen to public radio and TV news programs. I am getting a peculiar feeling that many of the people who write about education are the equivalent of an airline pilot writing about life in the United States from the viewpoint of someone who is 30,000 feet above the ground. The student body is a single body consisting of averages. That mythical body is compared with a similar mythical body in Japan or Germany. These people deal in school systems, schools, and a fictitious student who bears no resemblance to anyone you or I know. That mythical student is constructed of statistics gathered from standardized tests.
If I had been treated that way as a student, I would have dropped out of school by the eighth grade -if my parents would have permitted it. Fortunately, I had a few teachers who treated me as a person. I was allowed to grow. The teachers threw information at me which I was incapable of integrating with much of anything. Some must have rubbed off because I can read, write and cipher. I also performed fairly well on some standardized tests, but I can't, for the life of me, understand why. It is perhaps the same reason that I can question about half of the answers on Jeopardy without knowing how I do it.
Of course, the parents of children who are not doing well in school buy the message that our schools are no damn good. Yet, when you think about it, almost all of the people who are roaring successes today went to lousy schools. Ask any successful person what he thought of the schools that he went to and he will probably say that he went to lousy schools, but that he had a few good teachers. The only possible conclusion is that good schools are not a prerequisite to success. What is necessary?
The obvious answer is parents; but even that is open to question. There are parents, like Ma Barker, who raised successful criminals and there are parents who don't do much in the way of raising kids other than feeding them -and some don't even do that. Some kids with lousy parents turn out OK and a few are very successful.
Even at 30,000 feet you can figure out that parents who do a good job will often have successful children. By successful, I mean that they are able to survive, earn a living and have the respect of their peers -I do not mean fame, which can be disastrous. You have only to think of Elvis Presley to know that fame and the ability to live in the world do not necessarily go together.
Some kids have better mental equipment than others do. No one knows whether this is mostly genetic, but genetics obviously plays a roll. Some people's brains work better than others.
So what should schools do? What is their purpose? I suggest that their purpose is not to produce "educated people." If you ask 10 people what an educated person is, you would get 10 different answers.
The purpose of schools is to help each child achieve his full potential, whether that potential is to become a physicist, a conductor of symphony orchestras, an opera star, a novelist, or to be able to dress and feed himself. And what is the magic formula that will enable schools to do this? Since each child has different interests and potentials, and learns in a different way, there isn't a formula that will work for all.
A fine teacher encourages, sometimes goads, sometimes praises, sometimes finds fault, sometimes accepts. It is an art in which the method is trial and error. The teacher who inspires one child may do little for another. That other student may be stimulated by a different teacher.
What can a society do? Give teachers class sizes that are manageable, a decent wage, and an opportunity to learn and grow -that same opportunity that we hope the teacher will create for the student.
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