Merry Christmas!!

It’s a little early for Christmas, but I wrote the following for part of an American Thinker Christmas trilogy, and offer it to you here, as well:

Last week, I attended the “Winter Concert” at my children’s public elementary school. It was a very good concert. The kids – all 75 of them – performed beautifully. They remembered the words, sang in time and in tune, and showed a great deal of poise.

The only problem was the music. There were two African harvest songs; an American spiritual that repeatedly mentioned a Mary and a baby, but stopped short of giving any hints as to which Mary and which baby; a Hebrew song and a Yiddish song; two Muzak songs that seemed vaguely to deal with generic uplift themes; and a disco homage to Santa that, as with the spiritual, carefully avoided any reference to Christmas. It was rather like a concert in code, with the initiated meant to understand that, in fact, this was a Christmas, Kwanzaa and Hanukkah concert, rather than a mere “winter” musical soiree.

It was a far cry from the “Christmas” concerts of my youth, a youth that was also spent in public schools. Back in those days – spanning the mid 60s through the mid 70s – the weeks before Christmas saw us singing all the Christmas classics, both old and new: Oh, Holy Night, Silent Night, Little Town of Bethlehem, Oh Come, All Ye Faithful, Deck the Halls, Christmas is Coming, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, and Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer, just to name a few of the songs that delighted my friends and me as public school children.. We also sang Hanukkah songs that actually mentioned Hanukkah, songs such as Oh, Hanukkah! or The Dreidel Song. Kwanzaa songs were missing only because, in those far away days, this holiday had not yet received any prominence outside of small sections of the African American community.

As a child, I loved the musical feast that came with winter. Just as the days grew oppressively short and cold, we were inundated with beautiful, celebratory songs. The children in my school, Jewish and Christian alike, felt bound together by songs of light and hope in a season of darkness. Instead of being dull and drab, this was a most exciting time of year, visually and aurally beautiful. I felt connected both to the history of all humans – people trying to bring light and meaning to the days when the sun seems so distant – and to the history of my country, which, whether one likes it or not, is imbued with Christian thought, music and iconography.

By the way, did I mention that I’m Jewish? According to today’s experts and ACLU activists, as a Jewish child who was being inundated by these Christmas songs and images, many of which were explicitly religious, I should have felt, at best, marginalized and, at worst, coerced or insulted. Maybe I was exceptionally obtuse, but I never felt any of these emotions. To my mind, the songs were offered as something to share and enjoy, and our smilingly practical elementary school teachers never indicated any preference for one faith over another.

As for me, I was delighted to share in the Christmas holiday with my friends in the public forum of school. I caroled their songs, and delighted in my ability to draw Christmas trees with a certain panache (one of my few artistic accomplishments, I might add). When I went home, I lit the Hanukkah candles with every bit as much pleasure. Rather than feeling slighted, I felt doubly blessed.

How different it is today. The schools are frightened of the parents, the parents are afraid to give offense to each other, and the children are denied the excitement of public celebrations of a unique set of holidays, concerned with wonderful abstract concepts such as faith, bravery, and hope. Instead, we’ve entered a grim Seinfeldian “Festivus” world, where joyous winter celebrations of light and song are reduced to the Airing of Grievances (usually identity based, along the lines of “they’re discriminating against me this season because I’m [fill in the blank with your choice of Jewish, Christian, Atheist, Muslim, Buddhist, Kwanzaan, Wiccan, etc."]). How much better, I’ve always thought, whether one is Christian, Jew, Muslim, Atheist or Buddhist, to eschew the public school effort to gather around a minimalist and meaningless aluminum Festivus pole, and instead to share in the bounty of America’s many faiths.

The problem with American education

I blogged only the other day about the hare-brained thinking that characterizes the meetings I attend at my children’s public school. (See this post too.)  I’m constantly amazed at how foolish these teachers and administrators are, and are they are absolutely lacking in general knowledge or analytical skills. However, because they have “education degrees” they have a monopoly on our public school children. No one who hasn’t attended a teaching college can get near these kids. This means that thousands of people like myself — professionals with huge funds of knowledge (and, if I do so say myself, pretty good communication abilities) — are barred from reaching the kids unless we too want to subject ourselves to a time-consuming, expensive and foolish teacher’s education. Walter Williams has more about these teachers:

American education will never be improved until we address one of the problems seen as too delicate to discuss. That problem is the overall quality of people teaching our children. Students who have chosen education as their major have the lowest SAT scores of any other major. Students who have graduated with an education degree earn lower scores than any other major on graduate school admissions tests such as the GRE, MCAT or LSAT. Schools of education, either graduate or undergraduate, represent the academic slums of most any university. As such, they are home to the least able students and professors with the lowest academic respect. Were we serious about efforts to improve public education, one of the first things we would do is eliminate schools of education.

The inability to think critically makes educationists fall easy prey to harebrained schemes, and what’s worse, they don’t have the intelligence to recognize that the harebrained scheme isn’t working. Just one of many examples is the use of fuzzy math teaching techniques found in “Rethinking Mathematics: Teaching Social Justice by the Numbers.” Among its topics: “Sweatshop Accounting,” “Chicanos Have Math in Their Blood,” “Multicultural Math” and “Home Buying While Brown or Black.” The latter contains discussions on racial profiling, the war in Iraq, corporate control of the media and environmental racism.

If you have a fifth-grader, his textbook might be “Everyday Math.” Among its study questions are: If math were a color, it would be (blank) because (blank). If it were a food, it would be (blank) because (blank). If it were weather, it would be (blank) because (blank). All of this is sheer nonsense, and what’s worse is that the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics sponsors and supports much of this nonsense.

Mathematics, more than any other subject, is culturally neutral. The square root of 16 is 4 whether you’re Asian, European or African, or even Plutonian or Martian. While math and science literacy among white 15-year-olds is nothing to write home about, that among black 15-year-olds is nothing less than a disaster.

Few people appreciate the implications of poor math preparation. Mathematics, more than anything else, teaches one how to think logically. As such, it is an important intellectual tool. If one graduates from high school with little or no preparation in algebra, geometry and a bit of trigonometry, he is likely to find whole areas of academic study, as well as the highest paying jobs, hermetically sealed off from him for his entire life.

Having been so harsh, both directly and (through the Williams quotation) indirectly, let me add a few ameliorative statements.  There are absolutely wonderful teachers out there, people who are truly gifted at communicating with young people and at leading them to knowledge.  There are deeply committed people out there.  Indeed, even though I don’t respect professionally many of the teachers at my kids’ schools, there are some who do deserve professional respect and, with few exceptions, all of them deserve respect for their good will and their good intentions.

My complaint is the same as Williams’:  we have a system that drives to the bottom, rather than aims for the top.  The monopoly of education degrees, degrees that turn out people practiced in certain methodologies but often woefully uninformed or incapable of thought, means that there is no way to allow others who are informed and able to help lift up the education system.  And that’s a crime that no amount of federal and state monies can fix.

More on the teacher accused of insulting religion in his class

I blogged very briefly on Friday about the lawsuit against Dr. James Corbett, who, along with his school district, is being accused of using his AP history classroom to indoctrinate his students in anti-Christian attitudes. I’ve discovered two things since then. First, the LA Times article from which I quoted was disingenuous in the extreme in citing to the inappropriate things Corbett said, since it managed to whitewash the lengthy anti-religious rants in which he engaged. Second, if you read the comments left at that same LA Times article, you’ll see a common threatd running through those that defend Dr. Corbett. Almost without exception, his supporters say that it’s appropriate to crudely insult religion and to use history lessons as a rant against Christianity. Why? Because in their minds he’s speaking truth, and it’s an educator’s responsibility to bring truth to his students, especially the benighted Christian ones. It doesn’t seem to occur to them that there is a problem, not with discussing faith, but with insulting faith. I’ve taken many comparative religion classes over my career as a student, which included discussions of the absence of religion, and all were thoughtful and respectful in their approach to and comparison of the different ways of worshipping or denying God.

Not so Dr. Corbett. If you’d like better examples of the crudity of Corbett’s discourse, crudity that is an insult to the Christian religion and that has nothing to do with scholarly discourse about the nature of religion, you only need to check out the allegations in the actual complaint against him.

For example, in the full quote alluded to in the LA Times article, he basically calls religious people ill-informed idiots: “How do you get the peasants to oppose something that is in their best interest? Religion. You have to have something that is irrational to counter that rational approach…. [W]hen you put on your Jesus glasses, you can’t see the truth.”

Another instance of his approach to discussing religion is to take one item of data about two different countries — their religious practices — and from that extrapolate to broad reaching conclusions about their crime rate: “People — in the industrialized world the people least likely to go to church are the Swedes. The people in the industrialized world most likely to go to church are the Americans. America has the highest crime rate of all industrialized nations, and Sweden the lowest. The next time somebody tells you religion is connected with morality, you might want to ask them about that.” It doesn’t seem to occur to him that a huge, melting pot frontier nation such as America might have developed differently from a small, entirely homogenous nation such as Sweden. A man who thinks this simplistically hardly seems fit to be a teacher, let alone an AP teacher. (Incidentally, Laer, at Cheat-Seeking Missiles, who wrote a wonderful post about the Corbett lawsuit, took the time to show the factual errors underlying this particular rant.)

Corbett also goes on lengthy rants about birth control, something that seems far removed from AP history, and that involves insulting entire American political parties: “….[C]onservatives don’t want women to avoid pregnancies. That’s interfering with God’s work. You got to stay pregnant, barefoot, and in the kitchen and have babies until your body collapses. All over the world, doesn’t matter where you go, the conservatives want control over women’s reproductive capacity. Everywhere in the world.” That’s news to me. I do know that American conservatives disapprove of out of control sexuality, believing that it is demeaning to the dignity of men and women alike, and that many of them are opposed to abortion, believing that it is destructive of the nascent life of a fetus. The only ones I know who do currently seem to advocate Corbett’s “Barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen” attitude are the Taliban but, peculiarly, their views don’t seem included in his rants.

It’s also a bit hard to see where Corbett’s view of Rush Limbaugh (“I love Rush Limbaugh. A fat, pain in the ass liar. And, boy, is he a liar”) fits into the AP History curriculum. Frankly, I also don’t see room in the curriculum for the vulgarities that roll of this man’s tongue. This is a teacher who demeans students, rather than who uplifts and educates them.

The bottom line is that teaching history and critical thinking are not skills that involve lengthy rants that take aim at specific religions and political views, let alone rants that shower students with vulgar language. Those students who have left comments saying that they felt free to disagree with him miss the point. As a public school teacher, Corbett’s job is to provide information, which can include information about doctrine or its effect on historical movements (such as the anti-Slavery movement in American history, for example, which was strongly affected by its adherents’ Christianity). It is not to shout soap box slogans that merely hark back to what were, I’m sure, his youthful days as a Marxist imbued anti-War activist.

One public school education against God

Comment would be obvious, so I’ll just offer you the news:

A San Juan Capistrano high school student and his parents filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday alleging that his history teacher violated his constitutional rights by making “highly inappropriate” and offensive statements in class regarding Christianity.

James Corbett, who teaches Advanced Placement European history at Capistrano Valley High School, consistently “demonstrates a sense of hostility toward religion,” causing Christian students to “feel ostracized and treated as second-class citizens,” according to the lawsuit filed in federal district court in Santa Ana by Chad Farnan, 16, and his parents, Bill and Teresa.

The lawsuit contends, among other things, that Corbett told students during class that “when you put on your Jesus glasses, you can’t see the truth”; said that religion is not “connected with morality”; compared Christians to “Muslim fundamentalists” who want women to “stay pregnant, barefoot, and in the kitchen and have babies until your body collapses”; and suggested that churchgoers are more likely to commit rape and murder.

Corbett did not return a call for comment. Capistrano Valley High School Principal Tom Ressler described Corbett as a “solid” teacher who has been with the Capistrano Unified School District for more than 15 years. Ressler said Corbett’s class was popular among Advanced Placement students and has a high pass rate.

“It’s really premature to say anything about this,” he said of the allegations. “People can make allegations all they want; we have to see the reality and context of what was said.”

Teresa Farnan said her suspicions were aroused on the first day of school when her son — a sophomore honors student required to take Corbett’s class for college admission — asked her whether America was founded on Christian values, which he said his teacher had denied.

“He had learned in the eighth grade that our country was founded by persecuted Christians,” said the mother, who describes her family as nondenominational Christian, “so I sent him to school with a tape recorder.”

During the next two months, Chad Farnan said, he taped Corbett’s lectures with the recorder in plain sight on his backpack.

“I’m not sure whether he saw me,” the student said. “He’s against Christianity and bashes it all the time. He’s been indoctrinating us and not teaching the class; we don’t need to be hearing his political views during school time when we should be learning.”

Eventually the Farnans contacted Advocates for Faith and Freedom, a nonprofit organization based in Murrieta dedicated to “protecting religious liberty,” a spokeswoman said.

The group filed the lawsuit on the family’s behalf, attorney Jennifer Monk said, because it believed Corbett’s behavior violated the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution.

“The teacher is a representative of the state and the Constitution requires government neutrality toward religion,” she said. “This teacher’s conduct and words clearly show he is hostile toward religion and is indoctrinating these kids, who are a captive audience.”

The lawsuit — based entirely on Corbett’s comments during one Oct. 19 class that the Farnans describe as typical — asks that the teacher be removed from the classroom. “We will not seek damages if the teacher is removed,” Monk said.

Chad Farnan, who attended Corbett’s class until the lawsuit was filed, said Wednesday that he would remain in school but stay out of the class until the matter is settled.

The days of good sportsmanship are over

I was perusing the “site plan” for my kids’ school, a document that spells out what the school’s goals are regarding education and the means by which they put those goals into effect. After deciphering the usual cant and education babble, I learned that our school wants to teach our kids to read, write, do math, learn about their country and save the environment — laudable goals all. The one thing that stood out for me, though, was the little paragraph I quote below.  I’ve edited it somewhat to remove specific identifiers so that the text doesn’t lead right back to our school, but I’ve kept unchanged the money language, which I’ve highlighted:

In keeping with directives from State headquarters, our school’s P.E. program strives to help students to develop a greater appreciation for themselves and for each other. The state’s policy recommends moving away from an emphasis on teaching students to compete, which includes the concept of winner/loser, and moving towards teaching the concept of “every student is a winner”. Students will come to understand that “winning” is dependent upon more than a score in a game.

In other words, our children are not to be taught that, whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.  They are not to be taught how to be a good (as opposed to a sore) loser.  They are not to be taught how to be a gracious (as opposed to an arrogant) winner.  They are not to be taught to strive for success.  All those useful life skills have been removed from the physical ed curriculum.  Instead, “everyone is a winner.”  Well, I’ve got a quote for them:

Helen: Everyone’s special, Dash.
Dash: [muttering] Which is another way of saying no one is.

(Incidentally, I happen to know that the minds that came up with that last quote, good liberals all, have their children in private schools.)

Also, in the context of the school’s language, what in the heck does it mean that “students will come to understand that ‘winning’ is dependent upon more than a score in a game?”  Sure, we all talk about personal bests, and trying hard, and stuff, but winning still means someone is losing — and kids have to learn how to lose.  (And, as I noted above, they also have to learn how to win.)

Fortunately, the kids understand certain things better than the teachers and the administrators.  When you take them out of the anesthetizing blanket that the public schools seek to wrap around them, and put them on after-school soccer fields, basketball courts, or baseball diamonds, they play with ferocity, and a do-or-die need to win.

They can’t read very well, but they hate carbon emissions

Schools constantly complain about the pressure to meet actual academic standards, but they somehow always find time to beat the children over the heads with social or political issues — and always from the point of view of the Lefter side of the political spectrum:

Third-grade teacher Debbie Robles made her acting debut before a packed auditorium of youngsters at Rancho Elementary School in Novato. She bombed.

Playing the villain in a school assembly Wednesday aimed at educating the students about global warming, Robles – dressed in a witch’s black attire and prancing around the auditorium as “Queen Carbon” – drew the biggest response from more than 500 students who attended two “Curb Your Carbon” assemblies.

“My own daughter Hannah asked me, ‘Do you have to be my mother today?’” Robles said.

Teachers, parents and volunteers helped organize the assemblies and participated in the skits to help raise awareness about global warming and what people can do about it – exchanging traditional light bulbs for compact fluorescent bulbs, for example.

School officials distributed more than 500 CFLs last week.

On Friday, Rancho students will be given bilingual “Cancel-a-Car” coupon books filled with ways they can fight global warming.

Once the coupons are returned to school, teachers will track what conservation efforts are made and the date. Teachers will help monitor the progress. As the carbon reduction increases, images of cars will be crossed out on a giant poster kept at school.

Another Novato school, Lu Sutton, joined the program last month, bringing to eight the number of Marin schools that have introduced the program that began earlier this year at Bacich Elementary and Kent Middle schools in Kentfield.

The program is being financed by a $200,00 donation from the Earth Day Every Day Fund of the Marin Community Foundation. Three nonprofits, the Marin Conservation Corps, Strategic Energy Innovations and Cool the Earth are implementing the program and hope to introduce it to 25 Marin schools by the end of the year.

Even if I accepted the urgency of this whole Climate Change shtick, which you know I don’t, I would still find irksome the time wasting in which the schools routinely engage, pursuing any agenda other than the Three Rs. How about if they put a temporary stop to all the preaching and go back to the good old-fashioned teaching, with an emphasis on reading, writing and arithmetic.

Of course, after spending hours perusing the appalling document that our local school board prepared — with the help of teachers — to establish teaching goals for the next few years, I’m slowly coming to the conclusion that schools spend a lot of time not teaching because of the teacher’s and administrator’s own educational deficits, deficits that don’t appear so much in math, but that reveal themselves in reading and writing. At our local schools, the faculty are very well-intentioned and committed to their jobs, and they manage to churn out high test scores by sticking closely to the prepared curriculum but, with some sterling exceptions (and my kids are lucky enough to have those exceptions this year), they are an ill-informed crew.

UPDATE:  Thanks to Ophi for helping me find what was manifestly a late night typo.  Making typos, however, is distinguishable from obscure or semi-illiterate writing, filled with cant, jargon and buzzwords, and impossible sentence construction, all aimed at concealing meaning (or the lack of meaning).

American schools avoid responsibility at levels both large and small

Yesterday I wrote about an administrative meeting I attended at our local public school, relating how everyone assured me that the teachers understood a policy document that was to guide them. However, when I asked questions, it became apparent that the teachers, in fact, didn’t understand at least a few of the key concepts in the document.

What really troubled me was the document itself, one that various committees had written over the years. To my mind, it was incomprehensible. First off, every single sentence was passive voice. I don’t like passive voice. My blessedly good high school English teacher taught me that people use passive voice to avoid responsibility, and she was right. In this document, all sorts of things “will be done” for the benefit of the students, but it is never clear who will do them. The document cycled madly between apparently random passive voice references to the school, the teachers, and the administrations, with many sentences carefully avoiding assigning any responsibility at all.

Of course, even if one could determine who had responsibility, I doubt it would be easy for the person with responsibility to figure out what he or she is to do. The document was rich with buzzwords, jargon and meaningless (but very high sounding) phrases. Incidentally, I recognize jargon’s usefulness within an industry. It’s a shorthand. As a lawyer, I use it all the time. It would take me forever to explain to you, the non-lawyer reader, what a demurrer is, but a lawyer instantly understands its meaning and purpose. In this meeting, though, I discovered that none of the participants, teachers, parents or administrations, had any idea what some of the document’s terms meant. I’m sure that, had I done a quiz, at least someone in the room would have been able to answer questions about most of the high sounding words and phrases, but it was disturbing that, as to the three phrases I picked at random, no one could answer my questions.

In other words, the document boldly announced a vision for the school’s future, but did not give anyone clear responsibility for implementing that vision, nor did it use intelligible terms explaining what the responsibility party should actually do. Rather than advocating responsibility, the document represented the abandonment of responsibility.

(Let me add here that I’m really poking at the document, not the school itself. Although I had problems last year, this year my children have superior teachers, and are benefiting from everything good this solidly suburban school has to offer. In other words, despite the document’s muddle, the teachers we have this year are doing just fine — and so are my kids. The school is also well run, which means that the administrators are doing their thing too. But back to my points about responsibility…..)

As often happens when I make a diagnosis (to my own satisfaction) about a problem that’s been vexing me, I suddenly see manifestations of the same syndrome all over the place. This morning, I woke to a wonderful article at American Thinker entitled “I have zero tolerance for zero tolerance policies.” The author is Charles J. Sykes, one of my favorite writers, and someone to whom I give credit for laying the intellectual groundwork that led me to my current neocon world view. In it, Sykes takes issue with the zero tolerance policies that see small children kicked out of public schools for doodling pictures of weapons (or, in the case of the really young, for doodling pictures that a suspicious, one-track adult mind could interpret as weapons). After describing myriad examples of the ridiculous practical effect zero tolerance policies have, Sykes has this to say:

None of this, of course, is really about keeping children safe or even teaching them how to behave: it is about administrators protecting their backsides.

Instead of encouraging children to exercise sound judgment, “zero tolerance” shows adults at their most arbitrary and stupid, especially when it punishes students for doing the right thing.

This is ironic, since these are the folks who are supposed to teach our children “critical thinking skills.” (PS: I also drew pictures of dinosaurs eating people. Shudder.)

In other words, as with so many things that go on in schools today (such as writing unintelligible policy documents), zero tolerance represents the school’s complete unwillingness to think or take responsibility for things. A zero tolerance policy relieves each school teacher or administrator from thinking about the magnitude of the child’s “sin,” or even from thinking about the child at all. It is a way for the school and its employees to avoid responsibility entirely.

I hope the parental worms start turning soon, because we’re creating schools that have bright pictures on the wall, and computers in the classroom, but that are just as bad as, if not worse than, any juvenile hall, complete with lockstep mentality and “zero tolerance.”

UPDATEMichelle Malkin has more on what schools are doing in lieu of stepping up and taking responsibility.