Amputating the Body to Save the Limb

Often a limb must be amputated to save a life; but a life is never wisely given to save a limb.—Abraham Lincoln[1]

Having been a teacher for twenty-six years, I have many friends in the profession, if I may so describe the calling—the job—the facilitatorship—the clerkship we share. I give the “profession’s” names in the order of decreasing importance and dignity through which government mandates and the Ed Biz and its shills are taking us on the road to “Value-“ “Added” “Metrics,” the RAce to the Top (RAT), and “blended learning.” During my summer holiday, having returned to the US for my first visit in some time, I have heard many recitations of current conditions in American education. The story is not pleasant

The conditions mentioned do not arise in any other “advanced” country. No one outside the US appears to be abandoning well-funded well-regarded public education. No one is talking about on-line “schools” or instruction. No one is implementing commercially produced programs of “blended learning.” No one is guaranteeing universal proficiency at reading and math and then backing away from the guarantee because it is impossible. No one is hiring teachers who have not received thorough and effective training. No one is thinking of firing teachers because their students do poorly on multiple-choice tests of their “learning.” And almost none of these countries do as badly as the US in educating their students.

Good teachers have some thoughts about these programs and failures, but almost no one is listening. My colleagues are gloomy about the prospect of education for the great mass of the people, but they have ideas about how that education should proceed. Since their voices go unheard, as do voices of others who are critical of what is happening in many American schools, their worries are likely to be realized.

Hence the quotation from Lincoln. His practical sense told him when an idea was unworkable—something that research evidently cannot do. Hence the many harebrained schemes for “improvement” that promise miracles and produce messes. To take one of many: NCLB has turned schools into test-taking factories in which the education received has been thinned out to the vanishing point, in an effort to shore up test scores in a mere two subjects. If that is not amputating a body to save a limb, I—and my friends—don’t know what is.

[1] Abraham Lincoln to Albert G. Hodges, April 4, 1864.

One reason among many to investigate Lincoln is his writings. Barzun called him a “literary genius,” a judgment in which I concur. Though I did not include his pithy remarks in my posting on Brevity and Immediacy, they are often wonderful. He is supposed to have dismissed a book with the brief review that “people who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like;” and he once defined eternity as “two people and a ham,” though Dorothy Parker is also credited with that definition.

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