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Shelly Aldean: Education in retrograde

By Shelly Aldean

The impacts of the pandemic have been many and varied – some predictable and others unexpected. In addition to testing our adaptation skills as they relate to wearing personal protection gear, socially distancing, foraging for essential household supplies, and dealing with the inevitable consequences of social isolation, another impact has emerged with both negative and positive consequences.

With the closure of schools around the country as a result of COVID-19, parents have been faced with a dilemma – how to deal with the demands of work (if they are fortunate enough to still be employed) while, at the same time, facilitating their children’s education in the absence of in-person instruction.

According to an article by Bethany Mandel, editor of Ricochet.com and a homeschooling mother of four, “Parents supervising their children’s remote learning have experienced a rude awakening – the in-person version of the education being provided is subpar.” Even Elizabeth Bartholet, a Harvard professor who warns about the “dangers of homeschooling” admits that “some parents have discovered that public schools are worse than they thought, and have been surprised at how little their kids are learning.” Bartholet estimates that this revelation may cause the number of homeschooling parents to rise from 3% to 6%. However, based on a recent survey by EdChoice, this estimate may actually be low given that 15% of the families interviewed indicated that they are “very likely” to switch to homeschooling full-time.

The history of education in the United States is a complex tangle of good intentions and a struggle between conflicting philosophies. Since there is nothing in the U.S. Constitution dealing with education or mandating public instruction, in the early days of the Republic, schooling was relegated to the states, religious organizations and school proprietors. According to Sam Blumenfeld, in an article entitled “The History of Public Education,” towns in New England were “required to maintain common schools supported and controlled by the local citizenry … to make sure that children learned to read.” However, there were no laws making school attendance compulsory and there was no centralized state control. Despite the absence of formal public involvement in the education of children, a large segment of the population, according to Blumenfeld, “was literate enough to read the Federalist Papers, the King James Version of the Bible and everything else that was published.”

In his best-selling treatise entitled “Dumbing Us Down,” author John Taylor Gatto reflects on the fact that fifth grade math and rhetoric textbooks from 1850 (when public schools were first established) contain, what today would be considered, college level materials.

As education shifted away from its early religious underpinnings to a more secular approach, the belief in the benefits of state-controlled instruction established itself in the American psyche and, as a consequence, mandatory school attendance was written into many state constitutions, leading to the permanent institutionalization of public education.

In the past, school subjects were, in large measure, confined to the basics – reading, writing, arithmetic, history, science and social studies. However, today, in some of the country’s more progressive schools, indoctrination has become part of the curriculum. In a recent letter she wrote to the Superintendent of Schools in Gladwyne County, Pennsylvania, Dr. Elana Fishbein, a mother of two elementary school age children, accused educators of trying to “indoctrinate the children into the “woke” culture using resources designed to inculcate Caucasian children with feelings of guilt for the color of their skin and the “sins” of their forefathers”. While Dr. Fishbein, whose Jewish parents fled persecution in Iraq, supports the notion of educating students about race, she is passionately opposed to indoctrinating them into any particular political ideology. You would think that any intelligent academician would be sensitive to the emotional damage that can be done by engendering in a young, impressionable mind a sense of self-loathing.

In my opinion, based on the disillusionment that many parents are feeling, if American public schools are to remain a source of education for more than just the nation’s underprivileged children whose parents are unable to homeschool or afford private instruction, they need to return to the basic premise that public schools exist to help students master the skills and knowledge necessary to offer them a better future in the world in which they live. Schools should not be places of indoctrination based on an instructor’s personal beliefs or ideologies. By the same token, teachers should not be expected to serve as behavioral specialists, life coaches, social workers, or the conveyors of institutional political biases. Parents have a fundamental responsibility to instruct their children in what it means to be a good, productive member of society in a way that benefits not only them but the community as a whole. In the words of Cultural Anthropologist Margaret Mead, “Children must be taught how to think, not what to think.”

Shelly Aldean is a Carson City resident.