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Apr 3, 2007 2:07 pm

Teaching the Many Instead of the Few

Prof. Reeves is a Senior Fellow of the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute. Among his dozen books are biographies of John F. Kennedy, Joseph R. McCarthy, Fulton J. Sheen, and Chester A. Arthur. Marquette University Press published his biography of Wisconsin Governor Walter J. Kohler, Jr. in 2006.

A recent piece by Paul Farhi in the Washington Post notes that the test scores of American students on international tests are not nearly as poor as some critics would claim. According to two researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, cited by Farhi, Americans are above average when compared with 22 other industrialized nations. United States students are outstanding in civics, above average in reading, and are in the middle of the pack in math and science. Moreover, our students are mostly improving their scores, or at worst holding their own.

Farhri points to the critical consideration in the assessment of international test scores: “Indeed, no nation included in the major international rankings educates as many poor students or as ethnically diverse a population as does the United States.” We try to educate everyone, as bold an experiment as the human race has ever attempted. The No School Left Behind legislation assumes that in the proper environment, and with effective teaching, every young person can learn and profit from schooling.

But not long ago we had the reemergence of social scientist Charles Murray in the debate over education. In three articles for the Wall Street Journal, he repeated some highly controversial assertions found in the 1994 blockbuster book The Bell Curve. They are assertions many Americans do not welcome: 1. intellectual ability is not evenly distributed, is genetically based, and immutable; 2. that millions cannot be given a true education because they lack the mental capacity; and 3. far more young people should be in vocational schools than in college. Murray did not repeat his conclusion that African-Americans tend to lag inherently and significantly in I.Q., but that controversial feature of the author’s research is no secret and has been affirmed by several of his academic peers.

How does one deal with Murray? In the first place, every teacher understands that intellectual caliber varies. And it is true that not everyone can benefit from even a watered-down college education; open admissions policies can be harmful and exploitive. On the other hand, our knowledge of the human brain is severely limited, and it remains highly doubtful that psychologists have the means to measure the intellect of a person with certainty, branding a life-long number on an individual that will determine his future. People grow. Environments change. Attitudes can be altered. (For a brief and interesting attack on The Bell Curve, one of hundreds, see

Moreover, we still don’t understand a lot about effective teaching. (Note the improvements in literacy made by using the Reading First program, part of the No Child Left Behind act.) And we aren’t even sure what an “educated” person should know. Murray, in his third Wall Street Journal article, declared that a deep understanding of history should be central to a solid education, as the study of the past promotes wisdom. Perhaps. But then why are so many professional historians reflex leftists? Because secularism, narcissism, and appeasement are in harmony with “right reason”? Please, we are grownups.

The connection between educational credentials and wisdom remains highly circumspect. Imagine a nation run by a committee of faculty members from, say, Duke University? Where was the wisdom in the treatment of the falsely accused lacrosse players? (See Charlotte Allen, “Duke’s Tenured Vigilantes,” in the January 29, 2007 issue of The Weekly Standard.) In my rather long life I’ve encountered wisdom largely in the humble and holy, with or without academic degrees.

It seems wise to respond to Murray and all scientific determinists with respectful skepticism. Yes, there is much evidence for their contentions. But their testing skills are limited and should not be used to deny individuals, groups, or even races the opportunity to achieve high school and college degrees. Give people a chance, indeed many chances, without the discouragement that is accompanied with an I.Q. number that may or may not be accurate, and in any case is not the sum of the whole person.

In this country, we’re still muddling through in education, which seems healthier than the alternatives. Critics have been claiming for decades that our schools are in crisis. And yet, according to the Council on Competitiveness, a Washington based business advisory group, the U.S. economy over the past two decades has grown faster than that of any other advanced nation. And it has generated a third of the world’s economic growth. Our prosperity and opportunity are astonishing in historical perspective and are matched by our generosity toward the unfortunate, at home and abroad. We are the envy of the world; ask our immigration officials. If our moral, cultural, and educational standards have been dropping in recent years, we are not alone on that path, and it is up to us to turn things around. Let us not begin by herding people into groups by numbers and asserting that those on the lower end deserve to remain ignorant and inferior and are without hope. Caste systems of any sort are should be abhorred and rejected in the 21st century.

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Paul Mocker - 4/7/2007

I've been student teaching 9th Grade Honors World History for 6 weeks at a public high school. From what I've seen of our Social Studies department we teach context, understanding primary sources, and interpretation.

A solution to require history teachers to have a BA in history would help students to learn content but would not be sufficient. Education about pedagogy is also required because, for example, if one can't manage a classroom then learning won't occur.

John R. Maass - 4/5/2007

This notion of what teahcers are prepared to do in the classroom was recently highlighted by the announcement in the UK that subjects including the Holocaust and the Crusades are being dropped (in part) because the teachers were unfamiliar with the subject matter.

George Robert Gaston - 4/4/2007

It is quite true that we this country needs a richer vocational training system. However, subjects such as history and civics should also be a part of a vocational education.

By usurping a good number of technical disiplines colleges and universities are partially responsible for the destruction of vocational education.

For example, it was not too long ago that no self-respecting university would train a person to be a computer programmer, or surveyor. As the demands for these skills went up in the job market place, colleges began teaching these subjects because they are good for cash flow and expansion.

The result has been a shortage of those skills in the workplace. Now, we give that work to Indian high school graduates who have received a top shelf vocational education in the craft of computer programming.

Hans Vought - 4/4/2007

In my experience, many high school teachers don't even know the content!They force their students to memorize misinformation. So part of the solution would be requiring all secondary school teachers to major in the subject field which they will be teaching. They could then take the ed courses in a master's program.

John Richard Clark - 4/3/2007

In my experience, many "social studies" teachers at the primary and secondary levels are poorly trained to teach history. In my home region of the US South, history teachers are usually football, basketball, or baseball coaches who teach only because they have to in order to coach.

You also have a paradox in the public educational system that prevents eminently qualified historians from teaching in primary and secondary schools simply because they did not take education courses which are long on strategy and short on content.

These are teachers who don't know enough narrative to craft and grade interpretative essay questions. Because they have to have some basis on which to test students, social studies-types make students memorize facts, names, and dates. When I encounter their studdnts in college, they do not know what primary sources are, what historical context is, what historiography is, or historical interpretation.

What's the solution? I don't know. Since there are more MA and PhD history graduates than there are jobs at the collegiate level, perhaps the state boards of education might consider waiving standards for licensure to attract people who know how history should be taught.

Jason B Keuter - 4/3/2007

The real flaw is in the assumption you mentioned at the beginning. The other flaw is a moral flaw - that those who can't or won't have a right to insist that others who will and can associate with them five days a week for most of their lives. The "elitist" charge is nonsense when it comes to allowing intelligent and hard working students to take challenging classes away from the energy sapping presence of their less able and less willing peers.

Jason B Keuter - 4/3/2007

I agree on things boding ill for any nationalized system, but the failure rests in such systems being government controlled at all. Anyone urging on greater experiementation in any field cannot simulataneously concede any kind of government control of that field. Experimentation comes from freedom to experiment, which in turn requires freedom to do without asking permission of a bureacurat. It reminds me of the old cartoon on the new federalism : I'm getting sick of being pushed around by national bureaucrats. I'd like to be pushed around by state bureaucrats for a change.

Carl Becker - 4/2/2007

“The No School Left Behind legislation assumes that in the proper environment, and with effective teaching, every young person can learn and profit from schooling.” They assume a lot.

It seems there is little better about it than the system we had. NCLB is a funded and voluntary program with a carrot and stick approach catch and whether this program is improving student achievement is still an open and important question.

The problem with NCLB starts with the test; it has multiple choice questions in it that cater only to those in society who know when to use a 5-iron or are familiar with their father’s Sperry navigator aboard the family’s 40-foot yacht (as if all students live in the Hamptons instead of East Harlem). These were a couple of the subjects broached on the tests students had to take under the NCLB program so they could have better options to transfer to a better school when their schools were not performing. Well, there are no “better options” for millions of kids under this double-speak Rightist con, posing as a compassionate revamping of America’s elitist education system. Nothing’s changed, it’s always been elitist and still is. When enough kids flunk these tests, their school is marked as a failure and students have the right to transfer to any successful school in their district. At first sight, this sounds like a great opportunity. Problem is there is no money to make it happen. In most states there may be one hundred or four hundred thousand students who’ve earned the right to transfer to better schools but there are only 5 to 7 thousand places open. There’s about a ratio of 1:2 who actually manage to transfer, and the rest get to join the Army, if they like, and go to Iraq, or some other future war. So I guess no child is left behind if you look at that as an option. This is just another form of educational eugenics. We’re always going to need worker drones. Take a look at what this administration does, not what it hypocritically blabbers about ( GW never had much of a budget for this education program to begin with. Fifteen states sued the government because the $4 billion cost of new testing forced on schools ate up all the funding budgeted for the NCLB.

But the administration has its wonderful website ( ) that lines up the problems and gives wonderful solutions to America’s education system; talk is cheap. Of course, their best defense for the NCLB program is that it’s going to take time. But if Bush really wants this to be a success, one of the first steps he needs to take is to increase the funding for it now; put some truth into politics instead of laying the blame on what some perceive as the Left’s erroneous ways.

Jonathan Dresner - 4/2/2007

Mr. Reeves cites "improvements in literacy made by using the Reading First program": unfortunately for Mr. Reeves' argument, serious conflict of interest charges have raised questions about the honesty of NCLB administrators under the Bush administration and about the effectiveness of the RF programs.

Mr. Reeves' larger argument -- that education needs to be a target of real experimentation instead of ideology, etc., -- doesn't bode any better for NCLB than it does for any other nationalized system.

Jason Blake Keuter - 4/2/2007

It's pretty simple:

1. Where else are they going to go?
The left failed to sway the working classes away from capitalism because the working classes were too rational to kill the goose that lays the golden egg. The leftist intellectual roots AGAINST the prosperity of the working class under capitalism because they conceive of it as a delusion. They never, however, root against the prosperity of the professoriat.

2. Gramsci!

Gramsci is the perfect theorotician for the left. Infinitely less original than advertized, Gramsci rationalizes the disengagement of the left from the working classes because the working classes are too backward in their thinking. In other words, they suffer under false consciousness (how original! Gramsci substitutes the word Hegemony). Thus the left must operate within consciousness shaping institutions..become Captains of Consciousness. Here, they brainwash a new elite (sort of like DuBois's talented tenth, or Lenin's Bolsheviks) who then change the culture so that it is conducive towards socialist revolution.

The good news for the left is they get to hang out with the upper classes and pretend they're in communion with the suffering of the world and draw an upper class salary from the working class tax payer in the process. Even heard the phrase: Royal Scam?

This is of course an utter travesty. The left is simply a gang that has seized a portion of the government. There really is only one solution: privatize education. The left has no right to steal salaries from the tax payers and force students and prospective professors to toe an ideological line. Left to actual market conditions (which are SUBSTANTIVELY DEMOCRATIC), the left would shrink dramatically in influence.

Failure to do this corrupts anyone who opposes the left because they must then become a gang in order to take the government from the left. The left will scream bloody murder much like the Church did when people demanded that it become voluntary. The reason being that our public education system (which universities and colleges pretend they have nothing to do with) is simply the foundation of a corrupt social order. It maintains a parasitic class in a position of unwarranted privilege. It is wrong. If you like Gramsci and wanted to talk about Gramsci, then you cannot force your unknowing audience to pay to listen to ou misrepresent yourself as a professor of Journalism because they're too culturally enamored to capitalist hegemony to accept the unvarnished truth.

Oh yeah....that's the other reason there are so many leftists in higher education: their Gramsci ideology permits them to lie about their ideology and pretend it is something else. To name one example: the TCF department at the University of Oregon teaches communist propaganda. If you want to get a degree in Telecommunication and Film, you have to first pass the gauntlet of badgering from Marxists who tell you you're a criminal unless you use your position to subvert your employer. What right have they to do this? None.

Why are their so many leftists in academia? Because they're dishonest criminals who have lied their way into unwarranted positions of intellectual authority. It is time to let them stand on their own feet instead of our backs.