Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Overachieving students?

Jay Mathews argues that "our real national problem is not that we ask most teens to do too much, but too little." A few are taking too many AP courses and not engaging in classically "leisurely" pursuits; most are watching too doggone much TV and playing too doggone many videogames.

Discussions - 8 Comments

As an AP teacher one of the common problems that my students and parents run into is trying to take more than two AP courses per year. AP courses need to be staggered and really should begin with pre-AP in middle school that help "train" students in the skills that will help them suceed in AP courses in high school and college.

Now the dilemma. The above system really only applies to the top 10% (maybe 5%) in any given school system. Many of our schools have suffered from grade inflation over the course of the past decade and most parents feel that their child deserves the highest honors courses despite not being qualified. Many will struggle and fail in AP courses, others will not take AP and still go on, largely unprepared, to face the rigors of a challenging college curriculum. The sad reality is that many of these students would be best served by a two year vocational program and potentially two year associates degree at a community college.

Shouldn’t virtually every class train students in primary documents, logical thought, and good writing? The classical trivium does that without any AP classes in sight and happens to acquaint students with scores of classics in the logic (middle school) and rhetoric (high school) phases.

Tony, in a perfect world I would agree. Even in my general classes I use a tremendous amount of primary documents (uphill battle explaining "apples of gold in frames of silver" to freshmen). But in our "No child Left Behind" mindset most public high school teachers are forced to show administration in simple terms how they are teaching to the test. If I suggested to my principal that I was using the classical trivium, well I would be laughed out of his office. I think that your suggestion would work in a setting in which students were introduced to this in a smaller teacher to student ratio and at a younger age. Which would call for the decentralization of American education or the elimination of the Dept. of Education altogether.

Tucker, In teaching "apples of gold in frames of silver", take them to the source of the quote, which is the book of Proverbs. The phrase is one of Solomon’s words of wisdom, which are not bad to be familiar with, anyway. I know this means bringing the Bible into the classroom and perhaps that would be a worse problem for you than the trivium. Yet it is obviously something that Lincoln was familiar with, and perhaps can be presented from that perspective. Lincoln thought Solomon had something useful to say.

People have always reached back for allusions which gave their writing a cultural and intellectual depth. In the same way, to give students an historical/cultural/intellectual context IS teaching to the test, and to any test. This is really all the classical trivium does, as Tony puts it in #2, though one does not to have be so formal about it for the principle to apply. We don’t want kids to look back into time and see nothing but darkness outside of dates and the mere facts of history. That bores them, anyway. We illuminate the past, or we do nothing.

As Joseph says in the original post, the problem is the kinds of things that are allowed to fill kids’ heads. You meet kids who can tell you in the most amazing detail about The World of Warfare, a fantasy world, and yet may not have much knowledge of their own world. How is that fantastic world so much better than this really fantastic world? It is all very clear to them, and they immerse themselves in it. It fills them up and I worry that these interactive fictions will be their future cultural references. "Oh yeah! Just like in Halo, where ___________ says ___________." which they will know when they do not know what Solomon said, nor Lincoln, nor Shakespeare, nor Plato. If those fictions replace literature, then where are we?

I do agree with Tucker that a decentralization of American education would be a very good thing, but with an administrative goverment, but there will always be a demand from the source of the funding for accountability. That is really all "No Child...." is about; an administrative means of keeping accounts. I also think that allowing students to opt out of high school, to go to work and learn how hard it is to support themselves and to experience that world for a bit, might be useful to them and to society. Then to allow them to opt back in to education, as through community colleges, perhaps as the gateway, when they are more ready, might be a more effective educational process. And for many, vocational training IS the best option. How wonderful it is to find a truly skilled and inspired auto mechanic!

Hey, Tucker, I’ve been down there in the trenches for ten years, albeit not in bureaucratic public schools. So, I hear your concerns perfectly. I have just wondered for years (even as I have taught several of them) why there needs to be AP courses at all. And, pre-AP just seems to perpetuate the problem of not providing the right education and skills that all kids need and deserve in every class.

Tony, I agree with you. I would argue that what is needed is a back to the basics program for American education. In history classrooms we need to get away from the texts and back to the exciting good stuff (My kids love reading the House Divided speech trying to outdo one another and sound more Lincolnish than the last guy!). However, to be successful in this the overhaul would have to start at a younger age and with smaller classes. Teachers, principals, studets, and parents would have to be reprogramed against the current bureaucratic system. I really get excited when my students understand that curriculum (cururae) means to run the race, to learn and enjoy th process, to love learning and not become a programmed automaton. But now I am being too idealistic.

Well, Tucker, there’s the way things are and the way they should be (or even were). It’s certainly hard to change and probably not going to change. The education bureaucracy/establishment is way too entrenched from Unions to Education departments to schools to the federal government. I suppose it comes down to choices for parents and teachers to seek out alternatives such as classical ed., home schooling, charter schools (or some combination of them).

I think that good parenting plays a tremendously important part in any hope to make changes to the current education dilemma. But you are right in that the "education bureaucracy" is too entrenched to make any changes. If only Reagan had dismantled the Department of Education as he had originally intended.

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