Home / Hurray for 19th Century Education Reformers!

Hurray for 19th Century Education Reformers!

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Something needs to be done about public education in America.

Both presidential candidates are slinging ideas around this arena, and neither one appears particularly convincing. Obama plans to reform President Bush’s No Child Left Behind policy, and McCain talks a lot about charter schools, vouchers, and “spreading the wealth around,” the “wealth” in this case being quality teachers and schools. Both candidates graze a tangent of the real solution: Obama promotes his belief in early childhood education and recruiting more adequate teachers, while McCain proposes empowering parents and throwing more money teachers’ way.

According to his website, McCain believes that “too many of our children are trapped by geography and by economics in failing schools.” And he would know, too — the guy was apparently so strapped by geography that he graduated fifth from the bottom of his class at Annapolis. Personal attacks aside, he is essentially promoting for education what Obama is promoting for the economy. The McCainism, “spreading the wealth around” has appeared all over his anti-Obama propaganda, and it ironically summarizes his take on the public school system, providing “bonuses for teachers who locate in underperforming schools” and cultivate academic improvement. To his credit, the senator does back his claims with a lot of numbers and charts, particularly concerning funding such measures.

Obama’s plan (like much of his propaganda) is as vague as McCain’s is specific. He glides over practicality like money and law, instead choosing to focus on happier thoughts, like early childhood education and teacher service scholarships. One bright spot in his stance is the expressed emphasis on math and science, though the only applicable notion is his desire to “recruit math and science degree graduates to the teaching profession,” and “that all children will have access to a strong science curriculum at all grade levels.” Despite sounding slightly more convincing than McCain’s plan, Obama’s fails to mention implementation and cost.

The two candidates flirt unaware with the most accurate explanation of the American education failure of the last twenty years, mostly because of more pressing issues. In lists of this election’s top 20 issues, education ranks in the distant 12-13 range, somewhere just behind climate change, and somewhere just ahead of the fading border security controversy.
So what is this undeniable facet of education that isn’t present within either candidate’s plan? What could be so easily possible to revolutionize the American education system that neither candidate would consider it? Perhaps we ought to consult an early 20th Century British thinker.

In her 81 years of life, English educator Charlotte Mason’s eternal gripe with conventional education could be summed up in a single, groaned word: Textbooks. She criticized them for their failure to vivify a subject, and stimulate a child’s mind, claiming that they are an insult to a child’s intelligence.  It  was ideas like this one which established Mason as one of the main sources for parents who choose the homeschooling option for their children. If Obama and McCain were to, per Mason’s suggestion, expel textbooks from school curricula, and replace them with more vigorous, passionate, ‘living’ books, we would see an immediate improvement in public education, with results similar to the better numbers posted by homeschoolers.

I realize this recommendation is particularly specific, and a plausible argument would be to simply leave such a decision up to individual school districts or even teachers, however I see it as a foothold to begin the journey to successful and complete reform in the arena of education. This possibility, combined with the future president’s desire to provide quality teachers (both have vowed for different versions of this promise), as well as a little ideological elbow grease, the American education system could, given time, redeem itself.

True education, Mason understood, is “the science of relations.” Obama and McCain each want to recruit a smattering of intelligent, motivated teachers to raise up the future of the country. I say push one step further into Mason’s idealistic philosophy, and completely revolutionize the career altogether. A practicing Christian, Mason drew upon the example of Christ and his followers as a model for educational relationships. She envisioned, not a teacher, but a mentor in a classroom filled with disciples.

But what exactly does a “mentor” do to qualify himself or herself with such a title? That’s where the re-vamping begins. Ideally, students and their mentor would remain together for many years of education, at least until the student was old enough to begin learning from a specialist (around high school age). A true mentor will eventually be able to understand his or her students completely, and could cater to the specific needs of each one. Similarly, the students would ultimately know and trust each other well enough that they feel completely comfortable and accepted in their learning environment.

I realize this all seems fairly overwhelming and unconventional, but it has seen results. There’s a reason Mason’s methods are utilized by homeschooling parents, and there’s also a reason why homeschooled students perform better academically at higher levels of learning than do public and even private school graduates. It’s because they work, and they carry with them the weight of concern, love, and patience from a mentor.

Granted, this highly ideological method is not immediately accessible, at least to all Americans, but we could get there in time. By establishing charter schools and doling out education vouchers like McCain has suggested (Obama has mentioned charters as well, but he’s very vague about their practicality), a critical first step will be taken toward implementing this model. Certain schools could feature a Mason-bent, while certain schools could cater to other needs. Give it all time, and in 50 years, the country will boast a fresh, young generation of carefully-educated and deep-thinking Americans who understand how to function properly within a democracy. America is hurting for idealistic, intentional educators. I have only experienced a small handful in my life, and I honestly recall very few lessons outside of theirs. We are ripe for a revolution, and perhaps the next president will bring it forth.

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About carney

  • Marcia Neil

    …and, predictably enough, McCain was sent into combat duty where previous experience being “strapped by geography” accorded hima captive status.

    ‘Textbooks’ are a starting-point for political forum, being aggregations of pooled information.

  • Baronius

    Carney – It amazes me how little attention education gets in our national discussion. It’s like we’re all too embarrassed to admit how bad it’s gotten. I like your idea, and your proposal for implementing it.

  • Cindy D

    Get rid of textbooks! Great idea! Also, bring in primary documents to work with. And use a variety of perspectives. We should read about slavery, for example, as written by ex-slaves.

    Story-telling and creating is a wonderful tool. Very young children can contribute to a story and we can write it down. Vivian Gussin Paley did this. She also engaged children in discussion. An excellent book by her is called You Can’t Say You Can’t Play This is a book about kindergarten children learning about community, exclusion and inclusion, etc. by taking part in expressing their viewpoints and and storytelling. They are simply encouraged to think, and think critically in dialogue. Wonderful. (It’s a social justice thing.)

    I took a class last year at a school that developed Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children It is an entire program that encourages development of classrooms/schools where children use their thinking and critical capacity to learn in a very natural, meaningful way, rather than being force-fed facts to regurgitate on tests.

    I wish I had the money or time to do that program. It is amazing.

  • Cindy D


    Do you remember where you made that statement about education that I admired? I can’t find it (and I was hoping to plagiarize it some day 🙂

  • Cindy D,

    Here is a link which you may find useful; I do. in the search area, type in the screen name of the comment’s author, in this case Baronius, followed by a space and a word from the comment, such as education. It will not only find the article to which the comment was appended, if you wait for a moment or two, it will take you directly to the comment. Pretty neat. I just tried it with those two words, and it worked quite well.


  • STM

    I agree that some aspects of American school education is seriously lacking. While I find Americans overall very knowledgeable (more so than most) in areas such as the study of English, mathematics and science, they fall down elsewhere and it’s those elsewheres that are coming back to bite America on the ass.

    One is the honest study of history, which for a full and genuine understanding of American history must be interwoven with the histories of the other English-speaking countries, probably dating back to the Roman invasion of Britain, and ending with the modern era – ie, whatever happened yesterday (not literally). It also needs to examine American expansionism (the Philippines, central America), and the myth of American exceptionalism, World Wars I and II and American neo-colonialism.

    None of these things have to be studied in a guilt-ridden, negative way, either. History is as history is, and always needs to be looked at in context. Americans have very few reasons to have a “black-armband” view of history, especially if you tote up the ledger. It’s in America’s favour, and the rest of the world has generally benefited.

    But one can’t have a genuine understanding of how America was shaped and continues to be shaped without history being studied this way.

    One of the things that always blows me away about Americans – whom I love and admire generally, I’ll add – is that there is a basic lack of understanding about how other places in the world function.

    The classic is the misconception that America is the longest-running constitutional representative democracy of the modern era (and the birthplace of freedoms). In fact that title goes to England (morphing into Britain in 1707), following the Glorious Revolution of 1688 that removed the power of the monarch and handed it to the people in the form of elected representatives in parliament. It has been a continuous running democracy since that time.

    Many young Americans are shocked to learn that their system of government, their rights, their laws, even their constiution, were in fact drawn from English/British laws that already existed, often for centuries – including due process, which was added as a statute to the Magna Carta by King Henry in the late 1300s. Yes, the 1300s. Americans would find the wording of it very familiar.

    Bizarrely, down here in Australia (this being a fully independent sovereign nation with only traditional ties to Britain), an American friend once said to me: “How can you be free. Ain’t you still under the Queen?”. (It wasn’t the first time I’d had such a conversation, either)

    When I explained that in a constitutional monarchy, power is with the people and the monarch exercises only a traditional executive role as part of the “contract” with even less power than a president of the United States, they were shocked not to have known that and not to have learned that. Even more shocked upon learning that we had pretty much the same rights as Americans (and near identical laws), including freedom of speech (which we inherited from Britain, the same way America did).

    The other of my bugbears in relation to US education is geography. Try finding 10 people in a suburban US shopping mall who can point to three or four well-known countries on an umarked map of the world.

    Many would struggle to locate Canada and Mexico. Right now, I’d bet about 90 per cent of Americans couldn’t point to Iraq or Afghanistan on a map. That is not their fault – it’s the fault of the education system that places very little importance on goings outside the borders of the US. And right now, America knows only too well how important this stuff is.

    The sad part about all this is, of course, that Americans as citizens of the most powerful and influential country in the world absolutely need to be armed with all this information to understand how the US interacts with the rest of the world, and why.

    IMO, it’s not less textbooks that are needed but more. Ones that tell the absolute truth and can help young Americans understand their place in this world.

    In the 21st century, young Americans can’t remain ignorant about the world outside their borders as you can’t build a nation notionally based on truth and justice with myths. Americans can no longer choose to exist in a vacuum, and the answer to this lies in a better, fundamental education starting at a young age.

    Otherwise, they are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the recent (and the not so recent) past and the consequences don’t bear thinking about.

  • Jet

    Our schools are a mess because right wing jerks have demanded that the bible be taught instead of science.

    Just recently, we had a teacher fired for having a large bible on his science class desk. His crime?

    burning a metal cross tattoo onto the skin of his students

  • Jet

    MOUNT VERNON, Ohio — A hearing is underway in a Central Ohio community, dealing with a local middle school teacher accused of burning a cross onto the arm of a student in his science class.

    The hearing began at about 9:45 a.m. in Mount Vernon, NBC 4’s Tacoma Newsome reported.
    The alleged incident occurred last spring, and now the district’s school board has moved to terminate John Freshwater.

    First to give testimony was the student at the center of the controversy. He was questioned about the events surrounding the burning of a cross on his arm by using an electrostatic device.

  • Cindy D


    I can’t possibly thank you enough for that link! It worked perfectly.

    If you only knew how much time I waste trying to find old comments using advanced google searches that rarely work.

    Sometimes I come to a page on blogcritics, where it says the commentor’s name and lists numerically every comment they have made. I found that useful for some things, but not at all useful like that link you provided.

    Any chance you, or anyone knows how I can get that blogcritic’s page for an individual poster?

  • Baronius

    STM, I’ve noticed that Americans get a lot of heat for their ignorance about other countries and their histories, but I’ve found that Europeans are no better. The old rule used to be great depth, no breadth, but I don’t even think that the local knowledge is as deep as it used to be.

    I’ve got no problem with “teaching for the test”, even though it’s viewed as the source of all evil these days. If the material on the test is worth learning, then there shouldn’t be a problem with teaching it. As for textbooks, well, the problems there are pretty well documented. But what stuns me is the way our current system spends so much class time on social work that the kids never develop the rythym of learning. Children have an inborn passion for learning, and it’d be tough to imagine a system that’s better at suppressing it than ours.

    But I shouldn’t say that. The nonsense that passes for history lessons in totalitarian countries is worse than anything we’ve come up with.

  • Ms. Know

    It’s so funny how the left-wing illuminati are talking about making our schools better, public schools that is, but now they’re thinking of placing their children in private schools.