Learning lessons

May 17, 2019 by Jeremy Rosen
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Advance notice! This article will range from Ivan Illich and education to Charter Schools, to Trade Unions, secular dogma, Chernobyl and Bernard of Clairvaux. Hold tight!

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

Many of us who have suffered at school from boredom, poor teaching and disruptive colleagues, know how imperfect schools can be. My years as a teacher and headmaster have reinforced my conviction that schools are not necessarily the best ways of educating children.

No curriculum can meet the varying and different talents and needs of children from a variety of backgrounds and levels of intellect and motivation. Teachers can be as fallible, venal and lazy as they can be dedicated, devoted and efficient. Just like any other professional group of human beings including priests and rabbis.

When I became a headmaster in 1971 I read a book called Deschooling Society. Published the year before. It was written by Ivan Illich who was an Austrian born Catholic priest, philosopher and politician. He was unconventional and some claimed an anarchist. Deschooling Society was a short, radical critique of education, as he had experienced it in Europe and the Americas. And it made a huge impression on me

“Universal education through schooling is not feasible…Neither new attitudes of teachers toward their pupils nor the proliferation of educational hardware or software (in classroom or bedroom), nor finally the attempt to expand the pedagogue’s responsibility until it engulfs his pupils’ lifetimes will deliver universal education.”

He determined that the best solution was to scrap schools. Instead, he advocated apprenticeship. Children would be encouraged to find their own teachers or mentors in whatever skill, discipline or subject they fancied. They would stay with that person until they felt ready to move on and find another mentor.

A brilliant but totally impractical solution. Rather like Democracy. A terrible system of government that is constantly misused and abused and usually stands in the way of progress. Yet there is no better alternative. Chinese Fascism may appear to get better results with less disruption. But how many of us would want to live in a society that censors free thinking and stifles dissent?

As headmaster of a private school, I was determined that my school would try to do the very best for every one of my pupils. In many respects, I succeeded beyond my expectations. But I was often hampered, by governors, parents, teachers, dogma and yes even sometimes by students themselves. Precisely because they all had different goals, intentions and temperaments. And of course, resources and finance played a part in this too.

Originally “education” was handed down via families. How to survive in the wild and then in societies according to the social level of parents. Schools started, as far as we can tell, to train small groups of children in military or gladiatorial skills and the priesthood. Greece introduced the academy. But only for a small elite. Throughout the Middle Ages, apart from monasteries, children simply followed their parents or were apprenticed to guilds to learn skills. Most of the great literary, philosophical and scientific minds were self-taught or by their parents and private tutors.

Schools as we know them began in the eighteenth century as ways to deal with large numbers of children who, until that time, were sent to work in fields, factories and mines as soon as they could walk. And keep them occupied for the major part of the day while parents are busy sweating to earn the money necessary to keep the family alive. State-sponsored education began in Germany in the 1760s, in 1789 in the USA and in the UK in 1880. As for free secondary education, it is less than 100 years old in most places on earth.

Given the increasing evidence of failure of state schools in many parts of the USA, those who suffer most are the poor. Mainly disadvantaged black and Hispanic minorities. Others such as Chinese, Indians and Koreans make sure their kids get a good education one way or another. Rather like Jews. They all have a strong tradition of literacy, of motivation, of home support. A willingness to search out better options and to choose alternatives to failing schools. Sometimes they fall back on homeschooling. Which is expanding exponentially, thanks to new techniques and systems of computer learning. But still, many schools can offer excellent education and a wide range of extra-curricular and social options.

In the end, the one antidote to bad schools is choice and availability of alternatives. In the USA that choice is offered mainly by Charter and faith schools. Not all Charter schools are successful and there needs to be strong oversight. But overwhelmingly, poor parents with the option to choose, prefer charter schools to failing state schools. In New York, for example, there is tremendous competition to gain entry. You might have thought that those who care about the poor and disadvantaged would support Charters schools. Think again!

One of the worst enemies of choice and efficient education nowadays are the Teachers Unions! I used to be pro-Union, as antidotes to selfish, exploiting companies. But over time I have seen how unions misuse their power for selfish and political ends. The Coal Miner’s strike in the UK (1984 to 1985) which pitched Arthur Scargill against Margaret Thatcher, was a self-destructive attempt to preserve a dying and dangerous industry. Like most Trade Unionist nowadays, they put dogma before people. Putting their demands over the needs of those they are supposed to serve. Which is why they are in decline.

In the USA the Teachers Unions desperately try to block Charter schools because they are beyond the dead hand of Union dogma. Charter schools like independent schools, can fire incompetent teachers, be flexible over hours, and pay more for success. And they are result driven. To make matters worse the wealthy unions have allied with other organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the NAACP, not to support Charter Schools. And such apostles of equality as Barack Obama and Elizabeth Warren who have opposed them. It is as ideologically corrupt and hypocritical as ignoring the fact that a booming economy helps minority employment.

Now for the first time, three chapters of the NAACP in California are breaking ranks and supporting Charter schools. The National Bureau of Economic Research has just confirmed the success of Charter schools (WSJ May 13). There is hope that the Luddite mentality will finally be overcome.

I was watching the new series on HBO about the 1986 explosion of the Nuclear Reactor in Chernobyl. Which I really recommend, despite the horror of what it describes. Some estimates are that 6,000 people died. Not to mention the thousands who were infected or deformed as a direct consequence of radiation. Doctrinaire Marxist leaders tried to cover it up for the sake of the State. They ignored facts and stubbornly stuck to the Party Line regardless of the disaster. It reminds us of what evil has been perpetrated in the name of ideology. And it still happens in Venezuela and Cuba. Or in China where dogma reigns supreme.

We who have experienced this at first hand or have come to learn of it, must do our best to resist it, whether in the UK or the USA or anywhere else.  As Bernard of Clairvaux said, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen lives in New York. He was born in Manchester. His writings are concerned with religion, culture, history and current affairs – anything he finds interesting or relevant. They are designed to entertain and to stimulate. Disagreement is always welcome.

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