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Letter: Still “A Nation At Risk”?

Thirty years ago this October, the U.S. Department of Education published its “A Nation at Risk” report wherein it described a “rising tide of mediocrity” in America’s system of public education. It prognosticated, quite accurately, that this generation would be the first in American history to be less educated than the one preceding it. It was hardly a shocker to me, somebody who, back in 1983, had just received a degree in biology and was toying with the idea of going into education notwithstanding the fact that I’ve never found schooling to be intellectually stimulating. After all, I was in all the “advanced” Regents classes in high school where intellectual curiosity was discouraged and every question answered with an obligatory and exasperated “don’t worry, that won’t be on the Regents”. The SATs were even more of an exercise in the serious pursuit of trivia.

Having assimilated data rather than been endowed with knowledge, having been trained to be a game show contestant rather than an educated person, I missed out on learning opportunities that students in less “advanced” classes were free to indulge. To this day, I’ve considered my true education to have been visiting, volunteering for, and working with, museums, libraries, historic sites, wildlife sanctuaries and preservationist societies; ravenously reading books on science, history, and philosophy; observing wildlife and entomologizing in the field; writing for newspapers and magazines. 


What’s happened to American education since 1983 and can the Core Curriculum hold back the “rising tide of mediocrity” or is it laboring in vain like Canute the Great? What does this 1980s analysis of education teach us today?


Consider that the world’s countries land on two lists. The first list is comprised of nations where poverty, homelessness, crime, unemployment, violence, and illiteracy have dramatically increased over the last three decades. The second list is graced by nations where all of these crippling dysfunctions have dramatically decreased throughout the aforesaid 30 years. The United States is on the first list. Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea are on the second. There are many reasons for this phenomenon - tax, trade, labor, and immigration policies are prominent amongst them. But so is education and the Core Curriculum was inspired, in part, by educational polices found in countries on the second list. The risk of it degenerating into yet another teach-to-the-test methodology such as I experienced in high school in the 1970s is great. But - unlike Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea - our system of education operates within a cultural context of what, in the 1980s, Asimov called “the cult of ignorance” and Bloom called “the closing of the American mind”. Respectively, both authors were speaking of the assault on knowledge, on two different levels and venues. In the first case: girls encouraged to be dim-witted shopoholics obsessed with makeup, clothes, hair, and Hollywood doxies as role models and young boys encouraged to idolize semi-literate professional athletes; their more academically-gifted classmates bullied and ostracized as “nerds”, “geeks”, and “dweebs”. And who can blame them for they are growing up in a country that spends more money on booze, pornography, drugs, tattoos, body piercing and cigarettes than museums, historic sites, and libraries? 

In the second case: the sophistry and nihilism of ideologues in “higher education” who attack Western religion and offer pop culture psychobabble in its stead; attack Western science with the same vigor as the fundamentalist creationists (though they be atheistic Marxists themselves); and attack Western history and literature with contextual distortions and narcissistic hedonism. 

What can parents and other concerned citizens do? I believe we have a moral obligation towards community involvement in the intellectual, spiritual, and cultural refinement of children through our financial support and volunteering with churches, museums, libraries, preservationist societies, civic improvement organizations, scouting, the local PTA, or the local library. When children see us working to remember, preserve, and respect the things others have done in the past, we are teaching them to do things in their own lives that’ll be worth remembering, preserving, and respecting by those who will come after them. We create a culture that demands excellence rather than settling for mediocrity, that rewards genuine achievement rather than media-created fame, and that worships knowledge rather than its own narcissistic sense of self-importance. 


Paul Manton